A glass of sassafras tea, the hum of mosquitoes, and an audience of stars on the front porch of my parents’ house set the backdrop of my upbringing and stirred my imagination with incredible stories. No wonder I am a writer.
Sometimes the stories had us laughing for days. At other times the stories were the sharing of family history and elder wisdom. One of these stories was about “Aunt Loretta.” My mother told us tales of how during part of her childhood her mother’s sister lived with them for a brief time.
At first the stories were funny about Aunt Loretta’s free-spirited, child-like behavior and mischief. Beautiful and feisty, she was the naughty sister while my grandmother was the upright preacher’s wife.
As Mama continued to share, the stories were no longer funny. Aunt Loretta often babbled senselessly, misbehaved, and wandered off frequently leaving others to search frantically for her whereabouts. She continuously grieved the death of her only child and even after years never seemed to heal from it. In her latter years, she was angry, confused, and sad always.
My mother explained to us that night that Aunt Loretta had a mental illness and that the family cared for her as best they could. Little was known about her illness and proper care for it back in those days. Many families hid the mentally ill and refused to talk about them. Others tried their best to understand and create as “normal” a life as possible under the circumstances.
Mama tenderly cautioned us that night. “Just like I have shared the rest of the family medical history with you from cancer and cataracts to high blood pressure and diabetes, I want you to know about this. You need to know what is in your family medical history to treat it and prevent it if necessary.”
That was my introduction to mental health. It was presented as awareness and information, never shame and guilt. At an early age, I understood that it was simply a part of the equation of family and life. I was, therefore, never surprised or uncomfortable around others with varying mental and developmental challenges.
Years later, I worked for an organization in Atlanta that built housing communities to assist those with mental health challenges to live as self-sufficiently as possible. I remember the wise words of the executive director, “People forget that the brain is an organ just like the stomach, liver, and lungs. And just like those, they can become ill, imbalanced and need care.”
Most of us would seek help if our lungs were bleeding or liver and kidneys malfunctioned, but we are petrified when the mind is questionable and we must face the judgments of others.
In my years as an adult, on more than one occasion, I have had to question my own mental and emotional health and clarity. I’ve also had to encourage loved ones and friends to consider the same for themselves, a rebellious son/daughter, a paranoid, belligerent partner, a despondent and/or suicidal friend.
It’s not an easy thing to talk about or approach. It is not comfortable even for me to write this. But it is part of the life equation. It happens in our families more than we care to admit, and it will continue until we have the courage to confront it with compassion, care, and commitment.
From postpartum depression to bi-polar disorders and schizophrenia, I am honored to say that I know families that have tackled this brutal challenge and turned it into triumph with little meaningful victories one day at a time. I have seen their bruises heal. I have witnessed them loving more intimately and unconditionally. I have watched them grow in leaps and bounds, and I am in awe.
To these brave souls, I humbly congratulate and thank you for sharing your journey with me/us so that we all might grow stronger and closer knowing that we can do this together. You know who you are…
Thank you, Mama, for taking the time to arm us, your daughters, with this compassion and awareness. What a grand and progressive woman you were when so many suffered in silence and ignorance.
Aunt Loretta, I pray your soul is finally resting peacefully. I am inspired by your life, your story, and your boldness to be uniquely you.
My poetry and essay collection, Kentucky Curdled, is based on another one of my family’s stories. It is also my creative offering to encourage discussion about mental health and wellness while honoring my ancestors, their tragedies, and their triumphs. Here is one reader’s review:
“Provocative, haunting and inspirational, Ms. Madison has delivered a potent concoction of soulful commentary and indigenous root medicine… I thank Ms. Madison for providing a grounded platform for discussing the silent epidemic of undiagnosed mental illness and the consequences an extreme episode can produce in the generational line. “ Shyria Coleman, LMT
I invite you to share in this discussion and this healing work. Please pass this post on to encourage someone or some family in need of assistance. I’d also love to hear your stories whether triumph or continuing challenges. Leave your responses and reflections below.
I wish you continued courage and commitment in wellness.
P.S. If you are interested in reading or sharing Kentucky Curdled and/or reviewing the book, I’d love to continue the conversation. Click here for more.