Many years ago, on a rainy morning in February, my 27-year-old self called my mother to let her know I had been diagnosed with depression. It was long enough ago, that most people’s reaction to this news was still based on the misinformation and stigma swirling around mental health. But I wasn’t worried about telling my mom, she was a psych nurse. Solid. Still, it was a hard conversation and, in an effort to protect her or maybe myself, I left out the part about suicidal ideation.
I was lucky. I took a really safe pill once a day and after a few (hard) months, I felt normal again. So, her insistence that I at least try to see if I can live medication free led to many jaw-clenching, frustrating conversations. But she spent her days seeing the results of a lifetime of mental illness and she wanted me cured, not treated.
Last year, after some crisis or another, my son’s doctor stared me straight in the eye and said, “We can’t cure him, but we can treat him.” At that moment, I remembered those fraught conversations with my mother. It was one of those moments when her past behavior made sense to me in a way I had been too young or too inexperienced to understand at the time it was happening. It was probably due to those conversations that I didn’t feel like I was slapped in the face by the doctor’s words. Instead, they crept into me and I felt them rather than heard them. Not to be too mystical, but I pondered them in my heart. And this was new for me. Over the course of my son’s disease and treatment, I have at different times over-reacted,under-reacted, intellectualized, dismissed, laughed, and cried at whatever news the person in the white coat threw at me. But I rarely possessed enough energy or context to really figure out what it all meant. This time, for some reason, I did. And the results were powerful.
Once I accepted that crisis was just part of the disease, I feared it less and began dealing with it better. Kind of like how you get used to being puked on by your infant so you just plan for that eventuality and are ecstatic every time it doesn’t happen when your late for a meeting. Acceptance has made me calmer. I feel less frantic when I recognize this is a long-term struggle and we are all doing the best we can. I still don’t know how to answer the question, “how is your son” but I am less frustrated by it. The answer -that mental illness and addiction are hard and we are taking it one day at a time- no longer feels awkward. I can even say it with a smile.
I have also found time and energy that I didn’t have before. When I’m not constantly searching for a cure that doesn’t exist, my effort dealing with this illness is more focused and gives me more down time. I have even started gathering up the threads of my life that were lost to the storm of emotion surrounding his illness. Coffee with friends and no tears, finally! All this because of a few honest words from a physician that I took the time to absorb instead of react to.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not happy about it—this illness. Sometimes I still get angry about it. I mean teeth grinding, fist clenching, plate throwing angry. Other times I’m just despondent. But, once I accepted it as the reality, I felt a lightness and freedom that hasn’t been mine for over 5 years.
Coming to terms with a no-cure scenario isn’t unique to mental health conditions, but it has been a huge stumbling block for me. I wonder why it took me so long to accept this? Maybe because this all started when he was only 15, and I felt like giving up on a total cure was giving up on his future. It wasn’t. It just meant re-imagining it, and watching it unfold in ways I would have never expected. Maybe it was because I wanted my life to get back to normal and, when you’re in crisis, it takes awhile to realize normal isn’t a thing. My life is just my life, my reaction to it is what transforms the situation. Most likely, though, it was simple denial. Like my mom, I wanted a cure. I can’t get what I want, but I’m strong enough to accept treatment, and happy to reap the unexpected benefits of acceptance.