It was my own child most hurt by my lies. That is my shameful truth, six weeks after my brother took his own life.
Suicide has been in our lives since my brother was a young teenager, and first started thinking about ending his life. For all of my adult years, I have understood on some level that the demons of mental illness might finally claim Dave, even as he rallied time and again against them.
Once my children were born, I learned a new kind of fear. Every emotion and reaction was closely monitored for signs of mental illness. I had watched my brother struggle all his life, and more than anything in the world, I didn’t want my boys to walk the same path.
At the same time, the boys were so good for Dave. They loved him in the way only children can — completely, unconditionally and beautifully. Who was I to tell them about the other side, the one that sometimes made him sleep through most of his visits or dwell too much on the past in late-night conversations with the grown-ups?
He was still their Uncle D, and they loved and accepted him fully, no matter which version of him came to visit every few months. Why would I want them to see him differently? It felt like a gift to them to keep them blissfully unaware.
And then came the last year, when the meds stopped — and so did the visits and the laughter and the contact. Eventually, I shared with my older son some of the truth, couched in comfortable phrases.
But my younger son, my sweet little boy who was 11 and loved his Uncle D so much and would ask and ask why he wasn’t coming to visit anymore …
I lied to him.
It wasn’t really a conscious choice. I still believed Dave would come back around — he always did. And so I made excuses and told the pretty side of the truth — he was working hard; finishing up his master’s degree; building his life up in Boston. He would visit soon, I would promise. Just as soon as he wasn’t so busy.
Then the world crumbled at our feet on Jan. 15 with a knock on the door everyone except my youngest had known, on some level, to fear. We cried, remembered, spread ashes and cried some more.
And then, last week, the world crumbled at my child’s feet again. We were sitting together, talking with the grief counselor, and I gently explained to him that I had been scared Uncle D would take his life since we were both kids. I will never forget his face as he realized we had all known, had all understood this part of Dave’s life, and had kept him apart. Heartbroken doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The easy answer would be that I lied to protect my child, to keep him from having to deal with the hardest parts of life. And partially, that was true. Although it was terribly misguided. Not understanding his uncle’s illness only made his suicide even more confusing and sudden.
But the real truth is that I lied for years and years to my children to protect my little brother. In my heart, deep down, some part of me accepted the idea that if they knew the severity of his mental illness, they would judge him or see him differently. The horrible truth is, I was the only one making that judgement. Those boys couldn’t have cared less — their capacity to love and accept is far greater than any words could destroy.
I was a hypocrite and a liar. My choices added to my children’s pain.
And, worst of all, they sent them the message that mental illness is something to hide. Something so terrible, their mother would lie to them about it.
I don’t get a second chance. But you might. Please, please talk about mental illness. Even the hard and ugly parts. If there is mental illness in your world, it is part of your truth. It is part of my truth. And now I am speaking it, even though it feels far too late.
NOTE: This is part of a series of columns I have written since my brother's suicide on Jan. 15, 2016. Read them all at SVLfreenews.com