There is a silent code within many families, and it is not in relation to one’s status or wealth.
I am referring to the pathology of silence that encompasses a family when mental illness or addiction is present.
Don’t tell. Don’t share. It makes us (the family) look bad.
Patrick Kennedy bravely broke through the conspiracy of silence by sharing his own struggle with mental illness and addiction in a profound and heartwarming segment on 60 minutes. Watch Here. And he wrote about in his recently published book, A Common Struggle.
While my own family did not have the social pressure or peering eyes that the Kennedy’s have, I relate and applauded his story and his courage.
When I was struggling with my eating disorder and depression as I wrote about in my book, Table in the Darkness, I was adamant that no one know. My family adhered to my wishes, as I am pretty sure they didn’t want anyone to know either. Yet, the silence of keeping my struggles hidden was only reflective of a family system that on the outside was so well put together, but on the inside was full of dark tunnels, secret struggles, and happy smiles.
Don’t tell. Don’t share.
As I watched Patrick bravely share his story, 8 points that he highlighted to clearly combat the pathology of silence struck me.
These 8 truths are applicable to mental illness, addiction, and eating disorders. (Patrick’s quotes have been pulled from The CBS 60 Minutes script from “Patrick Kennedy” which aired on October 4, 2015. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Rich Bonin, producer.)
When people have these illness being silent about them is almost as bad as the disease.” Says Patrick.
Silence only perpetuates this idea that any of this is a moral failure, or something wrong with the person. Many debate this idea of “is it a choice” ? (FANTASTIC article debating this HERE.)
But, please remember…no one wants depression, an addiction, or an eating disorder. It is a tortuous way to live and despite returning to the abuse over and over (relapsing), many are desperate to break free. Creating a cloud of silence regarding the person struggling only perpetuates an already painful shame and stigma so present in our culture.
It’s a conspiracy of silence, not only for the person who is suffering, but for everyone else who’s forced to interact with that person. That’s why they call this a family disease.” Kennedy continues.
- My story.
This is my story. These experiences are embedded in me. They’re who I am.” Says Kennedy.
Often people who struggle are afraid to share their stories, as they don’t want to embarrass or shame family members. I struggled tremendously with this tension when I wrote mine. But, I tried to be true to my own story. What I knew to be true. I had to accept the fact that not everyone would be comfortable with me telling my story, but to me…helping someone struggling became more important than keeping the silence.
It is about taking care of all of us. Because these are Americans. They’re dying every day. And they’re our brothers and sisters.” He says.
- Unprocessed Trauma.
Many reoccurring relapses can be traced to unprocessed trauma.
Early-childhood trauma is strongly associated with developing mental health problems, including alcohol dependence, later in life. People with early-life trauma may use alcohol to help cope with trauma-related symptoms.” – National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol
“My father when on in silent desperation for much of his life, self-medicating and unwittingly passing his unprocessed trauma onto my sister, brother, and me.” – Patrick Kennedy says.
Addicts will act as if they don’t care. They will often have extreme apparent competence (apparent competence refers to outwardly being able to cope and seeming in control, while inwardly being completely lost, or mentally unwell). But underneath is an ocean of shame. That shame is perpetuated when family members won’t talk about the illness, when people hide it, and when friends don’t want to talk about it.
Shame is a painful emotion responding to a sense of failure to attain some ideal state. Shame encompasses the entire self.”– Psychology Today
The shame just becomes…. you know, I just understood this was not something that you want anyone to see. I know so many of them who can’t talk about their own family’s illnesses. The pathology of silence infects you. And that is sickening to your soul.” – Patrick says tearfully.
- Stuff it under the rug.
Put on a smile, look pretty, and just act like ladies act was how we dealt with pain in my family. And it only fed the beast of my eating disorder and propelled me to hide my true self even more.
Pervasive in families with addiction and mental illness, when the pathology of silence is present, is this constant pushing under the rug. Not talking about problems. Not discussing the elephant in the room. Which only perpetuates this problem.
We were living in limbo land where all of this chaos, this emotional turmoil, was happening. And we were just expected to live through it.” – Says Patrick
- Escape and relief.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this phrase, “Oh I wish I had an eating disorder!” Or “Wow, they (someone on a drinking or drug binge) must have had quite the party.” The truth is, it isn’t glamorous. It is used to numb out, escape, and find relief.
When someone is fully entrenched in the disease there is no more fun involved.
This is about relieving the pain. People have this mistaken notion that you get high. What you are really getting is relief from the low.” – Patrick explains
It was difficult for my treatment providers to asses. Which came first, the depression or the Anorexia? Instead of thinking of this as the chicken or the egg, instead imagine it like wack-a-mole. One rears it’s head and the other goes down. Both need to be treated. Sobriety also meant Patrick could metabolize his bi-polar medication better, he was more likely to take his meds, and treat his whole self better (including his mental health) when he was sober. A person with an eating disorder will potentially have less anxiety and depression when they are nourishing their bodies and/or refraining from using symptoms. (GREAT article HERE.)
- In Recovery.
“Are you recovered?” People always ask me. Yes. And I am IN recovery. I am always one step away from a relapse just as an alcoholic is one step away. Does this mean I will tomorrow? No. Yesterday I celebrated 20 years of freedom. I do whatever it takes for me to protect my recovery. I am vigilant about it. I am living IN recovery. (Oh the semantics of this word.) To me recovery encompasses many areas of my life, not just eating. It is physical, mental, psychological, social and spiritual.
I am an addict. I will always be an addict. But I am an addict in recovery.” – Patrick finishes.
I say it like this; I am Lee. I struggled with an eating disorder and depression. The eating disorder no longer bangs on my door, depression rears its ugly head every so often, but I live IN recovery. I protect my recovery just as an addict does. I take care of my mental health. I do what I can to make sure I stay IN recovery.
So, may you be encouraged by Patrick Kennedy’s courage and begin to break your own pathology of silence.
Tell someone you are struggling. Tell a friend, tell your therapist. Reach out. You will be so glad you did. Or if a family member is, break the silence!