Life at 5,280 Feet

It has been said that to truly understand what someone is going through, you must walk a mile in his or her shoes.

Living with someone who suffers with a serious mental illness is like walking through a thick forest. The path is dim and the darkness from the overhanging leaves and thick branches only allows brief glimpses of sunlight. And when those shards of light appear, they are welcomed, but sporadic. You can never get too comfortable because the sunlight usually doesn’t stay long and you never really know when it will peak through the tangle of vines and leaves again.

For years, my son – who is now 29 years old – has struggled with severe anxiety and depression. There were months when he was unable to leave the house. During those dark times, everything was challenging. Exhausting. Even things like psychiatric appointments seemed almost impossible. Many times I would go into the office to let the administrative assistant know that we were there so we wouldn’t be charged for just not showing up. Sometimes the doctor would come out and talk to him in the car, trying to coax him inside.

There have been years when the fear of having an anxiety attack crippled everything he wanted to do. He couldn’t attend family events, so I would host. But the crowd of noisy relatives in the house drove him to his room, where he stayed, miserable and alone. Most recently, I get texts at work from him. He wants to die. He sends pictures of himself looking absolutely miserable and dismal quotes from books and movies about death and dying. Desperate attempts to try to get me to understand exactly how he feels. Reaching out to communicate his pain and despair.

And through it all, no one really knew what I was going through. Every step I took alone in trying to deal with his pain only led to more isolation because I knew no one got how things really were with him. No one really knew what was going on at my house.

Fielding questions and comments from friends and family members who are supposed to understand, but clearly don’t, is almost too much to bear. Trying to explain that the anxiety and depression is not all in his head and that it isn’t because he doesn’t try hard enough to people who are supposed to love us unconditionally is draining. I pulled away from the people I loved and counted on. Isolation was easier than trying to explain or make excuses for why my son could not leave his room, go to school, work, or socialize.

There are 5,280 feet in one mile. It takes the average person about 2,000 steps to walk that mile. But when you walk that mile carrying the pain of a loved one with a mental illness alone, it might as well be 2 million steps. That mile goes on and on.

But it doesn’t have to.

Almost three years ago I met someone at a small group gathering I went to. We were listening to Rick and Kay Warren’s sermon series, “How to Get Through What You Are Going Through.” They had lost their 27-year-old son, Matthew, to suicide in April 2013 and were back at church sharing what they went through. I was encouraged by Rick and Kay’s faith in God and love for their mentally ill son and made a connection with someone who also has a son like mine. She knew what it was like to love someone with a serious mental illness.

She knew exactly how I felt.

My new friend and I began meeting once a week to share, cry, and pray. She had walked those miserable 2 million steps. She was in as much pain and felt as burdened for her son as I did for mine.

I can’t even begin to tell you how much it means to have someone who gets it. In the past, my first reaction to any one of the weekly struggles my son has presented me with was to draw the blinds and go back into myself. But having someone I can talk to is empowering and encouraging. She doesn’t judge. She doesn’t blame my parenting skills. She knows my son can’t walk it off. And she knows because she has walked that 5,280 feet in my shoes.

It has been said that to truly understand what someone is going through, you must walk a mile in his or her shoes. I never really gave it much thought, until I found someone who had.

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Hope: 1. Stigma: 0.

It has to hit you in just the right way at just the right time. You don’t see it coming, but suddenly your family is looking at you as if you are an intruder in their home. They are horrified. You are crying uncontrollably at that television commercial where the kids are…and then the old man and his little dog says…and then the football quarterback hands the little boy his…and then everyone is holding hands and singing.

You know the one I mean.

And your family is so embarrassed for you, they take a collective and silent vow to never show you anything remotely close to this commercial on youtube. No one wants to see this display of weird and uncomfortable emotion from you ever again.

The times I cry at commercials almost always takes me by surprise. So, imagine my surprise when I came downstairs to make coffee early one morning before work this week, clicked on the TV, and saw a young bald woman being told by, who I am assuming is her mother, “Really a lot of people are worse off than you, ya know.”

Then in the next scene, her father says, “I’m getting tired of hearing about this.”

At this point, whatever this commercial is for, it has my attention.

“Oh honey, snap out of it.”

“You’re kinda dragging me down.”

“Why don’t you just go outside. Get some sunshine. You’ll be fine.”

“Can we stop with the pity party?”

Tears are streaming down my face as I see the expression on the young woman’s face. I can actually see her pain and feelings of abandonment. The words that appear on the screen next have now caused me to sit down because even though all I see are these nine words, I know exactly what is coming next.

“You’d never talk like this to someone with cancer.”

Now I can hear myself crying. My hand is covering my mouth and I’m feeling raw and relieved at the same time. The sentences that come next push me over the edge.

“Don’t talk like this to someone with depression.”
“Depression is real. Serious. Life threatening.”

I sat there for a few moments not knowing what to think. I have cried at many commercials before this one, but the only thing this public service announcement was selling was compassion and love for people who struggle with mental illness and their families and friends who love them.

It was a breath of fresh air and a sign that mental illness is being recognized for the serious, life-threatening, and real physical illness that it is.

That commercial changed the rest of my day.

I’m glad no one was around to see it with me. No, wait. I wish anyone who has ever known my kids and I were there to see how excruciating mental illness can be and how thinking that a walk outside on a sunny day will fix everything.

Would you tell a 25-year-old with cancer or diabetes or multiple sclerosis to walk it off? Stop complaining because there are other people worse off? Snap out of it? You wouldn’t.

I didn’t see it coming, but this commercial gave me hope. Hope that there are people out there who know exactly what mental illness does and how it affects everyone involved.

Hope: 1.
Stigma: 0.

And this is how we get there.