Mary Lu


By Gabrielle.

Since I’ve spoken freely about how this move has thrown me for a mental health loop, I’ve received dozens of emails with kind-hearted questions on the topic, with one of the recurring themes being surprise that I feel so open and shameless about what I’m going through. These conversations have left me thinking hard about what has formed my own views on mental health. And predictably, it turns out my views were formed by experience. Two specific experiences really. And I thought I’d write about one today, and one on another day.

The first experience was growing up with my aunt, Mary Lu, who lived with us. If I asked everyone out there who had a Crazy Aunt Mary to raise their hand, I know pretty much everyone would. But some of us had an actual Crazy Aunt Mary. Mary Lu had Paranoid Schizophrenia. She would hear voices constantly. Sometimes the voices said harmlessly crazy things. And other times they said horrible things. These are some of the thoughts and memories that come to mind when I think about her.

When we moved from California to Utah (I was 5 years old at the time), we built a house, and we built an apartment above the garage specifically for Mary Lu. She could live fairly independently, but my family was right there when necessary. She was part of our daily family life. [Side note: Man. I loved that apartment! It was small, but had everything you’d need. Many years later, when Mary Lu moved out, the apartment above the garage would eventually become a newlywed apartment for my sister, then a college apartment for my brother, and then an apartment for the local Mormon missionaries.]

Mary Lu shook. Constantly. Her hands and arms. Kind of her whole body. Her medication made her shake, so I was taught that if she wasn’t shaking, that meant she hadn’t taken her medication and that I should tell my parents. Every Sunday dinner, Mary Lu would join us, and the table shook the whole time. A shaking table was one of the not-normals that was normal for our family.

If you met Mary Lu, you would know immediately something was off. Her condition had no physical earmarks, but if you interacted with her, or even saw her, you would instantly know you weren’t dealing with an average citizen.

Mary Lu didn’t like a big crowd or lots of people, in fact, I’m sure our family of 10 was a challenge for her. But she would still spend time at our house — watching TV with a couple of us kids after school, or visiting with someone in the living room. And she was a fixture during holidays and Sunday dinners. When everyone left the dinner table to chat in the living room, she would find the conversations too intense and would end up back in the kitchen working on the dishes. Of course, everyone felt guilty that she was in there slaving away while the rest of us were enjoying ourselves, so one of us would join her in the kitchen and sometimes she would be up for chatting. But other times she wanted to be alone.

Sometimes her medication would be off, and something would be wrong and she would need to be checked in to a full-time care facility for a couple of weeks. And then she’d move home, to the apartment above the garage.

She wasn’t violent. My only memory of aggression was once when I was practicing hand-stands and it bothered her and she rushed at me to stop me. I was scared and she was strong. But I called out and she didn’t hurt me.

She was a fixture in our neighborhood and church. On the first Sunday of the month, which is sort-of open-mic day at Mormon churches, she would say crazy stuff. Like that she knows she was really adopted (she wasn’t), and that her birth parents were black (they’re not). That she hoped God would forgive her because her brother-in-law saw her in her underwear. (The story there was that My Uncle Pete had knocked on her door and then opened it to say, “Time for Dinner”, catching Mary Lu while she was dressing. But of course, the way Mary Lu told the story over the pulpit had the congregation wondering if my Dad was some sort of peeping tom. Good times!)

Mary Lu always had a bowl of little sugar-free hard candies (I have no idea why they were always sugar free, but they were). And all the neighborhood kids knew they could knock on her door for a treat. Until one Sunday when she innocently mentioned something about candies and poison in the same thought. After that (understandably, but still sadly) kids weren’t allowed to knock on Mary Lu’s door for candy anymore.

One of the things that just stops my heart is that there was no name for her illness when she was young. My grandparents were at a complete loss. And I can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been — not knowing what was wrong or how to help. Just to give you an idea, they lived in L.A., and as a child, Mary Lu once wandered away from school (yes, this was a different era) and walked onto the freeway, and rocked back and forth stopping traffic. But at the same time, she was in mainstream schools with no diagnosis.

Eventually there was a diagnosis. And medication. But the disease was new enough, the reality was that the medication was pretty much an experiment. And it wasn’t necessarily effective. (I’ve heard great strides have been made medication wise in recent years, which is wonderful.)

When I was 16 or 17, I was at my Grandma’s house, and Mary Lu was there. She was really, really, excited  to share some good news. She told me there was a new medication! That it was going to stop the voices!! I shared in her joy, then had to go outside where I wept with a new realization. For some reason, no doubt to comfort myself, I had assumed Mary Lu wasn’t really aware of her situation. She didn’t talk about it. She didn’t talk about being sick. In that conversation, for the first time I understood that she was fully aware of what her life was. And that she wanted it to be different. That she heard voices and she wanted that to stop. She must have been about 50 years old at the time. 50 years of hearing voices. (And sadly, the new medication didn’t work.)

When Mary Lu was stable enough, my grandparents bought her a small home in downtown St. George, where she could walk to the library and shops and live even more independently, and she moved out of the apartment above the garage. I went off to college not long after. But I would still see Mary Lu during the holidays and at family gatherings. Sometimes she would wrap up her half-used groceries — like an open box of rice — and bring them as gifts.

She died a few years ago. And I don’t think I even mentioned it here. I think I’m still processing the idea that she’s gone. And I still have a hard time making sense of what her life was. What it meant. Did she get to experience enough joy to make it worthwhile? Or was it a life of confusion and frustration?

Those of you who have seen sickness like this up close know that it influences everything. Where my grandparents could move. How they handled their finances so Mary Lu could be provided for — she lived till she was almost 70. My aunt, Mary Lu’s sister, went into psychology in college, simply because growing up with a sister who had schizophrenia informed her whole childhood. My mother built an apartment for her. It affects you. It affects life. I remember learning about genetics in school, and asking my mother if there was a high likelihood that my children would have schizophrenia.

At some point, I remember seeing a movie called Benny and Joon, featuring Johnny Depp. It’s about two schizophrenics who fall in love. And I remember being sort of angry afterwards. This wasn’t what schizophrenia looked like! It was not charming! It was not Johnny Depp! There was no falling in love!! I later learned that like most mental illness, schizophrenia falls on a spectrum; that Mary Lu’s case was extreme, and that there are others with paranoid schizophrenia who live more typical lives. [Side note: I recently saw Silver Linings Playbook, another movie about mental illness, in this case, bi-polar disease, and I felt those same angry feelings. Is that really what bi-polar disease looks like? Like Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence?]

That’s a tiny bit about Mary Lu.

Obviously, growing up with Mary Lu informed my view of mental health in lots of ways. For example, I learned the fruitlessness of arguing or reasoning with crazy. And honestly, I still try to apply that knowledge any time I encounter someone who’s not making sense. Don’t argue with crazy. I also learned what an extreme mental illness looked like, so I have a reference when I encounter mental illness around me, and in my own head, and have a better understanding of when it’s serious and when it’s less so.

But maybe what I learned most clearly, was that Mary Lu was blameless for her condition. I know my own mental health issues aren’t even a shadow of what Mary Lu experienced, but I suppose understanding her blamelessness, allows me to experience this depression without blaming myself. Without guilt or shame. No one ever said that Mary Lu simply needed to “pull herself together”. She was sick. She wasn’t at fault. And the topic wasn’t taboo.

I know mental illness touches everyone. I would love to hear what has formed your own thoughts and opinions on the subject. And as I mentioned above, another day I’ll share more on what has formed mine.

P.S. — The photo above is the only photo I have in my possession of Mary Lu. It shows my family and all of the cousins on my mom’s side. She’s the one on the stairs wearing glasses, the second of 5 siblings (my mother was number 3). Mary Lu wasn’t around for the cameras-everywhere-instagram-era. If she was alive today, I wonder if she would let me take her picture?

131 thoughts on “Mary Lu”

  1. Thank you, Gab.

    These difficult things can bring out the GOODNESS in all of us.

    I remember with great gratitude the DEAR-HEARTED NEIGHBORS who were kind to Mary Lu: Robin N., Meretta, the Thompsons, and others. Kjersten brought her cookies when Mary came back home from the hospital.

    I appreciate Dad and Mom providing for Mary Lu. Many schizophrenics are homeless and on the street because they’ve pushed away and offended family. (I recognize them by the way they talk to themselves–to the “voices.”) Dad refused to take offense and would help Mary Lu come back down during episodes. HE WAS LOYAL and KEPT HER CLOSE.

    Tender thoughts and admiration to all who deal with their version of these things. Sunlight returns. People are GOOD. Life has meaning. Heaven is kind–and close.

  2. Gabrielle, thank you so much for sharing. This post was so beautiful and how lucky Mary Lu was to have you and your entire family taking care of her and loving her. My views on mental health were totally transformed when I had some pretty serious Post Partum Depression after the birth of my first child. It was so unexpected and came out of nowhere. I’m a very happy person in my “normal” life. I didn’t get help right away because I was ashamed and embarrassed and didn’t want for anyone to know I was “weak”. And I suffered for those few weeks. My husband also suffered. I felt like people would think I didn’t love my child. When I did call my doctor, I got help immediately in the form of medication and therapy. I was better in no time at all. Still, I’ll never forget that very dark time and how it robbed me of such a beautiful moment in my life. And I’ve made it my mission to speak about it openly and honestly. I don’t want for anyone else to feel what I felt…..there is NOTHING AT ALL to be ashamed of. In the last few years I did actually have several women come to me who were suffering after childbirth and I do think I was helpful to them. Still, they made sure to tell me not to mention it to anyone…..which is so sad. So I admire you for sharing your story…..not PPD but a darkness all the same.

  3. What a beautiful post. Mental illness is so difficult to understand and learn about. The illness itself can expose itself slowly like the layers of an onion. There are so many levels. I grew up with mental illness in our family. But there was so much stigma it was kept very quiet. But there also wasn’t as much knowledge. Schizophrenia is one of the most cruel diseases. My brother fought his with brute force for years. I was unaware that he even had a mental illness and was away when it came to the forefront. But later, I was sure to learn everything I could about it. It is very common for them to withdraw in large crowds – we also have a large family. I encourage people to learn and also to be open – especially in families. We need to share information openly. When I looked at the beautiful eyes of my children, I wondered if one of them would encounter this horrible disease. Well, I have lived with other forms of mental illness for years now. And, yes, so much of it is a spectrum…that’s why I say it’s like peeling an onion. Just when you think you have a handle on things, you learn something new or the illness takes another tack. It requires patience and support. I know that for years people would think – “just get a job”, or “just clean your room” and that will motivate. But it doesn’t. For something as simple as depression, it can take a long time before proper diagnosis is made. We went through a year of very real physical symptoms, with meds and diagnoses for those physical problems. But after observing weight loss and hearing “I feel like someone is pressing down on me”, I opened up a medical book and read about depression. So I’ve learned about mental illness by living with it. I think we need to educate and raise awareness. But I think it starts in the family – we need to share information – because I do believe there is a hereditary component to the disease.

  4. thank you for being so open and sharing something so personal. my husband also has a “crazy” aunt who now lives in a state funded housing where she get’s 24 hour care. her life for the most part was always at home with her parents and as my husband’s grandparents aged, it was never clear who was taking care of who. when they eventually passed it was up to the siblings to finally face the decision of her welfare, a decision that tore them apart for awhile. my husband’s dad took up the responsibility and moved her closer to his home and found the necessary housing and care for her. her diagnosis were never clear. she is a “smart” woman but who seems incapable of functioning in society and life. it’s just an incredibly sad story.

  5. My best friend is a clinical psychologist as well as his father and sister. (Dinner at their house when we were kids was fun.) A few years ago he told me that the only society that is fully able to integrate schizophrenics and other severely paranoid people are small tribal groups. I think the study he was referring to was about a native group in the amazon. He brought it up because he has always been fascinated by how my family handles my parents’ mental illnesses. Unlike his upper middle class, immediate family only unit, I was raise in a large Irish Catholic family that just sort of rolls with the punches that come with my mom’s anxiety disorder, and they have always accepted my dad with his paranoid delusions and bi-polar far better than his bio-family.

    Reading about your family reminds me about the best parts of coming from a big close-knit family. My aunts and uncles always stepped in for my parents when my dad disappeared or my mom couldn’t handle the stress of hosting a birthday party. I remain incredibly close with my aunts and uncles, and talk with my cousins as much as I do my brother. Its funny but its mostly my LDS friends who understand my large family and my commitment to them. My dad lives with me and probably will for the rest of his life. I can’t imagine it any other way and its a great litmus test when I start to date a new guy. (Most don’t pass but thats okay.) Even my best friend that I mentioned above who has had fifteen years to get use to my family is still surprised by how we all function.

    I feel totally blessed to have a family like mine and I feel blessed to have my parents, even when my dad tells me that a bloody nose is a sign that I am being abducted by aliens when I sleep. My father isn’t normal, but he is extremely charismatic. He is an accomplished musician and is one of the most literate people I have ever met. I am a lawyer, and I went to name schools, and most of my friends meet my dad and never guess that he dropped out of highschool because of his mental illness. My mom on the other hand, is well educated, but it never comes through because she gets so anxious about minutia. Like she doesn’t take elevators. Ever. My office use to be on the 16th floor and when she came to visit she took the stairs. No one ever thought that she ran a successful not-for-profit. All I have figured out over the years, is that mental illness is incredible individualistic.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. Found your blog by accident, googling for a new haircut for my curls- found lots more, especially in your courageous sharing with this entry.
    It’s great to see the stigma around mental illness is slowly breaking down, especially as discoveries in neuroscience unravel these mysteries, and differences are better understood (and this knowledge trickles down to into general knowledge).
    I don’t know what you’ve shared previously, but can relate to being far from home & support networks: pretty sure it would be superhuman to not feel effects of that. Sometimes, it’s so hard.
    (Also- this is weird- I once knew you. Small world! I’m an expat from SG too- we live in England. Pretty sure we hung out together because I can just hear your laugh. Nice to see you!)

  7. Caroline Perrin

    Oh, my goodness. My heart broke reading this. For Mary Lu who knew what was going on and wanted the voices to stop. For her parents, who as you said didn’t know what was wrong initially or how to help. I don’t have mental health issues in my family but I’m a parent and I can’t imagine raising a child who does; my heart goes out to all the parents who lovingly do just this.

  8. As you know, I’ve had my own battles with depression, post-partum and otherwise. But I have to say that nothing I’ve read about depression and coming back from it has struck me quite as much as this:

    “But maybe what I learned most clearly, was that Mary Lu was blameless for her condition. I know my own mental health issues aren’t even a shadow of what Mary Lu experienced, but I suppose understanding her blamelessness, allows me to experience this depression without blaming myself. Without guilt or shame. No one ever said that Mary Lu simply needed to “pull herself together”. She was sick. She wasn’t at fault. And the topic wasn’t taboo.”

    Life changing. I’m actually teary. All these years battling my demons (some years were better than others, of course) and that thought had never occurred to me. This is one of my favorites posts you’ve written. I love that you aren’t afraid to keep it real – it’s one of the things I love most about you.

  9. thanks so much for sharing, gabrielle. i can see that you really saw your aunt & i think that’s beautiful.
    recently some friends & i were sharing about our lives – our toughest moments – & i suddenly realized how much beauty i saw in my friends as they described their heartache, struggle, pain. & not even because of the way they “overcame” some issues. there is beauty in the middle of struggle. sometimes i think we celebrate the overcoming, the resurrection type of moments & forget the beauty in the midst of the pain & struggle. and then we dont want to admit our difficulties until we’ve had an “answer” or “overcome”, which only reinforces that we’re not okay/beautiful until that has happened. you broke that by sharing your struggle before you felt “okay” – i think that’s really powerful & really beautiful.

  10. I am so grateful for a shift in attitudes towards mental illness. My sweet, intelligent, handsome 9-year-old boy is currently being treated for depression. When I hear people belittling others who are medicated for these kinds of illnesses, my heart breaks. Until you have known someone with depression, including your perfectly innocent, beautiful child talking about suicide, you don’t know how real it is, and how it must be treated with the seriousness any other illness would be. We create the stigma when we judge whether another person is “really” depressed, or just needs to snap out of it. Typing this out is making me cry, and I feel completely overwhelmed with gratitude that my son is here and healthy today. So grateful for medicine. So grateful for the support I feel from understanding people. So grateful.

    I have a neighbor who also struggles with anxiety and depression, and she is constantly battling herself, occasionally taking herself of medication because she hates feeling like the crazy lady. When I hear this, as the mother of a boy with her same struggles, I want to weep. She is not crazy. My son is not crazy. There is a mixup in the creation of and interactions between chemicals in her body and in his. Let’s not call it crazy, in ourselves or others, please. But what DO we call it? My son and neighbor don’t seem like “sick” people to me either. I don’t know what to call it, so I don’t call it anything. I just call him Owen. My perfect son, who has a real problem and gets good medical care and so much love from this mama.

    1. All the prayers in the world for your little boy. I wasn’t quite that young when depression hit me, but not much older. It’s a heavy burden to bear at such a young age, but it shaped me into a compassionate, sensitive adult and I hope it brings your son his own gifts. (And I learned to manage my depression and anxiety in my early 20s, and haven’t had any issues in 15 years, so there’s SO MUCH hope.)

      As for titles, why not just “a person dealing with depression” or “a person working on anxiety”? Or yep, just “Owen”, who has his unique challenges and gifts, just like all of us do. But never “crazy”. No one needs that label on top of everything else, and anyway, it’s simply not true.

      1. Angela, reading your comment just opened the floodgates for me. I am bawling my eyes out. I guess out of my son’s privacy I have only shared the extent of his troubles with a very few people, mostly immediate family. But I know how important it is to not feel alone in this, so maybe sharing might provide an ounce of comfort to someone else, as you’ve provided comfort to me with your words. Hugs to you!

  11. Thank you so much for this post. Because I’m a second-generation Korean-American immigrant whose parents considered psychiatry taboo, I’ve been taught all my life that seeking psychiatric help was a sign of mental weakness. I recently began seeing a therapist and with some trepidation, went on anti-depressants. I feel much, much better than before, and I now look backwards with some anger and resentment towards the ideas I’d had that I didn’t need or wasn’t worthy of help. Putting my mental health first is something I’m deliberately and actively trying to do. It’s not easy, but it is a struggle worth having.

  12. Wow, Thank you so much for sharing! My family deals with depression. My way of dealing with it has been to exercise! I run at least 5 miles a day and have recently just finished my second marathon. Running was an answer to a prayer and it has changed my life! God is good! It is defiantly something I would have never started without God’s help!

  13. My brother-in-law (husbands brother) is bi-polar. When his mom and sister saw Silver Linings Playbook they thought it was spot on. Like you said all mental illness is different !

  14. Thank you for posting not only about Mary Lu, but about your own struggles.
    I had my 1st nervous breakdown a few days after our first child was born over 32 years ago.
    It was not funny.
    It was not charming.
    It was not quirky.
    It was, and still is, the most terrifying experience I have lived through.
    To lose your mind, to not be able to make thoughts connect, not be able to calm your mind long enough to shower and dress……terrifying.
    I waited 2 years to seek professional help. I wasn’t crazy!
    It took years of therapy, dozens of tries to get the meds right, but finally things were brought under control.
    Years later in church, that church :) I bore my testimony and spoke about my experience. Later several women contacted me to say thank you, thank you for talking about it, we would never have sought help if you had not talked openly about your journey.

    I am a firm believer in people helping one another on this journey we call life. But I am passionate about women helping women!

  15. What a great learning experience for you.
    And you are right about everyone having that crazy aunt…my husband’s great aunt lived with them when they were kids UNTIL she held a pillow over the baby to get him to stop crying and also tried to put him in the oven (it wasn’t on thank goodness!).

  16. Gabrielle, I was moved by your willingness to share a small part of your depression struggle and hearing this story was so interesting and wonderful. I am a nurse and work in inpatient psychiatry, so I take care of people like your aunt all the time. What strikes me about the combination of your sharing and your aunt’s story is how much it normalizes mental illness. People, we are all together on a continuum! It’s just that most folks are ashamed to talk about it. Mental illness is like any other illness! Although perhaps more important than many physical illnesses, for the way it pervades every facet of our lives. For most of us stressors might manifest as anxiety or depression (or irritability, anger, etc.), but throw in some kind of intense physical stress and even those with the heartiest of mental health have the capability to hallucinate. Maybe most of us will never get there, but I think it’s really important to recognize that the person who has the compulsion of needing to lock and unlock their door 13 times each time before leaving the house is just a more extreme version of me checking my back door to make sure I’m not locking myself out in the yard every time I walk out. It’s also important to recognize that we all have mental health issues in our families and the more we can talk about them the more we make space in our culture for people to seek help. We compound the suffering of mental illness when we expect our loved ones to “just get over it.” I see people come in during the worst crises of their lives (severe depression and other severe mental illnesses can be a life threatening due to suicide, do not forget) and I see them get better. The medicines have gotten much better and there are many other treatments that work as well. Keep talking, everyone! Let’s all get help when we need it!
    BTW Gabrielle, I think you guys now live in my neighborhood. We’re one of the holdouts in the Oakland hills where you can have horses so we have a little mini-farm. If you ever want to wear those riding boots you were hankering after near some actual horses, drop me an email :)

  17. I never comment on the blogs I read – only because I don’t usually have anything to add to the conversation. But your post in memory of your aunt Mary Lu is stunning in its empathy. Thank you for this…

  18. Thank you so much for sharing some of Mary Lu’s story. This is beautifully and tenderly written. Thank you for taking the time to speak words like these in the internet world. I like pretty pictures, too, but I love thoughtful and careful posts like this. The world is full of sorrows tangled up with joys. It’s so important to be gentle with each other–and with ourselves. I’m glad you’re doing that, and sharing it with us.

  19. My family too had many illnesses. On my mom side all had some sort of depression to bi polar and on my dad side everyone had a physical illness. Everyone in my family was in wheelchairs -Grandmother, Aunt, 2 Uncles and my dad. I think dealing with illnesses all your life makes it the norm. I guess it has made me who I am today. Understanding to them and accepting to all. LOVE YA!

  20. Thanks for sharing. I wonder what more we can do to help mentally ill individuals (like the woman killed yesterday in DC).

  21. One of my older brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 19 (I was 15 at the time). His illness has greatly shaped my empathy and compassion for people who suffer from mental illness of all types (and other facets of my personality and approach to life, I’m sure). My brother is also someone who you would know immediately is mentally ill if you were to meet him. He hears voices all the time and talks to them almost constantly. But he is also whip-smart and a truly gentle soul. He has a beautiful smile and a kind heart and has taught me a lot over the years. We are lucky that he is able to live independently through the help of his federal disability payment and a local organization that provides housing at a greatly reduced rate for folks with mental illness. He sees my parents a few times a week but is largely on his own. However, he can’t hold down a job anymore, even though he did work off and one for the first ten years after his diagnosis. My dad has also suffered from depression and a few years ago my mom went through a very scary year where she was diagnosed with bipolar at age 69 (almost unheard of) without ever having any prior symptoms. Thankfully, she is back to herself now with the help of some medication and a great psychiatrist. Anyway, mental illness is a huge part of my family and I think we are all better people for it. Thanks for such a compassionate post and your honesty about your current struggles.

  22. Thank-you so much for being so genuine and caring. You obviously grew up in a very loving and understanding family. I really loved this post.
    I am a mom and spouse to three kids and a husband with mental health issues. All four have severe ADHD and between the kids there is depression, anxiety, OCD and ODD. They also have learning disabilities.
    I grew up with a mom who always struggled with an unknown mental illness. We knew she was different but it wasn’t until I was an adult that she finally got some help. It just was not talked about. She was just the loud, sort of scary lady to my friends. Then when I was a teen I lived with my Dad who also suffered from mental illness. He also did not get help until I was an adult and again nothing was discussed. As well, my husband’s sibling and his parents have mental health issues but unfortunately they have all self-medicated and are alcoholics.
    This has really shaped the way that I deal with my own life especially when it comes to my kids. I am such an advocate for them now and realize that there is not one answer for all people. It is amazing how judgmental people can be when the idea of medicating kids comes up. We have tried both ways and they have a much better quality of life now that they are on meds.
    When my oldest son, now 16, was in grade four we tried medication for his ADHD but the side effects were so severe and he lost so much weight that we took him off them and did not try any others. We also tried medication for my daughter when she was 5 and she had such a severe reaction to them that we quit them immediately. I was just so overwhelmed at the time with three out of control kids and a traveling husband who believed he had no issues. I ended up pulling the kids out of school and homeschooling them. My youngest has never been to school. The best decision I ever made! What a difference it made taking away that stress.
    I wondered if we didn’t need to medicate our kids now that they were not expected to sit in a seat and behave for 6 hours at a time. Over those years we tried many other things like play therapy for the kids, Family Therapy, marriage counseling, therapeutic riding etc. but it became obvious that this was not enough. I decided something had to be done. I had already talked to doctors about myself and they believed that stress was my main issue :) not any underlying illness. After 20 years of marriage I finally convinced my husband that he had to go talk to someone and go on medication. He would just get so angry in the past whenever I brought it up but after three kids with diagnoses and a knowledge that it is genetic, he finally agreed. Thankfully the first medicine he tried made such a HUGE difference in his life that he suddenly became a help instead of a hindrance.
    Unfortunately it has not been that easy for my kids. We have spent the last two years trying different medications and trying to find something that works but does not have horrible side effects. Two of my kids are doing great. They are happy and healthy now and when they have been off medication for a period of time, they actually beg to be put back on. They are old enough now that they can really notice the positive difference it makes in their lives. My youngest is still struggling to find a medication that helps his ADHD and OCD. Thankfully we recently tried a medicine for his depression and he is doing so much better in that regard. Unfortunately any of the meds really affect his appetite and he continues to lose weight.
    It is heart wrenching watching my kids struggle and feeling often that they are just guinea pigs when it comes to finding a solution that works for them. It has also been so eye opening to realize just how different four people from the same family are affected by mental illness and also how differently they react to medication. There is no cookie cutter solution that will work for all.
    I have learned and grown so much over the past years but the biggest thing I have learned is not to hide our struggles. I can’t believe how many people I have met in recent years who knew me years ago when my kids were younger and they will say things like they were intimidated by my seemingly perfect life compared to theirs. I am always absolutely astounded because my life was chaos and I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown every day! I am so honest with others now about our struggles and it has helped me and helped others because I know no ones life is perfect.
    This has been a much longer post than I intended but I just really want you to know how much I appreciate your honesty. We will all benefit from talking more about mental health issues.
    I hope you are feeling better soon. You are in my thoughts.

  23. I so appreciate your openness and candor around mental health issues. When I was in my early 20s I had two family members dealing with severe depression and bi-polar disease. The depression was hard, but the mania that followed was worse. And because mental illness wasn’t discussed I was sad, scared, and so ashamed of what our family was going through. I refuse to let anyone else feel that way about mental health. It is a disease, those affected deserve our compassion and support as they make their way to as healthy a life as possible. And the more we share our stories, the more supportive we can be.

  24. I like that you are being open about your own feelings, and this story from your past. My sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia, medications allow her to live independently and have a job, but she has struggles others don’t. Still, I feel it’s important not to be ashamed about it, and to speak openly because it is not something sinister and the stereotypes can only be broken by people speaking about their own experiences. And I loved Silver Linings playbook — no, the average person with a mental illness is not that beautiful, but I felt like the ups and downs, the being misunderstood, the talking about their medications, the trying to have a normal life were all right on point in my experience. And no one looks like people in the movies.

  25. Thanks so much for sharing Mary Lu’s story. My family, too, has dealt with mental illness and I’m frankly amazed at how it’s still stigmatized. It takes people talking openly about it to change that—thank you. (And all the best as you get a handle on what you’re facing now!)

  26. Thank you so much for writing this. It seems the best thing we can do to help the mentally ill among us and who we love dearly to stop the silence. The story of your family and Mary Lu is not only illuminating, it is inspirational. And you’ve touched so many by sharing this.

    I admire you for many things Gabrielle, but this took my admiration to a whole new level.



  27. Thank you so much for sharing Mary Lu’s story. It is uplifting to hear anyone so open and understanding of mental illness.

    My husband has an anxiety disorder coupled with severe depression. He was diagnosed shortly after we started dating. I stuck with him. No one really understood. His family felt he was “just being lazy”. My family believed I should leave him because “I deserved better”. I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive either side. But I love him. And I’ve never watched anyone fight so hard to stay alive. I should mention, he’s doing well right now. Three and a half years into recovery without a significant relapse.

    I say this only to point out, that we have a long ways to go. Our family was not supportive. Some families are supportive. Some are only able to help the “visibly” or “perceivable” mentally ill. I’m so glad you knew your Aunt Lu so well. I’m glad your family knew her not as an illness or a character flaw, but as a person. She deserved it. Thank you for sharing.

  28. I was amazed at your story. No wonder you seem like such a wonderful person, you truly had amazing parents! i don’t think anyone in my family would do anything remotely as thoughtful and generous, even my father who’ s a really good man.
    Mental illness or depression are shrugged off in my family, and the answer is always “be strong and pull it together”.
    I have a younger sister who’s been battling depression for years, with occasional relapses and one cousin who’s finally been diagnosed bi-polar (as kids we used to say that he was either tired or tiring-it took 40 years and his wife’s call to the cops to have him committed for doctors to finally figure it out.)
    In France where i live, I find that mental illness and depression is still taboo, and I hate that. Thank you so much for this heart-breaking post.

  29. You honor Mary Lu by telling her story, and speaking what you know of her truth. I find that beautiful. I too come from a family with mental health issues, and as a child watching from the outside not always understanding why certain people in my family acted the way they did I felt that our family was strange for a long time. Then one day a friend from school mentioned that she had something similar in her family , and at that very moment, I remember thinking, oh my gosh, everyone has a crazy family and there is no such thing as a family full of only perfection. It gave me a sense of relief, and comfort in knowing I was like everyone else. Gabrielle, you are brave, and you WILL find that moment when you can pause, and have some peace with your thoughts.

  30. Tricia Whitworth

    Thank you for this. There should be no shame regarding mental illness – but there still is. You are helping to shine a kind light into the darkness. . .

  31. Thanks a lot for the interesting and sad life-story. I believe that your aunt Mary Lu rests in peace now. It’s hard to be around such person and even harder to lose him/her. Fortunately members of my family are healthy in terms of mental condition, but I do know how difficult it is as family member with any illness. I have one – my little brother Alex. He has rheumatoid arthritis of knees and elbows. What do you think about such case?

  32. Hi! And thanks for a wonderfull blog. Could you please link to the post you are refering to here: “Since I’ve spoken freely about how this move has thrown me for a mental health loop…”?
    Greetings from Denmark

  33. Thank you so much for being open and sharing your experience with mental health issues. I struggle with depression and anxiety, and while it is not severe, at times, I literally cannot just “pull it together.” Through medication and knowing my triggers, I have it mostly under control now. Yet, some days are better than others.

    I wish mental illness was not so taboo in our culture. In my case, it is a chemical balance in my brain, which is no different than someone who has another medical condition that needs daily maintenance, such as diabetes. If we can take your cue and be more open about mental illness, the taboo will go away eventually.

    Again, thank you!

    1. I thought of this post, too, while listening to Elder Holland’s talk yesterday. It was a great talk, refreshing in its honesty and genuinely helpful in the practical advice and spiritual perspective he offered. It sounds like you have had a busy weekend, but when you get a chance you should read/watch it. I hope that you’ll be able to find some solace in this talk. I also hope you’ll be able to pull out of this depression soon. Sending you my best,

  34. Hi Gabrielle, my mum suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia all my life – both auditory and visual delusions. It was *extremely * difficult growing up. She didn’t believe she was sick, so she was usually off her meds and completely delusional. Now, Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing, although it breaks my heart my daughters don’t have a grandmother. It made me the person I am, that said – my heart goes out to anyone who has been dealt with the same hand in life.

  35. Thank you for your post. I am in awe of how your family handled this issue and how you all accepted your aunt’s disease for what it was.
    I come from a family with a long history of depression (both sides) and in my family nobody talked about it. There was very little room for it. When my mom got depressed so seriously that she had to be medicated and didn’t make it out of bed for a long time, nobody talked about it with me and my brother, we were both in primary school at that time. They told us what she had but nobody asked us how we felt and if we needed help or anything. I always thought it was partly my fault and when I got a severe depression myself at age 16 I didn’t talk about it to anybody because I thought it was my own fault again and it would hurt my parents too much. In my family there are more suicides than other mortal diseases. People either get very old or they kill themselves.
    There is this one goal that I have with my own kids and that is to notice when something is off and to talk about it with them. I want them to know that it is okay to feel very sad or hurt and that when the sadness doesn’t stop they can turn to me and there is help and support for them. I think the root of every depression is partly genetics and partly the believe that somehow you have to deal with everything on your own.

  36. Pingback: Sunday Reads: October 6th

  37. In my growing-up visiting various relatives in psychiatric facilities was pretty common. Many in my family have suffered with these issues and to me mental illness became as real a disease as Diabetes and Cancer (as it ahould be). In the manic times, one lovely aunt used to call from stays in the Psych facility encouraging us all to join her for the “parties” she was throwing there. In the good times she was modeling for Nordstrom. As an ER doctor, I now take care of people suffering from mental illness every day and thanks to my experiences I have huge empathy for these patients and their families. Thanks so much for sharing Gabrielle. Important stuff.

  38. Gabby this is by far my favorite post ever on design mom. So timely and personal and real. The reality that some people don’t get. Better even in modern times is a tough pill to swallow, but the beauty of those learning from loving and supporting is so important to highlight the way you did. Grateful of the elder holland talk, it offers reality that some things cannot be prayed away into understanding or as a solution. I had depression with psychosis when I had Sylvia and when Zane was diagnosed with autism the same year. It was a real crisis none of us saw the signs for. Luckily I got better, but it took a whole year with the right supports to become myself again, something others never get the chance for. One day when my book is published I will be sure to send you a copy. :). thank you for your bravery openly sharing with us about your aunt and how you supported her and loved her as a family. Liz

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