Families affected by serious mental illness, like my own, have many things in common: secrecy, confusion, alienation, exhaustion, fear, even terror; anger, frustration, loneliness, longing to be "normal."
Sadly, one of them is a common, and erroneous, conviction that we are alone. Because we lack a public and productive forum for sharing our stories, we miss out on a sense of normalization and connection to each other. Our isolation reinforces the importance of silence, which in turn reinforces stigma, which keeps us silent.
Perhaps nowhere has that silence rung louder than in much of the church, where we have allowed fear and misinformation about mental illness to rule. Tragically, this community with the greatest potential for loving and healing such families instead often deepens their sense of alienation.
Things are beginning to change, though, as people share their stories and come to understand just how common mental illness is. With just over 25 percent of American adults experiencing a diagnosable mental disorder each year, mental illness may be among the most common of health problems.
In fact, it is about equal to the total percentage of people diagnosed with cancer each year, those living with heart disease, people infected with HIV and AIDS, and those afflicted with diabetes—combined. And "serious" mental illness—disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorder—affects six percent of American adults, almost 12 million people. Silence isn't helping anyone.
Families affected by mental illness need to tell their stories, not only for our own sake but also for the sake of others, who will discover in our words that they are not alone. I was eager to read The Painted Table, a new book by debut novelist Suzanne Field. The Painted Table tells a fictional story based on her own life—a story that rings true for many whose families were shaped by a loved one's mental illness.
Field's book honors reality—no sensationalized or romanticized pictures of mental illness here. I recognized my own family in this story, sometimes in spooky parallels: the family's Scandinavian heritage, the slow rise of psychosis in a mother who eventually would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, the family's denial and bewilderment—then quiet desperation. The devoted and faithful husband and father, in over his head. The fears of a daughter who fears the scripts of heritage and heredity drive her toward a destiny she is desperate to escape. And above all, the redemption that only God can bring within scarred families and individual hearts.
The Painted Table references the family's hand-crafted Norwegian table, lovingly made and handed down. The table travels across the Atlantic Ocean and four generations to make its way to Saffee, a young woman who struggled to grow up in a family increasingly defined by her mother's mental illness.