I grew up in a very small town, the kind of town where everyone knew everything about their neighbors, and the truth was, all of us were neighbors.
When I walked home from the community swimming pool, that cost ten cents to use all day, it wasn’t unusual for someone to stop me and ask me if I was a Whitver. “Are you Little Whit’s sister?” A teenager that went to school with my oldest brother might ask, or an adult out watering their grass might say, “Are you RuthAnne’s daughter?”
There are a number of good things about living in a town where you are easily recognizable, and people know the members of your family, but it can be hard too.
My first introduction to mental illness was my best friend’s father. He had bipolar disorder and would not stay on his medication. The whole town knew him, and many people were afraid of him. He was a very large man with hands that stretched out the size of a dinner plate. He owned a farm outside of town and would drive down Main Street in an old truck with a pitchfork and some wild looking dogs in the back. He had a booming voice, and when he walked down the street people moved out of his way.
I didn’t know how hard it was on my best friend until she told me one day when we were both adults that every morning on the school bus the kids used to tease her and call her dad, “crazy.”
My little friend, who I remember with the deep coffee colored eyes, wearing a brown dress with orange and yellow daisies on it, her black hair cut into a bob, and a little bow resting crooked around her neck, was teased and had to listen to the other children call her dad names.
Because her father’s illness was untreated most of the time, and because his actions were so public, his condition brought her humiliation and shame.
My friend still hates to visit the town where we grew up, because there are too many ghosts there and too many painful memories for her.
These are lifelong scars for my friend who is now fifty years old.
Are children any more educated and aware today? I’d like to think so, but with the memes and jokes I read on social media from people who are parents, I would say, no. Most people still think it is okay to make fun of the people with mental illnesses.
I’d like to change that. I can’t change the experience of a bus full of children calling my best friend’s dad crazy while she sat there probably crying and trying to be invisible. I can’t change that for her, but maybe, just maybe I can change it for another child, on another bus, in another town, waiting at the bus stop thinking how today his mom or dad couldn’t make breakfast for him, because they were experiencing depression. I’d like that child to feel comfortable to go to school, tell his teacher, and receive something to eat. No judgement. No name calling. Just a little bit of help to a family that is struggling.
Can we do it? Can we learn to stop making fun of the mentally ill? I think so much depends upon it.