Secrets kept by children and or family
Our son’s illness, when we finally became aware of it, was a magnitude 8 earthquake in our lives that came without any warning. It was a calm and beautiful day in July when I found him the first time he tried to end his life at age 21. The mechanics of saving him, calling 911, unlocking and opening the door for the rescue team, calling my husband, and following Jonathan’s ambulance to the hospital all happened on autopilot. The moments at the hospital crawled as I waited to hear whether my son would live and with what possible damage, and wondered in complete ignorance and fear what the next steps would be.
How could this possibly be happening? How was it possible that I, who had spent countless hours talking with Jonathan, didn’t realize the trouble he was in?
He made it through that episode alive and with minimal impairment to his body. Once out of the hospital he appeared to be the same Jonathan that he always was: kind, loving, caring, bright, engaging, witty. He begged us not to tell anyone what happened—not that he needed to. Of course we would keep this a secret, for so many reasons. We didn’t want to have our son labeled “crazy”; we didn’t want him to endure any comments or knowing glances from well-meaning people. We were private people who never revealed our innermost issues to anyone outside our family. And we certainly didn’t want our son to feel exposed.
Without realizing it, by keeping this secret, we validated Jonathan’s feeling of shame. Not only would he have to battle his illness, he would bear the burden of shame about it as well. From this point on, our family would have to present an outside face to the world that did not represent our inner reality. We didn’t comprehend the gargantuan weight we would assume with this decision. Would we have acted the same way had Jonathan been diagnosed with cancer, gastrointestinal illness, severe cardiac illness, or diabetes? Absolutely not. Ask me now and I will tell you that I wish I had shouted it from the rooftop, done anything, taken out an ad in The New York Times: “My son has a devastating mental illness. Can someone, anyone, offer me some advice to save his life?