I never would have thought that I would feel like a stranger in my own family. Depression changed everything, though.
The present story
I spent Christmas with my family this year. It was a small gathering – just my parents, my brother, his fiancee, and me. Except it didn’t feel small; it seemed like there were far too many people around. I haven’t had a lot of contact with my family for some time now because of my depression-related self-imposed isolation. In the last year and a half, I only saw my brother twice, and I hadn’t seen my soon-to-be sister-in-law at all. I was reluctant to head “home for the holidays”, but decided I should push myself and just go for it.
Everyone gave me a fairly wide berth. Not in a mean way, but in recognition of my need for space when I’m not feeling well. Despite the cozy little gathering, I felt like an outsider, a stranger in my own family. Not because anyone excluded me, but because their little family circle just seemed so foreign to me.
Since I wasn’t engaging much in the conversation, I felt kind of like a fly on the wall, observing from a detached position. Or maybe not so detached; regardless, I found that things grated on me. My sister-in-law is a lovely girl, but it seemed like my parents were putting on a performance of sorts because of her presence, and it looked so contrived from my odd perspective. Things that would normally be minor irritants, like my dad’s poor table manners, stirred up a feeling that was closer to disgust. Much of the general conversation focused on meaningless minutiae (kind of like Jerry’s parents in the show Seinfeld, but without the humorous element), and it struck me as such a waste of time. I was mostly able to keep a lid on my irritability in terms of external expression, but it maintained a slow simmer on the inside.
I was very glad to leave and get back home to my guinea pigs.
My mental illness story is my story, but in many ways, it’s also my family’s story.
When I first became ill in 2007, I didn’t say anything to my parents or brother, although my mom thought something seemed off. I’m told that I called my parents after I’d been in hospital several days since my 2nd suicide attempt, but I told them that I didn’t want them to come to visit me. My mom ended up taking a couple of months off work and stayed in my condo while I was in hospital (they live 4 hours away). She didn’t approve when I became romantically involved with another patient, and as a result I stopped talking to my parents for several months.
When I got sick again in 2011 I realized that I needed to go into hospital, but I wanted to do it in the city where my parents live rather than the city where I live and work as a nurse. Apparently, my dad drove down and picked me up, and then took me to the hospital, where I would spend the next 2 months. My parents really noticed the memory loss I had from the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), as I would ask them the same questions over and over.
The next summer I completely fell apart just before leaving on a trip to Russia. I called my parents from my hostel in Moscow sobbing uncontrollably. I can only imagine what that must have felt like for them. Several months later I decided to return to hospital in the city where my parents lived. I was really unhappy with how I was treated during that hospitalization and fought the treatment team every step of the way. I was discharged still very unwell, and my parents were extremely concerned.
A couple of months later I attempted suicide and ended up back in hospital. I called my brother to let him know. He came over to my place to take care of my guinea pigs, and while he was here he cleaned up the mess I’d made when I urinated on the floor. When he came to visit me in hospital, I asked him to get rid of my suicide note so our parents wouldn’t see it (I didn’t realize at that point that the police had already taken it). That was the only time I’ve ever seen him cry.
When I got sick in 2016, I broke off all contact with my family for over a year, thinking that they would judge me and I couldn’t deal with that. I resumed contact last fall, but it’s been tough. I still don’t feel comfortable sharing much with them. My parents are judgmental; not in a malicious way, but more that they think things should be done in a particular way and doing them differently is just plain wrong. It’s how they are and how they’ve always been, but what I used to roll my eyes over and joke about with my brother and grandma is now something I’m very wary of. I also find that with my family I have a very hard time putting on the superficial act of normalcy that I would use with strangers. So I have nothing superficial and casual to say, and I don’t feel comfortable sharing anything deeper about myself, which makes for pretty scanty conversation.
What’s in the future?
I’m back home now, and it feels like a relief to be alone with just my guinea pigs for company. I’m left wondering, though, if feeling like a stranger in my own family is something that will ever really go away. Maybe if (when?) my illness goes into remission things will go back to normal, but that seems hard to imagine at this point. It’s not their behaviour that would need to change, it’s my perspective, and it feels like the connections that well me used to value have been washed away in the storm of my depression. Maybe I’ll find them again, or maybe I’ll forge new connections in the future, but at this point, I don’t see that happening any time soon.
This mental illness journey is never one we truly walk alone, no matter how alone it may make us feel. It’s the kind of illness that leaves its mark not only on us but on those that love us, and I almost feel like I owe my family an apology, even though the depression isn’t my fault. I can’t help feeling like a stranger in my own family, and I don’t know when/how/if that’s going to change. But right now the only way to bring about any kind of change is by continuing to work on managing myself and my illness. The future will be what it is.