Exposing “The Sickness” and how it affects families

SpeakingInColorSometimes when we tell a story it is best to begin at the end…

Her mother was born a daughter of a sharecropper on a plantation and didn’t have time to properly care for her. Based on this she was passed around to different relatives for her upbringing. She was born with regret and died at the age of 56. Whenever her name was mentioned it was soon followed by “Bless her heart, she got hit by the sickness.”

Recently in the Huffington Post I read a sentence that said, “I come from a lineage of ancestors who used strength and endurance as a way to survive.” It was an open letter that was written to African American women about mental health.

I wondered what made the two women so different in their survival to withstand the darkness that engulfs the mind. What is the variant that gives one woman the stamina to go on in spite of her condition and the other the inability to see her worth past her circumstance?

The two women that I speak of are my mother and her mother, my grandmother. At the age of 14 my mother gave birth to a set of twins having been raped by a family friend. Her inner conflict from this event was a contributing factor that caused her to become mentally unstable.

Though she was never taught how to deal with her feelings, she was now forced to carry a grown woman’s burden into poverty. A session of failed relationships produced more children and added to her issues of depression before she began to spiral down.

As a child I understood the word “crazy” before I could learn my ABCs, 123s and primary colors. I grew to realize that my mother wasn’t really crazy, she just “felt things more deeply than others.” This empathetic reasoning was self-preservation for me to not talk about or deal with her depression while my father, as like other family members, took the opportunity to simply walk away.

There were events that now made sense as to why things happened as they did — mama leaving us in the house alone for days to weeks at a time, there never being any food, clothes, furniture, or parental guidance in the home. No one wanted to stop by because her behavior was unpredictable. These were not reasons to have the county come in and interrupt our living environment by eventually taking us away, but they did.

Our environment was not how we lived, it was how the mental illness had lived. Had mama been okay, she would have never let things get so bad for us. I was five-and-a-half years old, and that was the last time I ever saw mama. I was never given closure to her presence or ever lived again with someone who had “The Sickness.”

Over the years mental illness has gained exposure and there are services that can better help those who are suffering from mental illnesses. By raising understanding and attention to mental illness within the African American community, those suffering no longer have to be excluded from family, social circles or the workplace.

I would like to put emphasis on each word with passion when I say: If you are in need of help, (It may not be easy), start by just talking to someone. If you know someone who is suffering, make it okay to talk to them about their illness by encouraging them, educating yourself, and inspiring those who wear the mask of mental illness that grins and lies from fear or shame.

In doing so, individuals may begin their inner healing by removing layers of unhappiness and working towards their own closures.


E. Ellis is a freelance writer that lives in Minneapolis.