It was likely not intended to be an ironic gesture when my parents gave me a “Chatty Cathy” doll. At age eight having to pull a string on a doll’s back to hear a saccharine voice say “I love you” and “please take me with you” grew old quickly.
While I didn’t particularly like little Cathy, I did identify with her chatty side. Growing up, I became very familiar with the terms “talkative”, “gabby” and less kindly said, “blabbermouth”.
As someone who over-shared long before that term was invented, I wasn’t very good at keeping secrets either. I did not share them purposefully, nor because I liked to gossip, but because of my tendency towards candor. For ill or for good.
I had learned to hold my tongue by the time I became a lawyer. Client confidentiality was Law School 101. And 102, 103, 104, et al.
(A reassuring note here to my former law firm clients: my lips were always zipped and remain so.)
And it wasn’t only clients who shared their secrets with me. Across from my desk there was a chair I had silently labeled the pregnancy chair. Female associates would take turns coming into my office, closing the door, sitting down in that chair and saying –
“Nancy, I need you to keep this confidential.”
Probably they told me their mom-to-be news because I tend to give off those maternal vibes that invite younger women to confide in me. I kept their happy secrets, even though the rest of the firm had already guessed by seeing their sudden interest in baggy blouses.
I am also the frequent recipient of other kinds of secrets. Secrets that I also keep, all the while thinking they should not be so. Those secrets that arise out of feelings of social stigma.
“Please don’t tell anyone, I’m just not ready to share, the rest of our family doesn’t know that Sam has been diagnosed with bipolar.”
“You can’t let any of our friends know that Rachel had to leave college because of her depression.”
“My niece Emily has an eating disorder. My brother’s in denial. We don’t know what to do. Please don’t say anything.”
I get it, I do. Strangers, acquaintances, friends feel safe confiding in me the news that mental illness has reached their family because I’m an involuntary expert, an advocate for awareness of and an advisor on young adult mental health.
But it makes me angry, I admit, when people imply or outright tell me that mental illness should be kept a secret. That it is something that you don’t want to tell anyone for fear others will judge you, or wouldn’t understand or think less of you or of a member of your family.
I recently went to a funeral of a young woman who had mental illness. She did not take her own life but she did die as a result of her illness. It was, as we learned in law school, the “proximate cause” of her death.
Many friends and family shared their memories of her caring nature, her warmth, her intelligence. One or two of those who spoke made vague references to her “struggles”, to the “challenges” she had faced in the past few years.
But not one of those who offered tributes mentioned the words “mental illness”. Not one.
Yet all of the people who got up to speak were also intelligent. People with the best of academic pedigrees who well knew the meaning of the words “mental illness”.
What were they afraid of? If she had died of cancer or diabetes, surely the cause of her death would not have been hidden. Do we fear talking about mental illness because people with cancer or diabetes don’t act oddly or worry to excess or often have to leave college before they graduate?
Of course, it was the choice of this young woman’s family to characterize her life – and her death – in whatever manner they wished. Who am I to judge, I said to my husband when we talked after the service ended about what was said – and what was not said.
And I don’t judge, I never would. I know how extraordinarily hard her family tried to help her.
I am still left with this feeling of sadness, not only at her tragic and premature loss but that I know why she died as did probably every other person at her funeral.
Everyone kept it a secret. That secret that no one wants to talk about. The secret that too often keeps teens and young adults from seeking help, that stops families from reaching out, that limits the research that needs to be done, that prevents each of us from supporting each other when we most need it.
Far better, I think, if we all became Chatty Cathies as to mental illness. If we can talk about it, the shame lessens, the stigma dissolves and young women and men might not have to die.