Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. ~ Daniel H. Pink
There is a story inside me that I never really thought I’d share on this site about bullying, because it’s more about my family than it is about me. But I realized the other day that the story is a part of me and a part of what makes me, well, me. The more I thought about sharing it, the more I realized that sharing it here would be yet another way to open a conversation and let the story go, so that it can be discussed in the open. So here goes…
I had two grandmothers growing up. My mother’s mother lost her husband, my grandfather, when my mother was seven from cancer. They were alone and poor most of their lives. But that grandma was always with us. She never lived far from us and we would visit her often. I recall spending at least a full week with her every summer, where later I would write several plays and we would share so many laughs. I was so fond of her Eastern European cooking skills and relished my time with her. She would share her stories of her family of 10 kids and being the first generation American. We laugh as a family when we share her stories. I was lucky to have her in my life.
But that isn’t the grandma I wanted to talk about here. I wanted to share about the grandma I didn’t know. She was my dad’s mother. She also usually didn’t live far from us, but we barely saw her. When we did see her, she really didn’t want anything to do with me. She hardly talked. Her husband, my grandfather, had left her and she was alone for the most part. I don’t ever recall her cooking and couldn’t wait to leave her apartment usually. I don’t recall a time where she visited us and I don’t even recall much about hearing from her when I was a kid.
She was the grandma that we didn’t talk about much. As a child, I certainly didn’t understand why. As I matured, someone, I can’t recall who anymore, shared with me that grandmother was a Manic Depressive.
At the time, I had little to no knowledge of what that was. I do know she was heavily sedated now when I used to see her. I also know that she spent a good amount of time in a mental institution, which was common practice in those days. That is why I didn’t see her much. Once I found out this news, I admit to living in fear that this would be passed down to me or my family members and I know that I didn’t want to see her. I was judging her for her illness and not living with empathy. This, of course, is common for a young teen in many cases.
So whether my family kept me from seeing her or it was her choice, I never got to know that Grandma. During my years of growing up, she was mainly out of the institution. But later in her life, she had to return as she had fallen into a deep depression, smeared her feces on the walls, and didn’t know who she was. I don’t share this because I want to, I am sharing this because I know that many of us have that relative that we keep in the closet or have mental illness that we keep in the closet. Here’s what I didn’t know about this grandma until I asked and someone shared with me.
She grew up as the first generation American from parents from Czechoslovakia. She had a brother we never saw, because he was anti-social with the family. When he died, we became very close with his wife, my aunt. They did not have a great amount of money, but they sent my grandmother to college. My grandmother was a very bright young woman. In fact, she was so intelligent, that she was the first woman to go to a prestigious law school that was all men and her. She wanted to be a lawyer. But this is where her story veers off. When she got to law school, her professors were bullies to her and told her no matter what she did, they would fail her, because she was a woman and didn’t belong in law school. In those days, this kind of behavior could happen. They did and she was forced out of law school due to that bullying and the beginning of her decent into depression.
I don’t know if this is where her depression started, but she was forced out of law school and my family does not speak of another job that she had. Her dreams had been crushed and depression entered her life. She had some good years, I guess, getting married, having her first daughter and a son (my dad). By the time, though, she had her third daughter, it wasn’t but a few years later, she would be institutionalized and would live in and out of the mental institution, while doctors put her on early antidepressants and performed electric shock therapy on her that, I’m sure, made her more of a zombie, just living and thus my early years of not knowing her.
I didn’t discover all of these things until much later. I lived and still worry that her mental illness is hereditary and could be passed to me. How silly I feel to worry about this, but it is part of my reality. Would I have had empathy for her as a child, if I had known all of her illness. It’s doubtful, because I would not have had the capacity to understand as I do now. I truly don’t know what a difference it would have made, but I did resent that I didn’t know and that I didn’t know here better…the grandma I never really knew.
When she passed on several years ago, I didn’t feel the sadness I wish I had. I just never knew her. My dad speaks little of her and I wish I could have known and could have talked to her more about this. I wish I could have spent more time with her, hearing family stories and learning first hand about her life. It is true, though, that we rarely know what troubles someone is going through, unless they share it with you.
And that is why I am sharing this. We all have a relative, a friend maybe, with mental illness. It is usually kept deep in our family closets. But her illness is just that, an illness. In today’s world, I’d like to think she would have been treated differently and, due to more modern thinking and treatment, I could be writing about the grandmother I did know. Unfortunately that just wasn’t the case. The key is not to judge people, because you don’t know the pain they go through. I let go of my past as I have no way to change it. But I share here about the grandmother I never knew in the hopes that we can shine a brighter light on mental illness as part of a bigger problem. I’ll never know if my life would have been better talking more with the grandma I never knew…but I let go and find the love for her memory as best I can.