Trigger warning: Suicide, family conflict
A particularly bad strain of flu afflicted my family.
My mom, who practically never gets sick, lay on the couch next to me, wrapped in a comforter and hot water bag to fend off the stomach aches. My brother slept off his incessant nausea in the other room and my dad ambled about the kitchen making us soup after two days of being bedridden.
Catching the flu is only one way for a family to get sick. Bad as it was, remembering all my family fights and how it affected my mental health, I knew we’d gone through worse.
Tayyab Rashid, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of Toronto Scarborough Health and Wellness Centre, says the number one issue in counselling, directly or indirectly, relates to family.
One reason, he observes, is misunderstanding between parents and children.
During major life transitions, like entering university, the difference between life at school and home can be a big stressor, Rashid says. Students are moving away from their families physically and metaphorically, increasing exposure to experiences and values drastically different from their parents.
“It’s a paradox,” he says. “They’re moving away, yet this is still the most important social support system they have.”
Liam Moore, a Sheridan College graduate, describes a similar tug of war when he was a teenager.
“My mom is Persian so her cultural background in terms of being a mother and being in a family is very different compared to a lot of Western values so… that was difficult for me, my mom’s influence at home and then having to compare that to everyone else at school’s experiences and then trying to understand why I was ‘different.’”
Moore, 21, says even though his issues originated outside of home he lived under constant pressure from his parents. The resulting unhealthy perfectionism and lack of family support amplified ordinary hardship into depression.
At the time, Moore knew his mother loved him, if anything, at least because he is her son. But he struggled to see that love when his interests clashed with his mother’s expectations.
The presence of love marks the difference between challenging family relationships and truly toxic ones that warrant a severance of ties. If love for your family surpasses your circumstances, the space it takes to be your own person, whether physical or mental distance, takes on a more constructive manner.
Moore left home, but he says he’ll never truly leave his family. “Moving out was just looking from the outside in, like looking outside the box,” he explains. “Just a shift in perspective, not getting away.
Although leaving made it easier to empathise with his parents, he says it isn’t necessary.
“I didn’t know I supposed to try to empathise with them when I lived with them,” Moore says. “If I did know that then it probably would have made it easier.”
We need to learn to live with our families and tools to do so are available even while we live under the same roof as our parents.
“Rather than taking students away from their home,” says Rashid, “[we should] put measures to strengthen the relationships with families. Involve families more.”
Honest communication is one way to heal family relationships. It’s what families need and Rashid says people are ready for it.
“I’m often surprised that people will say adult children would never give you permission to talk to their parents,” Rashid says. “I’m surprised how many want me to give that permission, how many want that conversation to happen, how many children want to tell their parents [their problems, views, and wishes].”
It’s not easy to have those needed conversations. Moore recalls coming home from high school every day with his parents asking him how his day went. “Fine,” he’d lie, and it tormented him that they couldn’t see the pain he was in.
It took courage and strength to be honest and direct about his mental health issues to family. Frustrated and penniless, it was essential to talk to his parents if he wanted therapy.
“I still remember so vividly the conversation with my mom, telling her that I had depression and that I had thought of killing myself every day,” Moore says. “That was the turning point. That was when the taboo was gone, and the silence was gone.”
Yet, “there were still problems after that. My mom got severe anxiety,” he says, recalling how he felt his mother blamed him for both of their conditions.
The presence of love marks the difference between challenging family relationships and truly toxic ones that warrant a severance of ties.
In retrospect, he realized those challenges were part of a long process of growth. “That was the dialogue just starting. Finally after 18 years of being alive, finally we’re able to communicate.”
Eliminating the silence is crucial and the onus falls on us, as children grown up, to start honest conversations if they’re missing.
Moore says, “You owe it to your family to be open about those things so they understand what struggles you’re going through. Or else it’s impossible to literally live with those people.”
Rashid’s tips for students are to seek help and connect with their family and community health supports without shame.
For Moore, taking those actions was life-saving and shaped his recovery from a crisis that landed him in the hospital two years ago.
“Two things happened that showed me that life is more than just depression,” he says. “One, somehow my best friend figured out that I was in the hospital… He searched the entire hospital to find me and I was like, ‘wow, ok.’ I’m not alone.”
“I can’t describe it but that’s probably been the happiest in the darkest point in my life,” he says.
His friend’s visit sparked hope, but Moore says that, though euphoric, the feeling wasn’t consistent. Going home and being with his family reinforced the hope.
“At that point it was like game over. It’s like getting a checkpoint in a video game. Nothing could break that for me,” he says of his time with his family. “They were my backbone through what could have been a restarting of my depression.”
Moore expresses gratitude that this was possible because healthy communication with his parents had developed.
He says, “If the people that we live with are not on the same page then it’s this fundamental level that’s not there that is so necessary to recovery or growth in general.”
Though I’m thankful for the friend who accompanied me during my own hospital trip when the flu led to fainting spells, there is something profound and lasting about recovering at home.
We need our families, explains Rashid. “They also become the source of stress but there’s no substitute for them.”
Family is a part of us worth healing.
By Shadi Laghai