Mental illness winds its way through my family tree just as poison ivy vines wrap their roots through the woods, without regard for beauty, for grace, for longevity, intelligence, humor or physical health, sometimes shadowing a tree and sometimes hiding in the tree’s shadow. Mental illness touches everyone. And it scars. And it is feared and misunderstood. And empathy is short-lived, often turning to disbelief and judgement. I know this. I did this.

For generations, mental illness has lived in our homes, in our cities. Our oddball uncles and slightly-off aunts, they never received the help they needed. They were sometimes shunned and shuttered, tolerated and hidden, but they were also loved, incorporated into the family fabric and accommodated. Their stories, their histories, were protected, rewritten and reworked to allow for human folly. We made excuses when there was nothing else we could do.

Today, even with so much science, so much understanding, so much medicine, we still shun and shutter. We hide and accommodate, often seeking cures rather than treatment, holding fault to the faultless and acting surprised when something bad happens. We’re still shunning. We’re still judging, and sometimes I fear it’s only getting worse.

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