May 1st started Mental Health Awareness month. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States (roughly 43.8 million people) experience mental illness in a given year; either from direct observation or first-hand experience. My experiences with mental illness came from direct observation.
Every Christmas, from when I was a baby until my early 20s, we had Christmas dinner with my mom’s side of the family at my great aunt’s house. My mom, dad, sister and I would get up early and exchange gifts with one another. Then we’d pack up the car with gifts for other family members and our contribution to dinner, and make the trip across the Ben Franklin bridge to my Aunt Geri’s house in Philadelphia. I vividly remember one year, in particular. I was about 10 years old. The trip to my aunt’s was taking longer than usual. Curious as to why I asked my parents where we were going.
My mom answered, “We’re going to pick up your aunt.”
By the time we arrived at the small building, I still did not know who she was referring to. My dad went into the dwelling and came out assisting an older woman down the steps, then it clicked.
Normally, my uncle would pick up my aunt to bring her to dinner; but since my parents had just recently gotten a minivan, everyone agreed it would be easier for us to pick her up. While my aunt, Mettie, had been at multiple Christmas dinners before, this was the first time I actually remember noticing that she was there. Shortly after arriving at my Aunt Geri’s, I began to realize why I hadn’t taken much notice of her being there before.
It was because, as soon as we walked into Aunt Geri’s home, Aunt Mettie went to the kitchen and sat in the corner. She didn’t move from that spot during the whole dinner, choosing to eat separately, watching TV, while we all sat at the dining room table. She used to rock back and forth in her chair, smiling, and occasionally laughing, to herself. When we would move to the family room to open gifts, she would appear with hands out, waiting for her gift – which was always money. As soon as it was in her hand, she was ready to leave. My uncle took her home, and I remember feeling as if this uneasy feeling within me had left with her as well.
On our way home, I asked my mom why Aunt Mettie rocked and why she would randomly laugh out loud for no apparent reason. My mom didn’t really give me an answer. It was as if that’s just how Aunt Mettie was.
Christmases went by and Aunt Mettie’s behavior was the same year after year. Then one year, I walked into the kitchen to greet her and was surprised to see an empty room. Aunt Mettie stopped coming to Christmas dinner, and honestly, for a while, I almost forgot that she used to be there. Not until I was a teenager, did I begin to understand what was happening with my aunt.