Submitted by Mary, Salmon Arm BC
Once upon a time, I had a white picket fence. It was adorable and shiny and surrounded my little world : three gorgeous babies, a handsome brief-case carrying husband in a European suit, a home in the suburbs with a minivan in the carport, my own small business, a role on the preschool board of directors, freshly baked cookies cooling on the counter. A sandbox and a swing-set in the backyard. All of that was real, except that white picket fence. It is a metaphor, or is it?
That white picket fence protected my little family… it also prevented others from seeing what was happening in our home. Of course I didn’t tell any one about the unusual behaviours, rapid-fire ideas of grandiose and paranoia, the all-night phone calls overseas, the unwelcome over-zealous expressions for affection. The disintegration of intimacy between husband and wife (and not just “that” intimacy). I became increasingly confused, terrified of what was happening.
What was happening??? I didn’t know. I just didn’t know.
Somehow I had this notion that if I just kept that fence looking shiny and bright, everything would be okay. As if, by sheer force of will, I could somehow make it okay if only I just kept painting despite the peeling and chipping. Painting, painting, painting… as the rot and mold that was my husband’s undiagnosed bi-polar disorder caused that lovely paint to lift and peel off each picket. I was scared and alone… no one knew what was going on. I had to keep painting, hiding, trying to fix, appeasing, cajoling, hiding, hiding. Hiding.
And, that paint just kept peeling. Bizarre thoughts and ideas. Peel-peel-peel. Unkind words and intolerance. Peel-peel-peel. Broken hearts and broken dreams. Insidious. Relentless. Peel-peel-peel.
We sold our beautiful suburban home with the sandbox and swing set, and moved to a small town far from family and friends into a series of rental houses… and I kept painting that white picket fence. He lost his job. We were isolated and very few saw inside the “crazy” home. Paint-paint-paint.
I was convinced I could fix what was happening. Paint-paint-paint. But alas, we all know that yet another coat over peeling paint only results in thicker chips crashing to the ground. There was little left but a broken fence held together with a few bent nails.
And then. And then. It happened. “Stage four”. I had made sure the children weren’t home (paint-paint-paint) when the police visited to arrest their father at the height of a psychotic episode. Their beloved daddy was hauled way, against his will, to the psych ward in a hospital 45 minutes away. He would not return home for more than three months. He was stage-four.
And we didn’t know what hit us.
In hindsight, that metaphorical fence was not protecting our family at all. It was preventing those who might help from seeing in. Oh, that absurd white paint!
What did I learn? I learned we cannot hide behind ideals of what “should be”. That sometimes we need to open a gate in the fence… to reach out. Ask for help. I know now that it was the stigma of “crazy” and “this can’t be happening to us” that kept me pretending everything was okay. It was my own self-imposed inability to ask for help. It was just not knowing. It was fear.
Today, my three children are grown each of them have chosen helping careers, active in breaking down stereotypes and stigmas. My now ex-husband speaks regularly about living a full life with mental illness and removing stigmas. My new partner and I sit on the board of our local CMHA branch, doing all we can to help break down barriers. And you know what? There is a lovely picket fence around our family… it looks a little different because it has many gates that swing open, both ways.
It took years of healing from the peeling. Metaphorically, some very course sand paper was rigorously rubbed on that fence to crudely sand off the cracked, old layers of paint and mold. Then, gentle use of some rough sandpaper began to smooth out and soften jagged edges where the wood had splintered along the way. Finally, the surface was polished with super-fine sandpaper until the wood shone smooth and bright and fresh.
Our picket fence is no longer white. It is a lovely shade of off-white and it is beautiful.
It will take a lot to peel this paint.
Submitted by Mary, Salmon Arm BC
photo by Andy Buckner Photography