Suffering in Silence: Reflections on Mental Illness in Family and the Case for Self-Care

Child holding plantling

Photo by Ariel Matos | Words by Patricia Matos

It has been four years since my sister died.  She was 41 years old.  She was a single mother with a 20-month old.  She suffered in silence from depression.  She drank herself to death.  Her life was so much fuller than the previous sentences that described her death.  She had a generous smile, the timing and precision of a rattlesnake when it came to telling jokes.  A laugh that bounced off the walls and hit you in the gut, it was so good.  She had skin the color of warm caramel, and a deep affection for all animals.  I have pushed her death out of my mind because every day I spread coconut oil on to miniature hands that are identical to hers.  Since her death, I have been raising her daughter, my niece.  In social settings, I watch as a little girl floats into a room of anonymous people and by the time she leaves, everyone knows her name.  

Watching my sister interact with people, and the way she was beloved by family and friends alike, no one realized that she had been clinically diagnosed with depression.  Our far and few interactions led me to think that she was suffering, but the distance, time and grey reality of depression and addiction rendered her unavailable to me.  I only found out about her depression while sorting through her personal belongings after her death.

Our mother, too, suffered with clinical depression and self-medicated with alcohol and drugs.  This cocktail of a story is common for people of my generation who grew up in the 80’s in poor, post-industrial cities.  The stories I can tell are ones that have echoes, they have been told several times before.  They are stories of mothers and fathers suffering silently—and often, unknowingly-- with mental illness.  Combined with addiction that swells so great, it causes them to abandon family, relationships, jobs and responsibilities, leaving behind scarred hearts, vacancies where there should be memories and dreams deferred.  This has been our portion.

Thinking back on my mother and my sister, it is scary to recount how parallel their worlds were.  They both suffered from physical, mental and emotional abuse in their pursuit of family love, romantic love and acceptance.  They were both extremely protective of their private lives and the abuses they endured.  They would both experience the strangest emotional outbursts against those trying to help or give advice.  The outbursts were usually after crawling into a bottle or resulted in the same.  They dealt with reverberations of being cheated on, beaten, and manipulated into thinking that they did not have options.  These instances then progressed into financial instability, food insecurity, homelessness, and more violence.  This is just what I know of, likely, there is more.

I am left with questions.  Obviously, some cannot be answered because my sister is no longer alive.  Others are questions that my mother either cannot remember, chooses not to remember, or simply denies.  Then, there are questions that they probably did not think to ask.  Of my questions, the one that bubbles in my chest most often is why we shame those with mental illnesses?  There are natural inclinations and societal norms with physical illnesses, hell—even spiritual illness.  But mental illness carries boundless stigma.  When we get a fever, break a bone, or feel ill past the point of self-help, we go see a doctor.  Although spirituality is intensely personal, some people go to their chosen gathering space for worship or seek the assistance of a spiritual leader when seeking counsel about their spiritual journey.  So it would seem natural for us to be able to seek professional help when we are dealing with mental illness, no?

Being sensitive about the fact that both my mother and sister have experienced both depression and addiction, I am honest with myself about the real possibilities that I, too, can be affected.  With this in mind, I am ritualistic about self-care.  Discussions about self-care are happening all around us right now, and it is much needed.  It is so important to treat yourself, celebrate milestones, make time to hear your own thoughts, clear your thoughts, and understand what you need.  My rituals for self-care are evolving, but as it stands, gardening and long baths with essential oils help me to reset.  There is something about having my fingers in the dirt, the sun wrapping my body, tilling the earth, planting seeds and watching them grow that feels ancestral and divine to me.  Self-care has allowed me to discover new things about me and those around me.  Selah.

I am sensitive to the fact that my niece, like my sister, has a great gift to be social and well liked by many.  It is my priority to impart into her that such a gift can be exhausting if not properly balanced with self-care.  The act of pouring into others, whether it be to uplift, encourage, listen or share, requires so much.  Many times, we do not consider that when we give our energy away to those we love or want to help, we need to replenish that energy somehow.  Whether it means doing things that make us joyful, spending time alone, or having those we trust pour into us.  We live in a time where so many people only want to talk about their problems instead of existing in gratitude.  Sadly, it is so attractive to get pulled into this way of thinking, and it takes great effort to push away from this type of practice.  So I am teaching my niece now, at her level of understanding, to treat herself well.  We talk about the importance of eating healthy foods, using kind words towards others but especially toward herself, and to talk to someone she loves and trusts when feeling sad.  As she grows, our discussions about self-care will mirror her growth.  But right now, she enjoys watering our kale and picking our tomatoes with the understanding that vegetables are good for her and gardening, with her Titi, is something she enjoys.

We all experience dark times where no amount of prayer, hugs or encouraging words can comfort us.   But if we do not talk about them or act as if they do not exist, we cannot get better.  As well, it cannot be said enough how important it is to take time away from the many hats we all wear in life to sit and enjoy quiet time, be alone with our thoughts, or enjoy a treat.   Ignoring discussions around mental illness and neglecting self-care are reasons that my sister, my mother, and others that we all know and love, have carried the burdens of mental illness silently, alone, or undiagnosed. We must reconsider the way that we think about mental illness. My sister was one of the strongest people I have ever known.  She did not have to suffer in silence with depression.  But the truth remains, the world we live in does not create spaces for open, safe dialogue for those battling mental illnesses.


Patricia Matos is dually and inseparably a Black woman and a Boricua. She is a mami, a Titi, and a wife to a wild crew. She is a recent graduate of Drexel University’s Museum Leadership master’s program. She is eager to change the conversations around the landscape of museums by continuing to illuminate the gross underrepresentation of Black, Latinx and minority artists in museums. She believes that underrepresentation is the loudest form of indifference. She enjoys discussing indigenous religious practice, mental health and wellness, and her experience moving through the world. Catch her levitating when she is happy and resolving in nature when her spirit is contemplative. She is quick to think and slow to speak, respect her gangsta.

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