May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I’m pleased to have mental health advocate and author Kelley Clink as my guest.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 Americans will be affected by a mental health condition in their lifetime. In my immediate little family, all three of us are impacted.
Maybe that’s why I so connected with Kelley Clink’s memoir, A Different Kind of Same, a book selected by BookSparks’ #Speak Out Campaign to raise awareness and funds for an agency dealing with suicide. Her book also won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year. More than a book about her brother’s suicide, Kelley’s memoir describes her relationship with her brother and with mental illness. “For better or worse,” she writes in it,”Matt’s life shaped mine. Knowing him, being a sister to him, made me who I was. Losing him has made me who I am.”
Your book openly discusses your own battle with serious depression and a suicide attempt before your brother’s eventual suicide, a devastating blow just as your own life had taken shape. How did you gain enough emotional distance to be able to write such a powerful memoir?
Time was a big factor. I waited two years before I started, and in all it was ten years before the book was published. I tackled subjects when I felt ready for them, and sometimes I misjudged and had to walk away from the project for a while. It was extremely painful for many years.
But eventually, the more I worked on it, the less attached I became. Participating in a workshop made a huge difference. Focusing on craft helped me distance myself from my narrative. This made the writing process easier, but also prepared me for sharing my book with the world. Criticism feels a lot less personal when you’ve had a lot of practice.
Through your writing and experiences, I’m sure you’ve met many loved ones of those experiencing mental illness. What advice have you for them to be the best advocate for their loved one while not losing their own mind?
One of the most important things you can do for anyone going through a difficult time is to listen to them, without trying to fix or change how they feel. You can encourage your loved one to seek help from a professional. You can ask her pointed and specific questions about what she is doing to take care of herself, and whether she is thinking about harming herself.
But I think the last part of this question is the most important—helping someone through a mental health crisis can be scary and confusing. There’s only so much you can do. At the end of the day, if your loved one is an adult, she is responsible for her own care. Only you know what your limits are, and where you need to set boundaries.
What has been the best part about the process of sharing your story with the world?
Honestly, the best part was writing the book itself. It was so, so difficult, but it was the only way I knew to heal, and in the process I walked away with a new understanding of myself, my past, and my depression. I feel so lucky that I am able to share the story with others, and I hope it has helped those in similar situations. But even if no one ever read a single word, it would still have been worth writing it.
How are you introducing your child to the uncle he didn’t get to meet? What will you teach him one day about mental illness and how to support someone who experiences it?
Oh my goodness, this is such a great question, and I really want to have an answer, but I’m not sure I do yet! My son is 18 months old, and I’ve only recently started wondering how I’m going to tell him about my brother. I plan on putting some family photographs on the walls of our house, ones that include my brother, so that he can see him and learn his name.
Beyond that, I am hoping that I’ll learn the most age appropriate ways to discuss my brother’s death with my son as we go. I’m hoping that talking with him openly about my own experiences with depression, and focusing on emotional literacy in general, will help him be aware of his own mental health and the mental wellbeing of others.
A Different Kind of Same is available at kelleyclink.com or on Amazon.
For more information about mental illness, check out the National Alliance for Mental Illness at www.nami.org.