There’s No Such Thing as Being Protected from Truth

lone elephant in the room. Creative concept

I can count on one hand the number of direct conversations I’ve had with my parents about my mom’s mental illness. These very few conversations were all during the time that my mom was in a coma following yet another suicide attempt. As such, these conversations were only with my dad and they only transpired due to the forced necessity of answering doctors’ questions, as well as an impossibility for our family to continue carrying on in denial.

I was 30 years old at the time, which means that for basically three decades, my family lived with and around the proverbial elephant in the room.

In Korean culture, as it is with many other cultures, there are certain things that you just aren’t allowed to talk about. The need to “save face” permeates most interactions, even within your own home and family. Layered on top of this is the understanding that as a child, you are not to question your elders, ever.

Thinking about it now, it is actually crazy that I accepted my parents’ completely lacking explanations as to why my mom was in the hospital again or why she wouldn’t, couldn’t get out of bed for months at a time. But I was only a child when this way of living was established. And so I grew up with an ever-present, gripping fear of a mysterious illness — or possibly an evil force — that constantly threatened my sense of safety, the very source of my roots in the world.

Beyond cultural rules, I can appreciate that perhaps my parents thought they were doing the right thing in protecting my brother and me from the truth. Mental illness continues to be misunderstood and there are no easy cures or explanations. I can imagine my parents were too afraid and overwhelmed themselves and did not want to put that on us.

But now that I am a mother and as I observe my child day after day, I realize that children are strong, smart, and understanding.

I think I could have handled the truth.

On our recent visit to see my parents, R, now five, asks a lot of questions about my mom:

Why does Halmuni just sit there and watch Korean TV?

Why does Halmuni never want to leave the house?

Why does Halmuni just stare at me without saying anything?

Why is Halmuni wearing the same clothes again?

I answer truthfully and simply: Well, Halmuni is not very well.

Incredibly — or perhaps it is not so incredible — he doesn’t question my answer. It doesn’t upset him or make him shy away.

When it’s the afternoon and Halmuni is still sleeping, he wonders why. He knows that this is unusual behavior for a grownup, to still be in bed in the middle of the day. He periodically wanders towards her room, sometimes opening the door and peeking in. When she finally emerges, he brightly says, “Hi Halmuni! Wanna come and watch your Korean shows? Come!” gesturing towards the couch in this quirky adult-like way he has taken to doing.

He does not judge. He does not question. He is not afraid.

He accepts.

He has not been taught otherwise.

He is still, of course, his five year old self. He sometimes climbs over her as she sits on the sofa. He sometimes stands behind her and pokes her on one shoulder while peering over her other shoulder, laughing loudly into her ear. He sometimes walks squarely in front of her and demands that she move her feet out of his way. He sometimes whines about wishing he could watch something fun on TV, not another boring Korean show.

In these moments, I scold him: That is not good behavior! You are being rude! Be gentle with Halmuni!

But in hindsight, I wonder if she feels some relief in not being treated differently. In, quite literally, not being tiptoed around. In not being pitied.

Maybe this is why my mom seems most at ease among her grandchildren. When R is around her, I notice her eyes periodically flickering to life, emerging from their habitual hiding place.

All day long we have the oppressive presence of Korean TV. Sometimes the shouting on the Korean dramas is so shrill and over the top that I lose my patience and blink back to my teenage years, momentarily forgetting her fragile state: “MOM! Turn it down! Change the channel — PLEASE!”

Sometimes she does. Sometimes she doesn’t.

When she does, she’ll sometimes pause on the golf channel. I think it stirs her memory. She used to love playing golf. She didn’t start playing until my brother and I left home but once she did, she got pretty good. It became a passion.

My husband and I don’t play golf and have never really explained it to R. But when golf appears on the TV, R says to my mom: “Golf! I love golf! Let’s watch golf!”

Unlike the Korean dramas or news, this is something he can understand (I guess it’s pretty obvious that the aim is to get the ball into the hole) and watch together with my mom. Every time golf comes on TV, R climbs onto the couch adjacent to where she always sits, in the corner nearest to her, and starts randomly cheering: “Woohoo! Yeah! Who are YOU cheering for Halmuni?”

“I don’t know…” she answers sheepishly.

“Well, I’m cheering for… that person!” he says about whoever happens to be on the screen in that moment.

They watch a ball just barely missing the hole.

“Ooooh, so close!!!” R says dramatically.

My mom stays quiet, but her eyes flicker.

On this visit, we meet my mom’s new caretaker. We call her Ajumma, which is a title that sort of means Aunt but signals that the person is not actually related to you. I don’t explain to R why Ajumma is there or what her role is. I figure he will just think she is part of the family. He doesn’t question her presence.

At lunch with my childhood best friend, J, J asks R if he is having fun seeing his grandparents. His answer surprises me:

“I love Halmuni and Halabuji and I love Ajumma. Ajumma takes care of Halmuni and helps her because Halmuni can’t do things by herself.”

I am taken aback not only by his inferred understanding, borne of his own observation and not by anything I explicitly explained to him, but also by the matter of factness of his answer. He is not ashamed that his Halmuni has an Ajumma to help her. He does not speak from fear or sadness. He speaks simply with unconditional love and a depth of empathy and wisdom that I believe is inherent in all humans but that we somehow lose along the path of growing up.

There is much I am working to not pass on to my loved ones — silent suffering, pretending everything is okay when it’s not, the painful dance of denial around mental illness. It ends with me. The pretense, the lies, the shame-inducing secrecy.

As a mother, I hope to do what I can to nurture the precious, built-in qualities of humanity such as acceptance, understanding, compassion, and that gut-knowing of what is real and what is right. All of which require, not a misguided effort to protect our children from the truth, but a very foundation of transparency and truth.

I continue to be blown away by all that I am learning from my son and by the healing force he is for my family, as all children can be so long as we grownups give them the chance and space to do so.

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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