By Bob Carolla
By Sakeenah and Anika Francis
As the end of Minority Mental Health Awareness Month draws near, NAMI wants to share some passages from a special book, Loves’ All That Makes Sense: A Mother Daughter Memoir , by Sakeenah and Anika Francis.
Sakeenah is Anika’s mother. She grew up in a middle-class African-American family and describes her life as “a Cinderella story in reverse.” She was a homecoming queen, married with children and had a career before schizophrenia struck. She then endured homelessness, hospitalizations and numerous relapses. As she grew up, Anika experienced her own emotional rollercoaster while trying to understand and cope with her mother’s illness.
The book takes the form of letters written by Sakeenah to Anika, alternating with chapters written by Anika. It is a beautiful work that explores themes of family, faith, hope and love, while conveying the cruelty of mental illness and some of the shortcomings—but also goodness--in the mental health care system. All are themes that transcend race or ethnicity.
Sakeenah serves on the board of directors of NAMI Cleveland. Videos of Sakeenah and Anika individually and one with them together can be viewed on the Internet, making their story even more vivid. We are lucky to have them in the NAMI family.
My mom’s mental illness became one of those elephants in the room that everyone notices but no one addresses. At least it wasn’t discussed openly with me when I was little. I’m sure my family wanted to protect me. I seemed fine emotionally and they probably didn’t want to add any more stress in my life so the details about my mom’s illness and the hospitalizations were never shared. I’m not sure how much the family even knew about my mom’s hospitalizations beyond the fact that she was in the hospital. I imagine there were a lot of questions that were asked about my mom’s mental illness.
At a time when I was trying to understand my illness, it would have helped if a doctor had explained my mental illness in everyday terms. When a person has a disease like diabetes, for instance, a doctor will sit down with them and explain what the disease is. I have seen countless psychiatrists over the years and none of them ever explained that schizophrenia is a brain disorder, and what the symptoms of my illness or my treatment options were.
An African-American nurse, the only one in the entire facility…came and spoke with my roommate and me. We had a heart-to-heart about being a minority at the facility and what that felt like. She said how important it was for us to do our best while we were there because we stood out. I appreciated that talk. When you’re in the minority, it’s good to know you’re not alone and that others understand your experience.
I can’t say that I especially liked or dislike my new school. I was indifferent. …The first few months of school were challenging, in part because I was one of a few Blacks in an almost all white school. There were maybe three other Blacks in the entire school and I never met any of them. The students weren’t mean to me, but they weren’t welcoming either. ..I was heavy with worry about my mom and filled with a deep sadness I couldn’t shake…I needed healing and nurturing but didn’t know how to ask for it. Numb, I retreated into myself and faded into the background and no one seemed to notice...I was not engaged in school until my mom came back into life. Relief does not describe how I felt when she called me from the hospital after months of being missing….Her support and love guided me back into the world of the living.
Your name, Anika Kai, means goodness and loveable, because that is what you are to me. I never wanted you feel any pain, but life doesn’t always work out the way we plan it to. As you move through your healing process, you may go through some dark moments like I did…Know that there’s always a way back to the light and love in you. I know the strength of your spirit and the love in your heart. I’ve seen it when you stood by me when I was sick. You never gave up on me.
My mom volunteered for NAMI’s In Our Own Voice (IOOV), a program where mental health consumers share their stories about life with mental illness to people in the community. NAMI’s IOOV was perfect for her. After a weekend long training on speaking, my mom began giving speeches and, so far, she’s given over twenty to police officers, nurses, college students, family members, psychiatrists in residency and other consumers….As I learn more about my mom’s stories, I realize just how much insight and experience she has to share.
They say God speaks to us through stillness. My ability to be still and listen to the subtle guidance within has made all the difference in my life. If I know something to be true for me on a spiritual level, regardless what others say, I follow it because I trust my inner knowing. I march to the beat of my own drum today because of my childhood. The more I heal my hurts from growing up with a mother with schizophrenia, the more I express the amazing gifts that have resulted from my childhood, and the more space I have to receive love. What I’ve learned about love is that it is an inspiring force that has the power to heal and transform. Love led my mother and I through dark times in our lives. Even when my mother was in the darkest days of her mental illness, she always held on to her love for me.
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