Meg Kissinger, WHILE YOU WERE OUT: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence

Meg Kissinger, WHILE YOU WERE OUT: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence

Award-winning journalist Meg Kissinger joins Zibby to discuss WHILE YOU WERE OUT, a searing and deeply personal memoir of a family besieged by mental illness, the systems that failed them, and the love that sustained them. Meg shares what it was like to grow up in a large family that was marked by joy but overshadowed by severe mental illness, including the tragic loss of two siblings to suicide. She also delves into the complexities of navigating the mental health system, grappling with questions of autonomy, safety, and stigma. Ultimately, she hopes that her readers will join her on a journey of healing, compassion, challenging societal taboos, and fostering empathy for those affected by mental illness.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Meg. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence. Congratulations.

Meg Kissinger: Thank you so much. Great to be here.

Zibby: As I was just saying, I was so happy you reached out about this book. I’ve now recommended this book. My colleague was reading this book. Really powerful. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about your story and how it became a book?

Meg: It’s a lulu. That’s almost the toughest part, is to get right to the meat of it because it’s a stunner. A lot of stuff goes down in this book. It’s, ostensibly, a book about my family. I’m the fourth of eight kids. We came from a family that was full of love and joy but also a lot of mental illness. Unfortunately for us, we were growing up in an era, in a time when we didn’t talk about that. I was born in 1957, so we were right in the heart of the baby boom. All kinds of mayhem ensued. Sad things, but also rollicking, fun stuff. The point in my writing this book was to show that two things can be. You can have a family that is marred by mental illness, but it can also be a place of great love and comfort and support. I think that’s surprising. I think people wouldn’t figure that both of those things can happen at once.

Zibby: You do a great job. The way you portray each character is with compassion and is multifaceted. The humor and the pain, it’s hard to pull that off.

Meg: They made it a little easier because they’re hilarious people. I’m lucky to come from a whacky tribe.

Zibby: You have a passage — it’s later in the book. You ask this question. You say, “When should a person’s right to autonomy yield to their safety or the safety of others? These are not easy questions to answer, if there are any answers at all. I knew this story would be fraught with controversy, but there was no avoiding it. My job was to write about the mental health system. This is the third rail of mental health debates, so highly charged that you risk getting zapped by just touching it. It made me angry to hear gun rights advocates overstate the problem as they pushed for easier commitment laws over stricter gun measures. I was equally annoyed by mental health advocates who criticize any stories about dangerousness as reinforcing stereotypes, but it was my duty as a journalist to explore the issue.” Talk to me about that and your role as a journalist.

Meg: I was a newspaper reporter for many years. Forty, to be specific. Not surprisingly, many of my stories involved the mental health system and, really, our country’s failure in providing adequate care for people who suffer with mental illness. I came about that, of course, in the most natural of ways because I’d seen that firsthand in my own house with my brothers and sisters and my parents. I’d seen what awful, or any treatment, a lack of any treatment — I was very curious about that. It was a lot easier to ask strangers these very pointed questions about what it’s like to have mental illness, what it’s like to not be able to get relief or care from that. That’s really my focus, especially for the last twenty-five years of my time as a reporter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was writing about just that, our nation’s failure.

The toughest question of all is, how do you get people into care if they don’t have insight into their own illness? I have great — what’s the right word? I agree that it used to be way too easy to lock somebody up. It used to be on the signature of a husband or a wife or a neighbor. You get three people and sign a petition, and boom, off they go behind a locked door, sometimes never to be seen again. That’s not right. People with mental illness have civil rights. The flip side of that was also true. We, in our zeal to close down all these asylums, again, many with good reason — a lot of that was also motivated by saving money. Where do people who are very seriously ill ending up? No good place. On the streets, in jails and prisons. They’re not getting the kind of custodial or treatment and care that they need. There’s not an easy answer to that, unfortunately. That tension is always there. A lot of people fall through the cracks of that tension.

Zibby: Big, interesting questions to tackle. Can you tell listeners a little bit more about your family and the way, specifically, that mental illness found its way into your home?

Meg: Sure. I’m the fourth of eight kids. There were five girls and three boys. We were in a lickety-split fashion, so very typical, again, of the baby boom, especially in an Irish Catholic house. My parents got married in 1952. By 1964, they had eight kids. That is kind of staggering. There’s actually a really funny scene in the beginning of the book where my mom — the pill comes out, and she’s so excited. Then the pope says you can’t use birth control. My mother is like — can I say shit on the podcast? Whatever. She says a naughty word and finds her way to the confessional to seek a dispensation. Anyway, she had a lot of kids.

Zibby: Then she got everyone in the town to line up.

Meg: Right. The punchline of the whole thing is that she does finally finagle this dispensation from the priest, this young associate. She says very plaintively, “I’ve done enough to propagate the faith, Father.” He gives her the dispensation. The next Saturday, the phone rings. It’s Father Welsh. He wants to speak to my mother. He doesn’t sound too happy. I answered the phone just by happenstance. My mother gets on the horn. He says to her, “Jean, what goes on in the confessional is private both ways.” That day, the next Saturday, the line for his confessional was around the block. My mother had spilled the beans to all of her friends who were equally as desperate to go on the pill. Bless her heart. She was a loving, wonderful, soulful, bright woman, but she really had no business having eight kids in twelve years. She didn’t have the resources for it. Happily, we had the financial wherewithal. My dad had a good job. She had no mother. She had no sisters. She had baseline anxiety and depression, words that we didn’t speak in those days because we didn’t talk like that. People didn’t speak like that back in those days.

I come downstairs for breakfast one morning. I’m six years old, looking for my mom and a bowl of cream of wheat. She’s nowhere to be found. Nobody will tell where the heck she is. I later learned, many years later, she was hospitalized for what was probably postpartum depression. Again, these were words that we didn’t speak. I remember my father’s mother, my crazy Irish grandmother, telling me — I said, “What will I tell the nuns at school?” I was trying to figure out where my mother was. She said, “Just tell them she’s got pneumonia. Tell the nuns she’s got pneumonia.” That was the first time I really realized something screwy is going on here. There’s something not right in our house. Then one by one, brothers and sisters of mine began to present with their own forms of mental illness, some very severe. I’m not ruining any secrets to tell you that two of us, two of the eight kids, ended up dying by suicide. It took a great toll on our family. All of us suffered in one way or another. It sounds like such a grim story, but our family is one that has, remarkably, stayed together. We’re there for each other now in ways that I don’t see too often. That was the story I wanted to tell, was a story of resilience. Not in a cheesy way. We still all are banged up. How do you move forward when you’re so saddled with all these illnesses?

Zibby: I am so sorry for the losses in your family and the consequences of all of that. Thank you for sharing it with everybody else.

Meg: Sure. Thank you. You know, Zibby, so many people live with this. It’s remarkable. This book came out in September. I probably get, without exaggeration, four or five emails or forms of communication, Instagram, Facebook, whatever — the only thing I haven’t gotten is smoke signals or homing pigeons. I’ll probably get those next week. Anyway, people are reaching out to say, I thought you were writing about my family. Mental illness is so prevalent. Unfortunately, so is suicide. We need to start talking about this in much more candid ways and much clearer ways. That’s what this book is meant to do, is to bear witness and to offer people a chance to tell their story too.

Zibby: Absolutely. I had a close friend die by suicide in high school. She was my good friend from high school, but it didn’t happen until we were out of college. I think about it all the time. Where could I have — not that it was up to me, of course. I’m just one small player in all of the characters. What could any of us have done differently? I’m still in touch with her mom regularly. Where would she be now? It’s very hard not to go down that path.

Meg: It’s such a heartache. I see my brother and sister’s friends all the time. For this book, I reached out to them. I wanted to really remember them. My sister died many years ago, 1978. That’s a long time ago. Then my brother Danny died in 1997. I had to conjure them. I had to bring them back to life on the page. That was tough to do. Your inclination, it’s so sad, you just kind of sweep it out of your mind as best you can. Then that’s too bad too because you love them, and you want to hold them close and remember them. It’s really tough. I think a death by suicide is especially tough to hold that person with you still. I will run into their old buddies or old running mates. I reached out for the purposes of the book. I even found some of my sister’s old high school boyfriends that we used to call — one of them was the hugger. The other was the kisser. I found the hugger and the kisser. They told me stories about my sister and the car and the Camaro at the lakefront, and even, whoa, stop there, we don’t need to go into all these details. It was really fun. It was fun to kind of be back with them again, but sad too because, you do, you wonder, what could I have done? I think especially in the case of my sister Nancy — I was four years younger than she. We used to scrap. We used to fight. I would steal her clothes. I was the bratty little sister. You feel not a small measure of guilt. I’m not the one that caused her to take her own life. I know that, but it’s just kind of a natural question.

Zibby: How did it feel for you to turn your journalistic eye on something so personal and on your family? Was that a challenge? What did it feel like for you?

Meg: It was very intense. I knew it would be. I kind of wanted it to be in a way because, again, by never talking about especially Nancy’s death, it just got pushed down and pushed to the side. Just a little orientation. The night that Nancy died in June of 1978, my father called us all into the living room. He said in no uncertain terms, “If anybody asks, this was an accident.” The reason he said that was that he was afraid that we would not be able to have a funeral mass, a Catholic service for Nancy and she wouldn’t be able to be buried in the Catholic cemetery plot because the Catholic Church had a very awful, Draconian view of suicide in which they vilify the person who died and consider them to be a mortal sinner separated from God. That was not an unnatural fear on my dad’s part, but what it did for us as kids was to scare the hell out of us. It made us feel very ashamed. The shame of her death led us scattered into corners not talking about it. Nothing good comes of unresolved grief. Down the road as we all are beginning to present with our own forms of mental illness, and especially my younger brother Danny, not having a way to talk about it or never having really resolved it or gone through any kind of group therapy — just unbelievable to me that we would never really sit down as a family and discuss the suicide death of our sister. That kind of set the table or laid the groundwork for what happened, then, to my brother Danny and how he didn’t have the coping skills.

The journalist in me, the person that spent twenty-five years writing about the crappy mental health system, wanted to turn the reporter’s notebook back on our family and slow-walk people through and say, how did this all happen? What lessons can we learn in the same way that we do for the George Floyd, the beating death of him, 9/11, any kind of tragedy or calamity? You go back and reverse engineer, as we call it in investigate reporting. We reverse engineer. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew I had to go and get the police records, get the medical files, do all these interviews, really do the diligence and the kind of building of a story in the same way that I did with my investigations for the newspaper. In order to do that, I really wanted to get buy-in from my surviving siblings because it’s their family too. It’s their tragedy. Just lucky for me, they’re wonderful people. I had my fingers crossed when I went to them and said, “What do you think? Should we do this? I want to do this story about our family, but I don’t want to ruin my relationship with you. I’m not willing to throw you under the bus for the sake of me writing this book.” Happily for me, they all signed on.

Zibby: Wow. Aside from people sharing some of their own experiences, what have been some of the main benefits you’ve gotten from doing this project?

Meg: I know you’re not supposed to write a book as therapy because, just go to a damn therapist, which I finally did at the tender age of sixty-four. I finally got my butt in a chair. Can you even believe that, Zibby? Really, that’s ridiculous.

Zibby: No.

Meg: Oh, my god, I was too scared. I did go one time, as I recall in the book. I was in my forties. My best friend said to me, “You have to go see somebody.” I did. Then I got so scared when she said, “Tell me about your family.” As I started to tell her, her eyes got bigger and bigger. I thought she was going to reach for the button under the desk, and the guys would come in with a big net and take me off. She said, “Let’s have you come back every week for the rest of your life.” I’m like, “Let me go home and get with my calendar.” I never called her back. I was too scared. Then when I was putting this book together, I thought, okay, now we’re getting down and dirty. I need some scaffolding here. I need help from a professional. I do have a therapist, so I don’t need to write a book in order to exercise my therapy, but it did help, I have to say. I think it not only helped me, but it helped my siblings too. It helped my brothers and sisters to give a narrative arc or a shape to the chaos or growing up in a family with so much mental illness in a time when that wasn’t discussed. It was just a big blob, but now here it is concrete on the page. There’s a timeframe that kind of makes sense. In that way, it was very liberating.

Another benefit — this is something that I worried about as I was starting to write this book. I kind of made my mother — I glorified her. She died young. I think when people die young, you tend to make them a little bit more of a saint. My dad always said the halo goes on tighter. I was worried that I was going to draw my mom as a one-dimensional character, as saintly. I learned through the course of writing this book she was far from a saint. She made some big-time mistakes. One that took me — I had to drink many bottles of sangria and lie in a hammock for a long, long time to process. I learned some stuff about my mother in the course of writing this book that really rattled me. The halo came flying off. At the end when I’m wrapping it all up, I really come to this much deeper and fuller understanding of her in a much more mature and, as I said, fuller way. At the end of the day, I ended up loving her even more, so that was great.

Zibby: Always good to get the skeletons out, learn whole story of parents as people. I’m sure your therapist appreciated the massive head start you got on the work with the book.

Meg: She was very helpful for me.

Zibby: Do you have plans for more books? Where are you going with your journalism and all of that? What’s coming next for you?

Meg: This one kicked my butt. I am getting so many calls and people reaching out wanting to talk about the book, which is fantastic. This is exactly why I wrote it. I am saying no to nobody. If your dog has a book group and wants me to come, I will come and talk to that dog. I wrote it to talk about it. I’ve got a big old bag of throat lozenges and lots of tea with honey. I’m just out and about all the time talking about this book. I don’t know if I have another book in me. I only have one family. Now I have kids of my own and now grandkids. They can write their own memoir about me, but I do want them to wait until I’m dead. I have no immediate plans, but never say never because who knows?

Zibby: Is there anything in particular that writing the book made you miss even more about your siblings?

Meg: Yeah. My sister Nancy was — they were both hilarious. Really funny people. When they were good, they were very good. I missed hanging out with her. I really came to realize what a little shit I was as a sister to her in our high school days. I was four years younger, so we were never in high school at the same time, but when I was stealing her clothes and stuff. I wished that I had had the opportunity to let her know that I’m so sorry that she was suffering. I just thought she was a pain in the neck, which she was, but she was also suffering. The old lady version of me wishes that I could tell her. That’s why I hope there’s a heaven. There’s probably not a heaven. Although, I hope there is. Anyway, whatever’s next, if I get to see her again, I do want to say, I’m sorry that I stole your sweaters. You were a good person. I love you. Ditto for my brother Danny. I’m sorry that we you didn’t protect you better. The book allowed me the opportunity to frame those thoughts.

Judging from comments that I’m getting from readers, they’re identifying with that a lot, especially those who have had people die by suicide in their family, but just living with people with mental illness, which is not easy. I don’t mean to soft-pedal. It is a burden to live with depression or anxiety or whatever form of serious mental illness you have. That’s why we really need to love those people a lot more. The week before my brother Danny died, he wrote me a letter talking about how he did have mental illness. It was something that he had never admitted to previously. This was a confession of sorts for him. He said it caused him to do and say awkward things. He ended the letter by saying, “Love and understanding is what we need to conquer this.” It sounded so cheesy to me at the time. After he died, I saw that he was right. That’s what we need to do. We need to love people who suffer from mental illness and try and understand them as best we can. That’s my mantra. That’s what I think this book helps people to do.

Zibby: Amazing. Meg, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on, for talking about your book, for sharing your family secrets, if you will, and all the things that make your family who it was and that make you all the vehicle for helping so many others.

Meg: Wonderful. Zibby, thank you. Thanks for all you do. You are wonderful.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Meg: Bye.

Meg Kissinger, WHILE YOU WERE OUT: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence

WHILE YOU WERE OUT: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence by Meg Kissinger

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