Recently a friend introduced me to his friend by saying to me, “You have to tell him what you’re writing.” People don’t always want to talk about what I’m writing. Because talking about mental illness at parties can kill the mood. Makes a person run for more coleslaw. And if mental illness is not in your family, it doesn’t affect you, right?
Mental illness really does affect a whole family. The man I met, let’s call him Justin, has a son who lives with serious and sometimes debilitating anxiety. As Justin and I talked, his friend, who was sitting beside him, nodded his head and seemed to know the whole story. He’s a good friend. Justin went on to describe his son’s challenges and that one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the illness is the way his son’s siblings, one of whom had been quite close, have distanced themselves from their brother. Justin’s son was getting healthier and learning to better manage the illness, but his siblings blamed him for his behaviors and thought he could control himself. They’d say he was “lazy” because he wasn’t always as functional as they thought he should be. They are angry with him and stay away from him. Imagine how Justin and his son must feel; more worrisome is that the one thing a person learning to manage mental illness really needs is support from loved ones.
But sadly, those who have a loved one living with mental illness—and who share living quarters—know that sometimes distance is required for their own survival.
It’s not fun hanging out with someone who starts talking nonsensically or is easily and unpredictably triggered to act out with extreme anger.
That’s what mental illness does to families. It’s disruptive. It changes relationship dynamics. When the illness becomes symptomatic, a sibling who may have once shared a close relationship with the ill person often grieves along with the parent, at the (temporary or permanent) loss of their loved one’s talents and abilities. There is also anger because their sibling may have a thought disorder and cannot control behaviors. It’s not fun hanging out with someone who starts talking nonsensically or is easily and unpredictably triggered to act out with extreme anger. Some family members also feel betrayal because the ill person in the house sucks all the attention and exhausts everyone.
This churning mix of chaos, grief, and anger swirling in Justin’s house is similar to what many families of returning veterans experience. In 2002/2003 an estimated 1.4 million male and female veterans were identified as living with serious mental illness. Approximately 365,000 of these individuals had co-occurring substance abuse disorders. These numbers have undoubtedly grown significantly in the ten war-years since the collection of this data. That’s a lot of families struggling to learn how to cope with grief and chaos while also supporting the recovery of their veteran-loved one.
Only many years after our Vietnam veterans returned were they given their due respect and many still don’t feel fully appreciated. But since that belated and collective mea culpa, we’ve all talked a lot about supporting our brave men and women who serve our country. We are only recently talking honestly about the serious brain injuries, mental illness, and substance use that our veterans come home burdened with as collateral damage from their service. And yet, it’s these injuries and illnesses that likely contribute to the appallingly high homeless rate amongst veterans (33% of all homeless males are veterans).
That there are more than 1.4 million military families in our society grieving, coping, and supporting a family member who lives with mental illness should rightly elevate the importance and awareness of mental health for us all. Not just those who have a loved one with mental illness, and not just military families, but all of us. Because with that many affected families, it becomes society’s issue. With numbers this high, failing to address mental health with genuine intent is a repeat of the dishonor our service men and women experienced returning from Vietnam. They performed their duties as asked and we didn’t give them their due.
It may not be a fun topic for the next neighborhood barbeque, but it’s certainly a subject to address with congressional leaders and in meaningful political discourse. On this Memorial Day, we can put all that talk about honor into real action and support military families by pushing for better mental health care and supporting the families who support the returning veteran.
So yeah, it does affect you. And me. And the more than 1.4 million families across the country who are trying to make sense of it all.
 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides statistics, information, and resources, and support for those seeking help in managing one’s own mental illness or that of a loved one.
 Source: http://www.veteransinc.org/about-us/statistics
Your comments are welcome:
Recently our family attended an art show of two women painters, Ellen Litwiller and Angelique Benicio. Calling them “women painters” as opposed to simply, “painters” can elicit a whole conversation about noting that their gender makes them somehow different. Because do we ever say “men painters”?
It’s curious that when we think of a man who is successful we don’t usually say, “And he’s a father!” But regarding a successful woman, we say, “And she’s a mother!” A prolific male painter who is also a devoted father is remarkable. A woman painter, who is a devoted mother, is praised for the fact she does paint. We tend to see motherhood as “natural” and a woman who awkwardly holds a newborn to be odd. Either we underestimate men as fathers or overestimate women’s aptitude and inclination for parenting. Here we risk sweeping generalizations. When a family breaks apart, it is statistically more unusual for a mother to leave her children to be cared for full-time by their father than the other way around. But thankfully, our ideas about these roles are slowly changing.
They do not include the descriptor “women” to identify their work as being lesser or better than that of other painters, but it does, intentionally or not, highlight the complexity involved in their career arc.
But I call attention to these differences because the fact that these painters are women has dictated their journey. Litwiller and Benicio, who are part of a women painter collective, are working in collaboration to garner exposure. They do not include the descriptor “women” to identify their work as being lesser or better than that of other painters, but it does, intentionally or not, highlight the complexity involved in their career arc. They are, in fact, wildly talented and disciplined painters. They are special, though, because they are also mothers. And devoted ones, at that.
In order for them to find the block of hours for their work, they first created space in a garage, cordoned off from their children. This space is also sometimes metaphoric. Ellen tells me she created a sculpture from yarn while also watching her sons at the skate park. Hey, everybody in the family has needs and when there’s a will, Ellen finds the way. But family life is always the constant and not necessarily predictable or controlled. It is no small feat to organize the schedules of two adolescent boys, grocery shop, and be present to acknowledge successes and manage meltdowns. And then, in the limited time that is the school day, she pulls from somewhere deep within to create something else. But their work is also what saves them from the pressures of family life. The act of creating can be highly therapeutic.
Where the story of these two women painters connects to the rest of us is that their lives exemplify the creativity and discipline involved for all women to transcend motherhood in small and grand ways. As if motherhood is not a large enough role. But a woman’s life is an integration of identities—mother, wife, professional. And then when life at home becomes more challenging because a child has become ill, for example, a mother must rise to meet that challenge also. Some of us are fortunate to have support of a spouse, sibling or dear friend. But what mother, no matter how well supported, doesn’t feel the constant emotional and practical pull to meet the needs of our kids, maybe a partner, and of our own ambitions?
Motherhood presents an ever-changing landscape. Just when a mother feels she’s got this thing down, it changes. When our children are very young, the needs require physical stamina. Later, mothering becomes increasingly more psychological, at times heartbreaking, as we witness our children suffer what life delivers. If the lack of sleep in those early years don’t get us, the anguish of teenage rebellion just might.
There are many mothers who never get the chance to fully explore their ambitions. Sometimes, their child’s needs are too great to allow much more personal exploration. Or, maybe a mother isn’t supported. Some women quietly find fulfillment or success in less public ways. Knowing that motherhood presents complexity, how can anyone judge a woman’s choices in parenting? One of our Behind The Wall mothers whose daughter lives with borderline personality disorder once said, “I know others judge my parenting because of my daughter’s behaviors.” But to those who are doing the judging, one should ask, “Do you even know what’s going on behind the walls of that home?” Mothers are humans who are figuring it all out as best they can. And when we have our own successes, it is downright remarkable. It is.
This post is our first that is not centered on addressing mental illness. But it is about mothers, who are often the primary advocates for a child who lives with any chronic illness. For this Mother’s Day, perhaps we should contemplate what one can do to support other mothers in their journey to integrate their many identities and to bend to meet the needs of those they love. One way is to respect the hard choices she has to make to meet the needs of her children and herself. And another is to celebrate the brilliant accomplishments of other mothers we know.
Thank you, Ellen and Angelique.
To learn more and view the portfolios of Ellen Litwiller and Angelique Benicio, please go to:
As always, your comments are welcome: