Sometimes the stories are difficult to hear. Maybe the stories are too close to home; maybe the stories present a reality we’d prefer didn’t exist.
And it’s so unpleasant—talking about chaos in the home and grief parents experience watching their child change as the illness manifests. The ugly scenes! The awkward moments! And worse, some die as a result of behaviors or disordered thinking brought on by the illness.
Maybe if we don’t talk about it, it will go away.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and those of us who live with a brain disorder, or have a loved one who does, will be talking about it. We make some people uncomfortable. But we need to talk about it to give hope to others. Yes, that’s right, hope.
Since publication of our book Behind the Wall: The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents, a collection of true stories, my co-author sister, Elin Widdifield, has been approached by friends and acquaintances who say, “I had no idea you were going through so much. I’m sorry.” Elin appreciates this concern and knows it comes from a genuine place, but we didn’t interview other parents to garner pity for them. None of the parents, Elin included, want pity.
In the words of Esme, one of our contributors, the reason for telling one’s story is to simply help another parent. “If I can just help one person, it will be worth it.”
Telling one’s story, and listening to others, is wisely encouraged by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The act of telling and listening is informative and healing.
There is chaos, danger, and even death in the stories told by our Behind the Wall Parents who have witnessed their child’s illness unfold. That is reality. Sometimes a loved one doesn’t reach recovery. Sometimes they do. But why does anyone really need to embrace this brutal reality? Why shouldn’t we just go about our merry way, talking about celebrity mishaps and what Emeril is making for dinner?
Because one in four adults have been diagnosed at one time in their lives with a mental illness. One in seventeen lives with serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder, severe depression, severe anxiety, schizoaffective disorder or schizophrenia. And their loved ones are impacted also.
A person living with untreated mental illness creates tremendous chaos in the home and in the lives of his or her loved ones. When a person is out of control—has frequent rages, runs away, uses drugs, or all of these things—it can drive families into isolation. Parents in this situation feel that no one else can possibly understand what they are going through. Adding to feelings of isolation is that parents are often harshly judged for the “bad behavior” of their child. Stories illustrate that a child’s extreme behaviors may possibly be a sign that treatment is needed. Sharing how parents overcame the isolation and chaos helps others to not feel so alone. When a parent has no idea how to help her child and begins to lose hope, stories about celebrities don’t help. Stories about others who share their experience offer hope.
Talking openly and honestly deflates mental illness stigma that is usually the barrier for many who desperately need treatment. Stories show it can get better with evidence based treatment. Describing outcomes without effective treatment (self-inflicted harm or even death) or with effective treatment (a fulfilling life), illustrates that seeking professional help is not a weakness but an act of resolve, strength and requires hard work and a willingness to change.
But there are actions a parent or loved one can take to more successfully cope and to increase chances for recovery for a loved one: join NAMI for family support, nurture one’s own health and spiritual needs, find evidence based treatment as soon as possible.
Talking about mental illness informs others that there isn’t really anything specific that causes it. But there are actions a parent can take to more successfully cope and increase chances for recovery for their child: join NAMI for family support, nurture one’s own health and spiritual needs, find evidence based treatment as soon as possible. Talking honestly about recovery, a parent/advocate can learn there will be setbacks and it isn’t anyone’s “fault” nor is it the end of a chance for recovery.
But why do others need to know so much about mental illness? Because if it doesn’t run in your family, why should you care?
Brain disorders runs in families but impacts society. Encouraging early intervention, which increases chances for recovery, and community based programs with evidence based treatments, make more economic sense then waiting for a person to endanger themselves or get into a tangle with the law, or worse.
Our communities need to be inclusive and support those working hard to manage serious mental illness. Many of our most successful citizens live with mental illness. They just don’t talk about it.
The question is, why aren’t we making all the months Mental Health Awareness Months? Well. We are.
Thank you for visiting our blog. As always, we welcome your comments.
by Elin Widdifield
Last week in a book group I facilitated, the topic of “shame” was raised during discussion of author Wally Lamb’s latest novel, We Are Water. One of the main characters, Annie Oh, had been sexually abused as a child. Her shame was wrapped up in guilt and loss, and as a foster child, she received no professional help. She no doubt felt confused, angry, and she lived in a tangled web of shame and secrecy. For years, her anger festered, expressed in her “outsider art” and by abusing her son. Shame, guilt, and secrets caused darkness and deep troubles in Annie Oh’s family.
What is shame? Merriam-Webster defines shame as: A feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong. Ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment, dishonor or disgrace
From the Oxford Dictionary we can add: A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. (Emphasis in bold is mine.)
Shame can be useful for enforcing behaviors that keep individuals and others safe in a society. We want criminals to feel shame for socially unacceptable actions. Unfortunately, many criminals are sociopaths, incapable of feeling empathy, guilt, or shame, which can create frustration for those of us who do experience and respond to these emotions and/or have been a crime victim. Most all of us have felt shame at some point in our lives, perhaps as a child, when learning society’s code of ethics from elders. Sadly, some, like Lamb’s Annie Oh character, carry an undeserved burden of shame throughout life.
The Oxford Dictionary says, shame is a distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. What is perplexing, and not included in the Oxford or Webster definition, is that too often people feel shame for events out of their control, such as being abused as a child or born with a brain that is wired for a mental illness.
What does shame do? Shame isolates, leads to secrecy and to hiding one’s truth. Shame denies one the ability to make honest appraisal of oneself, one’s life. Shame is the foundation of stigma and most devastatingly results in a reluctance to acknowledge illness and/or seek treatment.
How many times has the media squawked bafflement that an individual who has caused their own death or harm to others had lived with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness? “How could a person or their loved ones ignore obvious symptoms of mental illness,” they ask?
Rarely is a person promoted in their job after they’ve revealed their history with mental illness, even if their work had been stellar…
For those of us who have a loved one living with a mental illness (most of whom are NOT a danger to others), it is not surprising a person fails to seek treatment, or that loved ones weren’t successful in enforcing treatment. Our society feeds the stigma of mental illness with its solid diet of… yes, shame. Rarely is a person praised for their hard work of addressing their mental illness and undergoing treatment. It’s usually discussed in hushed tones. Rarely is a person promoted in their job after they’ve revealed their history with mental illness, even if their work had been stellar, and this despite the long list of highly successful individuals living with brain disorders.
How can we help to detangle this mess of shame, guilt, and secrecy, and diminish stigma?
We can speak about brain disorders openly in the same way we speak about physical disorders. Caregivers, family members, and loved ones must speak up about needing support. Those looking from the outside see no crutches, casts, or blood. Yet, in the home, loved ones are subject to the ill person’s extreme behavioral changes that cause chaos in all the lives around him. Loved ones must change plans as quickly as they are made; they often seem distracted and are overwhelmed. But those looking in from the outside don’t know the truth unless it is spoken about.
Starting a conversation about the impact of a loved one’s brain disorder on our family, and more broadly, our society, is not always comfortable. We still encounter a tone-deafness about mental illness. Recently, when talking about interviewing people all over the country for Behind the wall, a man interjected, “You mean you found crazies all over the country?” I bit my tongue and, after a beat and a breath, I continued my effort to share information about mental illness. Some will back away, because this illness has nothing to do with them or their family. And that’s okay. Fortunately, in our experience, most people to whom we speak about Behind the Wall do understand or want to learn about brain disorders.
For the sake of our neighbors, friends, and because of the prevalence of mental illness across the globe, we continue to share what we know about brain disorders in an effort to reduce stigma and encourage individuals to seek treatment. Speaking openly, without shame, is beneficial for a whole society. We can have stronger and safer communities when our citizens who live with mental illness are not afraid to be diagnosed and treated. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states the importance of encouraging quality (evidence based) treatment in terms anyone can relate to:
The human and economic toll is enormous yet often hidden. Untreated mental illnesses in the U.S. cost more than $100 billion a year in lost productivity… Local hospitals and clinics must cope with associated chronic physical diseases. Schools have to open more special education classes. Courts and jails handle a large number of individuals who suffer from untreated mental illnesses. Suicide ranks among the top fifteen most common killers in the U.S. (in the top three among young people), and 90 percent of cases can be attributed to mental illness.
Our society must take responsibility to learn symptoms of an active mental illness. Those of us with experience, and who understand the illness, can lead this effort. An effective step in this endeavor is to demand in our communities that law enforcement, first responders, educators, and anyone else interfacing with the public are properly trained to recognize symptoms of brain disorders and learn how to interact with a person in mental health crisis. Brain disorders cause people to behave in odd ways. No doubt. A person with a mental illness may respond to his own inner processes, which may include frightening voices or paranoid beliefs. Atypical brain activity caused by the illness may be reflected an appearance of “not being all there,” and his responses are unpredictable to outsiders. Understanding brain disorders requires respecting that the input affecting his brain processes is unknowable and that his responses to these inputs influence behaviors that are odd and possibly frightening to an outside observer, or family member. These are behaviors of untreated mental illness, or of a person who has experienced a relapse.
We can all play a part in identifying misplaced shame for an illness that wasn’t chosen by the ill person and the foolish behavior symptomatic of the illness is out of one’s control. We can all do our part to reduce stigma so that people will seek and receive treatment.
We can stop assuming that living with mental illness equates to an inability to hold down a job and living a fulfilling life. Most people who are treated for serious mental illness live full and meaningful lives.
Our faith communities and workplace can be inclusive by understanding that the illness has symptoms that should not be conflated with a person’s character, or behaviors when they are well. We can support a person who lives with mental illness by providing a route for skill-building and work experience.
We can support caregivers of people living with mental illness by simply listening, taking a walk, or having coffee together.
There are many organizations whose mission it is to support individuals and families of those living with mental illness and to address stigma. Among the many, check out:
As always, your comments are most welcome:
We are pleased to have this contribution from guest blogger, L. M., whose daughter lives with bipolar and borderline personality disorder, and substance use. The illness began to manifest when her daughter approached adolescence and continued into early adulthood.
Parenting a child during a mental illness is like being in the midst of a tornado. At first you have this beautiful person; an angelic child who gives you more joy than you’ve ever experienced. Life is beautiful through her eyes. Then one day, you feel a breeze approaching. It’s not unexpected although at times, it approaches in unexpected gusts.
It doesn’t feel unordinary. Perhaps changing patterns in the weather as the seasons shift. Then the breeze evolves into a wind. A steady, increasingly fierce wind. The wind starts swirling. You are swept up inside of it without a warning. You try to find your way out. But each gust pushes you in a different direction. Soon you lose your way. You doubt the path you should take to break free. Your confidence is shaken. Your compass is broken. You ask for directions but the answers are varied and jumbled. You find yourself running in circles wondering how to escape. But there is no escape. And the circle closes in. Finally, you manage to find a break in the force of the wind. You lift your head, wondering how you got swept up. What caused it? When did it all happen? Was it my fault? You look behind at the debris. The damage is immense and widespread. Your head is still swirling. How can you pick up all the pieces? And what will fit back together when you do? The form you had envisioned can’t take shape. It no longer exists. What to do next? Change the pieces. Make them clay. Let the clay be the new day. It may change every day. It may change every hour. You learn to accept the volatility, the constant morphing of a life you once thought was a straight line, a fixed object. And you observe. You listen. You learn. The tornado swirls, but you step aside. You let it be. Let it unfold on its term without being swallowed in the center. it’s the only way.
Our guest blogger tells us how challenging it is to live “in the moment”.
I hold my breath waiting. Panic stuck in my throat, wondering if this is beginning of another crisis my son is creating. Is he going to experiment and lower with his meds and become manic? Will it be like the time he became manic and paranoid?
That time, after alerting the police that the CIA was watching him, he threw out all his trophies, awards, photos, well-written essays, things representing highlights from his past, from before he became ill. Later, I was able to retrieve most things, buried deeply in the garbage and sludge-covered. He packed the essentials: a gallon of sterile water, one change of clothes, sketchbook, a few dollars and not much more. He set out to live on the streets so the CIA couldn’t study him. My two sisters and I drove down every street downtown, tracing the path to his familiar haunts, hunting him down as if he were a runaway puppy.
We found him, euphoric, ready to enter the homeless shelter. He admitted he hadn’t slept in a week and needed help.
The chaos he has created in the past stems from his decision to walk into a bar and drink a beer, and his distorted notion that he is a ‘normal guy’ who can drink a beer. One beer, and be fine. But for him, one beer leads to a weeklong, or months-long binge, blackouts, ruined relationships, lost job, failed college semester, and all this followed by shame and guilt, and the long haul of putting it all back together again.
So, I would hold my breath waiting, knowing what had been built could all fall apart. In one beer.
But while holding my breath, I forget the gratitude for the previous three years of calm and serenity his recovery has brought to our family. I forget gratitude for the hard work and day-to-day struggle that is his, just to live a meaningful life with solid relationships, work, and balance in his life. I forget how much work he does to earn a moment of joy, and happy family moments.
It’s not healthy to stop my life, become paralyzed in fear…
It’s not healthy to stop my life, become paralyzed in fear; I know this. And I’m not fun company. I’ve watched my husband sleep, eat well, go to the gym, work, and put his worry into neat compartments that only occasionally leak out. I will never know how he has been able to do this, but we are all different.
At the Al Anon meetings they tell me to let go and live my own life. Of course I know this is what one should do, but letting go and taking care of myself requires more discipline than holding my breath. Taking care of myself, over worrying for my child, is not natural for mothers.
But how long can a person hold their breath?
I came to realize that I cannot continue to live this way, starving myself of oxygen, denying myself my own life. I need to be strong for that moment he reaches out, asking for help. I needed to change, and it can only come from me.
I found a therapist who knows about addictions and mental illness. She helped me grieve the loss of my son, the easy son I once had; the son who won trophies, wrote essays, and had healthy relationships. To allay my fear and angst, I began to meditate, sometimes a walking meditation on the beach, or in the woods. Exercise and sports had always been a part of my life and it was time to incorporate these activities back into my life. I needed to live more consciously, beginning with eating well, not mindlessly consuming a pint of cookie dough ice cream in one sorrowful sitting.
The most difficult part for me was becoming social again. I had lost relationships during the chaotic times of my son’s illness. Let’s face it, people don’t understand, and I wasn’t fun to be with anyway. I made new friends who are also in the club of knowing mental illness and addiction. These friends could hear what I was saying without flinching or pitying. I don’t want pity.
What has helped give me perspective and insight is being well informed. I read and learned everything I could about the dually diagnosed, those with serious mental illness and substance use disorders. I found my local NAMI to be most helpful, especially the Family-to-Family class that my husband and I attended together. I found support and community there too. I also called upon my faith, that faith I had felt abandoned me during the hard times.
I feel connected to my son, and this is key. Feeling connected to our son gives us the best chance that he will turn to us when he is failing. It’s the best hope we can have. Feeling connected enables me, ironically, to let go a little more. Knowing that he is aware that we will always support his recovery and never judge his journey is the best insurance that he WILL turn to us on his own volition. Because ultimately, his recovery must come from him. I now recognize that holding my breath or living in fear will not give him tools to manage his illness.
How we stay connected is by expressing our deep appreciation of his strengths and struggles, and telling him frequently how much we respect his hard work. Believe me, I want to keep him in a bubble to protect him. But I don’t pity him or coddle. I support his efforts. I’ve learned the importance of letting go and allowing him to make his own choices and decisions, because I won’t be around forever to protect him. I enjoy his humor, his new quirkiness, and his artistic passions. There are many things I want for him but he may not want these things for himself. I’ve worked on learning to stay quiet, enjoy the moment, and find gratitude. I am grateful he’s alive and has integrated into his community, and is moving forward in his own way with his own volition.
Sometimes, I slip, and find I am holding my breath: after learning he’d “had a beer with friends,” or one recent night when he didn’t return home. The difference now is that I recognize when I am not living in this moment, but rather flashing back to the chaos of the past, and worrying about things that may or may not ever happen. My physical health is much better when I live mindfully, with balance, and joy. Every day offers the chance to find joy. I sound like a bumper sticker. A few years ago those sayings evoked anger rather than peace for me. I don’t want to be in this club of parents whose children struggle with a dual diagnosis. I want to be a parent of an adult child whose biggest problem is finding the right career, or breaking up with his girlfriend, or learning to budget his money.
But this is where I am in this moment.
Your comments are always welcome:
Being in public, even just standing in the grocery store line with her adult son, used to be embarrassing for Annie. Her adult son can’t be still. He’ll start bobbing his head. His body is jittery. He could easily be mistaken for a tweaker. She shrugs. “You get used to it,” she says. And he’s done worse.
Having a child who lives with mental illness feels sort of like being the parent who carries a newborn and two toddlers with head colds on the plane for a red-eye, only more extreme. Nobody wants to be near that mess, and everyone has an opinion. Also, there’s a lot of glaring.
In the stares and clucking of distaste that parents of atypical children often absorb, there seems to be a less than subliminal message that these parents chose this messy life and if they only desired things to be different, it could be so. As if these parents are weak. But parents of children with mental illness did not choose this club. Their child didn’t either. There are coping skills to be learned, but like those toddlers on a plane, you cannot control air pressure, or sinus pain, or always fix whatever is bothering them.
A person who lives with mental illness sometimes displays odd behaviors. A person with an injured leg may walk funny for a while and it’s the same for an injured brain; it’s not so odd when you think about it in that way, Right? What’s distinctly different is that a child’s mental illness challenges the stamina of parental love like nothing else. That’s in addition to judgment from others. Rebecca, one of our Behind the Wall parents, explained how excruciating it could be when her daughter, Stella, accused Rebecca that she was not her real mother. Stella’s father, Dan, recounts discomfiting conversations with Stella about the chip in her head. But for Stella, who heard voices clearly and sensed smells that others did not, the chip theory didn’t seem so far-fetched. It did make sense to her because her brain was feeding her different signals than what others know to be reality.
Simply spending time with a person who is experiencing a manic episode and/or psychosis presents challenges. It’s not easy. Depending on where a person is on the spectrum of recovery, there are frequent lapses in logical thinking that sometimes lead to risky behaviors and self-harm. Once, Annie’s son broke into a store after hours. He busted the door, got in, then realized he didn’t know what he was doing and left. He didn’t steal anything but damaged the door. His actions didn’t make sense.
Sometimes there are scenes. Ugly scenes. Jennifer, who lives with bipolar and borderline personality disorder, had developed a history of rages and alcohol use by the time she’d reached high-school age. This behavior was never permitted or condoned by her parents. In one incident, Jennifer had been drinking and was raging and throwing things at her boyfriend’s house. Her boyfriend’s parents banned Jennifer. Sadly, they must have also spread the word that she was out of control and it was about bad parenting. Jennifer’s sister, who had never been part of any such incident, was banned from spending time with the family that lived next door to the boyfriend. A loved one’s illness leaks into all aspects of family life.
As one Behind the Wall parent says, most people don’t know what it’s like to have a loved one who lives with mental illness. Good for them.
Only those who’ve parented a child who lives with serious mental illness can truly understand the challenges involved and the breadth of behaviors that arise because of the illness. Even for these parents, there is much experience required to distinguish between typical bad behaviors versus behaviors driven by the illness. They can’t possibly always get it right.
Parents of children who live with serious mental illness, like those beleaguered ones getting on a plane, aren’t asking for anything more than a little understanding. As one Behind the Wall parent says, most people don’t know what it’s like to have a loved one who lives with mental illness. Good for them. Living with a serious mental illness and being a parent/advocate has challenges that can only be fully understood by others living a similar experience.
Parents whose children live with mental illness aren’t asking anyone to sidle up to their chaos. These parents are also past wishing to be well-liked because major concerns are about keeping their child safe and stable. Parents aren’t asking for solutions, or agreement, or sympathy. Pity is not wanted. Just please don’t judge. And if one were so inclined, even a small gesture of support and kindness goes far for a parent enduring a journey where parental love is infinitely tested.
As always, your feedback is welcome.
Parents we interviewed for Behind the Wall often spoke about difficulties during the holidays. Regular life is disrupted. There’s pressure to be happy, c’mon, it’s the holidays! For some, there is unresolved family conflict. Whatever the reasons, there is added stress, a key ingredient in disrupting anyone’s mental health.
Personally, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. It’s the day we cook, eat, and hang with loved ones and close friends. It’s sharing in sustenance rather than materialism. Thanksgiving is about being genuinely thankful and also pulling up a chair to your own personal pumpkin pie. Keeping it simple and local is how our nuclear family does it. But not everyone has someone with whom to share the holiday or is fortunate (or selfish enough) to keep it simple.
And there’s the rub. Knowing many families have a loved one fighting on foreign soil, or fighting serious illness, or just plain fighting internally, can make it difficult to celebrate. Feeling grateful can feel like gloating when one considers day-to-day challenges in others lives.
And yet, those who’ve had the most difficult challenges are those who can teach a thing or two about gratitude. One of our Behind the Wall parents tells us that beginning November every year, she becomes more vigilant than she is normally (which is more than most), watching for signs that her son is stressed, or beginning a cycle of psychosis. She fears his psychosis could lead again to jail and weeks of horrific treatment. This fear is justified. When her son is well and safe, she is truly grateful. I believe her because she understands life’s difficulties.
Another Behind the Wall parent, Esme, has a daughter whose illness is the underlying cause for dangerous behaviors that among other events, lead to a near-lethal cutting incident and an overdose. Esme says the experience with her daughter has given her great empathy. For which she is grateful. She doesn’t expect those who don’t have mental illness in their family to understand, and says, “Good for them they don’t understand.” Though, it would be great if our society could learn to accept those who live with mental illness, Esme rightly focuses on how lucky she is that her daughter is kind and loving.
Then there’s Behind the Wall’s Bianca, who reminds us to find the moment of “normal” in all the chaos of parenting an adult child with persistent mental illness. Even if it’s a small moment. Maybe it’s thirty-minutes she and her son share making dinner. Maybe it’s laughing at a joke. You can find the moment of normal if you try, she says.
What these generous, inspiring parents express is the true meaning of gratitude. For these parents, gratitude comes from accepting that life is not a string of good moments with a few hiccups along the way. To paraphrase my dear friend, a practicing Buddhist, life is struggle, work, and hope, with wondrous glimmers of grace (I loathe to use the vaguely defined term, “happiness”). There’s no question that some are born with more talent, or into families with more resources. We can feel grateful that some of these gifted folks do help others, and feel empathy for those who choose not to do so, for their lives are not rich in what life has to offer. Maybe what defines a lucky or blessed person is one’s ability to appreciate that precise moment when good does comes along, to recognize the appearance of grace. No matter one’s circumstances, perhaps the greatest gift of all is the ability to see and experience genuine gratitude.
‘Tis the season to see grace and find gratitude, even if within the smallest moment.
Happy Thanksgiving to our readers. We are genuinely grateful for your support.
As always, your comments are welcome: