During this time of year, social media posts abound with photos of unfathomably beautiful young men and women in glossy gowns, beaming beside one or two relieved parents, above congratulatory post after post. So Proud! What a future this kid has!
As it happens, this year, our extended family is blessed to celebrate the graduations of two young women of remarkable talents (if we do say so ourselves), one of whom is headed off to college and another who earned a graduate degree. I suspect, when all the ceremonies are done and dusted, there will be no less than two-dozen images posted, multiples of that in genuine congratulations.
But as it’s been said, participating in social media is a double-edged sword. Because for some parents, seeing their nephew, niece or even the neighbor’s kid positioned in that quintessential shot, though well earned, can be incredibly painful. Because not all parents get to watch their child make that customary journey, that straight line from Kindergarten to high school graduation, much less through college.
Many of the Behind the Wall parents talk of their struggle to accept the derailment of their child’s path as a result of mental illness. In many cases, their children had been good students, a few outstanding, and others were also musicians, artists and/or athletes. Until their middle grades, these parents had no reason to believe their child wouldn’t graduate high school and go off to college… like every other kid they knew. It had been assumed before even one page of Goodnight Moon was ever turned. As these parents witness the same cohort of men and women to which their child had once belonged and progressed with, grade-by-grade, now arrive at their graduation, they are confronted by the staggering challenges their own child faces. The graduation ceremony that should have included their child is a brutal reminder of an abandoned path. There is a sense of loss.
To cope with this reality, while still honoring the rightful celebrants, we turn to the wise Behind the Wall parents we interviewed. These parents are strong, their advice informed.
Esme’s daughter, Jennifer, became increasingly ill during her middle grades and into high school as she struggled with what was diagnosed as borderline then later bipolar disorder and complicated with substance use. Jennifer had always been a good student and yet, her brain disorder impeded her ability to finish all her coursework. As Esme put it, she couldn’t even finish a small assignment in English, what had previously been her favorite class.
Sadly, when teens struggle to finish simple coursework or cannot even attend school due to an encroaching mental illness, parents and their children are judged. During her high school years Jennifer also had a few public raging episodes. Talk of it traveled throughout her community. Esme knows that other parents blamed her for Jennifer’s behaviors. Esme says that for those who don’t know what it’s like to live with a person with emerging mental illness, it’s easy for others to judge; other parents assume, those parents let their child run wild, no discipline in that house.
One of the most painful experiences for Esme occurred the day that would have been her daughter’s high school graduation. That day, she drove her younger daughter to the ceremony to cheer on her older, graduating friends. Esme recalls how long that drive to the school felt for her, how excruciating the approach, thinking about what that day could have been for their family.
But Esme then corrects this thinking. It’s not her path. Not yet. What she now understands is that Jennifer will have to chart a different route for herself. There is hope; she can begin recovery and rebuild her life. When she’s ready.
Bianca, whose son became very ill early into his college years and has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, reminds parents to look at the progress of their child not in weeks or months, but over the course of a year. Where was he last year? Is it better? She’s referring to what recovery looks like for a person who is learning to manage their own mental health, particularly after a significant health crisis. What she’s saying is that parents can’t set the timetable for their children. Everyone has to set their own path and timetable.
One young man we know has become a successful tradesperson and is still, one of the kindest persons I’ve ever known. Another, Stella, had been an outstanding student throughout her life. In high school, she had to relearn how to learn during her recovery from a profound episode of psychosis. But she did learn to work with her own challenges and graduated with an engineering degree in a highly specialized field of study from a highly ranked university. For Esme, she is grateful for now that her daughter is working toward recovery, which is progress.
It is worth noting that a young person walking at graduation following an accident or hospitalization that derailed studies is often celebrated at graduation ceremonies. “Look! He’s back after that illness!” We’ve all seen the social media postings—standing ovations. Tears.
Not so much when a person takes leave of absence to address mental illness. That return is quiet. But for that too, we can hold out hope.
As I prepare to write the card and prepare the sentiments to the graduates in our family, I know I will remark on their accomplishments, that they have such promise in their future. These things are all true. I am deliriously happy for them. And this is the distinction that I have come to learn through the wisdom of Behind the Wall parents: That the success of my loved ones is not my own. That their failures aren’t either. What is to be celebrated is their achievement of their goals that they set out to accomplish on their own.
Amongst the pictures and postings of the young people and the less young ones, I will be celebrating goals met, futures open, whatever that looks like for the loved ones in our lives. Even if the accomplishments aren’t marked by graduation gowns.
We welcome your thoughts and comments!
When our extended family was seated around my grandparent’s thick, oak dining table—one given to our great-grand-father as debt payment during the Depression and that had been elongated by inserted leaves for the gathering— the discussion would inevitably escalate until one of the men slammed a fist on that table and stomped out of the room. Usually this was Pop, my mother’s father, disgusted over where the political discourse had gone. Incredulous that these people in his house were so damn backward thinking. Not infrequently, it was my own father who’d set him off. My father had a prickly relationship with Pop. On the other hand, Mama, my grandmother, loved everyone, brought out the best in all, including my father (plus he was Catholic!) and that was reciprocated. But she’d get pissed at theatrics. “Oh N.S.!” She’d hiss, always calling my grandfather by his initials. “For god’s sake!” She’d toss her napkin down and go through the swinging kitchen door to retrieve the desserts for the rest of us.
My father got into it with my uncles too. Later, my sisters, who are a decade older than me, battled it out with Pop, a white, upper class, college-educated man who’d lost his fortune in the second big market drop of the Depression in ‘34. Throughout adulthood, he’d had a rough ride with substances but finally committed to sobriety on the day his first grandchild, my sister, was born. Those drunken years deeply affected his family and were especially ugly for Mama, whose wifely duties were primarily to cover for him. My sisters, however, brazenly challenged Pop’s views on charged topics like civil rights and Middle East politics. They were living and attending nearby colleges and had fresh, compassionate, vibrant minds with perspectives my grandfather couldn’t possibly fathom. But despite fundamental differences in their belief systems, he relished their verbal sparring and witnessing his granddaughters passionately debate. He always believed that as they matured, they’d come around to see the world as he did. On that point, he was wrong about my sisters.
I was too young to get in the fray and, frankly, too interested in getting to the dessert course. Mama had a special technique for swirling cinnamon into her pumpkin pie. But the gentle, old-married- couple bickering, sometimes all-out barking, between my grandparents remains in my memory, as does the way Mama plied my father, her son-in-law, with the fig preserves he loved to eat for breakfast while patting his shoulder lovingly, even on those mornings after a blow-up with Pop. Food has always been currency in our family culture.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sitting around that big table with my uncle who knew it irked my disciplined, raised-on-nothing father when he ate an entire roast beef in one sitting, or made us hysterical with the jokes thirteen-year-olds tell that no polite person would repeat. Especially at the dinner table. Mama’s children, my mother and two uncles, often joked about the horrific events that had happened in that house with a raging alcoholic. Or when there was no money. And it was hilarious. These were flawed and scarred adults who, along with the kids, shared a love for one another despite the chaos and ancient familial grievances; we also shared in our love for Mama and her pound cake, apple pie and the chocolate sauce she taught all her granddaughters how to make (for the record, and contrary to my cousin Janet’s assertion, mine’s the best rendition). I can still hear the din from the television console and smell the sweet pipe smoke wafting from that tiny den, where my grandfather would plant himself in that squeaky leather recliner whether after storming out of a room or just because it was that time of the day. Or because Jeopardy! was on and we’d all compete to show him who was the most clever.
Of course, Mama and Pop are now gone. Many heated discussions amongst family members outlived them. Raised voices. Storming out of rooms. And likely there are more to come. At more recent family gatherings, cousins laugh about the differences; we roll our eyes, grateful we’ve even stayed connected (thank you Facebook). It goes unsaid that we share a deep love for our flawed grandparents who we are sure would love us as much today as ever, even though we casted votes for candidates they would certainly consider ghastly.
Mama had a way of cutting through it all with a sense of humor. I wish I had her talent. On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful my grandfather lived his later years sober, and that I now understand how difficult this was for him. I am grateful we have recipes. And most of all, loved ones to feed.
Here’s wishing that you too find that which surpasses the ugly discussions in life on this day of gratitude.
As always, we welcome your comments:
The following was, in similar form, published in The Marin Independent Journal. We thought we’d also share it here.
In well-heeled Marin County, staggering homeless statistics are visibly apparent in downtown San Rafael, near where I live. And this problem exists in urban areas across the country. The 20 percent, or 263 persons who are chronically homeless, cost the public greatly in emergency room visits, interaction with law enforcement, and incarcerations. In-depth media coverage reports that providing permanent housing and supportive services significantly reduces these costs.
Not clearly articulated are effective, holistic, long-term preemptive approaches. Largely because many don’t think the solution involves us. Or does it?
We know a myriad of factors lead to homelessness: environmental, economic, cultural, and bad luck. Brain disorders—also known as mental illness and includes substance abuse—is a leading cause of chronic homelessness. I bet all Marin’s overpriced housing that the 37 percent of homeless who self-report that they live with a “disabling condition” are underrepresented. Many also have anosognosia, a feature of serious mental illness that interferes with one’s ability to have insight that they are unwell. These individuals don’t accept treatment.
Fortunately, our city’s multi-pronged, reactive approach for current homeless includes a Police Department specifically trained for crises created by a person’s delusional thinking. A myriad of effective city agencies also support the homeless and those with brain disorders to reach independence. Still, a preemptive societal paradigm can address homelessness caused by brain disorders while strengthening community wellness.
It starts with knowing facts about mental illness and fighting stigma. Brain disorders don’t discriminate along ethnic or socio-economic lines. Bad parenting doesn’t cause mental illness either. One in five across the globe is diagnosed annually and an estimated 10 to 14 million Americans live with serious mental illness. Fortunately, brain disorders are treatable. But stigma prevents many from seeking treatment, which is devastating since early treatment equals greater outcomes. Let’s address brain disorders before a person becomes a statistic.
It’s cliché, but nurturing the whole child truly is a progressive investment in the whole community. We know that those lacking education are more likely to become low-wage earners and therefore statistically more likely to live on the margins.
Fostering youth wellbeing is possible through evidence-based programs in public schools. Initiatives fostering a healthy, inclusive school community can make the difference between a student feeling safe in his environment versus one who dangerously isolates. Adequate funding ensures reasonable mental health counselor ratios and also provides paid counselor training, psychological screenings for students, and most importantly that families can receive mental health education and support when symptoms first emerge. Brain disorders are lifelong illnesses that, similar to diabetes, for example, require ongoing management; with treatment, one can live fully.
Other youth programs foster wellbeing too. Studies show sports and enrichment programs promote healthy self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. Feeling connected to one’s community, whether through sports, or clubs or other enrichment is critically important to young people. Engagement in positive activities reduces anxiety and depression disorder symptoms—possibly delaying onset for those at risk. Art, music, and performance arts provide students with beneficial life skills and tools for expression, valuable for us all, but especially for those who develop brain disorders.
Meditation positively alters brain structure, improves concentration and increases self-awareness, happiness, and acceptance. Schools with mindfulness and meditation curriculum have reported tangible long-term results.
Voters can also effect change by learning about HR 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 and lobbying their Senator to pass it. Importantly, this bill addresses critical roadblocks parents encounter in getting mental health treatment for their child. Presidential Candidate Clinton has also outlined a comprehensive Mental Healthcare Agenda proposing changes needed to guide a loved one from serious untreated mental illness to recovery.
It is likely your city’s many agencies and faith organizations are doing incredible work. If the long-term health of your community matters to you, consider getting involved with a school, an agency, or church; financially support relevant programs serving youth enrichment and intervention. Get informed, lobby your Marin County Supervisor and US Senator and vote. Because this is a big picture and we’re all in it.
Your thoughts are always welcome:
Jean did not delay taking her thirty-year-old son, Keith, a Medicaid patient, to a prestigious teaching hospital’s emergency room when he began experiencing heart attack symptoms. Jean, a lawyer, is the legal guardian of Keith, who lives with schizoaffective disorder that was diagnosed at age twenty. Jean knew Keith was likely experiencing a panic attack and the symptoms she was most concerned about were those of a mental illness relapse. Advocates like Jean, who have watched their loved one’s illness unfold, are intimately familiar with subtle and sometimes frightening warning signs of mental health relapse and what signifies the urgent need for an ER visit and hospital admission. On that day, Keith’s concerning symptoms included elevated mood, obsessive need to clean, racing heartbeat, and the most critical of all, incoherent speech.
Up until that ER visit, Keith had been managing his illness successfully for nearly four years with medication, therapy, sobriety and the support of his parents and loved ones. A recent college graduate, Keith teaches advanced math to high school students at an after-school clinic. He was recently promoted and had plans to move from his parents’ house into an apartment with a roommate. Stress can trigger a critical health event for those who live with chronic mental illness and Jean believes his increased responsibilities possibly caused his relapse.
The doctor quickly ruled out cardiac arrest but never addressed the mental health symptoms despite Keith’s health history, the information his mother provided, or the fact that Keith is treated at the same hospital for his schizoaffective disorder.
Upon meeting the ER doctor, Jean detailed her son’s mental health symptoms she observed and knew to be concerning and his correlating health history. But the ER doctor focused on Keith’s cardiac symptoms, asking an incoherent Keith to explain how his heart felt. The doctor quickly ruled out cardiac arrest but never addressed the mental health symptoms despite Keith’s health history, the information his mother provided or the fact that Keith is treated at that same hospital for his schizoaffective disorder. “The ER doctor couldn’t write the discharge order fast enough,” Jean says. She laments the breakdown in what should be an integrated health system, one that includes protocols in which doctors are trained to address physical and mental health symptoms.
Jean recognized Keith’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating and his ER discharge meant the opportunity to get him committed for treatment in the hospital was denied. Jean then called Keith’s psychiatrist, who was on vacation, and left a message for the on-call doctor. Several hours passed before she received a return call. In the meantime, Jean also had left a message on the answering service at the clinic where her son is treated.
When her call was finally returned, the usual and important question was asked: “Is he suicidal? Is he homicidal?” Keith was not expressing suicidal ideation though he was incoherent and clearly exhibiting signs of psychosis. But Keith does have a history of hearing command voices—voices that instruct him to do dangerous, impulsive acts. Jean explained, “No, he’s not saying he’s going to kill himself. But his thinking is becoming more convoluted and his mood is more elevated.” Despite Keith’s history, he did not meet criteria for being at risk for self-harm or harming others and therefore Jean was informed, “Have him call us tomorrow and get an appointment at the clinic.”
Jean was finally able to make an appointment for Keith early the following morning and prepared for a long night of vigilance, which was especially worrisome since her husband was away on business. Knowing Keith’s history of psychotic thinking, especially that he experiences frightening command voices, scares Jean. She would need to check on him frequently throughout the night.
Jean recalls, “The rest is a blur. About 1:30 am, I saw blood in the hallway. I banged down the bathroom door and stopped the bleeding as best I could. I called 911 and got help from my neighbors who are nurses. Before I knew it, Keith was in the first of two surgeries.”
Keith will survive but it will be a long recovery process, both physically and mentally. He told his family he wants to live, get well, and return to work. He tells his parents he had no plan to kill himself. Keith has no memory of that night. “I don’t know why I did it,” he says.
Keith’s psychosis involved hearing voices commanding him to act, nearly resulting in his own death. His act, unlike a conventional suicide attempt in which the intent is a conscious and often planned effort to end one’s own life, was unplanned and impulsive. Keith’s brain was very ill, requiring urgent treatment to stabilize disordered thinking and keep him and others safe. Had Jean been successful in getting Keith hospitalized, he could have been protected from this impulsive act that will now require a longer recovery than had he been committed to treatment merely one day earlier.
Discouragingly, these types of experiences are not anomalies. Like most mental health advocates, best selling author, Pete Earley, became frustrated by the confusing and oft enervating mental health system when his son became ill. Earley’s very informative book, Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, explores the healthcare and criminal justice system for those living with mental illness and for their advocates navigating the health and justice system. In Crazy, Earley tells a story of his frustrating effort to commit his son, Mike, whose mental health was deteriorating:
The doctor said: “Virginia law is very specific. Unless a patient is in imminent danger to himself or others, I cannot treat him unless he voluntarily agrees to be treated.” Before I could reply, he asked Mike: “Will you take medicines if I offer them to you?”
“No, I don’t believe in our poisons,” Mike said. “Can I leave now?”
“Yes,” the doctor answered without consulting me. Mike jumped off the patient’s table and hurried out the door. I started after him, but stopped and decided to try one last time to reason with the doctor.
“My son’s bipolar, he’s off his meds, he has a history of psychotic behavior. You’ve got to do something! He’s sick! Help him, please!”
He said: “Your son is an adult and while he is clearly acting odd, he has a right under the law to refuse treatment.”
“Then you take him home with you tonight!” I exclaimed.
Mental health professionals are required to follow the criteria established for hospital admission. This criteria and HIPAA privacy laws restrict providers, often resulting in sub-par care and tragic consequences for people who live with mental illness. Advocates, mental healthcare providers and patients are frustrated with these laws and protocols that quite simply are more often harmful than helpful.
No good comes from an untreated illness and after leaving the ER, Earley’s son was arrested and incarcerated for trespassing. Fortunately, Mike caused no physical harm to himself or others and the arrest prompted Earley’s investigation of the mental health and criminal justice system.
Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds and his twenty-four-year-old son were not fortunate. Deeds’ emergency intake experience was similar to Jean’s and Earley’s but with horrifying consequences. His son’s observable symptoms indicated he was becoming gravely ill. Like Jean and Earley, Deeds was unsuccessful getting his son committed. Deeds was told there was no bed available for his son. Later, Deeds’ son stabbed his father, leaving a lasting facial scar, and then he killed himself. Says Deeds about his experience with the medical system,
That makes absolutely no sense…An emergency room cannot turn away a person in cardiac arrest because the ER is full, a police officer does not wait to arrest a murder suspect or a bank robber if no jail space is identified.
Deed’s experience prompted him to initiate changes in the emergency intake laws in his home state of Virginia. The changes include:
- Doubling the maximum duration of emergency custody orders to twelve hours and establish a framework to ensure private or state psychiatric beds are available for individuals who meet criteria for temporary detention.
- Requiring State hospitals to accept individuals under temporary detention orders when private beds cannot be found. The law enforcement agency that executes an emergency custody order will be required to notify the local community services board, which serves as the public intake agency for mental health emergencies.
- Establishing a state registry of acute psychiatric treatment beds available to provide real-time information for mental health workers.
Deeds acknowledges that changes to the intake law are “just the beginning” of the process the state must undergo to modernize and increase the effectiveness of the fragmented mental health system. His detractors believe more changes should have been implemented. But he accomplished what he’d identified while on his back in recovery from the physical injury his son inflicted. And these changes can be a model nationally. Deeds said, “The bill signed by Virginia Governor McAuliffe makes needed improvements to the emergency intake process. But there’s so much more to do.” As a father of a person with serious mental illness, Deeds is keenly aware of holes in the health care system. Says Deeds,
What happens after crisis intervention?…What if a person needs long-term care? What happens after the first 72 hours? Our system was deficient before, but a lot of deficiencies remain.
Many parents interviewed for our Behind the Wall story collection share the experience that there was little information about, and questionable access to, post emergency commitment treatments or alternative resources when a person in crisis is denied hospitalization.
Frustrating experiences like those of Jean, Earley and Deeds are shared by almost all parent/advocates of a loved one living with chronic mental illness. To effect change and remove dangerous roadblocks in the mental health system, Jean could, perhaps, pursue legal retribution against the medical professionals who failed her son despite having been provided Keith’s pertinent health history. But Jean notes that the hospital and mental health professionals followed an established protocol, even though that protocol was clearly flawed. Legally, they did nothing wrong. Instead, she will work for systemic change for Medicaid patients through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) to shape a more comprehensive diagnostic protocol, one that incorporates a case-by-case basis method of treatment for mental illness symptoms. She expects pushback but she is determined.
Changes that advocates like Jean, Deeds, and Earley are pushing are critical for the reparation of the broken system. It seems overwhelming. But there is hope. In June 2015, Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA) introduced H.R. 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016, which was passed in July 2016 in the House. H.R. 2646 will now move to the Senate for approval. The changes proposed are substantive. The link to read the language of this bill and follow it as it moves through the Senate can be found here: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/2646
There is much work to be done in order to provide the best care for our loved ones who live and struggle with mental illness every day of their lives. If you are a caregiver or a person with mental illness we’d like to know your thoughts.
If you, or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please visit these sites and get help:
 All names have been changed to protect privacy.
Motherhood is beautiful. And messy, challenging, sometimes exhausting, and wickedly unpredictable. The moment a child first gazes into his mother’s eyes, or writes her first grade poem about all the reasons she loves her mother, diminishes most of the heartbreaking events—like the first snub a child experiences by a friend, or a child’s serious illness. Motherhood can be a roller coaster of emotions.
Sadly, some mothers don’t get many of the kind of moments that balance heartache.
This is why I take umbrage at the “Lean In” concept perpetuated by Sheryl Sandberg. Designing one’s own life is possible only to a degree; many of us recognize that motherhood and life throws curve balls. The suggestion that women can be mothers and “have it all” is simply preposterous unless we re-frame the definition of “having it all”. Something has to give way to have it all.
The concept of reframing “having it all”, and how to work toward it was introduced to me by some of the most amazing mothers I know—those women we interviewed for our story collection, Behind the Wall: The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents.
This is not a rant against working mothers. We need women in the workforce and leadership positions. Personally, I prefer a female doctor. Ms. Sandberg is remarkable for what she has achieved while also raising a family. She has raised the bar for what women can achieve in the high tech world, one in which women have not felt welcomed. But her “Lean In” movement feels disingenuous.
When we plan to have a family, we envision our little family taking walks in nature (without whining about taking the walk), teaching our child to ride a bike, and celebrating graduations, proms, and weddings. As my sister, Elin, says, “That first time you gaze into your child’s eyes, you don’t think, ‘Someday this child will grow up and develop mental illness or substance use issues.’” But for parents whose children are atypical, these simple dreams aren’t always guaranteed. Parents whose children have special needs or serious mental illness, for example, often must make career and lifestyle choices to meet their child’s needs. Bianca, a mother we interviewed for Behind the Wall, had to choose a nursing position that provided a schedule that allowed her to be available for her son who lives with schizophrenia and sometimes cannot be left alone. Bianca’s other adult son sometimes works from home to be with his brother.
Dan considers himself fortunate to have been able to work at home while his daughter, who lives with schizophrenia, was recovering from a mental health crisis. Tessa, a mental health advocate and mother of an adult son with serious mental illness, is challenged to find a window of time to take a vacation because she never knows when a crisis may erupt. And I’m not even talking about the financial impact on parents of an adult child living with mental illness. Or the stress on a marriage.
But yet, these mothers we interviewed do have it all. All of them talk about gratitude for what they do have, how the experience of raising a child with a chronic illness has made them more empathic and compassionate. They are generous, spreading the message of their experience in an effort to help others. They also understand the concept of letting go of control and accepting what cannot be changed and fighting fiercely for what they can change. These mothers are caregivers and gladiators. They understand more about life than most and can hold a range of emotions with utter grace. Their gratitude is genuine, and deeply felt. And whether the rest of society recognizes it or not, by taking care of their own, they contribute in immeasurable ways to our society.
How about we lean in and embrace the hard work they do every day that often goes unrecognized.
This post is dedicated to those mothers. Happy Mother’s Day.
We always welcome your comments:
By Elin Widdifield
I’m grieving. I lost my son. Somewhere he’s still there…It’s okay to let yourself grieve. It’s going to be a lifelong process.
– Bianca, the mother of a 25 year-old son who lives with schizophrenia.
Jennifer was self-disciplined and structured. Now we had a child who couldn’t cope in school. That was like having a different child. It was as if one day we opened the door to find someone else had moved in.
— Esme, the mother of a 20-year-old daughter diagnosed with
borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorder.
Throughout our interviewing process for Behind the Wall, and as we continue talking with parents we meet as we travel around the country to talk about our story collection, we have found that the same themes continue to bubble up. We expected parents to talk about problems with HIPAA laws, lack of access to evidence-based care, complexities of a dual diagnosis, medications, and the court system…and we were right. But one of the most poignant and recurring themes continues to be the subject of grief.
When a loved one becomes ill, each family member experiences grief, including the person living with a mental illness. For example, parents grieve over the temporary and permanent cognitive and behavioral changes in their child and the requirement that parent and child revise expectations for short and long-term educational, professional, and personal opportunities. Siblings grieve over changes in personality and abilities that alter relationships; family focus often shifts to the needs of the ill child, which can create a sense of loss for other children and alter a family’s dynamic. A person who lives with mental illness grieves the loss of himself and what is lost cognitively, such as the ability to read books or sit through movies.
All family members may experience isolation from their community due to stigma and because outsiders often can’t comprehend, or choose not to learn about the experience of having a loved one living with mental illness. The chaos and confusion that goes on behind the walls in these homes is often undisclosed to friends, neighbors, and even to the mental health care providers, leading to more isolation.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Grief in part as the following:
A: deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement
B: a cause of such suffering
Parents of adult children living with serious mental illness likely identify with poignant distress and suffering. There is no deeper emotional suffering than that of losing a child—even just parts of that child altered by illness either temporarily or permanently.
When we began interviewing parents for our story collection, the first question we asked parents was to tell us about their child as an infant through adolescence. We wanted to know about their child’s talents, their personality, and later interests and friends. We wanted to see if parents had a library of good memories in the midst of the chaos that defines living with a loved one suffering with a brain disorder. Most all parents brightened while talking about their child’s early years. There were fond memories of family vacations, special talents, and achievements in sports or academics. One parent relayed a story about how charming her son was from an early age— and still can be when he is stable, and compliant with his treatment.
Seeing our newborn’s face, we imagine the possibilities, hopes and dreams. We think, here’s a clean slate! And we plan to do everything right for this pure, beautiful, gift. This little place in our heart grows with these imaginings of who he will become and how will he change our world, and how much love we will always have for him. Gazing into the tiny bit of perfection created by what can only be miracle, we don’t imagine the illness that comes later and we tell ourselves, we will protect. Always. To a new baby, no parent ever says, “I think you’re going to have mental illness and abuse substances.”1
When my son, Joseph, was diagnosed with a mental illness, my love for him never wavered but my inner world, the place that held the idea of who he was as well as all the imaginings and dreams of who he would become, collapsed in despair. I found myself isolating from others, giving up activities I had once enjoyed, and lying on the couch, reading madly to find out what I could do to ‘fix’ things. I became paralyzed with the fear of worst- case scenarios. I overate cookies-and-cream flavored ice cream to the point where I still cannot bear to look at that flavor. My husband, also in deep pain, grieved differently. He tried to soldier on, busied himself with work and suggested ways to ‘Fix It’. Our son who lives with mental illness felt great loss too. One day he asked, “What has happened to me? I’m not the same person anymore.” Meanwhile, our older son began to pull away from the confusion. We were all in a sad funk, each feeling a loss, and each in a world of pain.
Fortunately, an astute therapist pointed out that we were experiencing grief. She explained to us that there was hope, and hope leads to recovery—magic words for a suffering family. But there was work to be done—addressing the grief was the first step.
The journey was jagged.
Everyone’s experience with grief is personal; my husband’s method of coping was to be busy with work, I isolated and become obsessive, and our elder son pulled away. There is no judgment for how one does grieve, but working through it is critical for moving forward, and having hope in one’s life again.
Joseph, diagnosed with mental illness with co-occurring substance use disorder, got help through ACT.2 The Assertive Community Treatment team helped him to address head-on his mental illness, medication, and sobriety head-on; the team counseled on how to reintegrate into the community and learn healthy habits for his physical health. It is a day-to-day struggle for people with mental illness to live a structured, healthy life in order to stay out of the hospital. He needed non-judgmental support from loved ones and we needed to work hard to learn about the illness and how best to support him. As he began to work toward these goals, and his health improved, Joseph’s grief was greatly reduced and hope returned. Our whole family began feeling hope. My older son felt he was getting his brother back and I no longer felt gripped by feelings loss and fear. Most importantly, time with family became enjoyable again, as it was before Joseph’s illness.
I worked through my grief with therapy. I found meditation. I engaged in quiet activities that I enjoy. I spent many hours of walking in the woods, kayaking, and talking with other parents. Through this process, I rebuilt that place in my heart that holds my hopes and imaginings for him—the same place that holds dearly to memories of Joseph as a smart and funny little boy. We have home movies of him playing sports, dancing happily, and saying funny things. I began to feel gratitude.
One would imagine that re-visiting memories would make my loss feel unbearable, and it did for a while. But it began to work for me. My husband was a few steps behind me in his process, but he also re-visited all our wonderful memories of who our son once was while we also both began to get to know this new person who was emerging healthy, talented, and smart—a young man in Recovery!
Recently I spoke to a gracious group of mental health care professionals in Winston-Salem, NC, at Novant Outpatient Behavioral Health Hospital. I was happy to learn that they are addressing grief for each family member. I believe it is the job of mental health care providers to help families through this process. When we are grieving, we cannot make good decisions for ourselves because we are in a cloud of emotions, we are often isolated, and everything feels confusing, and dark.
Telling our stories, and hearing the stories of others, greatly reduces our feelings of isolation, and helps us to heal and move forward. As a co-facilitator of the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Family-to-Family class, I know that learning about the latest research for brain disorders, and sitting in a room full of people who are learning to cope with a ‘new normal’ as they navigate this ragged road, is also healing and informative.
If you are a person who has a mental illness, or if you have a loved one who is struggling, find an astute mental health care professional who will help you to address your grief, and loss. It is a painful journey, and for me, not unlike having shards of glass stuck in my gut day after day. But one must walk through Grief to get to Hope, and eventually to Recovery.
2 ACT, Assertive Community Treatment is community -based treatment for people with serious mental illness, and often with co-occurring substance use disorder. ACT is a team of professionals who help people to reintegrate into the community by living semi-independently, engaging in everyday tasks, to gain job skills, or attend school. www.dualdiagnosis.org
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This is the question my sister, Elin Widdifield, and I ask one another as we prepare to talk about the important stories in our Behind the Wall collection. We don’t present the same talk or readings at every venue because there are so many different facets of parenting and advocating for a loved one who lives with serious mental illness. What we talk about with mental health care professionals is different than what parents of children recently diagnosed can benefit from; then there’s a slightly different conversation when speaking to a broader audience. This subject matter is really important to us, so we have plenty we want to talk about.
As we prepared for the parent interviews that became the stories in our collection, we knew through personal experiences what areas of this parenting journey we wanted to explore. At the top of the list were questions concerning parents’ experience of grief and of course, coping. Other themes consistently bubbled to the surface throughout the course of interviewing including, and unexpectedly, thoughts about how to talk about mental illness.
Though our great-uncle, Dr. Lawrence Collins, was a well-known psychiatrist many years ago, the rest of the family of lay people didn’t have a language to discuss my grandfather’s illness (nor was the illness specifically identified) that caused chaos for his young wife (our grandmother). As he developed a pattern of missed work, his wife hid his illness, covered for him, and endured privately; his children rarely entertained friends at home. They would say he was “sick again” and everyone knew to keep a distance. It is a blessing they all possessed a wicked sense of humor and despite the chaos, recognized my grandfather’s positive qualities as distinct from the sickness.
We now understand alcoholism is an illness; treatment is available and celebrities talk openly about living sober. Yet talking about mental illness hasn’t quite caught up and widespread misunderstanding prevails. In my grandfather’s day, a cancer diagnosis wasn’t talked about outside the family either because, until cure rate statistics rose to foster hope, it signified doom. The stigma around mental illness is largely a result of the odd and frightening behaviors a person exhibits when the illness is untreated. There’s also a small, yet significant factor feeding stigma, one that is similar to how cancer was once viewed; it is a sense of hopelessness associated with the diagnosis. Sadly, what many don’t understand is that a person who is diagnosed with serious mental illness today can reach recovery with early detection and evidence based treatment. Many of us endeavor to address this misunderstanding through more accurate language.
There is an ongoing broader discussion about media and society’s penchant for exploitative and sensational language. I depart from that discussion here to focus on the manner we, as advocates, family members of those diagnosed, and individuals managing their illness use—or fail to use— clear language when talking about brain disorders. Through our interviews with parents, Elin and I saw that the way parents talked about mental illness, specifically and generally, matters a great deal. The way we use language, or lack thereof, reinforces stigma and the walls of isolation.
… managing one’s own mental illness, or supporting another in that challenge, is the most brave and compassionate existence I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a battle fought day in and day out.
Managing any chronic illness is a challenge and support for caregivers is as critical as support for the ill person. Stigma drives people away from providing this support to the supporters. Of a person with mental illness, we’ve heard it been said, “He’s off” or, “She’s a mess” and even worse, “He’s crazy!” In contrast, think about the language of cancer: “He’s fighting bravely.” “She fought a heroic battle with cancer.” Without discounting the bravery attributed to fighting any painful mortal illness, I assert that managing one’s own mental illness, or supporting another in that challenge, is the most brave and compassionate existence I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a battle fought day in and day out.
Elin echoes many other parents we interviewed when she states that mustering courage to be able to say her son’s diagnosis aloud was a milestone and marked a step toward acceptance and subsequent recovery. Verbalizing truth is key to acceptance. One Behind the Wall mother, Tessa, tells us when she accepted his illness, “his whole world got better.” One’s life improves because acknowledgment leads to effective treatment and importantly, the individual’s own acceptance. A person can only manage his illness once it has been accepted without judgment. Elin and I were quite alarmed that several parents we interviewed revealed that other family members, or worse, even the child’s other parent, were in denial about the diagnosis despite very clear symptoms. A subtext of conflict or judgment about the diagnosis among loved ones hinders a person’s chances for recovery.
Talking openly about mental illness is difficult at first. Elin and I found that once we started talking, others came forward gratefully to share their experience. Bianca, a Behind the Wall mother whose son lives with schizophrenia grew tired of skirting the issue. Now she just tells people. “My son has schizophrenia,” she says. “You know, You guys deal with it!” Because Bianca understands that she can’t control how others judge her son but speaking honestly about her experience and his illness is liberating, particularly when there are many more important issues about the illness to address on a day to day basis, like, “How is my son feeling today?”
Even ignoring the stigma, the parent/advocate role is sometimes grueling. A marathon. Communicating a need for help is no different than any other life challenge. Asking for help is an act of bravery, it’s practical and self-preserving.
Language and communication tools are much better than what my grandmother could access. When her husband drank, he was unavailable. The behaviors he exhibited that we now surmise as his mental illness were just “moods”. Sixty years later, when my nephew was diagnosed and at each juncture of his illness, my sister and her husband sent emails to extended family. Yes, that’s right. They talked openly about it. They spelled it out in vivid detail in email distributed to the whole family. Their emails carefully and factually conveyed a clear message: this is happening, please support us, and here are phone numbers and addresses. More recently, the emails speak about incredible progress.
It has been my experience that people really do want to help others in crisis. But, as one Behind the Wall mother reminds us, not all people understand mental illness; while that’s good for them that they have not had to experience the illness, the misunderstanding isolates a family just when community support is needed most. When one Behind the Wall mother, Rebecca, hospitalized her daughter, she didn’t want everyone to know every detail or have to talk about her experience to every person she encountered. But she did want support in the form of being with friends in a setting that was not all about her daughter’s illness. Like my sister, she used email to update friends about Stella’s, progress. She’d say, “I don’t want to talk about Stella’s progress at dinner tonight or church group tomorrow, but here’s what’s going on so you all know…” This way, she framed the type of support she needed, which for her was friendship and normalcy. Getting it all out in the open, limiting speculation and clarifying her own wishes, made it easier for Rebecca.
The journey supporting her son has been long for Tessa. Her son, now in his thirties has a dual diagnoses of substance use and schizoaffective disorder. Tessa is honest and uses humor to manage and cope. Sometimes, during conversations, he’ll even tell her, “I don’t know what I think about that because I’m crazy.” And when he’s not taking his medication or caring for himself properly, she says, “You’re crazy!’” Her friends tell her she shouldn’t say that to her son. But she tells them she’s treating him like a normal person. She purposely uses the same language flung carelessly about by others to create normalcy. She’s also expressing her defiance and challenging the language of stigma. She is declaring her commitment to a fearless, indefatigable, daily fight against mental illness.
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