In our story collection and book, Behind the Wall: The True Stories of Mental Illness, as Told by Parents, the parent-contributors offer advice and talk in-depth about the emotional journey—rife with grief— that defines their experience advocating for a child with a persistent mental illness. As heartbreaking as it is to watch their diagnosed child suffer, parents also acknowledge the pain their “well” children endure. At almost every speaking engagement for our book, we are asked, “What about the sibling(s)?”
Parents tell us that their children, who are the siblings of a chronically mentally ill person, grieve deeply. There are several sources of a sibling’s grief. Shifting dynamics within the family is a significant factor. In a typical scenario, a very ill child with immediate and all-consuming needs hijacks parental attention while other children are inadvertently ignored. Parents typically focus on the child who constantly gets into fights, has run-ins with the law or is abusing substances. Meanwhile, a sibling may be quietly suffering without acknowledgment. Kids need to know a parent is emotionally available, which is not necessarily the case when another child is in crisis.
Though one child’s emotional health may be the most grave, all children need support. In fact, the whole family unit needs support. But sadly, grieving parents, who are also in triage mode, may be temporarily incapable of recognizing and/or providing for the emotional needs of their other children. Parents admit they were even unaware of their own grief while experiencing it. Most worrisome is that a young person’s unchecked grief can develop into more serious health issues later.
Such was the case for Kerri, whose son, Tomas, is prone to rages. When he doesn’t get what he wants, she says, he threatens to break things and then does it. His behaviors ruin special times for her daughter and make it uncomfortable to have houseguests. Kerri says her younger daughter had “enjoyed the time when Tomas was away at college. She had felt free to bring friends around, not worried her brother was going to do something weird” (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 44).
Tomas’s all-consuming illness draws attention from his younger sister’s needs due to his demands, anger, and the way he often puts himself in harm’s way, creating one crisis after another. Tomas’s destructive behaviors and the resulting stress in the home, Kerri believes, have affected her daughter’s health.
I’ve always felt he’s ruined things for his younger sister. Here we are, trying to look at colleges and had planned a whole weekend… Our daughter, who’s a great kid and good student, was having health problems, and I always wonder if it was connected to the stress of her brother’s illness and all the uncertainty he has caused. She was first diagnosed with Lyme disease then later with chronic fatigue syndrome with fibromyalgia. We’ll never know her diagnosis for sure, but she became depressed from not feeling well, always feeling tired and run down, and it finally got to her. (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 47).
When Tomas is at home, Kerri says, the family often feels as if they are “walking on eggshells.” Their home is not always a place of calm and peace because of Tomas, clearly not an environment conducive to entertaining friends much less healing.
In another scenario in which parental attention is diverted to the child who is acting out, siblings may subsume their own problems for fear of causing their parents more heartbreak. But unaddressed or unresolved emotional issues can bloom into larger problems. Still, other siblings use the shift in attention to engage in risky behaviors while remaining under the diverted radar of parents who are emotionally and logistically consumed.
Grief also derives from siblings feeling that they have “lost” their bother or sister to the illness. A person with a brain disorder often suffers cognitive (and personality) changes that may be permanent. Sometimes there is memory loss. It is bewildering to all family members and siblings that their brother or sister creates so much trouble and refuses to follow basic rules they once could understand; or that behaviors that are not tolerated from any other family member are excused for the “ill child.” Children are understandably angry with a sibling who creates unnecessary drama and seems to ruin every family event—from birthday dinners to vacations.
Sadly, a young person can’t often escape the impact of their sibling’s behaviors through supports outside the home, either. The stigma of mental illness means that a loved one’s health challenges are not usually disclosed to extended family or close friends for fear of being judged or, as one parent says, because others “can’t possibly understand what I’m going through.” Parents know that because of the bad (sometimes bizarre) behaviors of their child whose illness may be undiagnosed or under-treated, their parenting is scrutinized by those who don’t understand mental illness. Other family members are scrutinized too.
Esme, a parent-contributor says that her daughter, Laura, suffered directly when attention became focused on Jennifer’s chaotic, raging behaviors caused by her mental illness. Laura, a naturally easy-going and upbeat person, was banned from the home of a long-time friend by his parents who believed she would become like her sister, Jennifer. Not only did the community conflate Jennifer’s behaviors with Laura’s, but also Laura’s emotional needs were subsumed by her sister’s volatile, demanding behaviors. Being misunderstood in one’s community is hurtful, especially for young people. About community judgment Esme says,
I was hurt, but there was no action I could take other than console Laura who had by then been affected more than once by the community because of Jennifer’s behavior. That’s what stung the most. At that time Laura was starting to experience depression, which was also crushing. We definitely never intentionally ignored her, but we did ignore her because we missed cues that could have informed us of her well-being, and we shouldn’t have. It was accidental because we were focusing 98 percent of our attention on one child. (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 37).
Growing up with a sibling or any close family member known for disruptive behaviors can lead to feeling isolated from one’s community. This isolation compounds the grief of “losing” a loved one to a brain disorder, especially when friends and community don’t acknowledge loss or recognize support is needed. A brain disorder, as many know, is not a “casserole disease.” Yet, all loved ones, including the person living with mental illness, suffer from a loss the relationships before the illness became symptomatic. As Bianca, a mother we interviewed astutely observes,
When a person has a brain disorder it’s traumatic for the family, like experiencing a death. If Miguel had been in a car accident and had brain damage, everybody would have enfolded him. The loss [his brother] Arturo felt about Miguel’s illness affected him the way I felt the loss and hurt of my divorce: if the man had died, I’d have gotten a card. Flowers at least. You are left with pain and grief that no one acknowledges. (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 226).
Still, it’s important to know that families can heal and recovery is possible for a person living with a brain disorder. The grieving process represents progress, allowing for a “new normal” to bloom. Families of a person with serious, chronic mental illness are forever changed but they don’t have to remain broken. First, parents need to take care of themselves in order to support their children. Parents like Esme also recommend spending one-on-one time with each child to strengthen the parent-child relationship. Though creating that “normal” one-on-one time with other family members requires some work at first, it doesn’t have to involve complicated plans. Says Esme,
I’ve been learning to have balance and spend more time with Laura when her social schedule allows. When she was taking driver’s education I’d spend time in the car with her. We take moments. “Let’s go have dinner, just you and me.” Or, “Let’s go driving for an hour and stop along the way and go into shops . . .” Anything to steal a moment so she feels connected. (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 37-38)
Even as adolescents and young adults rebel or seem to rebuff parental attention, children do need time with their parent(s). As another parent recommends, find something, anything that your child likes to do and share that activity. “Maybe it’s crochet,” he says. Many families do find fun activities that involve every family member to help heal relationships and reach a ‘new normal.’ Activities can be simple, such as hiking, biking, playing a board game, working a puzzle together or watching a movie at home. Start with something small if that’s what it takes.
Siblings need time to heal from their own journey grappling with “losing” the sibling they knew, escaping the chaos the illness creates in the home and/or accepting their loved one’s mental illness. Siblings may escape or lose regular contact with the family for short-term or long-term. In some cases, the sibling relationship becomes (or is deemed) irreparable, even toxic for one or both persons. For others, siblings come to an understanding and may even be drawn closer. Having shared joyful, meaningful early years together can determine the long-term relationships between siblings and those who understand mental illness, usually become in awe of their loved one’s strength to manage it.* Many siblings we met became the compassionate, adult healthcare advocates, managing their own journey loving and supporting a person with a chronic brain disorder.
No matter what the scenario, the journey of the person whose sibling lives with a serious and chronic mental illness must be acknowledged.
We recommend finding support at your local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) affiliate and participating in the free twelve-week Family-to-Family course to learn evidence-based information on mental illness, how to communicate with your loved one and about healthy self-care. NAMI was a resource many parent contributors found to be helpful in their journey.
*For an example of sibling compassion and understanding, please see our March 20, 2014 guest post from Michael Ross about his sister Michele, Eulogy for Michelle: Defining the Success in My Sister’s Life”
If you would like to share your story, please connect to us privately through this website or private email at: mwiddi [at] yahoo.com. Identity of contributors remains anonymous to protect family members.
Of course, we welcome any comments:
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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:
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:
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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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.
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.