Radical Acceptance


In her widely reprinted essay, Welcome To Holland, writer Emily Perl Kingsley aptly describes the experience of having a child with special needs akin to landing in Holland when you’ve made extensive plans to go to Italy. While Ms. Kingsley used the analogy to describe her life raising a child born with Down’s syndrome, parents interviewed for Behind The Wall, whose children live with serious mental illness, were often confronted with a similar destination diversion—though usually not until their child’s teen years. They’d gotten to know their son, watched him develop skills and talents and then he changed. He could no longer play the cello, or read a book. A once-academic daughter couldn’t attend school. Maybe in hindsight the child was more sensitive than most, but one mother described her experience by saying, “This was like having a different child. Like one day we opened the door to find someone else had moved in.”

What is always remarkable, though, is the way parental love can take a person to the far away reaches of emotional strength, present new views one may never have come upon had they not, to use the analogy again, been dumped into unknown territory. We encountered this kind of heroic parenting in our collection of stories about mental illness, as did Andrew Solomon, in his brilliant book, Far From The Tree ( http://andrewsolomon.com/books/far-from-the-tree/ ) in which he interviews parents of children born under challenging circumstances, with unexpected identities or differences. Parents in Solomon’s book and those we met, exemplify parental strength, devotion and endurance, and more importantly, how they reached a metaphorical terra firma or redefined it.

To grapple with the unknowable, one mother we interviewed, Delia, introduced the term, “radical acceptance.” It’s a profoundly liberating term in many contexts. Delia’s daughter was diagnosed with a serious mental illness with symptoms that include bulimia, cutting, and anxiety. Delia’s daughter has always been a “difficult” child. Delia explains, she is not “okay” with the fact of her daughter’s illness, but she has reached “radical acceptance,” which means she understands the illness will always be part of her daughter’s life and therefore her own life, but she is not happy about it. She accepts it and she mourns it, in a loud and private way. This concept of radical acceptance has enabled her to cope, and be supportive to both her daughter partner. Her ability to accept without welcoming the concept is critical; in order to address her child’s illness effectively with early treatment, the facts of it must be accepted even though a parent mourns the implications.

No parent ever wants to accept his child has any serious illness, much less a highly stigmatized (and often very complicated to treat) mental illness. Most parents want to scream. And that’s where the beauty of “radical acceptance” is realized. Merriam Webster, in part defines “accept” as “… to endure without protest or reaction… to regard as proper, normal or inevitable… to recognize as true…” Certainly, mental illness can’t be “the normal course of things.” Some will want to deny it, or look for signs that the diagnosis is faulty, or maybe, as one parent put it, “Wonder if maybe he just smoked a little too much pot.”

Radical acceptance gives us an out. It allows us to have a stance that we accept the diagnosis, but don’t have to regard it without at least some internal protest or reaction, or regard it as proper, normal or inevitable. But we can radically accept that it exists and it must be addressed. We accept that we love our child, but we don’t like itthe illness. Not one bit. Radical acceptance allows us to rise to the occasion while acknowledging it’s not exactly what we’d wanted for our child.

Now, let us explore where we are.