The subtext of my father’s life and what bled into the four lives he created was the untimely death of his mother from blood poisoning sixteen days after his birth on Christmas Eve, 1931. From all accounts, which are too few, our grandmother was a firm but warm matriarch who managed her brood of nine surviving children with benign militancy and efficiency, keeping a clean and orderly house during the strained years of the Depression.
My siblings and I know Ronie Woodlief King through brief moments with three of our father’s sisters, one of whom was twelve at the time of her death, and from a single brown and white wedding photograph that rested on our piano throughout our childhood. Copies of this portrait, with its jagged creases, have been distributed to the many descendants of Ronie’s ten surviving children and now reside on walls, mantles and tables—maybe shoved in drawers—mostly in North Carolina but also across the country. We always said my oldest sister, Elin, shared a remarkable resemblance to Ronie. Her husband, my grandfather, passed only seven years after her and resembles my father. They share a sweet, youthful expression that belies their later heartbreak.
Despite never meeting this biological grandmother, her legacy profoundly marks us. From as early as I could remember, I saw an ineffable sadness in my father that I assumed was the grief in which my father’s early life was founded. Perhaps my earliest witness to his well of sadness was when I was about five and he began weeping while we watched Bambi together. In one narrative about my father’s first days, he lay crying in his bassinet in a soaked and soiled diaper until his oldest sister, Doris, who, at eighteen, was managing chores and caring for the youngest children still at home, could eventually care for him. It was then that neighbors, who had just lost their own baby, took the motherless infant into their home until the family could properly care for him. Later, this family adopted him, a truly charitable act during the Depression. Because I’m the youngest, what I know of my paternal (non-biological) grandmother, who took my father in and raised him, is that she made memorable pimento cheese and kept a clean home.
There is no other relationship that defines a person’s life the same way as that between mother and child. Adopted parents not excluded here, but in my father’s case, he and his descendants were indelibly marked by the loss of their biological mother. Maternal love is fierce. It’s why I always tell my children as I drop them off downtown or at a friend’s home, to always inform me when they change locations. In an emergency, no one will fight harder to find them than their mother.
Ronie’s impact on her youngest children and grandchildren is discoverable in what was created by her absence. My sisters and I have broadly speculated about what kind of parent or grandparent she would have been and believe she watches over all her children and their children. I imagine she likely had great pride managing home and children. I wonder if she was humored by her bright and funny children. I wonder about the moment she recognized her imminent death and that she was leaving behind an infant and young ones as well as older children. Heartbreakingly, she was robbed of the luxury to be annoyed by her two youngest boys, my father and his brother Julian, when they got into trouble or talked back or didn’t come home in time for supper. She was robbed of opportunities to catch her teenagers, Rachel, Mildred and Helen sneaking out with boys at night or rolling their eyes in teenage disgust behind her back. She didn’t get the chance to yell something at them that she’d later wish she could take back. I wonder, did she, or would she, have complained about all those damn kids?
The mothers that tell their stories in Behind the Wall have been pushed to limits no parent should ever experience: seeing their child suffer without being able to help them and sometimes watching their child walk the brink of life and death.
Elin and I have interviewed many mothers who have adult children living with serious mental illness. Similarly, these mothers have, at times been robbed of the typical things – of having “normal” moments, experiencing typical behaviors. It is not surprising that, with a similar power as Ronie’s legacy, the stories from mothers we interviewed, profoundly altered my perspective on mothering.
Each one of the mothers we interviewed stressed the importance of being supportive and emotionally available to their child, even when that child showed no reciprocation or appreciation, a common feature of the parenting dynamic, and especially common for adult and teenage children living with untreated mental illness. But we found it somewhat surprising that nearly every mother expressed regrets for some action or inaction. Many admitted having believed at one time or another that they caused the onset of their child’s illness, even though intellectually, they know brain disorders are not caused by bad parenting. These mothers wonder if they could have done something different when they were pregnant; maybe they should have disciplined more. Or less. They have a hard time freeing this false guilt.
These mothers in our Behind the Wall story collection, women like Esme, Tessa, Nathalie, Bianca and Rebecca, admit mistakes but also, through an oft-times harrowing parenting journey, have come to understand how little control they really have. They understand that parenting takes them for the ride and that they have less control in where the journey will take them as much as how they respond.
The mothers that tell their stories in Behind the Wall have been pushed to limits no parent should ever experience: seeing their child suffer without being able to help them and sometimes watching their child walk the brink of life and death. And then there is the grief of losing the child you once knew to a brain illness. Having been through all that, they can finally acknowledge they are remarkable mothers. They come to know that mothering cannot be perfect but mothers do make an impact, even in absence. As more than one mother expressed it, no one will take care of my child and advocate the way I do, and will.
When a child is unwell, often it’s the mother who has the power to keep things “real,” and maintain a sense normalcy while simultaneously pushing towards recovery. Bianca tells us that even when her son was very sick, living at home with her, unable to go to school or work, she tried to “keep it real” with him. Sometimes this meant yelling at him, getting angry with him like a mother would with any typical young man. For example, after coming home from work to find her house a mess, she said to him,
“You’re not broken! Pick it up! I work too hard to come home on my days off and clean up this house!” As soon as I raised my voice, which at the time didn’t seem like a bad thing to do even though now a part of me knows I shouldn’t yell… I felt guilty about getting angry. But on the other hand, “Pick up your dirty dishes!” He’s not broken. He’s tougher than he looks. (Behind the Wall: The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents, 71).
For a mother who has spent years caring and advocating for an ill son, usually feeling as if she is screaming into the wind to get help for him, having a typical angry moment with him likely felt refreshing. But while getting angry or “losing it” isn’t ideal parenting, it happens. Tessa also admits to losing it on occasion with her son who binge drinks, gets into fights and has bouts of homelessness. But perhaps that’s the gift she is giving him – that she can show him anger yet he never doubts her fierce love or that she’ll be there for him.
Learning about the unfathomable struggles of mothers like those who have adult children living with mental illness, I’ve come to recognize that being able to treat a child like a “typical” child is a gift. The mothers in Behind the Wall parent on a whole different level than most and they are also far from typical. They are remarkable for their stamina, compassion and pragmatism. They understand a rule of life that took my grandmother’s legacy and my unfolding of it to learn: that we need to be grateful for each day given to us and particularly on those days when (especially) our children and loved ones are safe and healthy.
I will be the first to admit I don’t always feel gratitude for the parenting experience, particularly when a teen is ranting about something that pales in comparison to the struggles of, well, anything happening now in the world. Or when my child has been asked forty-six times to take out the now overflowing and reeking garbage. But underneath all of that, there is deep gratitude that I’m here. I may not be the best mother, but I am here. I’m the one that gets to advocate for my child and be on whatever that journey entails.
On this Mother’s Day, I honor mothers whose children have been unwell, in the past or currently, and who work hard to keep things “normal” or create a “new normal.” I honor my grandmother, Ronie, a woman I never knew, by keeping it real with my own kids. I honor mothers who act from a place of intention, make mistakes because nobody is perfect, and who understand the great fortune in each day we have with our children. I shall celebrate that I have been blessed with the luxury to sometimes become frustrated by my children and yet, they always know I am here for them.
As always, your comments and thoughts are welcome:
by Elin Widdifield
Last week in a book group I facilitated, the topic of “shame” was raised during discussion of author Wally Lamb’s latest novel, We Are Water. One of the main characters, Annie Oh, had been sexually abused as a child. Her shame was wrapped up in guilt and loss, and as a foster child, she received no professional help. She no doubt felt confused, angry, and she lived in a tangled web of shame and secrecy. For years, her anger festered, expressed in her “outsider art” and by abusing her son. Shame, guilt, and secrets caused darkness and deep troubles in Annie Oh’s family.
What is shame? Merriam-Webster defines shame as: A feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong. Ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment, dishonor or disgrace
From the Oxford Dictionary we can add: A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. (Emphasis in bold is mine.)
Shame can be useful for enforcing behaviors that keep individuals and others safe in a society. We want criminals to feel shame for socially unacceptable actions. Unfortunately, many criminals are sociopaths, incapable of feeling empathy, guilt, or shame, which can create frustration for those of us who do experience and respond to these emotions and/or have been a crime victim. Most all of us have felt shame at some point in our lives, perhaps as a child, when learning society’s code of ethics from elders. Sadly, some, like Lamb’s Annie Oh character, carry an undeserved burden of shame throughout life.
The Oxford Dictionary says, shame is a distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. What is perplexing, and not included in the Oxford or Webster definition, is that too often people feel shame for events out of their control, such as being abused as a child or born with a brain that is wired for a mental illness.
What does shame do? Shame isolates, leads to secrecy and to hiding one’s truth. Shame denies one the ability to make honest appraisal of oneself, one’s life. Shame is the foundation of stigma and most devastatingly results in a reluctance to acknowledge illness and/or seek treatment.
How many times has the media squawked bafflement that an individual who has caused their own death or harm to others had lived with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness? “How could a person or their loved ones ignore obvious symptoms of mental illness,” they ask?
Rarely is a person promoted in their job after they’ve revealed their history with mental illness, even if their work had been stellar…
For those of us who have a loved one living with a mental illness (most of whom are NOT a danger to others), it is not surprising a person fails to seek treatment, or that loved ones weren’t successful in enforcing treatment. Our society feeds the stigma of mental illness with its solid diet of… yes, shame. Rarely is a person praised for their hard work of addressing their mental illness and undergoing treatment. It’s usually discussed in hushed tones. Rarely is a person promoted in their job after they’ve revealed their history with mental illness, even if their work had been stellar, and this despite the long list of highly successful individuals living with brain disorders.
How can we help to detangle this mess of shame, guilt, and secrecy, and diminish stigma?
We can speak about brain disorders openly in the same way we speak about physical disorders. Caregivers, family members, and loved ones must speak up about needing support. Those looking from the outside see no crutches, casts, or blood. Yet, in the home, loved ones are subject to the ill person’s extreme behavioral changes that cause chaos in all the lives around him. Loved ones must change plans as quickly as they are made; they often seem distracted and are overwhelmed. But those looking in from the outside don’t know the truth unless it is spoken about.
Starting a conversation about the impact of a loved one’s brain disorder on our family, and more broadly, our society, is not always comfortable. We still encounter a tone-deafness about mental illness. Recently, when talking about interviewing people all over the country for Behind the wall, a man interjected, “You mean you found crazies all over the country?” I bit my tongue and, after a beat and a breath, I continued my effort to share information about mental illness. Some will back away, because this illness has nothing to do with them or their family. And that’s okay. Fortunately, in our experience, most people to whom we speak about Behind the Wall do understand or want to learn about brain disorders.
For the sake of our neighbors, friends, and because of the prevalence of mental illness across the globe, we continue to share what we know about brain disorders in an effort to reduce stigma and encourage individuals to seek treatment. Speaking openly, without shame, is beneficial for a whole society. We can have stronger and safer communities when our citizens who live with mental illness are not afraid to be diagnosed and treated. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states the importance of encouraging quality (evidence based) treatment in terms anyone can relate to:
The human and economic toll is enormous yet often hidden. Untreated mental illnesses in the U.S. cost more than $100 billion a year in lost productivity… Local hospitals and clinics must cope with associated chronic physical diseases. Schools have to open more special education classes. Courts and jails handle a large number of individuals who suffer from untreated mental illnesses. Suicide ranks among the top fifteen most common killers in the U.S. (in the top three among young people), and 90 percent of cases can be attributed to mental illness.
Our society must take responsibility to learn symptoms of an active mental illness. Those of us with experience, and who understand the illness, can lead this effort. An effective step in this endeavor is to demand in our communities that law enforcement, first responders, educators, and anyone else interfacing with the public are properly trained to recognize symptoms of brain disorders and learn how to interact with a person in mental health crisis. Brain disorders cause people to behave in odd ways. No doubt. A person with a mental illness may respond to his own inner processes, which may include frightening voices or paranoid beliefs. Atypical brain activity caused by the illness may be reflected an appearance of “not being all there,” and his responses are unpredictable to outsiders. Understanding brain disorders requires respecting that the input affecting his brain processes is unknowable and that his responses to these inputs influence behaviors that are odd and possibly frightening to an outside observer, or family member. These are behaviors of untreated mental illness, or of a person who has experienced a relapse.
We can all play a part in identifying misplaced shame for an illness that wasn’t chosen by the ill person and the foolish behavior symptomatic of the illness is out of one’s control. We can all do our part to reduce stigma so that people will seek and receive treatment.
We can stop assuming that living with mental illness equates to an inability to hold down a job and living a fulfilling life. Most people who are treated for serious mental illness live full and meaningful lives.
Our faith communities and workplace can be inclusive by understanding that the illness has symptoms that should not be conflated with a person’s character, or behaviors when they are well. We can support a person who lives with mental illness by providing a route for skill-building and work experience.
We can support caregivers of people living with mental illness by simply listening, taking a walk, or having coffee together.
There are many organizations whose mission it is to support individuals and families of those living with mental illness and to address stigma. Among the many, check out:
As always, your comments are most welcome:
Our guest blogger tells us how challenging it is to live “in the moment”.
I hold my breath waiting. Panic stuck in my throat, wondering if this is beginning of another crisis my son is creating. Is he going to experiment and lower with his meds and become manic? Will it be like the time he became manic and paranoid?
That time, after alerting the police that the CIA was watching him, he threw out all his trophies, awards, photos, well-written essays, things representing highlights from his past, from before he became ill. Later, I was able to retrieve most things, buried deeply in the garbage and sludge-covered. He packed the essentials: a gallon of sterile water, one change of clothes, sketchbook, a few dollars and not much more. He set out to live on the streets so the CIA couldn’t study him. My two sisters and I drove down every street downtown, tracing the path to his familiar haunts, hunting him down as if he were a runaway puppy.
We found him, euphoric, ready to enter the homeless shelter. He admitted he hadn’t slept in a week and needed help.
The chaos he has created in the past stems from his decision to walk into a bar and drink a beer, and his distorted notion that he is a ‘normal guy’ who can drink a beer. One beer, and be fine. But for him, one beer leads to a weeklong, or months-long binge, blackouts, ruined relationships, lost job, failed college semester, and all this followed by shame and guilt, and the long haul of putting it all back together again.
So, I would hold my breath waiting, knowing what had been built could all fall apart. In one beer.
But while holding my breath, I forget the gratitude for the previous three years of calm and serenity his recovery has brought to our family. I forget gratitude for the hard work and day-to-day struggle that is his, just to live a meaningful life with solid relationships, work, and balance in his life. I forget how much work he does to earn a moment of joy, and happy family moments.
It’s not healthy to stop my life, become paralyzed in fear…
It’s not healthy to stop my life, become paralyzed in fear; I know this. And I’m not fun company. I’ve watched my husband sleep, eat well, go to the gym, work, and put his worry into neat compartments that only occasionally leak out. I will never know how he has been able to do this, but we are all different.
At the Al Anon meetings they tell me to let go and live my own life. Of course I know this is what one should do, but letting go and taking care of myself requires more discipline than holding my breath. Taking care of myself, over worrying for my child, is not natural for mothers.
But how long can a person hold their breath?
I came to realize that I cannot continue to live this way, starving myself of oxygen, denying myself my own life. I need to be strong for that moment he reaches out, asking for help. I needed to change, and it can only come from me.
I found a therapist who knows about addictions and mental illness. She helped me grieve the loss of my son, the easy son I once had; the son who won trophies, wrote essays, and had healthy relationships. To allay my fear and angst, I began to meditate, sometimes a walking meditation on the beach, or in the woods. Exercise and sports had always been a part of my life and it was time to incorporate these activities back into my life. I needed to live more consciously, beginning with eating well, not mindlessly consuming a pint of cookie dough ice cream in one sorrowful sitting.
The most difficult part for me was becoming social again. I had lost relationships during the chaotic times of my son’s illness. Let’s face it, people don’t understand, and I wasn’t fun to be with anyway. I made new friends who are also in the club of knowing mental illness and addiction. These friends could hear what I was saying without flinching or pitying. I don’t want pity.
What has helped give me perspective and insight is being well informed. I read and learned everything I could about the dually diagnosed, those with serious mental illness and substance use disorders. I found my local NAMI to be most helpful, especially the Family-to-Family class that my husband and I attended together. I found support and community there too. I also called upon my faith, that faith I had felt abandoned me during the hard times.
I feel connected to my son, and this is key. Feeling connected to our son gives us the best chance that he will turn to us when he is failing. It’s the best hope we can have. Feeling connected enables me, ironically, to let go a little more. Knowing that he is aware that we will always support his recovery and never judge his journey is the best insurance that he WILL turn to us on his own volition. Because ultimately, his recovery must come from him. I now recognize that holding my breath or living in fear will not give him tools to manage his illness.
How we stay connected is by expressing our deep appreciation of his strengths and struggles, and telling him frequently how much we respect his hard work. Believe me, I want to keep him in a bubble to protect him. But I don’t pity him or coddle. I support his efforts. I’ve learned the importance of letting go and allowing him to make his own choices and decisions, because I won’t be around forever to protect him. I enjoy his humor, his new quirkiness, and his artistic passions. There are many things I want for him but he may not want these things for himself. I’ve worked on learning to stay quiet, enjoy the moment, and find gratitude. I am grateful he’s alive and has integrated into his community, and is moving forward in his own way with his own volition.
Sometimes, I slip, and find I am holding my breath: after learning he’d “had a beer with friends,” or one recent night when he didn’t return home. The difference now is that I recognize when I am not living in this moment, but rather flashing back to the chaos of the past, and worrying about things that may or may not ever happen. My physical health is much better when I live mindfully, with balance, and joy. Every day offers the chance to find joy. I sound like a bumper sticker. A few years ago those sayings evoked anger rather than peace for me. I don’t want to be in this club of parents whose children struggle with a dual diagnosis. I want to be a parent of an adult child whose biggest problem is finding the right career, or breaking up with his girlfriend, or learning to budget his money.
But this is where I am in this moment.
Your comments are always welcome:
Parents we interviewed for Behind the Wall often spoke about difficulties during the holidays. Regular life is disrupted. There’s pressure to be happy, c’mon, it’s the holidays! For some, there is unresolved family conflict. Whatever the reasons, there is added stress, a key ingredient in disrupting anyone’s mental health.
Personally, my favorite holiday is Thanksgiving. It’s the day we cook, eat, and hang with loved ones and close friends. It’s sharing in sustenance rather than materialism. Thanksgiving is about being genuinely thankful and also pulling up a chair to your own personal pumpkin pie. Keeping it simple and local is how our nuclear family does it. But not everyone has someone with whom to share the holiday or is fortunate (or selfish enough) to keep it simple.
And there’s the rub. Knowing many families have a loved one fighting on foreign soil, or fighting serious illness, or just plain fighting internally, can make it difficult to celebrate. Feeling grateful can feel like gloating when one considers day-to-day challenges in others lives.
And yet, those who’ve had the most difficult challenges are those who can teach a thing or two about gratitude. One of our Behind the Wall parents tells us that beginning November every year, she becomes more vigilant than she is normally (which is more than most), watching for signs that her son is stressed, or beginning a cycle of psychosis. She fears his psychosis could lead again to jail and weeks of horrific treatment. This fear is justified. When her son is well and safe, she is truly grateful. I believe her because she understands life’s difficulties.
Another Behind the Wall parent, Esme, has a daughter whose illness is the underlying cause for dangerous behaviors that among other events, lead to a near-lethal cutting incident and an overdose. Esme says the experience with her daughter has given her great empathy. For which she is grateful. She doesn’t expect those who don’t have mental illness in their family to understand, and says, “Good for them they don’t understand.” Though, it would be great if our society could learn to accept those who live with mental illness, Esme rightly focuses on how lucky she is that her daughter is kind and loving.
Then there’s Behind the Wall’s Bianca, who reminds us to find the moment of “normal” in all the chaos of parenting an adult child with persistent mental illness. Even if it’s a small moment. Maybe it’s thirty-minutes she and her son share making dinner. Maybe it’s laughing at a joke. You can find the moment of normal if you try, she says.
What these generous, inspiring parents express is the true meaning of gratitude. For these parents, gratitude comes from accepting that life is not a string of good moments with a few hiccups along the way. To paraphrase my dear friend, a practicing Buddhist, life is struggle, work, and hope, with wondrous glimmers of grace (I loathe to use the vaguely defined term, “happiness”). There’s no question that some are born with more talent, or into families with more resources. We can feel grateful that some of these gifted folks do help others, and feel empathy for those who choose not to do so, for their lives are not rich in what life has to offer. Maybe what defines a lucky or blessed person is one’s ability to appreciate that precise moment when good does comes along, to recognize the appearance of grace. No matter one’s circumstances, perhaps the greatest gift of all is the ability to see and experience genuine gratitude.
‘Tis the season to see grace and find gratitude, even if within the smallest moment.
Happy Thanksgiving to our readers. We are genuinely grateful for your support.
As always, your comments are welcome: