Most of us remember our first bike—mine was red— and the feeling of cruising the neighborhood with a pack of kids, jumping curbs, racing and bombing hills. I also have fond memories of running through the neighbors’ yards, playing kick-the-can at dusk on hot summer evenings. A little bit sweaty and my skin splotched with the sticky remains of an ice cream cone and bug bites, heart racing with the thrill of the chase. I was one of the youngest and always got caught. But still, the thrill of playing pushed away any thoughts that could trouble a child-brain.
A few years ago, my husband and I were asked to join a softball team. I was not asked because I am good at softball. Truthfully, my eye-hand coordination is frequently the source of comic relief and that’s fine by me. But amongst our friends, there was a shortage of female players and the coed league has quotas. Lucky me. As it was throughout my whole athletic career, I wasn’t great, but I had a blast. We all had a blast despite losing every game. Well, maybe the more competitive and skilled players got less enjoyment than had we been a winning team, but no one will deny that the thrill of anticipation when the ball sails into the outfield (where of course I would be installed) or hurtling toward home plate is a magical, adrenaline pumping moment. I may not have been able to make a beautiful play, but the idea of it, maybe more like a fantasy, offered the rush I remembered from playing childhood games and school team sports. Heart pounding. Forgetting about all the other stuff.
And that’s just it: forgetting all the other stuff.
Elin and I talk a lot about the importance of “self-care” for parents who advocate for a child who has a serious brain disorder. Finding activities that bring joy and peace are an important piece of self-care. Finding an escape from day to day discussions of “the illness” benefits a person’s well being. These activities can be things that a parent likes to do alone or with the other parent or a friend. Or on a team. Ideally, a family can participate together in an activity like hiking, swimming, skiing, or cooking together. A father we interviewed for our Behind the Wall story collection, who has a daughter living with serious mental illness, advises doing whatever activity your child (or children) enjoy(s), whether that’s snowboarding or crocheting, but something that gets away from thinking and discussing the illness.
Basically, have some fun. Feel joy. Feel like a kid.
Recently, I rediscovered cycling. One day I took my mountain bike out of its long hibernation in our garage and started riding. I get nervous on tight, gravelly curves and steep, rocky descents. But the process of working on my fears in the physical world takes my mind temporarily away from real life issues I’m juggling. Riding on the trails offers that same thrill of freedom I felt as a kid in our neighborhood. A few weeks ago, my son joined me on a ride and showed me how to conquer the steep descents, specifically, a short set of concrete stairs. He made it look fun and compared doing the jump on our bikes to the thrill he gets skateboarding. He made it look easy too. Truthfully, with good body positioning, it is easy on a mountain bike. So, there I sat, poised at the top of the stairs while my heart knocked around my chest and he calmly talked me through each move through the descent. “You can do this Mom. We are not leaving until you do it smoothly. Without freaking out.” Roles were reversed; he was showing me how to play like a kid. No one talked about homework, financial issues, health issues, or future plans except what was right there before us. Those stairs, and the next ramp we’d tackle. One of the best afternoons of my life.
There really is nothing like the rush of adrenaline and being out in nature to cure (even if temporarily) whatever is nagging at you. It’s certainly working for me. I’ve also started riding a road bike too. I go with friends, or alone, with a loved one, and feel the positive effects for days after. It’s my thing.
For Elin, it’s riding her cruiser at the beach, swimming in the ocean, rowing on her kayak and walking her sweet dogs in the woods. Find your thing. Do your thing.
It’s what your loved ones need you to do.
As always, your thoughts are valuable to us:
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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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:
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:
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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