On my son’s 25th birthday.

After an article I wrote was published in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 7th entitled, “Coming clean about mental illness,” we received many heartfelt responses. One mother’s email to us was particularly poignant. She agreed to allow us to provide a portion of it here, as a guest post. We are grateful for her courage to share.

To see the original article to which she reponds, go to: (http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/openforum/article/Coming-clean-about-mental-illness-4962030.php)

On my son’s 25th birthday.

Today is my son’s 25th birthday.

Today is a sad reminder of what little impact I have had on this disease and how small I feel standing up to a most vicious bogeyman: mental illness. This day is a taunting gut check of the limitations even a mother, his most formidable defender, has in protecting a child from this illness.


What should be a happy day for my son and me is muddied with fear, anxiety, angst and mostly guilt— the worst kind of guilt— “Mother Guilt.” It’s a particularly profound kind of guilt, not because mothers like me feel responsible for our child’s illness (though that myth is hard for us to shake), but because mothers, by definition, are “fixers”. We identify needs, solve problems, make the right calls, do what needs to be done – often neglecting our own needs in the process —to protect our child and keep him safe.

I can honestly say I have tried everything and have not succeeded. My son still suffers from mental illness and I can’t fix it. I do not have a cure, a salve, nothing. From the outside, I appear to have failed as a mother, and yet, I have been working, strategizing, and hoping for 25 years, and this road feels endless.

Some days, I am hopeful about where he is, what I can and will do for my son, and even that I am here for him. Other days, there is gut-wrenching helplessness for not knowing what do for him, or how to prevent his self-harm. Parenting him is a rabbit hole of emotion: guilt, hope, sorrow, hope again, and a final re-birth of sadness. I have been told, “one cannot parent mental illness,” and that is supposed to make me feel better but it does not. Parenting, surviving, loving, and guiding a child with mental illness requires ineffable courage and strength I never before could have imagined I could muster.

My experience is too difficult to share with others, too upsetting to talk about, and it’s always a conversation downer. And though my son is always top of mind, I struggle to talk about it. I cannot bear judgment cast upon my mothering.

What birthday card is there for a young man whose mental health treatment has become infinitely more complex by his using substances to self-medicate his bipolar disorder that doctors now admit began in childhood? 

No, there is no birthday card for my 25-year-old son who has lived with Tourette syndrome, a brain disorder that hijacked his body with compound tics at the age of three, his head rolling in circles and elbow jabbing at his side, my distraught boy telling me, “It’s not me! It’s my brain and it’s really making me angry!” What birthday card is there for a young man whose mental health treatment has become infinitely more complex by his using substances to self-medicate his bipolar disorder that doctors now admit began in childhood? At eighteen, he was finally diagnosed with bipolar but by then I had even less ability to help him. Because of the havoc that Tourette syndrome, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse wreaked on his brain, I have fewer tools now to teach him how to navigate the real world on his own, or develop the most basic life skills most men his age have acquired and then some.

I am not greedy. I don’t need an Ivy League graduate, a CEO, or President of anything. My accolades for him seem easy to achieve to most of us: he needs to survive the day, then the next one, functionally. I pray for simple things: his happiness, health, love, harmony, and peace, all of which continually elude us because my beautiful boy suffers from mental illness.

On his 25th birthday, I want to tell him how much I love him; that I am always here for him. But no mainstream sentiment expresses the complexities and depth of loving an adult child who lives with mental illness. The lives of adult children who live with addictions or brain disorders do not correspond in any way to the trajectory of most “normal” individuals, or the milestones for which they strive.

For mothers like me, birthdays are annual reminders of what once again has not been resolved, and may never be.

I occupy a front-row seat to his suffering, a season pass to his hardships and there are no time-outs. And while I am unwilling to leave this game, I desperately pray for a reprieve from his suffering, peace for him to rest. I long to see his infant face again, the one for which I possessed the magic to soothe with simple maternal nurturing. I long for simpler times when he found peace in the safety of my arms. In that sacred embrace, I vowed to protect him always. A commitment made by mother to child, a promise I have never broken. I know I am not alone but I can’t help but feel isolated and afraid for that baby I held 25 years ago today.

Parenting a mentally ill child is the hardest thing I have ever done. I love him more than anything in the world and would give everything to change his situation.

Unfortunately that is not enough. mother-baby-hands

On his birthday, what I want to say is simply:

I will love you always, like you forever, and you will always be my baby. I love you my son. Happy Birthday. 

Love, Mom

As always, your comments are welcome:

*cake image courtesy of notmartha.com