What it was like growing up with a mentally ill parent?
I’m lucky to have a few memories of my mother when she still behaved like a typical mom. She was very creative and involved with my sister and me. She liked making crafts and taking us on mystery tours to playgrounds we’d never seen. However, around the time of my ninth birthday, things changed drastically. My mom became confused, and couldn’t express herself properly. She couldn’t use the phone, had very poor balance, and couldn’t cook. Although I wasn’t aware of any specifics, I knew something was very wrong. The following year, Mom moved in and out of the psychiatric ward for several weeks at a time. That’s when I became the mother figure.
Twice, I came home from school and found the house full of smoke. My mom had been trying to cook. I had to call the fire department. Another day, she climbed on a chair in the kitchen and fell. I picked her up and put her to bed, then called my dad and asked him to come home from work because I was scared. My younger sister was quite sheltered from most of this. I didn’t realise how much I protected her until we discussed it as adults. We’re very close because of what we’ve been through together, and my sister is grateful that she was able to have a childhood while I took on responsibilities beyond my years.
As a child, what were your top priorities?
When my dad left for work each morning, he always reminded me not to let Mom touch the stove, not to let her go downstairs, and so on. It never seemed unusual to me that I had to do so much for my mother. After school I would babysit her instead of going to a babysitter myself. My dad worked in the city, and rode the bus two hours each way, so we were very much on our own. My top priorities became making sure my mom and sister had what they needed until my dad got home. My kid time was in the evenings when Dad took me to Guides or a church youth group. In school, I didn’t relate well to the other kids. I was an easy target for bullies, but I thrived in Guides where maturity and responsibility were prized.
How did you come to understand that your family was different in this way, and how did you cope?
Around age twelve, my parents took me to see a social worker due to depression and my dislike of school. Not knowing that my mother had been diagnosed as mentally ill, I was only able to describe her behaviour and how it made me feel. The social worker tried to have me role play communication with my mom; she pretended to be my mom. I became very frustrated when the social worker wouldn’t believe that my mother wouldn’t listen if I told her I wanted to talk about something, and would instead either ignore me or become very angry and rude. This was the first of a string of social workers and psychologists who made me feel like an alien because my family was like no other they were aware of.
My coping mechanism became to stay away from home when possible. I immersed myself in volunteer work with Rangers, the local youth centre, and anything else I could get into. When things became too intense at home, I would walk to a local park and sit under a tree reading a book for a while. Sometimes I would walk around town all day, window shopping, talking to strangers, and just trying to forget what I had escaped from at home.
How did having a parent suffering with mental illness impact your ability to relate to others as you matured? Did it somehow expand and/or squelch this ability?
Having been a caregiver at such a young age, I have always assumed leadership roles. In Guides, I was a Patrol Leader, and as a teenager, I was an assistant Brownie Leader. I joined a committee to create a youth centre in my town, and often initiated new projects with that group. I made a lot of friends through that committee, and they came to rely on me as the person to go to for advice, or just a sounding board when they needed to talk. Even now at age thirty, friends come to me when they want straightforward, honest advice.
The flip side of my honesty and strength is that I can be blunt and sometimes bossy, but I’m able to acknowledge this. I try to keep myself from getting too pushy. My friends know that they can be equally honest with me, and I appreciate that. My drive for volunteerism has remained strong as well. I run two singles’ social clubs, a support group for sleep disorders, am a member of Scouting, and an all-purpose volunteer fund raiser and cage cleaner for the Humane Society. People ask me for help, and I step right up to the job. At times this has been overwhelming, but in recent years I’ve learned how to say no sometimes as not to overburden myself. I always need to have some kind of project to focus my energy on, someone or something to take care of, and I think this comes from my early years of always having to keep watch and look after everyone else at home.
To a large extent, the struggles with my mother are the same as when I was a child. We still have a power struggle where my mother tries to show her capabilities by refusing to take any of my suggestions. Last year, my father passed away, and she became violent. I had to leave town and for the first time in forty years, she was alone. I had to learn how to step back and allow her to make her own mistakes, although I’m always afraid she’ll do something to physically harm herself or someone else. I’ve done everything I can to let doctors and others know what to watch out for. However, the law prevents anyone from intervening until she actually causes harm to herself or someone else.
How do you cope as an adult?
Now that I’ve moved to a different city, I’m focusing on the self-care I ignored for so long. I got a gym membership and go several times each week. I do yoga and take belly dance lessons. I joined a choir and several social groups here. I live with my sister now, and we get along very well. I don’t know where I would be without her love and support.
How has living in the shadow of mental illness made you stronger? Can you share the positives that have emerged for you as a unique individual? Has it shaped your views on motherhood and parenting?
Growing up with a very volatile person has given me great patience when dealing with others. I’ve always had to figure out the underlying meaning of things–why my mother said and did the things she did–so I’m very attuned to the things people don’t say out loud. I’m a caregiver and am very mentally and emotionally strong, and I lend this strength to others who come to me for help.
What are the top three things we can do for children who may be in this lonely quagmire?
Teachers, neighbours, relatives, and anyone who may become aware that something is wrong should report the situation to Children’s Aid. Often the other parent is too wrapped up in dealing with the mentally ill parent to give the child the necessary care and attention required. If a social services agency checks in on the family regularly and monitored the children’s mental health from inside the home, a lot of trauma can be prevented. I would like to see support groups made available for children of mentally ill parents. Individual counselling is helpful only if the child feels understood, and in my experience, children are not given credit for what they really know. Even now as an adult, I would like to see a support group for adult children of mentally ill parents. This would help us deal with the lingering effects of our childhood.
About being a child in the situation: Please make it your business to reach out and find out what’s really happening at home. A child in such a situation is very isolated and feels that nobody could ever understand. What is most needed is a healthy adult role model and a place to just be a kid without adult pressures.