Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Children of Mental Illness

Were you raised in the company of mental illness? Perhaps a parent or a sibling? Maybe it was depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia. Maybe it was an undiagnosed condition that caused a person to act differently than the norm. We understand about the person afflicted. I'd like to introduce you to the quiet victims.

Most people are kind-hearted and try to give people the benefit of the doubt. They want to help people in need, and give deference to people who are sick. However, the altruism has its limit. Most people are happy to help so long as they are not far detoured from the course of their day. For example, you may brighten the day of a person with depression. But would you be so enthusiastic about that interaction on the 94th consecutive day (morning, noon, and night)?

Enter the child.

See them cringe at their parent's behavior. See them darken and withdraw as others become flustered. Or, they may speak out, beg for someone else to see. Don't you see that this is not normal? Can't you admit that something is wrong? But others often react to negativity with negativity. They want to deliver a boost, then walk away. But children can't walk away. Their love becomes mixed with discomfort and confusion. They want to help, but they are worn down and tired. Their frustration is met with criticism.

Doesn't the child still love the parent? Why can't they be more understanding? Why can't they be more accepting that the parent can't help what they do? Why can't they be more supportive?

Being a child of mental illness is a no win situation. It takes pieces of your parent away, and you have no experience to know they're missing. The child might be forced to switch places with the parent. The parent's behaviors might be annoying, draining, or embarrassing. Anyone would become confused, uncomfortable, and angry. But what happens when the child speaks out? I know a person who would become upset at her brother's obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Her parents acted like she was the problem for not being more understanding. She was the more mature one, after all. They made excuses for her brother and went so far as to suggest that the real problem was her. My father, on the other hand, had nascent neurological problems and severe depression. When I was left alone with him for a couple of days, he suffered an emotional breakdown after refusing psychiatric care for weeks. I was later criticized for not being more "supportive" when I admitted him into an inpatient hospital for treatment. No one particularly cared about what a 17 year old might be feeling when he is forced to commit his father to psychiatric treatment. I wasn't the sick one, after all. I wasn't the one who needed help.

But we are the silent victims. We are the ones made to feel like bad people for our emotions, because they can't help it. But who can give so much of themselves? Who can one day deal with a father crying hysterically because he can't fix a toilet, and the next be berated because the father feels insulted by a perceived lack of respect?

It's a very confusing role with precious few allies.

I urge you that if you ever come across a family struggling with mental illness, give a special look to the family around the afflicted person. Consider how they might be suffering. Fight the human urge to jump to the emotional rescue of the afflicted person and criticize family who seem angry or uncomfortable or withdrawn. Yes, you can't blame the afflicted person for his or her condition, but it doesn't make the harm caused by it any less potent.

Offer them some understanding. Don't make them feel worse.


Kaycie said...

This has an edge to it that your writing does not usually carry. I hope all is well.

the walking man said...

You are correct, 100% correct.

What is the reason for assigning blame or responsibility to them surrounding the ill person? It isn't a situation in need of assignation Jason but rather a bit of understanding that everyone handles them with mental illness differently and whatever the response is it is the right one for that person. Even them in denial, that denial cocoons them from their fears.

How can an inexperienced 10 year old be expected to react to a siblings or parents (name your poison) with maturity?

The outsider and them who are afraid that they to may have the illness need to assign "blame." It is similar to holding a crucifix to ward off any affect it may have on them. While not the best response if one has it then stands the hell out of the way of them not to fearful to act let them cast their stones because in the balance it is better for the ill to receive treatment than not.

The focus should rightfully be centered on the person with the sickness but the counseling should be all inclusive because the (name your poison) affects everyone with intimate contact. Just as everyone is affected everyone also has an effect on the ill person.

You were absolutely correct in having your father committed for evaluation, especially since it was seeming the only way he would get the medication and treatment needed.

I have been on both sides of that issue but I found your side, the one having to stand up and sign the paper when no one else would to be the harder one.

Even while knowing it to be the right thing to do, it was a bitter pill that others felt the need to make me swallow for months after. But no matter what the hell any one says; it was the most supportive thing I could have done. Making sure that some mental heath professional had that person in hand and was able to evaluate and set a course for treatment was supportive.

And despite everything that followed afterward, I would do the same thing in the same situation.

I think that deep mental illnesses affect just about if not every family but them who stand up knowing that there is going to be recriminations are the ones who are the first step to healing.

While I think 17 is too young to have to deal with full blown adult issues the alternatives to treatment would have been much harder to deal with.

You done good and you do well for writing about the collateral damage of mental illness.

Karen said...

Oh, Jason, what a terrible burden to bear. You are absolutely right, of course, that the families suffer as much or more than the person with the illness. I can't imagine having the courage and maturity - and probably desperation - it must have taken at 17 to do what you did, the right thing.

One sad thing, is of course, that we carry those burdens forever. They're hard to shake.

I do not remember a day of my childhood that my mother didn't either cry or rail against her lot in life. Old wounds that leave hot scars.

Chris Eldin said...

What Karen said--we carry those burdens forever...

Do you know how strong you are to be able to hold this kind of sensitivity, yet keep enough distance to be able to look and analyze what happened when you were a teenager? This strength was fought-for, and you are doing a great service by sharing your experience and trying to help others.

When I see children who are quiet, borderline reclusive, I know there's something.... I always try to smile or engage them, really engage them, when I can.

Shadow said...

you are so right. another one of those 'hidden' diseases.

Charles Gramlich said...

the closest I ever came was when my mom went through a very intense menopause and for a while acted very bizarrly at times. It was fortunately short lived.

I have seen the impact on a child of a parent mental illness though, and it is so tough. As you say, they don't know how to judge or compare.

Sarah Hina said...

From my less overwhelming, but still painful, difficulties in dealing with an anorexic sibling, I can recognize the torrent of truth in what you've laid down here. Not only is the relationship with the loved one shredded (until it's somewhat reshaped, but never the same), but it leaves you vulnerable and clamped for too long. Self-preservation is so important, lest resentment and frustration bleed you, and the relationship, bone dry.

I think that's what struck me the hardest during my sibling's problems. How much I hated myself (while lashing out at the people around me who didn't understand) for not knowing what to do. It's not anyone's fault, but it can feel like that burden is wholly our own.

Your trial has been much longer, and harder. And I'm sorry that the burden fell on your shoulders alone at that tender age. And that it continues to grind away at you now.

But I'm glad you shared your story here, where you've always offered us plenty of that understanding and support. And hopefully, in hearing others' voices, you can further absorb, and know, that this situation is not your doing. You've done the best you could with some terrible circumstances, and you are not alone.

Aniket said...

I feel so sorry to hear about what you had to go through Jason. I can understand how hard it must have been, as my Grandma is currently showing similar symptoms.

Some days are good others not so much. She remains happy till me or my brother are around. My parents are afraid of leaving her alone and put up with a lot of things. I know its not grandma's fault. She has been through a lot in life and now she keeps on dwelling in the past and that makes her act hysterically at times.

I admire my father for being so patient and caring for her. She's already had 3 heart attacks so we are all trying our best to keep her happy.

Aine said...

Their love becomes mixed with discomfort and confusion.Children survive despite their parents mistakes, or so I was told as a new mom. But they still need the basics: food, shelter, and love. If one of these basic needs is not met, a child will suffer. I'm so sorry you lived with such circumstances. I've always wanted to fix that hole in you by filling it with my love, but that's not the solution. I, as well as all of your friends, can only offer support and (albeit somewhat limited) understanding.

Having worked with caregivers of the elderly, I know how important it is to include the needs of the caregiver in the treatment plan. In fact, in cases of severe dementia, my treatment plan is actually focused on the caregiver rather than the patient (though on paper it's the companies can't deal with the reality of collateral victims who have no "diagnosis".) But in those cases, the caregivers are fully formed adults, so the damage is not as profound as a developing child.

As you know, I can get quite furious about how not only were your needs overlooked, but harm was inflicted when others placed blame and guilt on you.

You post made me think of the following lyrics. Though this song was written about the effects of divorce, I find a similar message regarding the invisible victims:

What about taking this empty cup and filling it up
With a little bit more of innocence
I haven't had enough, it's probably because when you're young
It's okay to be easily ignored
~Love for a Child, by Jason Mraz

Aine said...

Geesh-- blogger loves to ignore spaces... :P :P

Sorry it got smashed together a bit.

Whirlochre said...

When the things that make you love someone mutate into horrors beyond their control, it's difficult to know what to do, and I sympathise with anyone upon whom the errant brain has played its hapless and merciless tricks.

If it's generationally close, you're forced to question the stuff of which you're made, and though inheritance of a big nose may prompt you to don a mask in the street, the genetic prize of the Loon Thang is yours alone to savour when all but the night is silent.

Thus far, I seem to have escaped the worst excesses of what might be waiting for me and the only scars I bear are those of witnessing the demise of others.

But it's a funny, funny business. And you never, never know...

Geraldine said...

There are two sides to every story. I feel your pain Jason, take care. You are a caring and compassionate person, remember that.

Anonymous said...

Kaycie, some of this is being dredged up because his neurological condition has become extreme. But I'm okay. Thanks. :)

Walking Man, thank you for your words and sharing some of what you've gone through. It helped to read your comment. It helped a lot.

Karen, maybe today we can rub a little sting out of those old scars together.

Chris, thank you. :) And I want to especially thank you for reaching out to those kids. For offering that warmth and caring.

Shadow, hidden disease is a great way to put it.

Charles, I appreciate your openness.

Sarah, thanks so much for sharing some of your own pain and confusion. I hope we all feel a bit less alone.

Aniket, thank you for the kind words and empathy.

Aine, I so appreciate your passion to stick up for that teenager long ago. I could have seriously used you back then. :) :) Your focus on all members of families in need is amazing.

Whirlochre, that's certainly another angle. Everyone looks at you. Are you the same? Different? Doesn't the apple fall close to the tree?

Geraldine, thanks so much for the kind words. :)

Catvibe said...

Jason, when you wrote about having to admit your dad to an institution, I cried. I am so sorry you had to go through that, and all the pain of being made to feel responsible. How horrible. I have had experience with mental illness, my last major relationship was with a man who was bipolar, and the reason I ended it was the effect it had on me AND how it could effect my kids gave me a lot of strength. What you said about altruism, obviously for my personality type, that altruism is just there, but after a while, after several psychotic incidents, the missed doses of medication, the lies, the demonic possessions, even the altruistic ones lose the love. And yes, I asked myself why I couldn't be stronger and didn't he deserve love too? And then I looked at my kids and saw my strength. But all that was just a short episode, because you had to deal with this for an entire growing up. Jason, I'm proud of you for writing this. I've heard you mention issues with your parents many times, but this is really out there and honest and I'm glad you did it. I hope it brought you a little healing....

Catvibe said...

Also, worth mentioning, I know this was painful for you to experience, stultifying in many ways, it also helped to mold you into what you are, and you are amazing.

Little Girl Lost said...

i know how this feels jason. a problem that everyone else can walk awat from but you can't. tides of guilt and self-hate inside you for being the normal one. a hidden fear that some trace of this might catch up with you later, as you grow older, or might be passed on to your own children, not knowing what will happen if you can't be there to take care of them, and being judged by everybody for not being a better child, or sibling.
big hug for you jason. i love you for having been so brave.

Vesper said...

Children can't walk away...

That is why not just mental illness but any problem that the parents might have will affect the child.

This is a very courageous post, Jason, and very true. I had to go back and reread "Pedigree".

Anonymous said...

Cat, I felt very warmed by your comment. Thank you. Truly. :)

I'm sorry you were faced with that situation and those pressures. I know those conflicting feelings. Wanting to help. Wanting to save someone. Yet, not wanting to sacrifice yourself in the process or be miserable. You did the right thing. He has to face his challenges first. Others can't save him from that very difficult task. Healthy love can't flourish in that environment. And you saw the potential for the harm to bleed beyond you to your children.

Although you feel unsure or pushed to extremes sometimes, I think you have a good compass to sail by.

Anonymous said...

Little Girl Lost, I can sense some of that pain in you. Here's a hug in return. Thank you for the words of understanding.

Vesper, so very true. Children are trapped in many ways. Physically and psychologically. Thank you for making the link back to Pedigree. You are right. Some of the frustration and wanting to isolate and disappear from the situation was poured there.

tea and cake said...

I was brought up with a parent with mental illness, and for a time, a step-parent as well. I am now age 51 and the scars, and the parent are still with me every day. Unfortunately, it won't end, even when that parent dies, by her own hand or not.
Sorry, that sounds quite depressive, it's not meant to be, but it is the reality.
Thank you for telling us your story, Jason.

Woman in a Window said...

Jason, what a terribly important post. What is there to say but I hear you, support you, and wish someone could have done that for you when you needed it. I'll pay attention.

Aniket said...

Love: I love the wind in my hair while I drive.

Hate: Getting stuck in traffic.

Posol'stvo the Medved said...

Jason -- How do I say this? Thanks for putting into words, words that aren't my own that is, what it is like to be in that situation.

The roots of mental illness run deep and secretively. Short version -- I was raised by a single mother. A depressive and alcoholic single mother. My sibs and I arranged an intervention once, but it was poorly executed, and in the end, Mom kept at it.

My response, when I realized that she didn't want to be saved or healed was to leave home as early as possible... Left when I was 17. Never came back.

Then a few years ago when my wife was being treated for depression, through her counseling, only then was I able to see the traces of those roots through me. Luckily, I have learned to pull the roots that I can and make peace with the ones I can't. At least, I think I have. Maybe I am still fooling myself?

Bebo said...

Jason: I've been lurking here for eons now, came over from Bailey Stewart's blog. This time I have to speak.

My late husband - Bailey's brother - was depressive bipolar w/ schizoid affect and panic disorder. It all manifested in his 40s. He jumped from job-to-job, with long periods of doing nothing but laying on the couch watching tv or playing video games. Before our eyes he changed, from being vital, involved and rambunctiously hilarious to being withdrawn, frightened and sullen.

It was heartbreaking to commit him for psychiatric care time after time. Every time he came home, a larger part of him was gone.

He went into the abyss, and did not come back.

I must applaud your courage for speaking out now on this subject. I know you must feel alone, as all of us do who stand with you. And the hardest thing to do is walk your path of sanity. One. Step. At. A. Time.

Anonymous said...

Tea and Cake, I do hope that some of the pain can be dismantled, even though I understand you may never be entirely free of it. I'm here to say you were not wrong, and none of it was your fault.

Woman in the Window, I'm grateful for your words of support. Thank you! :)

Aniket, I think you strayed from the post above. ;)

Posol'stvo, isolation was also my route. I couldn't wait to leave and stay away. To this day, it's my inclination to stay away. And to this day, it's still something that I am judged for. If there are roots in you, it's good to see them. I understand about looking for roots where there are none, too.

Bebo, I'm so sorry. What a heartbreaking and long road. I understand that your husband suffered and that it wasn't his "fault." But I also understand how much damage may have been done to you. I hope talking like this can help us all lay some of the guilt and traumas down.

Aniket said...

Ah, wrong post.My bad. :D

I must have been sleep-typing. :)

Bailey Stewart said...

Bebo is right - but she was only at the end of the disease. My brother Howard was born with not only physical problems, but mental as well. I endured that part as a child. My parents paid more attention to him - I understand why now - but as a child I formed the opinion that I wasn't as important or valuable. Then there was the abuse - hitting, yelling, painful teasing. Dr. Jekyll one day, Mr. Hyde the other. And my parents didn't step in - so again, I felt worthless.

Mazlow's (I don't remember how to spell that) Hierarchy of needs was not met with me - I had food, shelter, but not safety - and it's true that I never achieved self-actualization. My scars of childhood with my brother lives on within me.

Now I have been diagnosed as bipolar - combined with my mother's family's high incidence of Alzheimer's, I live with fear of losing my mind.

Thank you for this post - thank you for remembering the "silent" ones.

Chemical Billy said...

Jason, thanks for posting this. I haven't commented for a long time, but I just had to say Yeah.

My mom was bipolar, and rode lows and highs and psychotic breaks all through my life. Most of the time depressed, months and years in bed and closed up like a safe.

And I loved her so much. Until the day she died, I believed that one day she'd get "better": come down from all the wrong meds, find the right ones, come back from the ECG treatments that hacked out chunks of her memory & personality, and be the real woman I saw in those sweet, short weeks between crazies.

It was the loss of that hope when she died that hurt more than anything. She, on the other hand, had wished for nothing more than death for years.