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.