Family Members With Mental Illness: What You Need to Know
Christmas always comes with sort of mixed emotions for me. On one hand, I know it’s all about the birth of our Savior and the ultimate promise fulfilled though the arrival of the Messiah. In addition, the happiest memories from my childhood all happened at Christmas. I was showered with presents which was a huge way that my mom specifically showed me love. Yet, it also marks a really hard time of year for me. There is a lot of energy that I spend being supportive and loving as my family struggles through darkness and uncertainty. You see both of my parents suffer from mental illness, and while they weren’t both diagnosed fully until I left home, it has always been there under the surface for as long as I can remember. Between the two of them there is a cocktail of bipolar depression, clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, attempts to take their lives, and agoraphobia (the fear of crowds and basically leaving the house).
In the past few weeks, I have been really touched by the interviews and articles discussing this topic on YouthMinistry.com. (See Kay Warren on Grief and Facing Mental Illness and Mental Health Stigma: Is it an issue in your youth group?) and That’s why I reached out and asked if I might give a voice to the student who is growing up in a home where parents are hurting in a way that no one can explain. Out of respect to honor my parents, I have asked to remain anonymous. So here I stand today an advocate for the family. I would like to tell you some things you might like to know about a household with mental illness:
- You Can’t See It From The Outside Looking In
When you are growing up in a family the only normal you know is the one you experience. So to be honest while there were nights when I cried myself to sleep, at the time I thought most teens just struggled to get along with their parents. My parents were involved, and tried to come to almost every event in which I participated. As a matter of fact, we worked really hard as a family to pretend we had it all together. On the outside, my parents were interested in my life, well-kept, and happy. The mask I wore was of the confident, over-achieving perfectionist at the top of my class. It was behind the closed doors that things were a mess. It was here that both my parents coped with challenges by sleeping. There were times when my parents slept entire days away. My Dad would give all he had at work, come home nap, get up eat dinner, and then go back to bed. If my father was more than 10 minutes late home from work, my Mom would turn off all of the lights in our house, stand by the window sobbing in a panic attack and repeat over and again, “I just know he’s dead.” From the time I was at least 10-years-old, it was my job to sit next to her and tell her he was not dead, and that he was going to be fine. I heard from my Mom over the years more times than I can count that she wished she was not alive. In an effort to make me different from them there was extreme pressure to perform, be perfect, never mess up, and manipulation was used to get the desired results. There was anger that erupted into screaming, throwing things, and hitting. Then when the “fight” was done, it was if it had never happened at all. All of this came from deep reserves of not knowing why they couldn’t just feel good.
- No One Knows How to Respond Well
We put all mental illness in a bucket, but it means so many different things. They say hurting people hurt people, healed people bring healing, and broken people can’t be well. These people can’t “get happy” or get beyond their issues. It isn’t always someone hearing voices or rambling to them in a corner. When I was growing up, no one had a clue on how to interact when they found out there was a bandaid holding back a festering wound. One time when my parents admitted to a pastor they were falling apart the response was, “Well, maybe if you were more involved, we could be there for you. However, you get what you give.” What my parents needed was unconditional love without judgement, or at least a helping hand. This caused them to walk away from church for many years, and created a belief that faith is transactional. If things were going bad, “God was mad at them for not doing enough.” As a matter of fact so much in life had wounded them everything was a transaction: love, service, and care. You take care of me, and I will take care of you. To this day, people stare at me blankly when they find out my parents struggle. We always talk about the “stigma” of mental illness and that is what causes people to hide. More often than not, when someone finally opens up about their struggle to get help, it goes awry. Why on earth would you put yourself out there again? So, instead you become someone who can at least survive the day. If you get through today at least you accomplished something worthwhile. When you are mentally ill or living with someone who is mentally ill, you just want to talk about it. You need to ramble and tell stories. You aren’t looking for compassion or empathy. Sometimes you just need to be reminded of what hope looks like.
- Students From These Homes Probably Don’t Know What Normal Really Is
It wasn’t until well into my adult years and landing in counseling by accident that I began to peel back the layers of my upbringing. I can still recall my first therapist telling me, “You are not crazy. Your parents are,” and the huge wave of relief that washed over me. After years of trying to be perfect for Jesus, he started to show me he loved me just because he made me. I had never realized that I didn’t have to do anything to earn that love. I had never been cared for with no strings attached. It wasn’t until I met my husband that I came to learn what that felt like from a person.
It isn’t that I don’t have happy memories from when I was young, I do, like at Christmas. In our strange transactional love, my mom wanted to give to us extravagantly. Christmas and birthdays were the two times of the year I saw she was trying, genuinely doing the best with what she had to offer. However, over all my childhood was not what I would call happy. There was sadness, but more so, I would say it was strained. Through much prayer, I have come to understand and forgive my parents for the ways they could (and still can be) hurtful. I have learned how to navigate situations with them, and have come to see that it is not my job to make them happy.
When I first got married, I would tell stories from my childhood like eating Thanksgiving in our pajamas, because that’s when it finally was cooked at 10:00 p.m. (Depression does not get you out of bed for an early turkey), and my husband would just look at me with an eyebrow raised. For many years I would smile and say, “That wasn’t normal was it?” He helped me process when the answer was, “no,” and what to do with that (Sometimes we are still doing that.).
- Hold Out On Passing Judgement
My upbringing has made me a radical advocate for parents. Looking back at my childhood, I just wanted healthy parents. I wish there had been a youth pastor in my life that could see past my well-kept mask, and instead let me ramble about my home life. I just wanted to process. To this day, that’s all I am looking for. I even now embrace some of the good traits I inherited from my parents like the power of generosity. I can’t stress this enough, not one person beyond those that lived in our home had any clue about our family. My mom seemed a little anxious and overbearing and my dad seemed slightly emotionally distant. There are extended family members and old friends of the family who just think my parents are a little “odd.”
I wish I could tell you this all ends like the finish of a beautiful movie where everyone is well and full of joy. Instead, my parents have gotten worse as they have gotten older. There is not as much anger, but now years of medication has led to confusion and forgetfulness on top of some physical ailments. As an only child, taking care of them has become complicated. Many people have asked me why I don’t just cut them off. Do I wish some days it could be different? Of course I do. It can be exhausting as just five minutes ago I was convincing my mother that life is not as destitute as it might appear, and I have that conversation daily. However, she’s the only mom I have. Jesus helps me know how to forgive, navigate things, and learn how to raise my own children differently.
Here is the number one thing to remember: Every child loves their parent no matter who they are.
I just had to learn that loving them might look different than it does for others. Maybe this is where my tenacity comes into play to help the church genuinely forge partnerships with families, all of them, even the ones with lots of pain.
After many, many years my mom was invited to a Bible study one day by a friend that she took a chance on. By the end of the first visit, people had prayed with her, and even offered some practical help my parents needed. I have never met a group of people like this church who just embraced my parents and loved them. They didn’t ask questions or make decisions about who they should be; instead everyone accepted them as God’s beautiful children. It was the first time they ever felt “good enough” to be a part of the body of Christ.
Who can you find in your midst today that might need you to love them with the love that Christ offers? This love is powerful, offers a light in the darkness, and does whatever it takes to show itself. Can you love a family like that today? I wish someone had done that for us when I was still at home. In the end that’s all we were really looking for, and honestly all that any of us still are.