To the Others Out There Who Have a Parent With a Mental Illness

A lot of people know me as a happy-go-lucky, fun-loving person. You would never imagine Shawn, of all people, would have a chronic illness, just because I hide it so well. However, growing up, there was always one thing I hid even better.

Anyone who knows me knows I am the spitting image of my mother. We look so much alike that people have seriously questioned childhood pictures of her, saying it had to be me! My mother has always been my best friend in this world. I love her more than anyone could possibly ever imagine.

Since I was born, I always had an unexplainable attachment to my mother. I was antisocial as a child. Instead of going to birthday parties, I wanted to hang out at home with my mom or eat pizza and watch “Lilo and Stitch.” As I grew older, my separation anxiety would worsen. I had to be away from my mother more often, and time spans of her not being home began to lengthen.

Shortly after, I was born, my mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Her illness was mostly tied around religious beliefs. She would hear voices telling her bad things, telling her people were evil, to break things or to throw things out. Sometimes, she said she saw shadows. She would isolate herself, my sister and I from the outside world. She feared everyone was out to hurt us. In her mind, she was protecting us.

She would be fine for months at a time and, suddenly, just snap. She would go to the extreme where no one could talk her down, no matter how hard the family tried. During the times my mother couldn’t be talked down, our grandmother feared for our safety. These are times my mother would have to be institutionalized. Each time she went in was longer than the last. Each time it affected me, more and more.

A lot of you know I don’t have a father. There is no long story behind it. He just chooses to be absent. Even though I am an adult now, I have reached out on several occasions and still he chooses to refrain from a relationship. I don’t stress it. I don’t care.

At the same time, with that being said, life was extremely hard. My grandmother did all she could but not having a mother or father (actively) in your life is rough. Things most kids could easily get done were challenging for me. Permission slips, school documents, I can’t even begin to tell you how complicated it was to fill out my financial aid forms for the first time.

Yet, we didn’t discuss it. I think the underlying fear was, if word got out about my mother to the wrong person, we may have been taken away from my family. We already had enough social workers snooping around, we didn’t need more. Also, frankly, in some families, things are better left unsaid and my family was one of them.

We never wanted to make my mother out to be less than what she was. The truth is she was an amazing mother. She still is. She has done everything in her power to give us what we needed, but when you have a mental illness, sometimes you’re just not capable of doing it all, and that’s OK.

So to the people out there with parents with a mental illness,

Know that you are loved. There were times I came to visit my mother when I was older, and she was extremely angry. She didn’t want anything to do with me. She thought I was evil. Those times will be some of the hardest. They hurt more than any procedure or surgery I’ve ever had, but I had to understand my mother didn’t really feel this way. She couldn’t control what she did or how she felt. She was confused and scared.

It will be hard. It’s extremely hard to watch someone you love struggle with something you have no control over, but it will be OK. Over the years, I’ve grown strong. I take it as it comes, but I also understand when to step back. Know your limits because you don’t want to push yourself so far dealing with your parent’s illness that you become ill. It’s easy to get depressed going through this.

Don’t compare your life to others’. When I feel alone or depressed, I admit, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live a “normal” life. What “normal” families are like, which only makes things worse. We have to take the life given to us and make the most out of it. Love your parents. Love your life. Be happy, and make your parents proud. I still pray every day that a cure will come. Keep hope alive.

Finally, I say to you, be strong. If you need support, reach out. There are so many resources, blogs and support groups. It’s OK to feel down, but never let life keep you down.

I hope this helps.

Shawn Bethea

Read more of my writing at More Spoons.

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