When Your Family Compares Your Mental Illness With Another Relative’s Experience
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Recently, I was listening to a podcast interviewing a woman with chronic mental illness, who was discussing how she juggles parenting with her mental health. The woman mentioned that her son struggled with his own mental health issues that presented differently from her own. The discussion turned to how families can inadvertently create a situation where one individual becomes the “poster child” for mental illness within the family unit, which may inhibit others within the family from acknowledging their own struggles because they don’t fit the familial narrative of what it means to be mentally ill.
After listening to the podcast, I couldn’t help but think about my own family and the ways in which this exact scenario has played out within my nuclear and extended family for as long as I can remember. My mother was born with numerous physical complications resulting in several surgeries as a child and ongoing physical disabilities throughout her life. She has also developed severe panic disorder and somatic symptoms that appear related to anxiety. She often becomes emotionally deregulated, engages in self-harm, has random fits of uncontrollable anger and issues with shopping, gambling and prescription medication addiction.
As a child, I was intensely aware of the fact that my mother was unstable, volatile and often unreliable. Not having a better vocabulary to describe it, I would often comment that, “I love her even though she’s ‘crazy.’” My grandmother, uncle and others around me would simply nod in agreement, resigned to the fact that we all were walking on eggshells, attempting to mitigate the onslaught of her more serious symptoms. (My parents divorced when I was 3 and my father was completely out of the picture.)
Up until I was 6 years old, my uncle was still very much present in our lives, acting as a kind of mediator and buffer between my mother and I. When he got married and started his own family, however, things shifted drastically. All of a sudden, I felt a distinct responsibility for being the one to keep my mother stable. It became my job for better or for worse to not rock the boat, help her stay calm, make her happy and… when she did have an “episode,” to prevent her from harming herself or someone else and get her under control.
This took numerous forms, like removing harmful objects from her grasp, calling in sick to work for her, telling jokes to help cheer her up, get cold washcloths and paper bags for her to blow into to help keep her from passing out and knowing which medications in which doses to give her when she was having a panic attack. My grandmother, who lived with us most of that time, deferred to me, often dissolving into tears herself when my mother would have an episode like this. It was like babysitting two fully grown women as a small child and it was scary as hell.
Pretty quickly, I got the reputation within my family, our community and amongst my peers as being the “mature one,” “the old soul” and the “responsible one.” Part of me was flattered by the attention, but part of me felt like I was drowning under the weight of this responsibility. The number of times I heard people tell my mother what a great job she had done with me and that they hoped their own children would grow up to be like me is staggering. I felt so much pressure to be perfect, in control and not a problem that it was literally making me sick.
As a teenager, I had developed an eating disorder, ulcers, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia twice in high school. I was being bullied, had few friends, felt isolated and was struggling with the aftermath of having been sexually abused, but I knew that none of what I was experiencing mattered because my mother was the one who was to be taken care of and protected at all costs.
It wasn’t until I was almost 40 and having horrendous panic attacks myself that I realized I couldn’t keep this charade up and finally started therapy. Once I did I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), anxiety and depression. I needed to establish some firmer boundaries and stop taking responsibility for my mother’s well-being. This was met with a lot of resistance within my family.
I got comments like, “You don’t know what it’s like to be mentally ill,” “Your mother had a hard childhood,” “You don’t understand how hard it is to raise a child because you don’t have kids,” and “You’re being mean,” all because I dared to reject the familial narrative that everyone had adopted of the fragility of my mother and our (meaning my) responsibility to keep her safe and stable. I quickly recognized that there isn’t space within our family for more than one of us to have a mental illness. And because I appeared to be so high-functioning and self-reliant, I must be fine.
These rules have been so pervasive within my life and upbringing that even I questioned the validity of and severity of my own experience with mental illness. My inner voice constantly questioned whether or not I deserved to be in therapy, have boundaries or ask to get my needs met for a change. It was like having some kind of mental illness imposter syndrome. To this day, I catch myself downplaying how badly I feel sometimes or how much I may need support. It’s like there’s a familial chorus playing in my brain reminding me that I can’t be “the weak one” because I had to ensure that my mother was stable enough to not disrupt the entire family structure.
Having a mental illness shouldn’t be a competitive sport with only one winner. There’s enough space for everyone who is struggling to get the help they need and deserve. And under no circumstances should a child of a parent with mental illness be tasked with managing that parent’s care. Children need to feel loved, cared for, validated and free to discover who they are outside of the confines of the role that has been defined for them by tradition and family history.
And finally, no two individuals experience mental illness the same way. While certain traits are common to certain diagnoses, as is defined by the DSM, the precise manifestation of a mental illness varies drastically from person to person. Only the individual experiencing the illness has the right to establish how much they are or are not struggling, even if they appear to be coping well.
Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash