The Challenges of Having a Parent with Mental Illness

In the wake of the news about Naomi Judd's struggles with mental health, one woman shares her story of living with a parent with mental illness.

two women hold hands
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Growing up, I knew all sorts of parents. There were the happily married couples and divorced ones. There were the doting dads and loving moms. And there were the engaged grandparents, the ones who acted as matriarchs, patriarchs, and caregivers, overseeing their growing family. But my parents? They were different. I rarely talked about my family dynamic because we lived on the fringe. My mother was mentally ill. My father died when I was 12 years old. And while his passing made my mother worse—I saw her decline before my very eyes—her illness began years earlier, with a touch of paranoia here. With a heavy dose of depression there.

Of course, I haven't spoken much about her disease, and the reason is two-fold: My mother's story was her own. It was not my place to tell it. Her world and words were not mine to share. I also avoided the topic because my mother was never officially diagnosed. She shunned or, shall I say, loathed mental health professionals. Only "crazy people" saw these "quacks." (Her words, not mine.) But after 38 years of grief and anger—after 38 years of sadness, shame, blame, and loss—I want to tell her story, and mine. Why? Because I may be able to help someone. I may be able to offer hope to someone, and I may be able to save a life.

For my mother, intervention came too late.

I was too late.

Now, I don't recall when it first began. My earliest memories of my mother are actually quite lovely. She would color with me at the dining room table. We would draw dinosaurs and princesses and paint self-portraits. Dance parties were common. We would strut around the kitchen. I would spin in circles until the room spun, or I felt sick. And we were always doing something. My childhood was colorful. Things seemed "normal." Bright. But one day the color began to drain from the room. Light left my mother's eyes, and the woman I grew up with—the woman who fed me and clothed me and taught me the alphabet—was gone. In her place stood a shadow: an angry, scared, and unbelievably depressed ghost in a shell.

I didn't know what to do. I was young, perhaps 10 or 11. Maybe 12. But I knew something was wrong. My mother wouldn't shower or get dressed. The dishes sat unwashed and laundry piled up. Things became cluttered—a stark contrast to my early years when the house was immaculate, and my mother took pride in things like mealtime and her home. And she began calling out of work often, well exceeding sick and vacation time allotments.

Things quickly went from bad to worse. When my father passed, my mother shut down—cutting us off from family and friends, from outsiders and support. No one was allowed in our house. She had a severe distrust of people and their intentions. Others were "dangerous." Bad. "They" didn't like us, she said. "They" didn't care. She stopped cooking altogether. As a child, I took on many of the responsibilities of the house and home. There was a detachment of sorts, from her and me. From her and reality. And after the loss of her job, my mother aged suddenly and quickly. Before long, she turned to alcohol to quell her fears and anxiety. To numb the pain. And I watched, in sadness and horror, as (yet another) disease took hold. I watched and blamed myself.

You see, when you are the child of someone who is mentally unwell—be it due to a substance, illness, or other cause—there is a lot of sadness, guilt, and shame. You don't know what to do or where to turn, and it is very lonely. I grew up isolated, scared, and alone. When you are the child of someone who is mentally unwell, there is anger. I was mad at my mother for neglecting and abandoning me. I was disappointed in myself. When you are the child of someone who is mentally unwell, there is fear—for and of the future. I never knew what the day would bring, or which version of my mother I would get. And when you are the child of someone who is mentally unwell, there is (well, there may be) jealousy. I just wanted something tangible, something manageable. I yearned for a normal mother-daughter relationship.

"Growing up with a parent who is mentally ill 'can lead to a child feeling uncertain, anxious, and neglected," says Talkspace therapist Kimberly Leitch, a licensed clinical social worker. "Life can be unstable and unpredictable, and children may not learn proper coping skills." I didn't. It is a challenge I still face.

As I got older, I became hell-bent on helping her and saving her. I wanted nothing more than to have my mom back, the one I knew when I was little. The one whose permed hair was always done and face was always washed. But resources for caregivers are scarce. I didn't know about "wellness checks." I didn't realize I could make her get psychiatric care. I also didn't know I was powerless. I couldn't (or wouldn't) accept that her illness was one that was beyond my control.

I became increasingly sad and bitter. Like many children with mentally unwell parents, I felt like a failure. Somehow, I believed, her illness was my fault. I felt lost or, as Katy Perry so eloquently puts it, like "a plastic bag drifting through the wind." And I believed—genuinely believed—that if I were a better woman, a better daughter, I would have saved her. But I didn't. She succumbed to her illness nearly 700 days ago.

She was 65.

And that is one of the biggest challenges children of mentally ill parents face: Knowing they may lose their parent at any time. Because while my mother wasn't the ideal mother—she was sick and neglectful and, at times, genuinely mean and cruel—she was my parent, one of only two I would get. And I lost her like 8 million others. Some 14.3 percent of deaths are attributed to mental health disorders.

That said, if you are living with a mentally ill parent, know it's not all doom and gloom. There is help and hope if your loved one is open to receiving it. There are also numerous ways you can support someone living with mental illness, from learning about their illness to playing an active role in their treatment plan.

But the first thing you should do is care for yourself. You must put your oxygen mask on first—which is something I learned too late. It is something I've only come to understand over the course of the last year.

"This sounds trite, but the very best thing you can do to support someone living with mental illness is to take care of yourself first," says Jeff Temple, a licensed psychologist and University of Texas Medical Branch professor. "Join a support group—online or in-person—to talk with others going through similar circumstances. As much as possible, establish a daily routine. Consistency is key. And, perhaps most importantly, do things that you enjoy like exercising, watching movies, cooking, or reading."

"It's crucially important that caregivers take care of themselves," adds Maggie Holland of Choosing Therapy. "The most important piece of taking care of yourself is to know your limits and your boundaries and then protect those limitations and boundaries as much as you possibly can."

For more information about mental health resources and/or support, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website and/or Mental Health America. You can also get help through My HealthFinder, the official website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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