My son is now 38 and my 34-year-old daughter is a wife and mother of two, soon-to-be three. Out of respect for their privacy, I will not disclose their individual emotional challenges as they grew up. Now that I am closer to the grave that to the cradle as I approach my 67th birthday, it is time to leave with what I hope are words of healing for my children and for the more than five million American children of severely mentally ill parents.
The scope of the problem is larger than most people assume. These children have a parent with a serious mental illness (SMI) such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. “Adults with a serious mental illness are likely to be parents. In fact, 68% of women with an SMI are mothers and 57% of men with an SMI are fathers; further, 73% of women with PTSD and 68% of men with PTSD are parents,” Michelle D. Sherman, PhD wrote in her Social Work, Today article “Reaching Out to Children of Parents with Mental Illness”.
While sociologists continue working on ways to help these young people, there are specific ways we as parents with a major mental illness in recovery can help. For example, I want all adult children of a mentally ill parent today, including mine, to know:
First, it wasn’t their responsibility to fix or save the parent with the mental illness. They were just a child trying to learn their own way. Their only job today is to accept their parent as-is and develop their own lives.
Second, most people whose parents have a mental health condition don’t develop one themselves. These negative stereotypes only feed mental illness stigma and blocks each child on his or her journey into adulthood.
Third, it’s like putting one's own oxygen mask on first while on an airliner before assisting others — taking care of one's own emotional, physical and spiritual health first is critical.
Finally, your mom’s or dad’s past doesn't dictate your future.
I recognize now that my adult children mourn several losses. They lost a carefree childhood, a stable family structure and in my case my children had to cope with bizarre behavior such as their 38-year-old father running off to Hollywood to be an actor instead of teaching at the university where he was employed and providing for his family. They endured financial stresses because of reduced income or spending sprees. They were aware of strained marital and extended family relationships.
One successful and resilient daughter of a narcissistic, bipolar mother, sums it up nicely: "Ultimately, I have to love myself more than I hate her”.
I often read and re-read essays by American philosopher and psychologist Williams James as I struggled through the ups and downs of recovery from BP. One of his statements is one I share with all adult children of the severely mentally ill: “Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune”.
Fulton Oursler, author of The Greatest Story Ever Told, wrote "Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves - regret for the past and fear of the future." That is what I want to avoid on my journey through recovery from bipolar disorder to more fully enjoy my children and grandchildren.
My friend Stanley Victor Paskavich lives with PTSD from his military service and bipolar disorder. He turned his pain into poetry to help others on similar journeys. Stan wrote a poem for me as it relates to this essay about the collateral damage I left behind in the war with myself. He called it “Cage the Rage”.
“We all know how the past can become an endless page, and know how it can trigger us to feel anger, hurt and rage. Search deep within to find your one, true self, and trap your demons in your diary so high upon your shelf.”