Childhood Trauma of Parental Mental Illness #1000Speak for Compassion

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At the beginning of this week, Terezin – a woman who had been horrifically abused by a mother diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis – read my poem Suicide Infanticide and was understandably enraged. My poem described a fleeting and deeply disturbing psychotic thought I had postpartum. Her comment deeply troubled me and made me question my adequacy as a mother. I responded to her comment, later removed the entire comment thread, and finally late Thursday afternoon as I revised this post, restored the comments.

Early drafts of this post included an edited version of her comment in which I removed her references to parenticide-suicide for she directed them at me and my child. But this post is about Compassion, and my poem was about Suicide Infanticide after all, so why shouldn’t I welcome Terezin to express her pain, rage, and indignation in her words.

Compassion requires me to listen to and understand  Terezin’s point of view, take my ego out of the equation, and not see her words as an attack on me as an individual – but on me as someone who represents her abusive homicidal mother and a mental health advocacy movement which she believes does not represent or protect the children of mentally ill parents.

In her own words, Terezin‘s response to my disturbing poem and her outrage with mental health advocacy in which the effects of parental mental illness on children are not taken into consideration and children are not protected:

I am the adult daughter of a mother who was diagnosed with “manic depressive psychosis” in the 1960s. My mother survived several suicide attempts and I survived the attempts she made on my life.

I wonder, Kitt, if you will be able to understand when the day comes and your child will wish you had died. When the chronicity of your health illness will reach saturation point and you will be forced to face your contribution to the emerging symptoms of trauma in your off-spring?

None of your sharing is courageous; it is all one-sided. Where are the voices of the adolescent and adult children with their authentic unvarnished lived experiences?

The grandiose narcissism of so-called advocates and activists for ‘mental illness’, such as yourself, continues to slap a coat of white primer over the devastation that is visited upon the least calloused and most vulnerable family members.

I really understand how an adult child develops a desire to kill their mentally ill parent and, in some circumstances, completes murder-suicide.

You are not even touching the real taboos.

Terezin no doubt lives with tremendous psychological pain. The life she describes is horrific. Not all children of mentally ill parents live horrific lives, but parental mental illness is a real life stressor on children and can have lasting negative health consequences.

One reason I wrote Suicide Infanticide and Bad Mom – aside from the poems forcing themselves out of me to voice disturbing thoughts I had kept secret – is that I wanted to address exactly these issues. There are real consequences to mental illness when it is not adequately treated or when it does not respond to treatment. I own the effects that I have on those I love.

Those of us who live with mental illness owe it to our children to maintain our own mental health. We owe it to our children to not act out our symptoms. We owe it to our children to not burden them with our illness. We owe it to our children to be the best parents we can be, to be what Donald Winnicott coined a “good enough parent”.

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41 responses to “Childhood Trauma of Parental Mental Illness #1000Speak for Compassion”

  1. Yes. Thank you Kitt. My sister suffers differently.

  2. Without a doubt. Tough. My heart goes out to you, your sister, and your mother.

  3. But an important post. I’m certain that my Mother suffered a postpartum depression that became a psychosis after my sister was born. The stigma against mental illness was differently horrible when she was a young woman.

    If she had been treated my life would have been very different.

  4. Thank you for reblogging, Robert. Difficult material for many.

  5. Precisely. ALL parents owe it to their kids.

  6. Same here Kitt. I am not perfect but I do owe it to my child to minimise what she sees and how I behave – illness or not!

  7. Exactly. I’ve raged due to my bipolar illness. Even medicated. Even when in therapy and highly motivated. I must own my symptoms, my behavior. Take responsibility for it and make sure I change my behavior for the better.

  8. That we do. We owe it to our children.

  9. Reblogged this on Art by Rob Goldstein and commented:

    Excellent response, Kitt

  10. No doubt my post opened the flood gates for you. I am so sorry that you have been treated so poorly at such a great cost. I am so sorry that you lost your children and that your children have suffered so through this entire ordeal. Please do use this content on your own blog, too. It is your story.

  11. Thank you for this discussion. In advance: I’m sorry this is so long.

    I had an exchange recently (screaming argument) with my ex who decided to blame my genes for the behavior of our eldest child. I realized that as far away from that abusive man as I had come, it was too easy to slip off the deep end and argue with his lunacy. I had promised myself, that I would not get sucked in again.

    We give the good and the bad of ourselves to our children, the same as our parents. I do not /cannot accept that this child, who became violent at such an early age is just mimicking what he saw, “mommy do.” I ended the call with the ex. Then he called me back to continue the “discussion” as if he hadn’t been hung up on, scolding me for having my own issues with mental illness. I ended the call again. I don’t take his calls unless necessary, and just hang up to preserve my calm.

    My mental health, from 1997 to 2012, while being in an emotionally abusive house deteriorated. Before things went really crazy in that house. I was living with un-medicated, low level depression. I had one Major Depressive episode when I was in college in 1992. The stress pushed me to MDD in 2008, 9, 10, something like that. My ex’s diagnosis of me and lies about my behavior to “our friends” undermined any support I felt I had. He manipulated a lot of people well. People like to believe that the “crazy” person is responsible for the fall of a family.

    I was told by a former friend that I didn’t fight for my children, that I refused to sit down with my ex to discuss the children. When you are served with a court order out of the blue, you fight the lunacy in the biased, uninformed court. They bested HIPAA laws to drag my psychiatrist into my divorce hearings. They used my writing about my life as a mother of three/feeling like four against me in court. The words of a former friend hurt, because I realize that I never was his friend. He never asked about me, he just believed what my ex told him about me. I had to grieve the loss of that one friend I thought I had left in one of my posts.

    Now that my ex has a new partner, he feels that they, yes, I said they, will force me out of my children’s lives again. Refusing to let me see my children without changing the court order is criminal. I’ve just learned to handle it differently. I was hoping that he would leave me alone, but I have to fight back for the sake of my children.

    All my kids are screwed up. Not just the one who beat the crap out of me while my ex watched. They watched their father emotionally abuse me. They watched their brother physically abuse me. They watched me shut down. They did not see me cut, because I did not relapse until I was out of the house away from the children. They should not know much about my issues unless he told them about it, which I discovered he had been doing all along. Except his version is different and includes me hating and abusing my children. I have no problems with my recall. I did nothing to my children, except try to get them help when they needed it and include their father, who refused marriage counseling through most of the marriage, stating that the therapist and I were siding against him. He likes to play games, a practical joker who spent the last two years I lived in the house, hiding my keys every morning, then blaming it on my eldest son. He then told my son, I was blaming him for everything I was losing in the house. He’s a sick, sick man, emboldened and enabled by this new partner, to continue his abuse.

    I wrote some very blunt emails about his life with me and addressed it to the new couple, as she has been writing for him (as I used to do) using his email account without signing her name. My ex is dyslexic and can’t spell to save his life, so when these perfectly crafted emails started arriving “from him,” I just put down on paper what I believe to be true. “Go to therapy to address your own childhood issues and psychotic break, before ever calling me to discuss mine.” He’s not a therapist or doctor, but he has harmed our son by getting him to stop taking his anti-depressant medication, which threw him into withdrawal with mania, depression and suicidal ideation. That threw the whole house into turmoil. Then he blamed the child for being out of control. Sick bastard. This somehow was my fault? I gave birth to three children with this idiot, that is my only fault. Oh, and that I stayed, that is also my fault.

    Well Kitt, I don’t know how you want to edit this one, I’m sorry, it just started to flood out.

    We do the best we can as parents. You did the best you could at recognizing your issues as I recognized mine. Blame has no place in healing therapy though actual love and respect in a functional family does. I’m from a dysfunctional family. I watched my parents verbally and physically beat each other every single holiday of my childhood. I hate holidays. Actually, I prefer them quiet and pleasant, but I still feel dread. I made the wrong choice and tried to stick with it and him to make it work/fix it. I gave up on him when I realized how crazy the house was and that I was being manipulated to run his business and the household. No one knew that my ex even lived in our house. My children and I were the only ones the neighbors saw outside. I was the “crazy gardener lady”, who made art in her front yard with flowers and vegetables and gave seeds and plants to neighborhood kids and adults, while doing yoga in the back yard gardens.

    That is my take on being a mentally ill parent with children. When I became unstable and couldn’t afford hospitalization I house sat for a month from Christmas 2011 to New Year’s Eve. When I arrived home, my ex was having a party and told everyone that I had left him. My situation sucks, but as parents we do what we can.

  12. Thank you, too! Yes, it’s definitely amazing to be able to reach out to people you’d otherwise never meet. Blogging is also a very special experience, you get to know some really incredible and artistic souls, opening the Reader always brings something very interesting into my focus.

  13. Thank you, Tanja! You take care, too. I appreciate your friendship, as well. So interesting meeting someone from halfway around the world! The Internet is amazing that way.

  14. It’s ok, no problem at all. American women do enjoy much greater rights, and also from my perspective, it’s much easier to be yourself in America than it is here, no matter what your interests and inclinations are – it’s definitely better to live life that way.

    I’m here for you, I’m also really glad that I found another online friend! 🙂

    Take care and all the best,

  15. Yes, of course. All family members affect each other.

  16. I would also add that having a family member with a mental illness can also traumatise families.

  17. I sure do 🙁

  18. Today I tried to quickly read your pages and obviously didn’t get the details right. I apologize for that. Belgrade is indeed a huge metropolitan city with a long history. Although Americans can be obnoxious in our insularity, I do enjoy the rights American women have. Sexism still exists here, but it is much better than many other places.

    I am glad to now have an online friend in Belgrade!

  19. Thank you very much for you reply, it’s so good to find a friend and talk to somebody who can understand you. My dad died 5 months ago, so fortunately I had him by my side when I was a teenager, but it was still horribly hard – there is a post about it on my blog. I’m an only child and due to the circumstances, I was still living with my parents, plus the last 7-8 years are pretty much a blur as I lived a very confined life due to severe agoraphobia… I am saying this to explain better that being 38 for me is mentally not the same age as it would be for somebody else in different circumstances. I lost my dear grandmother though when I was 20, she was like a second mom to me and had lived with us all my life, that was very traumatic as well.

    Malta is just a metaphor, I was thinking of the name to use to register my blog and I came up with this acronym. Looking it up later, I found that there was a place in Malta called Tamellu and it fit perfectly, a tiny little place hidden in the middle of an isolated land, isolated and almost invisible the way I was and still am. As for reality, I live in Serbia, in its biggest and busiest city, the capital – Belgrade. But when you think about it, I’m still lost in the middle of 1.5 million souls looking for something in their lives that becomes increasingly harder to reach, it’s never been easy to live in my country, let alone today. I said I can be thankful for remissions for becoming at least somebody – in one of them I visited USA, I’ve been there for more than 2 months and I feel close to your way of living especially because I’ve been learning English since I was 5. I know that I would have much better chance to find somebody who would understand me and be by my side in America, but I am agoraphobic, I rarely manage to go downtown… and America (East coast) is at least some 8500 km away 🙂 Maybe in some other, panic free life. 🙂 You’re right about Malta, it’s quite a rigid society, but Serbia is no better by any means – we’re Orthodox Christians, but church didn’t play any specific role in that mentality due to the period of communism and socialism. It’s a very complicated, long and confusing story the one about our history and what we endured which influenced who we are today, but let’s just say that the role of women is still primarily tied to the house and raising kids, plus doing everything else she is capable of. Basically you need a very strong and healthy woman for a Serbian marriage. And young one as well 🙂 38 is too much for this country in that sense. 🙂

    I totally agree that I don’t have to be a mother to have values as a human being, I would just wish it could be a conscious decision, and not something imposed by limitations and stigma. But hey, it’s my life. And I have to live it. It’s good that you found a really good husband and that you both understand each other so well. It’s definitely easier to have a good support in life.
    I wish you and your family all the best!

  20. Just read another post that you are Serbian. Ignore my comments about Malta and about having children. You do not need to be a mother to be of value. Of course.

  21. Thank you,Tanja, very much. Yes, other illnesses in the family can cause trauma as well. I am so sorry that you lost your father when you were a teenager. I am so sorry that you witnessed his pain and had to take on caretaking responsibilities when other adolescents were experimenting with their fledgling independence.

    I’m not sure if you live in Malta, or just use it metaphorically in your About description, but in the US you could still marry and become a parent despite being in your late 30’s and despite having a panic disorder. I met my husband after I had a psychotic breakdown. He loves me for me, regardless of my imperfections. I love him as him, and probably would find him boring without his quirks. We did not have our son until I was in my late 30s. But, the US is HUGE and diverse, and Malta is a tiny island nation with a very long and rich history steeped in Roman Catholicism.

  22. I thought I could add my own two cents on this – I truly empathize with all those affected by illnesses of their loved ones, especially children, but mental illness is not the only illness that can have bad impact on children or other family members. It’s just one of many illnesses, but for some reason if you have a bad heart or cancer, you’re supposed to be considered more fit to have children in comparison to people who have an illness of the brain? That’s not true, brain is just one of the organs in our bodies. There are so many traumas in this world, but as I said in one of my posts, it’s all life. You have to deal with it while still alive on this planet, deal with what life has prepared for you.

    My dad died of cancer and watching that horrific decline and providing 24 hour care instilled in me such a trauma that I am still haunted by flashbacks of that agony. And now after all that battle, total silence. Horrific emptiness. I would give anything to have him back, cancer free, affected by any other chronic illness I could take care of and make him be around for some more time.

    As for me, this year I’ll be “celebrating” 20 long years from my first panic attack. Panic disorder robbed me of many beautiful things I could accomplish in my life. I’m somebody today only thanks to the disorder being merciful enough to bless me with 3 remissions. I suffer from really bad GAD, insomnias, occasional bad depressive episodes, PTSD and extremely limiting agoraphobia. Somebody would say that I’m a walking disaster I suppose, yet it’s all on the neurosis side of mental health story. I’m not delusional, psychotic or unrealistic in any sort of way. If you met me and talked to me, you would never guess I have problems with “nerves” unless I decide to open up. I mastered masking myself in public to the perfection. But problems arise if I open up. The moment you say you have something “mental”, people literally physically back off. Then they give you that sort of look – hmmmm let’s check for lunacy on her face… or as I was once told they can even say – no way, you don’t look that way… which way? Well that way… crazy, you know. As if they knew what they are talking about.

    It’s hard to face that stigma, it’s hard to be treated as somebody who should be isolated, it’s hard to miss opportunities in spite of the fact that I’m quite normal and capable of doing lots of things. It’s hard to be 38 knowing that I’m childless and probably will stay childless, because men in my country are not particularly keen on having offspring with somebody who has PD. Maybe it’s better that way if my child would consider me the source of trauma, but it’s not easy on me for sure and I’m a human being, too. There is no good or bad or right or wrong way to speak about these issues. But if nobody does or if nobody says at least something, people like me are doomed to stay and die invisible. Mental health is just one of many illnesses, so I’ll always support initiatives like yours Kitt to fight the stigma. Good luck and all the best! Tanja

  23. Plus, she has a mother who has empathy for and lived experience of what she is going through. You are a resource to her.

  24. Yes I have. Healing is definitely possible. My oldest daughter has many of the same mental health issues as I did, and thank goodness she has access to so many more resources and is doing well.

  25. Thank you very much, Amy. It sounds like you have done quite a bit of healing from the trauma you experienced.

  26. Hi Kitt, Thank you for sharing both sides of this story. I wish my mom would have had an awareness of her illness (paranoid schizophrenia) so that I would not have suffered the abuse that I did at times. I held some pretty strong beliefs about those with mental illness until I started blogging about it and reading the posts of those who have illnesses such as bipolar and schizophrenia. It has given me a much broader perspective and I so admire your courage to write about your experiences and open yourself up to others. Your sharing is so helpful and I encourage you to continue to share from your heart.

  27. You bring wisdom and experience to mothering. Your insight and empathy no doubt make you a great mom. Your children are lucky to have your love.

  28. I send you both my love and hope for recovery (to the extent possible). It is painful to see those you love not seek or receive help when they need it. Of course, you already know that.

  29. Thank you, Zoe. I agree with you. I blog my perspective. I cannot blog from my son’s perspective, and I do not even blog from my perspective of as an adult child of alcoholic parents who may have undiagnosed mental illness, for I respect the privacy of my family members. I do often refer to them in comments like this one, but I try to be respectful. My son has asked for privacy. He is an intensely private and sensitive individual. I try to respect his desire for privacy.

  30. Mental health advocacy, in my experience, is far from one-sided, for 99% of the time those that struggle with it have been raised within it ourselves. Accountability goes a long way with my girls, but not to the point where I say how guilty I feel as a mother. My mom always said that to me and it affected my inner concept of how I felt I would be at motherhood.

    I love being a mother, it’s the only thing that pulls me up sometimes. I really feel horribly for anyone who went through these difficult experiences as children of the mentally ill, but now as a parent that is mentally ill I have more empathy and am driven to continue the dialogue. All of this discourse helps.

  31. Sounds like our history is similar; I worked in psych and chemical dependency as a nurse (when I was able) and it helped my son and I as much as the clients 🙂 When I wasn’t able to work I was working on myself and my relationship with him … now he seems to have symptoms of alcoholism and bipolar, I’m just waiting for the bottom to fall out enough to convince him he needs help. I saw a lot when he lived w/ me the past year and he still hasn’t! we also both decided that living w/ me was not good for either of us. God love ‘im, he’s a great kid. I miss him but I am doing a lot better w/ him elsewhere. (Ok getting up off your “couch” now, thanks Doc!)

  32. Terezin I am so so sorry that this happened to you. It’s horrific. But Kitt I also thank you for exposing this…doing so can only bring about more recognition, understanding and empathy for all parties involved and for that I thank you. I can be a more narky and sad parent than usual at times, and I apologise to my son for my behaviour when I am (but not for being me or for having bipolar). I try to take responsibility for my actions and put myself in hospital when I feel myself deteriorating badly to get myself away from him. I have bipolar II though, so my swings are moderate and it’s easier for me by far than for anyone with bipolar I or with psychosis. That’s a nightmare for all involved. I just wanted to say I’m sorry for you both. You don’t ask for this and it’s terrible. Well done on speaking out and verbalising things we all suspect or know are happening but don’t want to touch upon for so many reasons And again Terezin…I’m so sorry.

  33. These are all topics that need to be addressed. Mental health advocacy isn’t limited to us who have mental health problems — it extends to those who survive and / or deal with us as well. However, it’s up to each of us to share those experiences. My ex also survived his mother who had bipolar disorder and all the traumatic experiences that entailed. I know what it has done to a child of a mentally ill parent, but it’s not my place to blog about it. Sometimes we can only offer one perspective and learn through comments like these about the flip-side of the coin. We can only learn when we open up and talk. That’s the only way we can (hope) to change things.

    What an insightful post and reaction, Kitt. Especially since motherhood has been on my mind a lot.

  34. I actually have apologized to my son, many times. He does say. sometimes, that we did the best we could with what we were dealing with. I wish us both (you and me) luck and love and compassion in our lives my dear friend 🙂

  35. Yes, you did do the best you could. You know the thing I do, which my parents never did? I apologize when I rage or otherwise fail my son. May I suggest that instead of defending yourself that you simply acknowledge his anger and pain and apologize. I by no means am dismissing the love that you have for your son, I am suggesting another way of expressing it. I had to work through some anger with my alcoholic parents before I could believe and accept the depth of their love for me. Our son, too, is EXTREMELY sensitive, and my husband is highly strung and claustrophobic.

  36. I worried about posting this, for it is such a raw area for so many of us. I am sorry that you have experienced such pain that you thought your son would be better off adopted. I’m sure that for some people that might be the right choice, but from what your son has told you, he KNOWS you love(d) him. That is the greatest gift of all. He knows you did your best. He knows adversity and the overcoming of adversity.

    As soon as I got my bipolar diagnosis, when my son was 27 months old, I put him in day care and returned to work. I thought that anyone could do a better job caring for him than me because I now knew that I had a serious chronic mental illness. Such pain for mothers (or fathers) to think that of themselves. Eventually I ended up voluntarily hospitalized and never returned to work. My son is 14 now and doing well.

    I am lucky, though. My husband does not drink. He is quite highly strung, though, and claustrophobic. I had some a couple of decades of therapy and one decade of antidepressants before I was diagnosed bipolar. I also had at one time practiced psychotherapy with children and adolescents which helped me to help my son. My husband and I first entered family therapy for our son when our son was four. We are a family of sensitive souls. I do my best, and I have substantial training, which helps.

  37. Kitt you and I had sort of brushed against the subject. My son explicitly tells me that the environment in our home when he was growing up was awful and that he is traumatized by it. I suggest he go to speak with someone, he says no. I suggest he read Eckhart Tolle, he again refuses. I try to bring up happy times when he was growing up just to show him it wasn’t all bad. I know the bipolar 1 made me seem like a monster sometimes and my husband is a perfectionist and sort of OCD. I know that wasn’t the best environment for an only child who was EXTREMELY sensitive. He is 24 years old and in Law School. I love him more than anything in the world and wish only happiness and love for him. We all do the best we can, and I of course feel bad and blame myself sometimes. But sometimes I just tell myself it was the best I could do. And remind myself to live in the Now! Love and hugs.

  38. It’s a sore spot for me. Many times I thought to put my son up for adoption thinking ANYone could do a better job than I was doing. His dad was a mostly active alcoholic/addict and I constantly had depression/suicidal thoughts (the mania was mostly at bay). I was hospitalized a number of times and had to turn him over to his dad; not the best situation. I could not deal w/ my son’s needs, way too often.

    He assures me that he knows I did the best I could, and that my love made up for it. I see his life repeating mine and his father’s sometimes and I am so sad for him. Other times I would welcome my son getting angry at me/ us (dad and I are divorced -he’s 27) rather than the periods where he is not in touch at ALL and is not returning my attempts to contact him for long periods of time; anger is better than silence. I am assured that he makes his own choices from here on out and I can’t feel guilty for them.. But can’t I? So sad. 🙁

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