Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(2), p. 22
Wecome to my world, won’t you come on in...
My mom is always singing. Say a word or a phrase and she will break into song. This is her quirk. Her mental illness, schizoaffective disorder, is the glitch. My opinion of mental illness was developed from seeing a parent suffer.
Many people have stories of living with and loving someone with a mental illness. Trust me, I have a few myself: some that would make you cry, some that would make you laugh. Instead, I would rather tell you how my and my mom’s situation has shaped me and taught me tolerance. My mom calls it “being able to appreciate the good times.”
I have always considered myself a very positive, open-minded person. I was raised this way. Another one of my mom’s quirks is that she always had little sayings to remind me “to look at the brighter side of life,” that “every cloud has a silver lining,” and, my favourite, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” My mom taught me that regardless of a person’s beliefs, traditions or skin colour, he or she is a person first. Then mental illness entered our lives, and I realized that my glitch was a lack of tolerance.
Children of parents with mental illness usually never knew their parent before the onset of the illness. There are a few of us, however, who have seen the illness develop. This was my case. I watched a self-sufficient, strong, stubborn woman who didn’t care what other people thought of her become a shell of a person who thought everyone was talking about her; it made her feel sick inside with worthlessness and fear. This happened at a time I needed the old mother I knew, not this new one who now needed me. I hated my situation. I thought I caused this situation. I blamed myself for her illness.
This thought process went on way too long. I left home and started doing all the things that ‘grown-ups’ are supposed to do. I married, had children, worked and still found time to play. My mom’s life also moved on. She found love, visited the grandchildren, worked and she too found time to play.
There are wonderful memories in these times. These memories are tainted, however. I remember waiting for the symptoms to show up, never being able to be unguarded enough to enjoy those rare, special moments. I still didn’t understand mental illness. Even as an adult, I still thought I was the cause of or the trigger for her stress. I became fearful that if life became too difficult or stressful for me, I would become like her – mentally ill.
My mother always loved me unconditionally. I was the one who put the conditions on our relationship. My life could be falling apart, but I would say, “It’s fine mom. I’m okay, honest.” I felt guilty that if she worried, this worry turned to stress and she would relapse despite my best efforts.
Then one day it was pointed out to me that I needed to understand mental illness. I needed insight to help her; to ‘fix’ her. My attitude was, “This has gone on long enough; she had suffered too long . . . we have suffered too long.” So information and support I found. Now forgiveness began.
Quirk n. A personal mannerism.
Glitch n. A minor mishap
It wasn’t that I had to forgive my mom for being ill. I had to forgive myself for everything that I said or did in my naive state of mind. There is this saying: “You can’t know what no one has told you.”2 This is said in hopes of staving off self-blame. But I kept doing it: I blamed myself again but this time for different reasons. I blamed myself for not being more determined earlier instead of coasting along, hoping my mom would ‘grow out of it’ as she aged. I became embarrassed remembering all the times I yelled at medical professionals who were only doing what they could. I hated myself for not noticing that my mom didn’t want a mental illness any more than I wanted her to have one.
I became aware that I needed to go through all these feelings – that as a family member, I needed time to heal.
I have learned that my journey through mental illness is just as unclear as it is for the person suffering directly from the symptoms. And it’s okay. This is what allows us to become tolerant, or as my mom would say, to appreciate the good times.
To my mom: I don’t love you despite your illness or because of your illness. I love you because you are an amazing person. This is for you.
About the author
Ula-Erin is the Regional Coordinator for the BC Schizophrenia Society, Thompson Area