Mental Illness in the Family Tree

Merely Me Health Guide
  • I am making a trip to my home town next month to see my family. Family in this case is limited to my eldest sister and my mother. I usually make this pilgrimage alone without my husband or children due to both logistics and also emotional reasons. It is hard for me to “go back home” because I have so many traumatic memories of my childhood and growing up. As anyone with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can tell you, going back to physical places where abuse or trauma took place can trigger a frightening re-enactment of that despair and fear. I like to think that each time I make that visit I become a little bit stronger and more able to cope with the ghosts of the past. Yet I must admit that seeing my mother still makes me feel weak and vulnerable.

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    For those of you who do not know my personal story, my mother has paranoid schizophrenia and this is the person who raised me. My father died when I was four and my half siblings from another marriage never lived with me. So it was just me and my mother trying to survive both poverty and her mental illness for many years.


    In ten years of therapy I feel that I barely scratched the surface for dealing with how I feel about my mother. I love her first and foremost. But there were so many bad times where her mental illness almost killed me that my love is sometimes overshadowed by fear, anger, and confusion. Note that I said her “mental illness” almost killed me because when she was stable she would never think of harming a fly. My mother, for the most part, is a kind gentle soul. Even some of her delusions are altruistic as when she declares that she is giving me a pink Cadillac with all her imaginary millions. But there are also times when she reacts with fear and violence to her voices and hallucinations.


    The unpredictability of whether or not she would be the sweet mother who helped me bake heart shaped cookies or the mother who might take a swing at me because I refused to believe that aliens were on our roof made for an emotionally tumultuous childhood to say the least. But now I am no longer a child, a teen, or even a young adult. I am in my forties. I am a mother to two teen-age boys. And my mother is a grandmother.


    My trip back home this year will be radically different for one reason. I will be taking my eldest son with me to see my sister and mother. Talking to a child about mental illness is hard but I feel it may be harder still to talk to a teen about it. I think the reason is that they are more aware and they don’t just say “okay” and run off and play. They think and dwell and wonder. My son knows about my mother’s mental illness but it has been many years since he has seen her. I have to say that I am nervous about this visit and I am trying to come to terms with why.


    In preparation for our trip we watched the movie, A Beautiful Mind, which tells the story of John Nash who won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994 but also battled paranoid schizophrenia throughout his life. As with all movies which depict mental illness, there is some departure from what most people experience. Not every person with schizophrenia, depression, or bipolar disorder  is a budding genius. I have the same reaction when we watch such movies as Temple Grandin or Rain Man.  Having a son with autism, I know firsthand, that many people have this perception that just because my son has autism that he has some sort of computer-like memory or can play blackjack like rain man. These movies are wonderful but they are but impressions of real life and the lifetime struggle of people who live with mental illness or a neurological disorder.


    But I thought, at least it is a way to begin a conversation with my son about my mother’s mental illness. The parts of the film, A Beautiful Mind, which moved me the most and where I found myself connecting and saying, “Yes this is part of my experience” was when John Nash was struggling to get away from the police and people who had to use physical force to commit him to a hospital. Memories of my mother flashed along to the movie of seeing my mother kicking and screaming as she was forced into the back of a paddy wagon while she called my name. The scene of John Nash being given involuntary electric shock made me turn away. I had not witnessed this with my mother because she had it done to her behind the locked doors of a mental institution. I pictured her lying on the gurney and strapped down like some wild animal. The other part of the film that I deeply connected with was when Nash’s wife goes into their bathroom and she breaks the mirror and lets loose with this guttural anguished wail which comes from the depths of her soul. It is the reaction of someone broken by the incomprehensible struggle to help someone who continues to slip away into madness.  I too have felt this way many times.

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    As I watched this movie with my son I was conscious of his awareness of my reactions. I would interject at points during the movie how my mother is very different from the John Nash depicted in this film but how there are some similarities. How does one explain schizophrenia anyway? How do you put into words something that I still do not understand myself? “Sometimes she says weird things” or “she might talk to people who are not there” doesn’t seem to cut it. I was equally as awkward trying to explain my depression. “Sometimes I get real sad and I can’t shake the mood.” Or my Multiple Sclerosis, “There are days I may not be able to walk very well or speak.” There are just so many things in life which lose their meaning the moment we try to explain them. What most kids are reading about in text books, my son is witnessing firsthand.


    In some ways I feel that this visit is like a conjoining of all my worlds: Past, present, and future. My mother and my home town represent my past, I am in the present, and my son is the future. I am worried about who I will be in these moments. Am I a mother first and foremost? Am I a daughter? Am I the little girl who wishes her mother would magically be sane? Will I be hardened or will I expose the vulnerability and my human frailty of feeling scared and unsure? Will it somehow harm my son to see me as I really am in such moments-this lifelong struggle painted all over my face? I feel the instinctive need to protect him but from what? Or is it really me I wish to protect?


    So many unanswered questions. I worry. I fuss. But deep down I feel that this visit is going to go just fine. My title is a bit deceiving. There are many things I have yet to come to terms with including my mother’s mental illness. It is all a process and perhaps a life -long one. Maybe nobody ever finds the nirvana of congruence and perfect harmony.  Life keeps moving forward. And whether we are ready or not we have to keep moving with it. I am grateful for the chance to take this journey.

  • How about you? How have you explained mental illness to your friends, family, or children? Do any of you have a family member who battles mental illness? Have you come to terms with this? Tell us your story. We are listening.

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Published On: April 18, 2011