There isn’t really a huge trumpet blowing for the qualities that blossom in the children of mentally ill mothers. Not even much of a toot. But there’s a whole orchestra booming about the downsides: the lack of self-esteem, difficulty forming relationships, trusting people, or most uplifting of all: the inevitability of developing your very own mental illness.
Just for once, let’s not go to that particular concert. Because maybe, if you’re the child of a mentally ill mother, you also have the capacity for things like this:
A Broad and Nonjudgmental Mind
I know you have a broad mind because a narrow mind simply cannot accommodate living in the world of serious mental illness. The tiny boundaries of the small-minded brain crumble and collapse when faced with a mother who tells them she is sending signals to the people who live on the planet Uranus. Your experience has trained you to look beyond the abnormal surface and see the human being that suffers beneath.
Take this, for example: Some people might be puffed up with fear, ignorance or prejudice on seeing a young man drag himself across the floor because he thinks his legs are paralyzed. In fact, both legs are in full working order.
But you are not one of those people. You know that this young man is suffering in his mind and not his legs, that just because he is assailed by mental illness, he cannot also be full of kindness, intelligence, humor and a generous heart. You are able to open the world up with your hands, split it apart and look deep inside it because you have seen how fragile and vulnerable people are. It hurts to learn that lesson but knowing it gives you a nonjudgmental nature and the gift of compassion. Imagine what a world it would be if everybody had that gift.
Children of mothers with serious mental illness cope with situations that would make grown adults cower and run for cover. As a young adult, you may have found yourself fending off the kind of emotional assaults that older people with a lifetime of experience and support would find tough: admitting your own mother to a mental hospital, seeing her through panic attacks and psychoses, dealing with police, social workers, being the caretaker today and onward. You become experts in crises, the underage soldiers on the chaotic battlefield of serious mental illness.
If you are not afraid when your mother stands over your bed in the dark hours of the night like a horror film figure, or if you can stay upright through your mother’s deep depression as it renders her unable to speak, then you will have strength through crises that may see other people give up, lie down and surrender.
Sense of Humor
Mental illness hates a sense of humor, so you have learned to keep this weapon at your side.
Having a mother with a serious long-term mental illness often means your mother stops acting like a mother should. Despite this profound loss, or maybe because of it, you have the capacity to see the actual human being that your mother is. Because you have felt every deep emotion with her, you know your mother. For better or worse, you have seen her raw, seen the very bones and not just the flesh. There is nothing superficial or formal about a relationship which has been boiled alive by mental illness. In the end the true knowing of a person has to be worth something.
It’s true you may be wounded at times, but you are raised from the debris of your mother’s mental illness by the skills it has unwittingly given you: resilience, courage, a hard-won knowledge that everything will change and pass, an ability to see the suffering in others, to be nonjudgmental, to survive chaos and face crises. Acknowledge all these attributes which live inside you. As much as your mother’s mental illness has hurt you, it has slipped up in its mugging of your family because it’s given you some qualities to be proud of, too.