I’m not a psychotherapist. But I’ve sat in front of one. It took me decades to find the chair in front of the psychotherapist and maybe that’s got something to do with me being the adult child of a schizophrenic mother.
I think it took me a long time to sit facing a psychotherapist because adult children of seriously mentally ill mothers are trained since they were young to believe three things:
- Chaos and crises are normal.
- The focus is not on me. The focus of care is on my mother.
- Don’t speak too much about what goes on at home — people don’t like it, it’s too much for them.
The reality of the points above has shown itself in the following ways in my life:
- It’s normal for your mother to turn all the electricity off in the house because she thinks that if it’s on, the bomb in the cupboard will explode. It’s normal for her not to sleep, normal for her to crouch at the top of the stairs and pull scary faces at you in the dark. (Chaos)
- It’s normal for a social worker and a police car to chase your mother down the road during (yet another) section. It’s normal for your mother to chop her hair off with a breadknife. (Crises)
- It’s normal to sit in your living room while a psychiatrist leans on your door frame and a social worker and psychiatric nurse make phone calls and fill out forms because your mother is being taken into psychiatric again and even if you are weeping or have swollen eyes and flushed cheeks, it is normal for no one to ask, “Are you OK?” Who can blame them? It is your mother who needs the care as she is under direct fire in the bloody battlefield of mental illness while you are the silent and invisible casualty. (Focus on mother.)
- If you go to town to buy your teacher a leaving present with other kids from your A level class, just don’t mention that when you cycled home the other week, your mum was standing on a manhole cover in the middle of the road with all your pots and pans spread round her in a circle and her arms stretched out like Jesus on the cross. It’s just too much and would be a complete downer on the whole present buying thing. (Don’t speak about what’s going on.)
It’s no wonder that children of mentally ill mothers may end up suffering themselves, living as they do with the underhand criminal we call mental illness, the stalker of their mother’s brain. But I like to think we also suffer from courage, resilience, a mastery of swearing (swearing loudly and swearing quietly at the back of people’s heads) and a nonjudgmental attitude to others. The questions the child of a mentally ill mother may ask, may not be your average questions:
Mum thinks I am poisoning her dinner and she won’t eat. How do I get mum to eat?
Why is my mum afraid of the cooker? Why is she afraid of washing her hair?
Oh God, what are these big kitchen knives I keep finding hidden around the house?
Mum says that I am actually Mary Magdalene and my brother is John the Baptist. Am I Mary Magdalene? I don’t think I am, but maybe in some spiritual way she is right. Why do I have to be the prostitute and my brother gets to be John the Baptist? If I’m not Mary Magdalene and mum is wrong, does that mean mum is mad?
All of this — sectioning your own mother, being afraid of your own mother, her deep, deep, depressions, her psychoses, the utter chaos of family life, a house full of social workers and psychiatrists, doctors, police, relatives with raised voices, relatives who say they can’t handle this and leave — all of this is life for the child of a mother with serious mental illness. They think it’s normal, why make a fuss? Yet all of this is inside their head, it’s inside their heart, filling it up until it swells so much that it bursts and they tumble and fall and come to you: the psychotherapist, the counselor, the person who looks them in the eye. And what are they bringing you?
- Does my mother love me? (low self esteem)
- What’s normal? (confusion)
- Why do I feel these terrible feelings toward someone I’m supposed to love? (guilt/self hatred/anger)
- Will everyone disappear just like my mother? (insecurity/difficulty trusting)
- I can’t relax, because I know there is a crisis waiting round the corner (expecting the worst)
- I have a deep and profound sense of loss that sits hunched up in my chest taking up all the room (grief/depression).
And more, and more ….
If you’re a psychologist, a psychotherapist, a counselor, I know you know all of that. But I’m waving a sign anyway, waving it to highlight how life is for children of seriously mentally ill mothers because they matter too. I’m shouting through a megaphone and setting off fireworks because if I can get people to understand what’s inside the hearts of children like these, then maybe next time they sit in front of someone caring and interested enough to listen to their story, that person will be better able to help them begin to heal.