I have a loved one that suffers with severe mental illness. He’s a brilliant, beautiful, creative person who told spellbinding, captivating stories of far away places and taught me to not be afraid of the dark. But just as quick and easy as flicking a light switch on and off, our lives changed from moment to moment.
As a child I didn’t understand. I remember thinking everyone’s home was just like mine… a place where the stairs turned into an escalator only for the person who knew the magic word and where the cupboards were locked at night to keep out the mischief-making fairies.
It wasn’t until I was around 7 years old that I realized how different I was from other kids my age. I remember one school recess curiously approaching a bunch of older kids that had gathered on the outskirts of the playground. They stood staring paralyzed while they watched a frantic classmate furiously punching his fists into a tree trunk. I parted my way through the group towards the tree and stood by him quietly until he finished, pulling a crumbled napkin out of my paper bag lunch and offering it up for his bloodied knuckles. All eyes shifted between me and bloodied fists boy.
I walked away feeling icky — shamed, judged, sad and strange. But even bigger than that was a nagging voice in my head wondering why I thought it was perfectly normal to beat a tree until your knuckles bled.
Children make sense of their world in a variety of ways. When their world is outside the norm (and there are endless ways in which this can be the case), often magical thinking becomes a developmentally appropriate coping skill.
Based on the Family Support Group Guidelines for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), I created the following list that I share with many of my young clients. It’s an effort to address, acknowledge and normalize some of the things children long to hear if they have a loved one that is suffering with mental illness.
A cautionary note just as I tell my young clients: watch out for the “NOT”s. They’re slippery little things and if not tied tightly, they slip away and leave you feeling in knots.
- I am NOT alone…1 in 4 people suffer with a mental illness and there are a lot of people that love them.
- I have A LOT of questions…what’s going on? why is this happening to me? why is this happening to my loved one? how can I make my loved one better? will I be like my loved one some day?
- I am NOT to blame. It is NOT my fault.
- My loved one LOVES me.
- Being a kids means I have needs and they are important.
- I have protectors I can talk to.
- I CANNOT fix my loved one, but I can SUPPORT them in small, specific ways like: cleaning my room, going to school, eating healthy food, taking care of myself, using my words, talking about my feelings.
- I hold lots of hope ’cause it’s hard sometimes but it’s great sometimes too.