Podcast: Growing Up With a Mentally Ill Parent
Growing up with a mentally ill parent can be a traumatic experience for any child. For Ally Golden, her mother’s mental illness was major depression, later diagnosed as borderline personality disorder. Ally’s book, A Good Soldier, chronicles her life growing up in this environment, with a mentally ill mother who frequently threatened suicide, and the psychological trauma that resulted for her. Decades later, her mother carried out her threat. Listen to hear Ally’s fascinating story.
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About Our Guest
Ally Golden is the author of A Good Soldier, a memoir on the emotional toll of growing up with a mentally ill parent. It is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. Ally frequently writes and speaks on the impacts of mental illness on family life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic. Ally is also an active volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, where she witnesses firsthand the devastating influence mental illnesses can have on the loved ones of the afflicted. To learn more about Ally, visit her website.
DEFYING BIPOLAR SHOW TRANSCRIPT (Computer-Generated)
Narrator 1: Welcome to the Psych Central show, where each episode presents an in-depth look at issues from the field of psychology and mental health – with host Gabe Howard and co-host Vincent M. Wales.
Gabe Howard: Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Show podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and with me as always is Vincent M. Wales. Today, Vince and I will be speaking with Ally Golden, author of A Good Soldier, a memoir on the emotional toll of growing up with a mentally ill parent. Ali, welcome to the show.
Ally Golden: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Vincent M. Wales: We’re glad you are here. So, right off the bat, I want to ask you – as Gabe just read – it was a memoir on the emotional toll of growing up with a mentally ill parent. What’s the story there? Give us a little background.
Ally Golden: While the story is I grew up in a relatively privileged environment. My family was upper middle class and I was living in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and on paper everything looked pretty good. When I was very young, my parents were still married, but my mother had always suffered from mental illness from the time that she was in her early 20s and by the time my brother was born – he was just a couple of years younger – my mother had really started to deteriorate. She at first had major depressive disorder, but then gradually began to develop what is known as borderline personality disorder, which is a personality disorder that’s characterized by shifts in how you view people, how you see yourself and your relationships. And unfortunately I was shaped by my mother’s constant volatility in terms of how she interacted with, me how she interacted with the rest of our immediate family, and how she interacted with our friends and extended family. And when I was eight years old, my mother began to share with me that she planned to end her life, and the next about 20 years were characterized by a lot of manipulation on her part to try and get me to do and say different things so that I could keep her alive and my own life was a game of control. And as long as my mother had survived, I had won that game. And so, my existence and my childhood were really formed on the basis of feeling like I could control another person and that of course, as you guys can imagine, led to some problems later on down the road. So the book talks about childhood but it also talks about what happens when you grow up in that kind of environment and how do you form your own relationships and how sometimes they fail because that’s not the most productive mentally efficacious way to go about life. And then how I go about starting my own family and the types of challenges that I face there.
Gabe Howard: Just to clarify: when you say your childhood, when did this start having an impact on you. I mean when did you become aware of your mother’s illness and when did it really start ramping up for you like to affect you personally.
Ally Golden: I was always aware of my mother’s illness. There’s a scene in the book where I talk about being like 3 or 4 years old and witnessing my mother crying in our living room. So I always knew something a little bit different about her. But when it really started impacting me was when she started threatening suicide. Because at that point I just became very scared and I would say or do anything to keep her safe. And being so young and feeling like you had to be the parent when you were a pretty young child definitely had some damaging effects and just led me to never know what one day or another was going to bring. In addition to being suicidal much of the time, my mother was also very volatile in terms of interactions with people. So I just never knew what was going to happen at the grocery store, what was going to happen at school, like who was my mother going to have a conflict with? And where was there going to be a scene? So, I would say almost as long as I can remember, my mother’s illness was a very salient part of my existence.
Gabe Howard: The title of the book, it’s… can you explain the title?
Ally Golden: I would love to explain the title for the title officially comes from some Tori Amos lyrics. Tori Amos is a musician, a songwriter who is very popular in the early to mid 90s, which is when I was coming of age and her song “Mother” talks about being a good soldier by raising your hand and always doing the right thing. And those lyrics really spoke to me because that was how I’ve gone about life. I’ve tried to do the right thing by my mother, by society, what’s expected and how can I not only meet those expectations, but exceed them? Despite the fact that things might not always make sense, I want to do the right thing, and so that’s where that title – A Good Soldier – I’m going to go through what’s essentially a war in my childhood. But I’m going to do what I feel is right and what is the best thing. That’s where that comes from.
Vincent M. Wales: Well, at first, I was going to remark, you mean there are listeners who don’t know who Tori is? Really?
Ally Golden: Younger people don’t.
Vincent M. Wales: Then I stopped for a minute and though, yeah, of course there are.
Ally Golden: Younger people don’t.
Gabe Howard: Tori is fantastic.
Vincent M. Wales: I know, I’m gonna bust out my Little Earthquakes CD after we get off the show.
Ally Golden: Oh, that’s my favorite one and the song “Mother” is on the Little Earthquakes CD, and you know what, I’ve got a huge audience of college students that are really into the book. Because the book mostly takes place while I’m at college and they don’t… most of them do not know who Tori Amos is. I would say 80 percent do not have never heard her. So yeah it’s sad. I know it’s terrible.
Vincent M. Wales: It’s unfortunate.
Gabe Howard: That is sad. So Sad.
Vincent M. Wales: So yeah. OK so it takes place mostly in your college years. I think that’s pretty interesting, myself. What are some of the things you know during the process of writing this book, what have you personally gotten out of it?
Ally Golden: So originally I wrote it and I hoped there would be some sort of catharsis. Whenever you write a memoir, you’re like, well, I hope this is going to fill me with peace. And it really didn’t. I would say that the reason that I ended up finishing it at the end of the day was to help other people. And that may sound really earnest and a little bit cheesy, but I really wanted to… I’m a writer in my professional life as well. And I felt like if it was anybody’s place to be able to talk about this in a relatively coherent way, it was my place. And I… The one thing that I had wished when I was going through my childhood, my adolescence, and then later, after my mother (and this is a spoiler alert) after my mother did end her life, I felt very alienated and alone that nobody really understood what I was going through. And I wished I had a book like A Good Soldier. And I wish I could have talked with the author and felt like someone else had experienced the type of childhood and the type of trauma that I had. And so that really was the primary motivator for finishing it, editing it, and then publishing it. Because I had the typical concerns I think people have when writing a memoir. First of all, I wasn’t sure it was any good. That was a big hurdle that I had to get over. Like, I didn’t want to put out a piece of crap. And then, of course, you worry about stigma. Of course, you guys talk about that and we’ve all talked about that a lot in the mental health community. Putting this information publicly out there about my family, whereas even when my mother died, very few people knew about my situation. Even people who I could consider relatively close friends. And so, putting it out there publicly was kind of a big deal for me. And so, these were things that I had to deal with, but I just kept reminding myself, look if I can help even one person who has a mother like this feel a little bit better about their situation, then it’s worth it. And I’ve actually gotten probably a hundred emails from people over the last year, it’s been published about a year. And those e-mails just… They touch me, I correspond with people back and forth. I try to help them as best I can. And even though there is no real hope unfortunately for many of these situations, but at least I can make them feel like they’re not alone. And that’s what that was really the goal.
Vincent M. Wales: All right, well now that you gave us the spoiler…
Ally Golden: Sorry.
Vincent M. Wales: It’s okay. Tell us tell us about what happened there and at what point did your mom finally take her life?
Ally Golden: Well, it’s a little bit of an interesting story in the sense that people always ask the question, well do you feel guilty? Because, sad as it is to say, there was a direct relationship between my behavior and my mother finally doing it. As I mentioned, she started threatening when I was around 8. And threatened it pretty often. Up until she actually did end her life when I was 30 years old. And, the way that it happened in the end was that I had said to my mom when I got pregnant, Mom, you know, I’ve been putting your emotional well-being ahead of that of myself for years. But now I have someone else that I need to think about. I’m going to have a baby and that baby is going to have to come first. And it was the first time in my life I’d ever set a boundary for my mother. Previously, I just let her kind of say and do whatever she wanted. And I put up with it. I let myself be emotionally driven by whatever my mother’s needs happened to be at the time because I was still… I still had it ingrained in me that I needed to save her at all costs. And so what I had done was I had driven her up to Providence, Rhode Island, where there was a treatment program – a world class treatment program – for borderline personality disorder. And they had said to her, you’ve got a detox off these prescription drugs before we can help you, because right now we don’t even know who the real Susan Golden is, because she’s so hyped on all of these prescription drugs. And my mother said no. My mother said, you know that is not going to happen. I need these drugs for various reasons. And that was when I had said to her, Mom, until I can talk to a therapist that tells me that you were making progress then that will.. you know… I’m not going to talk to you until we can do that. And that was when she ended her life. So, unfortunately it had a direct relationship to my actions, which was finally setting a boundary. And people say to me all the time, well do you feel guilty? And I’m like, look, I did what I needed to do. And it was 20 years later. I can’t put up with this stuff for 20 years. And I had to put my child first. Like that was the right thing to do, but it was of course very traumatic, as you both can imagine. And my mother also… the way she executed it was different. I mean, forgive the pun there. That’s pretty macabre. But it was different than we had always thought, like she’d always talked about pills and she didn’t use pills; she had a gun, which was very very surprising to me and very traumatic. It’s just not how I had imagined it. And it was very hard to hear from the police that it had happened that way. It was very hard to imagine when I would keep replaying the scene over and over again in my mind.
Gabe Howard: Of course I’m very sorry to hear about your mother and I’m so glad that you’re able to talk about it because, unfortunately, a lot of times when when things like this happen in our society, we tend to sweep them under the rug and we don’t talk about them and, to your point, many people have gone through what you went through and you are creating community for them. How does that feel? I mean, you’re a member of this community because you were traumatized by something that happens but that also was the inspiration to do it. So it’s, it’s sort of a double edged sword here.
Ally Golden: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: How does all of this come together for you?
Ally Golden: It comes together for me in a complicated way. I mean, just this weekend, I had something happen where… So I served as a volunteer survivor support person for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for the last nine years. If you are a suicide survivor, meaning you have someone that you’d lost to suicide, you are able to volunteer to go and help other people cope with recent suicide loss, but you have to wait a year after your own loss so that you’re not interfering too much with… your own feelings aren’t interfering too much with what that person is going through. But I’ve done this for for nine years and, this past weekend, I had to turn down a visit because I just didn’t feel like I could handle it, personally. So, you know, sometimes my own needs still need to come first. But overall, I would say it’s been an amazing experience creating this community and helping people who are in a very similar specific situation. It’s been kind of eye opening to me to hear from people via e mail who have parents that are exactly like this. And sadly, many of them are my age now, like in their early 40s, and their parents are in their 70s and 80s is this is still going on. I can’t even imagine. It sounds terrible to say, but I think it’s important to recognize that sometimes your life gets better when something like this happens, because you just have less of the ongoing trauma. And I can say that I’ve just been much more effective as a person and as a parent not having my mother kind of holding this over my head all the time. I can’t imagine having like 30 or 40 more years of this to deal with and that’s what a lot of these people are going through and just to even be able to offer them the smallest modicum of support has really been helpful to me personally.
Gabe Howard: Thank you, Ally. We’re going to step away and hear from our sponsor. We’ll be right back.
Narrator 2: This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp.com, secure, convenient and affordable online counselling. All counselors are licensed, accredited professionals. Anything you share is confidential. Schedule secure video or phone sessions, plus chat and text with your therapist whenever you feel it’s needed. A month of online therapy often costs less than a single traditional face-to-face session. Go to BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral and experience seven days of free therapy to see if online counselling is right for you. BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral.
Vincent M. Wales: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with Ally Golden, author of A Good Soldier.
Gabe Howard: When you realize that your life improved after your mother’s death, did you feel bad about that? I think that many listeners would immediately feel like, oh wait, you were happy about it, you were glad? And I don’t think that you’re saying that you were happy about it. You’re just saying that, unfortunately, there was this – to use your word – this kind of macabre silver lining. That must be difficult to wrap your mind around.
Ally Golden: That is. And I definitely was not happy. In fact I had PTSD for a year. I also ended up giving birth to my child prematurely because of this – or not necessarily because of it, but let’s just say that there likely was some relationship because I was pregnant, remember. So my mother knew that I was pregnant and then did it anyway. So you know I had to to deal with a premature baby and had a lot of stress associated with that. So I was definitely not happy. I was miserable and the only reason that it ended up having a silver lining at all is that I was released from the constant stress of the uncertainty of not knowing if my mother was going to live to the next day. It’s kind of like – I like to compare it to having a terminal illness. You don’t want… no one wants to see someone that they they love suffer so much. And at a certain point for my mother, it kind of became like a terminal illness. But she just wasn’t able to get better. And you can, we could argue, we could spend a whole other podcast talking about, did she do everything she could? Was.. you know… Was it enough? Like, was there something else that was possible to happen besides this outcome? And that’s a whole existential psychological discussion. And I talked about it with people. But I think having empathy for her and I was able to come to the decision at the end that, you know, this had to happen for my mother in particular and definitely not for everyone. I’m not advocating suicide as a solution, but my mother was very, very ill and she stopped suffering. So there definitely was a positive thing in that that I try to look back on it and say well, she didn’t get to the age of 80 being completely miserable every single day. And, hopefully wherever she is now, it’s in a better place of learning, of peace. We don’t know what happens. There’s no way for us to know, but I like to think that her suffering at least is over.
Vincent M. Wales: So what advice at this point would you have for other children of mentally ill parents that might help them a little bit?
Ally Golden: So there’s a couple forms that advice would take for other children of mentally ill parents. When you’re a child, just look for other sources of support where you can. Sometimes that can be problematic because a lot of times the mentally ill person will distance or isolate themselves. Not always by choice. Sometimes because their illness isolates other people and that makes it difficult. But try to find other sources of support, other family members, other parents, mentors teachers, somebody else who can show you what it means to be a normal stable human adult and somebody who can love you unconditionally. I think that that’s really important. And in terms of people who are adult children of mentally ill parents, I think it’s important to set boundaries. And I never did this. But being able to say, look, I’ve got to put myself first. If I’m not mentally healthy, I can’t help anybody else. And to be able to say, look, I’m willing to support you, but I’m not going to give myself over to you. And my own emotional well-being was never a priority until I became pregnant. And if you think about it, it wasn’t a priority then, either. That was talking about the baby; it wasn’t talking about myself. So that can be very difficult. It can be essentially like leading a horse to water but you can’t make them drink and you can make yourself aware of all of the treatment options and try to get that person engaged in them and then support them while they’re going through it. But you can’t live somebody else’s life for them. And I think this was a big learning that I had. That was my mother had to do what she had to do. And I had to do what I had to do and I couldn’t force her into any particular situation. And so I think that that’s something that I wish I had known earlier, but I think that in my particular situation, I just needed to go through that for many years of just trying to fix it before I realized I can’t really fix it. If anyone’s going to fix it, she’s going to fix it, with access to the right treatment, which she absolutely had. It just wasn’t enough in her case, which was a sad situation. And I hope people also realize that there are a lot of options out there. If you have a mentally ill parent or someone you love,there are so many great resources. It’s not perfect. Medication’s not perfect. Therapy’s not perfect. Support groups aren’t perfect. But we are in so much of a better situation now than we were, let’s say, 20 years ago, where we are talking about these issues thanks to podcasts like this. It’s becoming out in the open. I wouldn’t have been able to have a frank podcast interview when my mother first died about this, but now I feel like the floodgates are being open, partially due to the celebrity causes. Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of celebrities that have ended their lives in recent years. And that has helped us become more transparent. And then just seek out other support for yourself. I think the final piece of advice especially someone who knows what you’re going through if you can find resources like that where you can really talk frankly with someone who has been there. I think it’s really helpful to not feel so alienated and isolated.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much. We can’t agree more. We’re really big fans of saying that we need to discuss mental illness, mental health, and psychology just much more open. I believe the word that you used was be more transparent about it. Because this is actually very common in our society. And I don’t mean suicide; I just mean mental illness or a mental health crisis or even just things like grief and stress or being overwhelmed. But, for whatever reason, you know, many of these things we kind of keep to ourselves until they reach a boiling point. So we really appreciate you being so open with, you know, something as personal as the relationship with your mother and how it impacted you and has affected your life. And to that point, my next question is, how has that relationship affected other relationships? Because you talk a lot about the relationship that you had with your mother, but you have relationships with other people. How is that going?
Ally Golden: That’s a great question, actually, that there’s two thirds of the book that are devoted to that, that are part two and part three, and it’s been a really troublesome journey for me and, I’ll be honest with you, I think that the biggest impact that my mother’s illness had on me was on my interpersonal skills, because I just… I didn’t know how to relate to people in a way that didn’t involve kind of neediness and manipulation and, I wasn’t borderline myself, fortunately, but I did pick up some of those traits, because that’s what was modeled for you. And so, I didn’t know how to have a separate existence that didn’t involve me glomming onto someone and making my needs their needs and vice versa. So I tended to, early on in my – especially in my romantic life, when I was very young or teenager – I tended to develop codependent relationships that weren’t necessarily healthy and what I ended up doing was I met somebody who was very stable and very reliable and when I was 20 years old and I made a life partner decision based on the fact that it was stable and normal and, you know, he wasn’t going to leave me and it wasn’t going to be turbulent and I was able to avoid ,I think for for many of the next several years, any kind of relationship turmoil that my mother had gone through. But, you know, I mean as you get older you recognize that you need to learn certain things about yourself and so… I’m still married and my husband and I have been together for almost twenty two years, but in some of my other relationships with family members, I’m learning how to how to be vulnerable and how to express need without it being this all-consuming thing. But I would definitely say that this has been my greatest life challenge… has been turning it around from being someone who learned really unhealthy, not productive behaviors and becoming a fully functioning adult when it comes to relationships. So that’s been tough. And with my own children, you know, I mean I think I’ve been very very careful to not show too much in front of them. And I think I would, if I’m being very honest, I’ve probably gone too far in the other direction. My children need to see that I’m a human being, but I have a lot of trouble showing emotion in front of them, showing need in front of them, because I’m just so viscerally disturbed by the idea of putting on my kids anything like what my mother put on me. So, you know, I mean it’s not going to be perfect for sure. And you know, I guess based on the way that I was raised, I’m not going to be a perfect parent. I’m not going be a perfect human. But I’m doing the best I can and that’s I guess my message for other people is just, all you can do is the best that you can, learn from your experiences, try to get support, and take one day at a time.
Vincent M. Wales: Now, I think my last question for you has to do, again, with your mother. I myself had a… well let’s call it an unusual relationship with with my late mother. Were there good times that you had? I’m sure there must have been at some point. Could you talk on that a little bit?
Ally Golden: So I think one of the reasons that my relationship with my mother was so problematic is because it was inconsistent and, I don’t know what yours was like, but with my mom…if she had been universally horrible and, you know, like the evil stepmother that you hear about in Cinderella, then it would be much easier for me to just walk away or say, this woman is crazy; I don’t have anything to do with her. But that’s not what my situation was. My mother – in particular, when I was very, very young, when I was an infant, when I was a young toddler – my mother was an excellent mother. I talk about in the book, she was always the one who was in my corner. She was the one who encouraged me to be a writer. She always stood up for me when I had problems with other people. She was the person who wanted to go to bat for me at school. She was always the person I wanted to talk to when I had a problem and she was a great source of support in many ways. And she did love me. I really do feel that my mother loved me to the best of her ability. And, if she could have been a better parent, she would have. She wanted to have a child and in particular she wanted to have a daughter. So when she got that, I really do think that, if it wasn’t for the illness, we would have had a wonderful relationship throughout my life. And it’s just the illness stole that from her. But I don’t say that you know there weren’t good times. There certainly were. And like I said, if it had been more all or nothing, then I would it would’ve been easier for me. But the fact is I never really knew what was going to happen, how my mother was going to act toward me on any given day, what was going to set her off and so that actually kind of made it worse in a way, and I don’t know if you can relate to that based on your experience, but it was definitely troublesome for sure.
Vincent M. Wales: Thank you for sharing.
Gabe Howard: Yes. Thank you so much. And thank you for being on the show. I’m assuming that we can find your book on Amazon and probably many other booksellers online and off line. Where can we find your Web site, Ally?
Ally Golden: So my Web site is AllyGolden.com and it essentially just has some basic information about me and the book. And then of course the book is called A Good Soldier. And one thing I hope that – I know that a lot of your listeners are going through similar things and I genuinely love to hear from people, so you can email me through the Ally Golden website and I will get back to you. I write everyone back. So if people want advice… I mean again, I’m not a… I actually don’t even think I said this once, but I’m not a mental health professional, so I can’t take the place of someone who is qualified to give real advice but I can offer advice from the perspective of someone who’s been there and that’s what I did this for. So I would love to hear from people what you thought of the book, even if you hated the book. I mean I want to hear that too. What did you hate about it? What did you think didn’t ring true or what didn’t resonate? Like that feedback is just as valuable sometimes. So I look forward to hearing from everyone.
Gabe Howard: We couldn’t agree more and thank you so much for being so vulnerable and transparent and, again, peer support is very valuable. We’ve talked about it on this show before. That’s what Vin and I are. In many ways, we offer peer support. I talk about living with bipolar disorder. Vin talks about living with depression and we talk about the trials and tribulations of our life and hey we’ve gotten this far. So why not? I think our points are very valid and we’re glad that yours is too.
Ally Golden: They are and you guys are doing a great job. This is a great show and I really thank you for the service to the community because it is so important and it really does make a difference to people.
Vincent M. Wales: Thank you.
Ally Golden: So thank you.
Gabe Howard: We really appreciate that and thank you everyone for tuning in. Without our listeners, we’d be nothing. So remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private, online counseling anytime, anywhere, by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Help us support our sponsor and we will see you all next week.
Narrator 1: Thank you for listening to the Psych Central Show. Please rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you found this podcast. We encourage you to share our show on social media and with friends and family. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/show. PsychCentral.com is the internet’s oldest and largest independent mental health website. Psych Central is overseen by Dr. John Grohol, a mental health expert and one of the pioneering leaders in online mental health. Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who travels nationally. You can find more information on Gabe at GabeHoward.com. Our co-host, Vincent M. Wales, is a trained suicide prevention crisis counselor and author of several award-winning speculative fiction novels. You can learn more about Vincent at VincentMWales.com. If you have feedback about the show, please email [email protected].
About The Psych Central Show Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is also one of the co-hosts of the popular show, A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. As a speaker, he travels nationally and is available to make your event stand out. To work with Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Vincent M. Wales is a former suicide prevention counselor who lives with persistent depressive disorder. He is also the author of several award-winning novels and creator of the costumed hero, Dynamistress. Visit his websites at www.vincentmwales.com and www.dynamistress.com.
Central Podcast, T. (2018). Podcast: Growing Up With a Mentally Ill Parent. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-growing-up-with-a-mentally-ill-parent/