Breaking the Cycle of a Mentally Ill Parent

My sister and I spent a good part of last evening talking about our parents and our childhood. This is not particularly unusual when we get together. She has a better memory than I do, and yesterday she told me a few new stories that I didn’t remember. Even after 20 years of adulthood, she can still surprise me sometimes with new details.

I love these long, introspective conversations where we dissect small events and hypothesize on everyone’s thought process at the time. We are both parents now, so the actions of our parents are interesting to us in new ways. And, probably surprising to most people, it’s not our mother’s death that is the hot topic of conversation. Instead, it is her actions as a mother of small children that we find more interesting, probably because of the number of small children in our lives today.

It feels grossly unfair that our mother is not here to share in this conversation. At the same time, I wonder if my sister and I would be having these conversations if she were alive today. There is a lingering possibility that my sister and I would not be as close as we are today if our mother was alive; that our close bond was forged in tragedy alone. And our mother’s very presence may eclipse these conversations because she would be here to answer the now unanswerable questions.

I realized during this conversation that, even 20 years later, I still harbor some resentment and anger towards my mother. Not from her illness and her death, which were terrible and tragic, but from the very beginnings of our relationship as an unplanned pregnancy and spirited child. This animosity is completely missing in my sister, whose birth and personality meshed better with our mother’s plan for her life. And I realized that my mother’s mental illness, while a significant factor in my childhood, is not the only issue.

I tell you this because a lot of people find this blog by searching for information about the effects of mental illness on children. I can tell you from firsthand experience that there isn’t much information out there. The truth is that my mother’s illness is only one factor of our relationship that still resonates. Her actions as a young mother in an isolated military community with a daughter whom she didn’t plan on are far more relevant in my life today.

Our parents’ actions affect our lives. There’s no doubt about that. But the children of the mentally ill have choices too. I’m no longer a child, and I don’t blame my mother’s actions for any problems that I have in my life. I do try to learn from them, and with effort, avoid repeating the worst of them. I’m responsible for myself now.

That responsibility means I need to deal with that anger towards my mother that lingers more than 38 years later. I have resources. It’s time to use them again. Because that anger may be playing out in subtle ways in my relationships with my own children. I don’t have any control over my mother’s actions, but I have control over my own. Understanding the difference is one of the key elements to recovery. You can’t choose your parents. But you can choose how you parent your own children. Breaking the cycle is hard. But it’s worth it. I’m worth it. And my kids are worth it too.

The Long-Term Impact of My Mother’s Suicide, Part III

This the last part of a three part essay where I explore a few of the issues in my adulthood that stem from my mother’s suicide when I was 17 years old. Read Part I and Part II.

Becoming a mother myself—something I put off until my early 30s—held an enormous amount of risk for me. I instinctively knew the stability I had tried so hard to create would be at risk by starting my own family and being responsible for another small life. Yet the birth of my son was the most profound moment of my life. Parenthood has let me discover more about my mother, nearly 20 years later, because my children have brought me a new level of understanding about her life and her death. I know now a mother’s love for her child can be etched on her very soul, yet love doesn’t always prevent her from making decisions that are resolutely against her child’s best interests. In only three years, I’ve come to know my mother on a different level. I’ve heard her words come out of my mouth. Seen her temper in my flashes of anger. And in the most despondent moments of post-partum depression, I glimpsed the void that must have made her tie the rope and jump.

Even today it is hard for me to accept my mother’s last decision. Having children of my own, it’s impossible for me to see how she could have made that choice. It is unthinkable to me to simply walk out of their lives, leaving me with one of two very undesirable possibilities. My mother was so sick that her instincts were completely skewed and she thought we would be better off without her. Or she never loved me like I love my own kids.

The second is the reaction of the wounded child, and its large flaw is the changing nature of the parent-child relationship. It’s far more complex than I ever imagined, or could ever have felt, at age 17. I suspect this complexity will simply increase with time as my children age and our relationship becomes even more multifaceted. Years of analysis, of therapy, of pharmaceutical assistance and of late-night philosophizing with my sister have not dispelled one truth: I know my mother loved me, even if her death felt like a choice to leave me.

Then I’m left with the first, and still undesirable, reason. Suicide is excruciating for the people left behind. It is the ultimate act of abandonment for a child. Sometimes there is no happy ending. Sometimes parents are sick. Sometimes mothers leave by their own choice. Sometimes parents die. It is a painful truth, and I face it every day.

I’ve had to deal with a lot of painful truths in my life since my mother died. My children have four grandparents, although one is not biologically related to them. My father remarried four years after my mother died. I won’t pretend his choice was an easy one or his decision didn’t tear apart the fragile bonds we rewove after my mother died. Yet, after years of strife, I now see my stepmother as a valuable asset, filling her role in a way that I’m not sure my own mother would have managed. She is an excellent grandmother. And my children adore her. When Grandma comes to visit, I’m happy to put them in her care, knowing they will be adored and loved. I am grateful for her presence in my life and in theirs.

Also, being happy with myself also creates a bit of a conundrum for me. My life is the result of my mother’s death and the choices I made since that day. If I like who I am now, I cannot wish away the pain and tragedy of her death. I cannot deny its influence in making me a stronger, more resilient person. It has brought me much closer to my sister, who has become my dearest friend. It propelled us to better ourselves, working through college and graduate school, taking on challenging careers, and attempting to make the world a better place. It brought me to the man I married and the two adorable children we created. I look at the good in my life, and I see how it sprung from the pain. The paradox does not escape me.

I hope my experience provides some comfort for others who have experienced tragedy. When I watch my children sleeping safety in their beds, I think about everything I want for them. First and foremost, I want them to have a safe and happy home with healthy parents. What’s more, I wish all children around the world could have the exact same thing. I don’t want any family to go through what we did. Since that wish is unobtainable, I have to settle for telling this story in order to help others know that even in painful times, there is still a chance for good. Recovery can and will happen if you work toward it. Life does not necessarily give you what you want or what you deserve, but you can find good in life again. I survived. I am living proof.

The Long-Term Impact of My Mother’s Suicide, Part II

This the second part of a three part essay where I explore a few of the issues in my adulthood that stem from my mother’s suicide when I was 17 years old. Read part one here.

I’ve lived more than half my life without my mother now. How I got from the 17-year-old girl to the 35-year-old mother of two is a story that would encompass more than book or two. I can confidently say not everything in my life is a reflection of my mother’s death. However, after becoming a parent, I’ve realized my actions do reflect her life.

My sister and I jokingly refer to these situations with our catch-all comment: “Does EVERYTHING have to relate back to HER?” We’ve been through enough therapy to recognize the glint in a therapist’s eye when we get around to the inevitable conversation about the bipolar mother who takes her own life. It is the fact about us most people use to define who we are. And for a long time, my mother’s death was how I defined myself. That changed with the birth of my son. I am now a mother first, and being a motherless daughter has shifted backstage.

Yet being a mother without a mother does affect the way I parent my own children. I don’t think this is unusual. In fact I highly suspect I’d be revisiting issues from my childhood even if my mother was living today. It’s a journey all children must embark upon—learning to not repeat the mistakes of our parents when we become parents ourselves. (And in turn, make our own mistakes.) But I suspect because my mother was mentally ill, I pay more attention than some other people would. The biggest “mistake” I don’t want to make as a parent is dying too early. My inability to control accidental deaths or catastrophic illness leaves me with a constant feeling of unease. Because I know, from experience, you can wake up one morning and your world is upside down.

I do take comfort in the many loving people in my children’s lives, and I know the seeds are already sown for them grow into happy, confident adults even without me. I also know, from experience, tragedy doesn’t always result in more tragedy. Many people thought losing our mother to suicide would undo both my sister and me. But it didn’t. Today both our lives are as average as they can be. They are full of bedtime stories and client meetings. Making dinner and watching mindless television. Husbands who are as steady as rocks. Children who alternatively charm and frustrate, usually in the same minute. The normalcy of our lives is a testament to my mother’s work before her illness and death. One year of tragedy did not undo the 16 years of reliability that came before.

This stability in our lives today is not accidental. After the chaos of my mother’s last year and the turmoil after her death, my sister and I purposely designed our lives to honor calm and commitment and dependability. We want to feel safe. We’ve done our best to insulate ourselves from potential storms. We know we can’t prevent it. We do our best to prepare for it, a common reaction for people who have experienced tragedy young.

To be continued…

The Long-Term Impact of My Mother’s Suicide, Part I

This the first part of a three part essay where I explore a few of the issues in my adulthood that stem from my mother’s suicide when I was 17 years old.

My 3-year-old son is sitting beside me on the bed holding Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat. We are in the midst of the bedtime ritual—stories and talking before it’s time for lights out. I decided the moment is right to explain his mother and father are leaving on a short trip, and Grandma and Grandpa will stay with him and his baby sister for a few days.

He listened carefully, then said, “You left me.”

This statement made no sense to me, but after three years of parenting, I’m used to it. “When did Mommy leave you?” I asked.

“You left and Daddy put me to bed and read me the elephant book,” he said.

I realized he is talking about last night, when I went to the gym and Daddy was responsible for bedtime. “Yes. I did. But I came back.”

“Yeah,” he grinned at me, his whole face crinkled with glee.

I looked straight into his hazel eyes and said without hesitation, “Mommy will always come back.”

As I heard my own voice say the words, my stomach turned over. The lie violated a pact I had made to myself on the day he was born: to be honest with my children. And it is so huge, I am shocked by my own words and the conviction with which I said them. Who knows better than I that Mommy doesn’t always come back?

Even months later, I continued to dissect this evening in my mind for clues to why it resonated with me. I shared the exchange with my friends who have children; and they were quick to appease me—I’m a parent of a small child and I wanted to reassure him. It was a simple statement his three-year-old brain could process; because in spite of my ever constant worries that I will meet an untimely end and my children will be left without their mother, the odds are against that happening.

While I left these conversations temporarily feeling better, later I realized these friends all still had their natural parents. Of course they could easily dismiss my concern. For me, the answer would never be simple.

This scene, which occurs in nearly every household with a preschooler, triggered a different response from me because of my mother’s suicide. Two factors were at play for me in this simple scenario. I know my ideal of being honest with my own children stems from those chaotic last months with my mother when I was never sure what was true. Was she sick? Was she fine, as she insisted regularly? Was it a hormone imbalance or a chemical imbalance in her brain? Was it both? The answers to these questions will never come. I’ve accepted that now. The best I can do is accept the full truth of the situation. Something was wrong with my mother. And she chose her own death as the solution. It is brutal. It is the truth. And I’ve learned to value the truth in spite of the pain it brings. In turn, I try to be truthful with my children to save them from the painful realization I had at 17—that I could not trust my own parent.

The second element in this scenario relates to my greatest fear—that I will die before my children are grown. I would never wish on them what I have endured—not only the life-changing events missed by my mother, but the thousands of small moments: the care packages that never arrived at my dorm room, the birthday cakes selected alone because no one else thought to do it, and the midnight phone calls to commiserate about colicky babies. These little things hurt more than the empty seat at the wedding and the pitying looks in my friends’ eyes when I explain no one is coming to help after the birth of my first child because my mother is not alive and no one else will do.

To be continued…