When Your Parent is Mentally Ill
By Guest Blogger Laurie Nadel, Ph.D.
When Dr. Veronica asked me to write about this topic, I have to confess that my first reaction was a flutter of butterflies in my stomach. Even though I am 64 years old and it is now more than two years since my mom died, I still have occasional flashbacks and troubling dreams about events that happened more than half a century ago.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, there was no Oprah or Dr. Phil. The idea that you would go to speak to a professional about personal problems was as foreign as the lettering on our neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Therapy, coaching and counseling as we know them today did not exist. You only went for psychological help when the men in the white coats came to take you away to one of those stone buildings where they locked you in a room and gave you drugs and shock therapy.
A narcissistic woman who had earned a bachelor of arts in accounting at a time when few women went to college, my mother gave up working when she married my dad during World War Two. She devoted herself obsessively to cleaning the house and losing her temper if something was put on a different shelf in the refrigerator. Later, I came to learn that her underlying anger masked deep insecurities but as her daughter, I grew up thinking that there was something wrong with me because I was always “making her angry.” Dodging her temper, I was always punished when I tried to stand up for myself, a pattern that later in life caused me to attract men who were verbally abusive. (It was what I had learned to expect but eventually I learned how to heal that pattern.)
By the time I was eleven years old, my mom had retreated into the bedroom where she spent most of her days heavily medicated with barbiturates. She had been diagnosed with slipped disks which were extremely painful. Because my dad was a dentist, she used his prescription pad to write numerous Rx’s for pain medication. The kitchen cabinet was stockpiled with samples of what Mick Jagger heralded as “mother’s little helpers.” One night, when I woke up to get a glass of water, I found my mom sitting in the kitchen crying. She had arranged all the bottles of blue and orange capsules in a row and said that she was thinking of taking them. I remember asking her what was wrong. It was the first time I saw her cry or realized how tormented my mom really was. I told her that I was sorry she felt so sad and asked her not to take the pills because everyone would miss her. In the interest of full disclosure—although it is painful to confess—I was pretty sure that I would not miss her but I knew that everyone else would. Her suicide would have left our family even more traumatized than I think we were.
It took years of therapy for me to realize that I had grown up in a home where my mother was mentally ill and that it was not my fault. Nor was it her fault.
My mother’s psychiatric illness was eventually diagnosed as borderline personality disorder which is characterized by an underlying emptiness and infantile rage. At the age of 84, when she could no longer walk, she let me bring her to a hospital where she was evaluated by a team of geriatric psychiatrists. By that time, it was too late. Her body was ravaged by her addiction to pain medication and her psyche had deteriorated into chronic agitation. The doctors prescribed a cocktail of medications to help her stay calm and pain-free until she died peacefully six weeks later.
My childhood has made me more empathic to others. If you are living with a family member who has a serious mental illness and that person refuses to get help, it is important for you to seek professional help so that you can get support, information and strategies for taking care of yourself regardless of how your family member behaves. You can educate other family members about the importance of getting help themselves. Then you can work together to persuade the person who is mentally ill to finally get professional help.
LAURIE NADEL, Ph.D. spent 20 years as a professional journalist before returning to school in her 40s and earning two doctorates in psychology and clinical hypnotherapy. Now in private practice in Manhattan for more than 20 years, Dr. Nadel has coached many people struggling with the complex emotional issues that come from living with a family member who is mentally ill. www.laurienadel.com