Growing up, I knew plenty of kids with alcoholic or abusive parents. But those of us with the mentally ill parents, we stayed on the fringe. What looked like a normal home was heartbreakingly empty inside. It was too hard to explain.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, awareness for mental illness was just beginning. Having a mentally ill parent in my house was like having a secret I never asked for. I knew something was wrong — I knew my dad had outbursts and wasn’t himself — but like many other kids growing up in dysfunctional and eventually divorced homes, I assumed it was my fault.
It took two more decades until I had my own kids and started therapy that I began to realize: Maybe all that darkness wasn’t about me. That realization was life changing, but it didn’t automatically fix things. I still had the guilt, the scars and the shame from growing up how I did. I never received outside help as a child raised by a mentally ill parent, and now I was an adult with the same problems — I was just better at hiding them.
This got me to thinking. One in four adults has a mental illness, and while not every mentally ill adult is a parent, it’s pretty safe to assume that you or someone you knew grew up in a home like this. Not only does a child’s risk of mental illness increase when a parent suffers from a clinical disorder, but these damaged kids grow up to become adults who have no idea what to do with the pain they still feel.
Which is where I am today. Step by step, I’m working my way through the mess I grew up in, and it’s not even close to easy. If you also grew up with a mentally ill parent, there are a few important things you need to understand:
1. It’s not your fault
Think back to that famous scene in Good Will Hunting that stabbed you right through the heart and promise to repeat this to yourself every day until you believe it: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.
Nancy Virden, author and suicide-attempt survivor, says her adult children were raised in a home with two parents who struggled with major depression. She candidly shares, “There are things I’d like to go back and do over again, but what I can do is encourage my own sons and others: It was never and still is not your fault. There is nothing you could have said or done that made your parent ill. There is nothing you could have said or done to save your parent from their illness.”
2. You’re not alone
Growing up in a dysfunctional home where mental illness was never talked about will do a number on you. I’m a grown-up, I live in my own house and the coast is supposed to be clear. But it still feels like a superhuman feat to open up about my feelings. As hard as it was to admit I was still lonely and hurting so many years later, reaching out to a therapist was the best thing I ever did for myself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, says Shannon Battle, clinical director and CEO of Family Services of America. She continues, “Make calls to your local mental health and social services agencies and ask for specific services that are available. There are many programs that provide support to help you with personal care, vocational rehabilitation, behavior management and more.”
Even a simple support group could be enough to make you feel heard and understood. Andy Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Caring.com, recommends, “There are both offline and online support groups that can help the adult children share their experience with others like them who understand what they’re going through and who will offer tips and encouragement to help them through their day or week. Online support groups have the added perks of anonymity and convenience. The journey doesn’t have to be lonely — help is available from peers and professionals, as well as nonprofit and government organizations.”
3. You deserve a break
The biggest side effect of my painful childhood is also the easiest to overlook: I don’t know how to be nice to myself. There wasn’t a parent who showed me how. I’d rather punish myself by restricting food, working too much and beating myself up for not being perfect — because that feels like home to me. It wasn’t until I started therapy that a lightbulb finally went on for me: I’m the only one who’s going to be living with myself for the rest of my life. If I don’t start treating her better now, no one’s going to do it for me.
This self-care model becomes even more important when you’re still caring for your mentally ill parent as an adult, says Dr. Christine Moll from the American Counseling Association. “Similar to putting one’s own oxygen mask on first, before assisting others — taking care of one’s own emotional, physical and spiritual health first is necessary.”
Virden also explains why it’s so important to let yourself off the hook, “It was not your role or responsibility to fix or save your ill parent. For one thing, you were a child trying to learn your own way. Your job is to accept them as-is and develop your own life.”
4. You aren’t your parent
I thought I’d escaped my volatile childhood, until I had kids. Then it all came rushing back with a clip of the umbilical cord: What if I’m just like my dad? What if I don’t know how to bond with my kids? What if I screw them up forever? Virden insists that adult children of mentally ill parents don’t have to live in constant fear of repeating the past, even with a similar mental health diagnosis. She says, “You can make your own decisions concerning treatment. The majority of people who seek treatment experience improvement and even normalcy.”
Whenever I find myself hitting a wall with my kids, where I inevitably feel like I’ve screwed everything up at least a few times a week, I have to sit down and remind myself: My dad’s past doesn’t dictate my future.
5. Your story can have a happy ending
I’m not going to lie: There are still many days where I feel sad, lonely and disconnected — just like I felt growing up. But as I’ve taken the time to get to know myself, to feel those painful feelings and to process my grief, something truly remarkable has happened: Not every day is bad. Some days, I feel like myself — that happy kid I was before my dad’s world came crashing down on me. In just a few short years since I’ve started therapy, the good days are starting to outnumber the bad.
I don’t think there will ever be perfection. I’m prepared to deal with many of these negative emotions handed down to me for the rest of my life. But I can also see now how my painful childhood has shaped me — I’m more empathetic. I’m learning how to treat myself better. I keep my eyes wide open so I don’t do the same thing to my kids. I doubt any child of a mentally ill parent would say everything happens for a reason, but with a little perspective and a lot of healing, I’m beginning to appreciate the person I’ve become in spite of it all. Jennifer Snyder, a self-described successful and resilient daughter of a narcissistic, bipolar mother, sums it up nicely, “Ultimately, I have to love myself more than I hate her.”