This is a shout-out to my sisters and brothers with mentally ill adult children. This is to say: you are not alone.
You are not alone when another parent laments a horrible night fighting with a son or daughter over curfew, and you try to commiserate while silently recalling the weeks your child vanished with no word. You are not alone in feeling the stab of pain at the photos and mementos other parents take for granted. You are not alone when your silence at celebrations is a veil between you and shared joy. I am with you.
You are not alone when you run into your child’s classmates’ parents at the grocery store and hear stories of graduations, weddings, careers, and grandchildren, and are struck dumb. What can you say? “The electroconvulsive therapy seems to be helping,” or, “It’s been almost eighteen months since the last relapse and it looks like this new boss is very understanding about the absences”? You are not alone when you wonder what they’ve heard, and what they are not saying. I wonder too, in silence and gracelessness.
You are not alone in those other awkward silences, when you relate a funny story, an achievement, a talent, or a celebration pertaining to that mentally ill person whom you love. You know those silences: the person you’re talking to is momentarily confused, because they thought your child was that child, the one who…you know. How can you be praising that child’s talents or skills or achievements or sense of humor? And you want to shout, “This child of mine is NOT circumscribed by illness!”
You are not alone in your anger at your child over the behaviors which make life so much more difficult and painful. Or in your anger at the people who take advantage of a mentally ill person’s confusion verbally, financially, sexually, violently. You are not alone in your desire to protect someone who cannot be protected without also being imprisoned. You are not alone in your confusion over where to draw the line between making allowances for things mentally ill people can’t help, and enabling unacceptable behaviors that they can. There are others out here, like me, whose hearts are a battleground between the rescuer and the judge.
You are not alone when the phone rings in the middle of the night and you panic, clawing at the sheets, and flailing in terror that this is one of those times when the police, or the ER, or the psych hospital calls to tell you your child is arrested, unconscious, suicidal, hallucinating, self-harming, attacking orderlies, or any of a litany of other behaviors. Or, the worst call of all, the one you dread the most: the call to say your child has overdosed, successfully committed suicide, been shot or stabbed or bludgeoned to death by a cop or a drug dealer or a stranger or a lover. And you are not alone when the most shameful thought flickers momentarily through your mind: at least then it would be over. And you are not alone when you crush that thought desperately, so fearful that even allowing it to cross your mind will somehow make it true, make it into a hammer that will smash your heart to pieces forever.
My sisters and brothers, that hammer keeps pounding away at our hearts. Let us keep our hearts warm and pliable so the blows will be the blows of the forge, to mold and shape our hearts and leave them stronger and more resilient, and shining like metal, like steel, like gold! Let this be a flame to warm your heart: you are not alone.