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What’s Hardest About Being the Parent of a Mentally Ill Young Person? That’s really the wrong question.

Latest posts by Helen Epley (see all)

    On a really tough day last month, feeling nearly desperate about a major problem I was having at work, I wallowed for hours in helpless fear and anger.  Finally I reined myself in by briefly imagining that these feelings are what my mentally ill daughter goes through perhaps every day to some degree and some days to a much greater degree.  That was a real kick in the pants.  She is now 20 and has been suffering for nearly ten years, most keenly for the last 6 of those.  Her father’s and my greatest concern has always been her safety, basically the fear of losing her.  That remains paramount.  But our next two largest sources of fear and sadness are her potential – lost potential is what we used to really ruminate on – and her actual future.  These are similar of course, but not the same.

    My daughter is beautiful, funny, incredibly talented and super intelligent.  Her father and I have always felt so fortunate that her natural gifts are the ones most people would give an arm to possess.  As she went through puberty and her emotional disregulation became more apparent, her inability to utilize her gifts began to make them moot.  At her worst moments of hopelessness when suicidality reared its ugly head, valuing her huge vocabulary or her lovely, long blonde hair and blue eyes was suddenly a foolish and trivial occupation.  Over time, knowledge of the fleeting value of these things which had always given me such pleasure forced me to reevaluate what makes her special – what makes her her.  Over many years, I’ve come to know that part of what makes her so special in general but particularly to me, actually is her emotional instability itself.  She is like an unstable atom, flitting from place to place in the atmosphere, full of energy and predictable unpredictability.

    My daughter has always had a jones for social justice.  At age 6 she rushed to me to report that she had lectured another child who was being mean to her good friend and neighbor Anna.  She knew the meany well.  As Dumbledore says, it’s one thing to stand up to your enemies, but quite another to stand up to your friends.  As a pre-teen, she reckoned it might be a good path forward to be a civil rights attorney or something like that, after graduating from a top-notch university.  By her sophomore year in high school, after falling full-tilt into self-harm, self-hatred, and finally suicidal ideation, that path was clearly no longer open to her.  The timeline isn’t this straight, but she essentially lost a full school year to hospitalizations and treatments, and another full school year to a whopping athletic concussion.  Her grades and activities suffered and she suffered from the horrifying slow-dawning comprehension that she would not be going away to school with her friends, or even her friends’ younger siblings.

    How much more isolated could this all make her?  Well, just a little more.  I’ll relate her experience at a therapeutic school for smart kids with health and emotional issues at another time, but that experience was even more isolating and disturbing than a hospital.  Add divorcing parents and a move out of the big family house and you’ve got a laundry list of the most disregulating things that can happen to anyone, all happening to a mentally ill teenager.  It was a real shit show for 4 years or so.  I can honestly say that I was never disappointed in her, but I can attest to feeling very disappointed for her.  I had lived a charmed life to that point and had hoped to lead my children through charmed lives of their own, but that was clearly not to be.  Being a compartmentalizer of the first order, I simply put away those feelings and moved forward with her, for her, and occasionally even past her. I knew I could not correctly fasten her “oxygen mask” on unless I first quickly put on my own.  I’ve made great strides of my own, but the greatest ones have been in my understanding of my daughter, her needs, her abilities, her fears, and her accomplishments.

    I may not have emotional disregulation like my daughter’s, so I did not have as far to go or as steep a climb to get there.  But the growth I have made has come mainly in my reevaluation of what’s precious in her and what Potential actually means.  My patience has had to expand greatly, because she’s honestly been a swift pain many times in the last 8 years.  Seriously, though, my understanding of what some others go through just to get dressed in the morning has actually become real.  My grasp of how a child’s brain works has grown substantially, and my pride in my incredibly brave, beautiful, smart and persistent daughter is off the charts.  But the real point here is – it’s not about me.  She is more in charge of herself with each passing month. She is more able to look outside herself now than she could ever afford to do earlier in her life.  She is on track to go to University this coming September.  She has created this blog and written with more honesty, sincerity and pathos than celebrated writers many times her age.  She works in town at a wonderful non-profit theatre.  She has actually re-written the list of her own potential accomplishments and the timeline upon which she would reach them. Why do I call her My Brave Girl?

    If you had as much fear, self loathing, anger, despair, and hopelessness on your shoulders and still accomplished what my daughter has, I’d call you brave too.

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    2 thoughts on “What’s Hardest About Being the Parent of a Mentally Ill Young Person? That’s really the wrong question.

    1. Phenomenal. Brave Mother. Both of your voices are incredibly necessary in a culture where mental challenges are still shrouded in secrecy & mystery. This blog went straight to my heart…thank you.

    2. Thank you for this post. I feel less alone than I did 10 minitues ago. Our story is similar. I am also in awe of my fabulous daughter and I hope one day she sees herself asI see her.

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