My mother is witty, a great conversationalist, very intelligent, creative, and an amazing listener. She has also been incredibly depressed for as long as I can remember. Growing up with a mother struggling with mental illness is alot like growing up with any other struggles during your childhood; you think they're normal because that is your life, until you get old enough to really analyze the experiences that were your norm.
As I got older, I began to notice that she wasn't okay. How impossible it was for her to be there in the way that I wanted (and sometimes needed) her to be. I remember many times playing on my own, wanting a reaction from her so badly. I recently watched an old family home video and saw my younger self, trying so hard to make her smile, and seeing the pain in her face that she wasn't able to fully express happiness. I remember many other times when she was just so sad, emotionally unavailable, and at that time I couldn't understand why.
I'm writing this because my mother's mental illness has shaped my life, and because mental illness is SO prevalant I know for a fact that I am not alone in this experience. And because it should be openly talked about without stigma or shame; like your mom has diabetes, so she has to take insulin? Well mine struggles with a chemical imbalance in her brain and has been on medications for it for a very long time. I can honestly say I have finally gotten to a place where I fully understand, appreciate, and love her, and I strive to release judgments. I ran from her illness during my teenage years; her feelings were so BIG, it didn't feel like there was room for mine. And I was a teenager so naturally I was also somewhat of an asshole.
As I went away to school and learned about Psychology, and eventually became a therapist, I began to see her with new eyes. I realized how real depression is, and how different it can look depending on the person it is impacting. I began to see her as a woman trying her best to work through what can be a debilitating illness, and I realized how the "small" gestures she made throughout my life were HUGE.
I still struggle with this; seeing her through these eyes that don't judge, but understand. Because there's a part of having a parent with mental health issues that isn't all unicorns and butterflies and love. There's the part where I had to honor my raw emotions about what I never got that I wish I always had; a "normal" parent that was able to do certain things (normal is in quotations because, really, is that even a thing). I had to really process my anger, my sadness, and my hurt that were clouding my ability to see how much she has taught me through her struggle. This took time. This took talking with friends (and a therapist!), crying, journaling, yoga, and the process continues and most likely always will. I had to learn about my own limits; because mental illness is heavy and can be draining (for the person afflicted by it, and those that are close to that person). I had to learn when I can talk and love and be there and when I can't. There were times I had/have to separate myself so that I can take care of me, because my emotional needs are important also; and how can you be there and give to another person if you are depleted yourself?
But on the other side of the pain, is this sense of appreciation; this understanding that my need to understand why she was the way she is led me to finding my purpose. I'm a therapist because I grew up watching her in pain and not knowing how to help, and I want to be there to help others in that way now. I can't imagine my life without this incredibly rewarding work I do, and she has everything to do with why I started on this path. Don't get me wrong, it's not like I got this epiphany and now I'm this perfect daughter that always exudes love and acceptance. It takes constant work for me, being able to see the resilience in her and in me that has grown as a result of pain; but it is a part of my process and has made me a better human.
Everyone's process looks very different, but just know that if you are struggling with loving someone who has a mental illness, it is imperative that you take care of yourself and honor your process and your emotions. The hope is that you can maintain some kind of genuine connection with that person (which may require letting go of what it's "supposed to look like"), but the bigger reason is that you deserve to be emotionally healthy and free.
Light and love,
Bonus challenge: If there is someone important in your life that you are having difficulty loving, or maybe you resent them for some negative impact they have had on your life, take some time to consider what you have learned from them. Are you better able to comfort and nurture others because of what you've had to go through? When shit hits the fan, do you know in your gut that you will get through it because you have been through so much worse before? Don't take these lessons for granted, not everyone has your resilience. Sometimes our most valuable lessons come from pain.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, know that there is help available and you are not alone. Here are some resources:
If you are in the U.S. and need help, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255