Monday Musings… That's Somebody’s Son

The light turned red as I approached the intersection of an off-ramp and a busy 4 lane road. And there he stood.

But only for a second.

The shirtless stranger, snatched his sneaker with great gusto and started slamming it on the cement. Heaving it to the side, he hauled up one leg of his jogging pants, and began scratching vigorously, then shaking said limb, he began hopping on the other foot, fervently trying to eradicate whatever perceived pest was attacking his skin.

It was clear this young man was having a psychotic episode. Drug induced? Or un-medicated schizophrenia? I could not tell.

My immediate thought as I watched him was that he was somebody’s son. I began to reflect that 20 plus years ago he had entered this world, with all kinds of promise, but then, something had gone wrong. When that mother had looked into her son’s eyes for the first time, and held his smooth skin next to hers, she had no idea he would be facing the inner battle that I observed in front of me. His father, perhaps as his son became a young boy, may have taught him to ride a bike, to go fishing, and play hockey. Life probably seemed normal. Neither could have predicted this would happen to their son.

There are so many parents whose hearts are heavy, weighed down with a feeling of helplessness, as they watch their son or daughter struggle with mental illness or addictions. They’ve likely sought help for their child, tried a smorgasbord of treatments, and invested in rehabilitation centres or the latest therapy. Often, once the child reaches the age of 18, resources have either dried up, or are inaccessible, or the child has now decided to make their own decisions and that includes not wanting to live under your roof. The worrying doesn’t stop. In fact, it can escalate as you have less oversight and input into their choices.

I don’t know if the man I saw was homeless, though from what he was wearing I’m going to guess that was the case. It was also apparent there was no place on his person for ID or a cell phone. But I have no doubt that there was someone, somewhere, wanting to know where he was, if he was ok. And that really pierced my heart.

We spend a lot of time and effort trying to help those afflicted with mental illness and addictions, and I support that wholeheartedly. We do need increased funding and more readily available support. But my mind was gravitating to the often-overlooked predicament of the parents?

I know there are organizations like NAMI, and even our local group called Family Initiatives, but I think there are a whole slew of parents, who reside in the shadows of the discussion of mental health. I know there are many who try to go about their daily lives ‘just like everyone else’, but, unbeknownst to most, they are carrying this tremendous weight of wondering ‘what’s happening to my child’! It’s hard to pretend life is glorious, when you’re so filled with questions (“where are they now?”), with self-blame (‘what did I do wrong’), with doubt that the child will get better (‘they’ve been in rehab four times already”), and with the fear that one day, they might get the dreaded phone call or knock on the door from the bearer of the worst news.

I’ve always believed that parenting is the toughest job in the world, but it is especially challenging for those who have a child struggling with mental illness or addictions. It’s instinctive for parents to blame themselves (or the other parent) for any deviation from the norm in their child’s behaviour.” It’s got to be genetic”, passed down from one side of the family, from some distant relative. Or there are arguments over what they could have done differently for this child in their expectations, discipline, even diet. If only… if only….

But no matter where you decide the cause for your child’s mental illness or addictions comes from, the fact remains that you can’t alter genes and you can’t undo the past. How can parents cope with their current reality?

In many ways, your reaction when you discover that your child, teenager, or adult offspring has a mental illness or addiction is akin to grief. When a diagnosis is finally given to explain their symptoms, you may be in denial or dismiss the doctor’s assessment stating that this is only a phase, that they’ll grow out of it, that it can’t possibly be a mental illness. Sometimes this is followed by anger and blame, then bargaining to get the right help, and followed by depression, mourning the loss of what could have been. So give yourself permission to move through these stages. This is a normal part of processing any kind of setback, change, or unforeseen circumstance.

At some point, you may be ready to accept (the final step in the grief process) that this is the challenge your child is faced with, and that together you are in this for the long haul. This is tough, as both of you would give anything to eradicate this reality. I think often of my client with schizophrenia who would lament that he wished he had had cancer, because he believed that at least the cancerous tumour had the possibility of being removed. This is a difficult journey, and one you will need lots of support to endure.

Children don’t get to choose their parents, and parents don’t get to choose the mental make-up of their child, but regardless, as those who aspire to be good parents, you take a personal pledge of unconditional love. This phrase is thrown around a lot, but the simplest way to understand this is that a parent’s love is pure, sacrificial, and doesn’t demand perfection. Every child needs to know, that love is not a reward for something they have done, it's not something to be earned. Rather, unconditional love is the continual outpouring of care, concern, and compassion. One of the most helpful things I've heard clients say that their parents did for them, was to reach out, letting the child know they were there if needed and that they were thinking about them, even if the child, due to their mental state, rejected the input, never responded, or didn't return the call. Knowing someone didn’t give up on them was vital, even if it looked like it wasn't appreciated.

Unconditional love however, does not mean that the parent is a doormat, or a never-ending source of financial or emotional support to the point where you are literally drained of all your pecuniary and mental resources. Rather, this type of love is pure, in that it never gives up (as I said above) or wavers from the hope instilled from the moment your child entered the world. It's sacrificial in knowing when it's time to let go, because your child is beyond the care that you can provide and needs to be placed in the hands of another. And this love understands that your child, while not perfect, still needs to show respect, a willingness to get help, and a commitment to follow through on their treatment plan.

Parents, therefore, need to take care of their own mental health, and so it may be necessary to establish boundaries of love and support. These are not conditions stipulating when you will love. You will always love. But it may require you to be clear on what you are willing to do to help them. Don’t confuse boundaries with rules. Rules seem straightforward (do this, don’t do that), but they are easily and often broken, which only results in anger and frustration for both parents and children. The reason rules don’t work, is that you’re trying to control something (their mental illness) that you really have no control over. Think of boundaries as directives for how YOU want to live your life, knowing it involves a child with mental illness or addictions. Boundaries focus on what you are willing to accept, and if it doesn’t fit with what you are comfortable with, then say No, don’t do it. Rules are other-focused; directives are for yourself and your well-being. So, communicate clearly how you see yourself interacting and involved with your child, especially an adult child.

Lastly parents, it’s important to find ways to bring balance to your world. It can be exhausting focusing all of your energy on the one who is ill. Attention needs to be given to oneself to recharge, to your partner who shares the challenge, and to the needs of your other children, should you have them. Strive to discover activities that stimulate unbridled fun and togetherness, focusing on each other’s strengths and inner joy. This should be a regular part of your daily and weekly routine. It’s the mental oasis every family member needs when the bulk of conversation and time is spent focused on the one who is ill.

As I turned the corner, careful not to careen into his path, I kept an eye on this young man in my rear-view mirror. As the distance between us grew, he became like an Air Dancer, one of those inflatable moving advertising tubes you often see outside car dealerships, waving and twirling in the wind. He likely had no thoughts about his family in that moment, but I’m sure some parent, somewhere, was wondering what their son was up to that day.

May you be encouraged today by this song:

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