Children of the Mentally Ill

Guest blog post

Jeweled Dowry: 3 Struggles of Children With Parents Who Are Mentally Ill and How To Create Your Own Inheritance

I knew that my father was “sick” from the time I was a little girl. I knew it because it was the label, the blanket large enough to cover any conceivable behavior from violence to uncontrollable crying, to shhh’s because daddy’s mania hadn’t allowed him to sleep in 3 days and he had finally collapsed into a coma-like sleep, to the seemingly turn-style routine of visiting him on this wing or that wing of a mental institution.  Yes, my daddy was sick.  And so were we.

It’s manic depressive disorder, they said.  I heard those words whispered into phones with a hand cupped secretively over the receiver. I heard them (family and doctors) even though it seemed that every adult in my life took extreme precautions to keep the very thing (the sickness) that modulated the very fibers of my childhood routines tucked behind a wall of secrecy– petting the hidden thing with their left hand while waving and smiling to me with their right.

But, I could see it. Even if I couldn’t touch the sharp lines of the illness, I could feel all of the shadowy edges of being a child of a man who drowned repeatedly within the flood waters of mental illness. These shadowy edges become the gems of the treasure trove for the children of the mentally ill.

Here are three inherited jewels that many children of the parents of mentally ill have tucked within their treasure chests:

  1. We are soul-weary before we hit adulthood.Yes, we feel the guilt of wanting to be protected from the daggers of mental illness. After all, we know that we are in a family system that is being heavily impacted by legitimate biological conditions beyond our parent’s control. Yet, that knowledge doesn’t do anything to mitigate the crippling anxiety that the roller coaster of inconsistency plants within the fertile soil of the young soul. We never know if a neighbor or a church member is going to pick us up because there has been another episode, and even then, we are constantly wondering if someone is dead…was today the day that dam broke? We endure the onslaught of emotions that accompany trying out the next cocktail of medications. The doctors painstakingly explain (to the adults at least) that finding the right formula is more art than science, so we are perpetually on a wait and see plan. Well, at least until the patient becomes so fed up with having his body pumped with drugs and weathering the side effects that he decides to stop taking them all together. They don’t help anyway, right?And, you know what comes after that decision. The police…and ambulances…and more late pickups from school.After the episode, the home is weary from too much intensity in such a small span of time (even if the parent struggling with the impact of mental illness is no longer in the home) and the recovery of the mainstay parent is tough to watch. It is difficult to witness the labored naps, to see the barely managed cereal box tilted to spill much too loudly into the bowl, to hear the phone ringing constantly while each family member tries to get a handle on what happened this time. To hear the weariness within the explanation.Children may not know the details, but we endure the violent stabbing of the family through the aggressive energy that accompanies fear of the unknown. Riding the highs of “we’re back on track” and the lows of “all is lost…again”.

It is a deep, swirling, anxiety producing sadness that we swallow while slurping down the milk at the bottom of our cereal bowls.

Our treasure trove is filled with agate-wrapped numbness and crystallized detachment.  It is our inheritance.

  1. We are a seasoned secret keepers.

Whether explicitly stated or implied, we know not to talk about the impact of mental illness in our homes. At least not in any real detail. School counselors might make phone calls home and that would just stir an already simmering pot, or make the mainstay parent feel even more guilty and powerless than she already feels.  After all, that parent is carrying the heaviness of being a perfectly supportive spouse while basically raising a family on her own.  That parent’s weariness is palpable.

Some random family friend in line at the local grocery store might ask, “How is your father doing?” And we all know the right answer is “fine”. Even though nothing is ever really fine.

Even as children, we learn to keep our own secrets. After all, the pot on the stove has been simmering so long it is burned to a charcoal black that can never be scrubbed clean.  And so we tell ourselves that whatever little problems we may have swirling around in our adolescent world is too trivial to rise to any real level of significance ~ never important enough to disturb the tumultuous waves churning on the family’s surface.

We tell ourselves not to bother anyone. Fool ourselves into thinking that we have experienced so much “grown up” stuff already that we can handle our own problems.  Go on our own “fix it” binges.

And so we take our child/adult selves out into the world pretending that we are equipped to make our own decisions regarding our own welfare. The outcomes are sometimes positive but mostly devastatingly detrimental.  And we tell no one. They are too overwhelmed anyway, we think.  Keep quiet and all will be fine.

Add a sapphire of insignificance and a few emeralds of evasiveness into that treasure chest. It is your inheritance.

  1. We have a skewed sense of what is acceptable.There are truly dreadful and life altering diseases that rock millions upon millions of families across the globe every day. I am in no way discounting the devastating pain those families experience. The fear of death and the fracturing of families is inconceivable to many of us. However, I would like to point out a few nuances for families impacted by mental illness.

There are few, if any, scheduled 5k walks to encourage us to keep fighting the good fight, no colors to wear to signify that we are members of a tribe who shared a special kind of pain and loss, no adolescent 12 Step meetings to share our feelings and to hear from others walking the same path. We receive no special hats or gloves knitted by nice, little, old ladies who have infused their prayers within the loops of the yarn, no casserole dishes from neighbors because the latest relapse put the family back on the hectic loop from hospital to home. No teacher extends your deadlines or pulls you to the side for check ins.  We live within a shame-based paradigm. And, unfortunately, there is no public empathy for shame. Sorry…it just doesn’t fit.

Only silence. Silence and constant reminders that your parent is sick ~there goes that blanket label again.

And so, since there is silence around something so controlling in our young lives, we learned to call it normal. Just what people go through.  There was no dial that showed us that we were actually living in the extreme range and that softer, quieter options were available in the world.

Living this way created a very skewed since of normal.  We define what and how we live from a very wounded space and it is difficult for disrespectful or painful experiences to rise to the level of what we have seen and experienced (i.e. ambulances, police, physical restraints) thus far. And so our ability to absorb the unabsorbable and to explain away the unacceptable is often unreasonable.

Boundaries around what is appropriate were demolished a long time ago for most of us.

Open up that treasure trove and drop in a few pearls of diminished value and a garnet of feelings of invisibility. It’s your inheritance

The Take Away:

For the parent interested in mitigating the stress on your home when a family member floats in and out of crisis:

  • There has to be an acknowledgement of the shattering impact of mental illness on the family that goes beyond your parent is “sick” and Ms. Trudy from church is picking you up this afternoon.
  • I admonish you to work with professionals who are well versed in this type of work to consider a plan to protect the fragility of your children and to seek an approach that promotes balance, to the extent possible. This is easier said than done and I am not claiming to know how to structure this exactly. But, there are professionals who can offer such assistance. Seek them out and tell them your need.
  • Consider being honest with close friends and family about exactly what is going on in your home so you may receive the empathy and the open support of people who love you. Respond to the illness as a long-term battle and not just unfortunate episodes.
  • Carve out opportunities for uninterrupted conversations with your children so you might grasp the happenings in their lives, even while you are buried within your own. I know that feels impossible given the weight that is already on your shoulders. But, they need this time with you for their own safety and protection. They still need you. Again, I don’t know the how’s involved here either, but a professional can definitely help you. You don’t want to lose your kids while you are saving your partner.

For the adult children of parents with mental illness:

Yeah, I know a lot about you.  You do any and everything you can to ignore the treasure trove that is strapped to your back like a tortoise shell.  You shellac it and make it pretty, marvel at how the light bounces off of it in the sunlight. You do exactly what you were trained to do, live with it.

Well, consider this your invitation to examine the jewels of your inheritance ~ the soul weariness, the secret keeping, the skewed sense of normal.

Many of the norms you learned while living in that stressful and often chaotic environment were etched into your soul and into your behaviors.  Isn’t it time to choose your own path instead of blindly following the seduction of your inherited gems?

Though you are dripping in agate, crystal, sapphire, emerald, and garnet stones don’t you want the opportunity to enjoy a journey without the detachment, numbness, and warped since of worth that was carefully laid within your jewelry boxes? Don’t you want your own chance?

As a fellow traveler with my own treasure box, I can tell you that it took a serious commitment to my own emotional health to unearth the sparkling jewels buried within my heart, and some remnants still remain. They seem to have cozied down too deeply for my reach thus far.

But, I’m still digging and I will continue to dig even as I clumsily learn to live without those familiar jewels dripping freely from my finger tips and clanging loudly on my wrists.

I feel naked sometimes. Naked but free to pick out my own stones now.  To decorate my soul as I wish. To fill my own treasure chest. Join me….

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About Portia x

Portia Bates has spent the majority of her professional career as an educator with a primary focus on educational leadership. In 2014, Portia determined to direct her energies toward her life’s purpose, which is to touch the lives of others by sharing deeply personal experiences through her down-to-earth, slightly flinching writing style. God Is Not Pixie Dust is her debut project. She is currently writing her second book, Grace: The Architect. Portia lives in Maryland with her two daughters. When she is not writing, she enjoys nurturing her little family and hanging out with her girlfriends eating salty, rich food and enjoying waves of full-body laughter. She is spunky and adventurous in spirit and is committed to healing and continued growth.

For more information on the author, visit and contact


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