Often I meet people who have a parent with similar or identical diagnoses as my mother, yet their parent's symptoms seem entirely different. Our experience of our parent's illness could be different depending if we had other adults in our life that were able to help, siblings that were part of our web of support, etc. Another factor is often our parent's personality and ability to manage providing parenting support while also managing the symptoms of their illness.
My mother, for example, was generous, loving and kind, even when she was having terrible struggles with symptoms that included hearing voices, delusions, and losing weeks of sleep. I worried about her, yet was never fearful of her. We did live in suspended time when her symptoms would reemerge and as a child that impacted me greatly. My mother was also afraid of her illness. So I grieved for her and wanted to help her.
Most people in larger society believe that having a parent with a serious mental illness is simply all bad. This is an extension of the stigma that sits over people with mental health diagnoses. Society at large portrays people with mental illness as dangerous and our laws are designed with a focus on whether a person is dangerous to others or their own self. Yet, if you have ever spent time around people who experience mental illnesses you will likely find that there is a subculture of humor, cutting-to-the-truth statements and expressions of compassion that can be resiliency-building for anyone who gets a chance to know people (a person) with a "serious mental illness."
A few years back I came to know a woman named Heather Burack while she was finishing her MSW at Hunter College in New York. Heather was frustrated to see articles about having a parent with mental illness that were entirely negative, with titles such as "Troubled Journey" and "Hidden Victims." As the daughter of a parent with a serious mental illness, she did not feel that these descriptions represented her experience. She used her graduate coursework as an opportunity to do qualitative studies of adults who had a parent struggling with a mental illness. It was through one of these studies that I met Heather and benefited from the results of her research.
Heather identified the following five redeeming qualities of daughters and sons who have a parent with mental illness:
Tolerance of difference
Willingness to challenge the status quo
A sense of humor
Thanks to Heather for identifying these strengths! I will write more about challenges in other blogs, but I want to start by highlighting the strengths of daughters and sons who have a parent struggling with mental illness.