We are satellites. We – I mean daughters and sons who have or had a parent with a mental illness. As satellites, we are not easy to find. We don’t attach easily to movements or groups. We may have vocations in helping professions, or we may avoid them at all costs. Yet we are many and plentiful, because there are many people who have psychiatric experiences, and most have children. As satellites, though, the process of finding each other and organizing as a group requires grassroots organizing. This has been the central effort of the Daughters and Sons Initiative.
Those of us who grow up in the shadow of a person who experienced psychiatric illness tend to float. We may do this because our experience, having gone unrecognized and often combined with experience of exclusion from groups, left us without practice bonding with peers or resentful of the various systems (family, mental health) that ignored our situation. The interplay between how adults view children's experience and how children view it has become clearer to me as I have gown up. So, I feel forgiving of the many adults that were willfully uninvolved in my situation. Simply put – living day in and day out with a person who has psychiatric symptoms is not easy for anyone. However adults can chose to take a break more easily than children. Adults know to call for help, reach out for resources, or can even drive to just seek help. Children have to find their escape in other ways, usually internally. When I write this I am thinking of rather severe circumstances, such as needing to find peace and quite while someone is hearing voices, talking to people they see as hallucinations, day and night. In such cases an adult may walk in, see that something is wrong, and take action. Whereas a child will simple have to wait for an adult to notice the situation. This is because we have not systemically addressed the needs of children who have a parent with mental illness with viable tools that allow children to ask for help. Children often also live the experience of the person with the mental illness. We talk with our parents in detail and try to reason our way through their experiences in order to find them, the parent, in the midst of their symptoms.
From this childhood experience, as adults we are acutely sensitive. We react strongly to real or perceived exclusion or being unrecognized. This means we may back away quickly when we think we are being shunned. I have found this to be a delicate road as an organizer. I am continually mindful of how important it is for each Daughter or Son involved in this effort to be recognized for their contribution and work. This is also what has held many of us back from being involved with larger mental health advocacy movements. Our desire for justice in mental health is often trumped by feelings of being unseen in mental health movements for our unique experience. Efforts like the Crooked House website are important because they are directly attempting to create a “commons” area where adult Daughters and Sons can find each other. In this effort we are building a platform for people who have experienced living in the shadow of their parent’s illness to give voice to our diverse and often mixed experiences.
When I think about my own experience as a satellite, I feel fatigued. At least for myself, I have wanted to land somewhere. As with many people who have this shared experience, going home really wasn’t an option once I became a young adult. This doesn’t mean I didn’t love both of my parents who suffered from mental anguish. They simply didn’t have a place where I could stay. In my struggle to find my own path and stability in the world, I was plagued with fears. What would I do if I too fell apart like them? I knew they cared for me, but there was little they could give me in support aside from love. And I was very fortunate because I had their unconditional love.
The path I took - workaholic success - became my way of attempting to create stability that I could fall back upon. In that effort, I felt like a mountain goat climbing a steep cliff. I was not so worried about a misstep as much as I was worried about stopping at all. Often along the path I would think about wanting to stop, but I was afraid I could not stop until I had reached some type of summit. Moments of happiness were often clouded by a pervading sense of emptiness and loss. I was on a highway, and I kept thinking I could see the off ramp. Signs with pass by, 250 miles to go … till the next stop? Till the destination point? I couldn’t quite see if I had missed the turn off point, or if it were somewhere ahead. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten on the highway at all?” I would ask myself. (I do prefer country roads.) “But it’s too late now.” I would think, “Its either forward or crash.”
When my parents died, people told me I was an orphan, which was true. But it was not their deaths that created that circumstance. It was their suffering in life, to which I was acutely sensitive, that had been the underlying loss I pondered. With their deaths I no longer had to worry for their safety. That was the only element in my life that seemed significantly changed. I felt deep sorrow that their lives could not have somehow been mended. I was still thinking about them, their happiness, or lack of it, completely unaware of my own or what happiness for me would possibly look like. Now, after three years of silent finality, I am beginning to see the space that remains open for me to discover my true self. Workaholic behavior no longer feels safe. Stopping and becoming grounded feels better.
I see myself as feeling more and more limited, and with that I take some comfort. I still feel passionate to work for the Daughters and Sons Initiative, and I have a few other personal goals that are ambitious. But I am embracing the limitations that attachment and connectedness create. I am, at this time, one of the fortunate few who have found peers via the Daughters and Sons effort. I therefore have a sense of context and mirroring through those relationships. What I hope is that together - somehow continuing on with others – we will find the other satellites. To the extent that we can, by giving others space and a voice, I hope that they too may feel safe to land, in whatever way feels right for them.