Monday, July 9, 2012

Professional Conference / Emotional Connections

by Melisande Randall

It has been two months since I attended the Child and Youth Mental Health Matters Conference in Vancouver, Canada.  Are you ready for a mouthful?  The conference actually had three in one titles as it was three conferences in one:

First National Parental Mental Health Conference
First International Young Carers Congress
Third International World Congress on Children of Parents with Mental Illness.

Needless to say, it was the third segment that most caught my attention.  Since 2008, I have been connecting with friends on Facebook, colleagues. sons and daughters, and now people whom I refer to as my brothers and sisters in the cause, who are all trying to deal with the issue of growing up and under a family member with a mental illness.  Through the creation of my own group: Adult Children of Parents with Schizoaffective and Other Mood Disorders on Facebook, it opened the door for me to reach out and find others in mental health groups that all offer a perspective and forum for those of us trying to make sense out of a childhood that was affected my someone, usually a parent, who just was not well.  But beyond telling our stories and offering support, many of us are resilient enough, educated enough and now brave enough to say to ourselves, "Where do we go from here once we have told our stories?"  And that is why I decided to address the title of this blog...professionalism and emotionalism.

Thanks to Maggie here at this forum, and others who I won't mention for the sake of privacy, the Crooked House and other Facebook groups posted and shared this Mental Health Conference event that was held just this past May.  From late last year until the conference began, I had to assess who I am and what I do in my spare time as an adult survivor of toxic parentage.  If I were to attend, what would I say and what could I offer?  Then, I had to prepare myself to meet a group of colleagues from all over the world who only knew each other from photos and words printed on a page as we decided to come together as a group and present how social media can affect policy change and research agendas in the field of childhood affects of parental mental illness.  I had to immediately forget about money, time, fear, and stigma in order to focus on how to make my life experiences count towards something that can bring about real change and not just healing. 

There are three things that came out of this conference which stuck with me the most and although I did not expect to cry, of course I did.  I had in my mind that a professional conference would have to be a place where you put emotions aside and talk about statistics and theories and laws concerning the issues which had to be sterilized in order for us to get to the task at hand and share and disseminate information in an educational and formal and professional manner.  WHAT WAS I THINKING?  First of all, emotions could not be taken from the equation of what took place at this conference.  Secondly, validation can be the most valuable outcome when coming together with friends and strangers who share your pain and understand your history.  And thirdly, we need a global mission.


Why do we act like emotions are taboo?  Why is it that we have to set aside a time and a place where emotions are appropriate?  Why do I feel less a woman if I cry in front of my students because I am having a bad day in the classroom?  Why can't I cry silently during a professional presentation if a chord or nerve is struck?  Why are we so worried about how uncomfortable our emotions make others feel?

At the opening remarks, there were three research specialists who talked about their family history and what led them to the fields they work in as a result of mental illness in the family.  I cried hearing each one.  Was it because this was that type of conference where there is no way to separate the emotional connection from the topic?  Like cancer research or the research of any disease, people come together at conferences to find out what's new in the field, and then, there is always someone who is affected by the disease, and they feel the emotion.

I am both embarrassed and proud to admit that I cried hearing the stories of older men with grey hair and credentials.  I was touched that each could open up their lives and personal experiences and photo albums and put a face to the subject matter.  It took me months on Facebook before I felt brave enough to post my mother's photograph.  She never would have approved of it prior to the onset of dementia.  But I have to believe that now she is undergoing treatment, that her spirit and consciousness are free and hovering over me and letting me know that it is OK to talk about the pain as long as I talk about the healing and we help make way for social change.  These presenters wanted the audience to know that they had a direct connection to the subject matter.  And they wanted us to know that they were done hiding behind the stigma.  And they wanted us to know that it is time to address the needs of the children and it is a societal and governmental and institutional obligation.  We need emotions to fuel change.


I have talked about my need for validation most of my life in therapy in order to realize that what my sisters, dad and I went through with our mother/wife, was not imagined nor exaggerated.  I remember in middle school, seeing a fellow student's mom come to campus to visit her daughter who helped choreograph our dance core routine.  I remembered that this girl was not a very attractive female.  She was tall, incredibly thin, and her face looked sunk in and I always wondered if she was ill.  But she could dance and her mom came up to school to watch her daughter perform and lead us.  After the performance, it was lunch time and the mother and daughter walked across the field and their arms were around each other's waists.  I remember staring and watching them walk across the PE field because I was mesmerized by the outward show of affection.  And for me, this was just a phenomenon.  I saw people hug their kids on TV, but at age 12, for some reason, I just thought that Hollywood candy-coated everything to look extra special on TV but I honestly did not know, at that age, that mothers and daughters could kiss, hug, touch, or be arm and arm and display love IN PUBLIC.  In my case, it was not demonstrated at home like that either.  Love was shown by what my mom cooked for dinner, and by what bills she paid to keep us afloat, and by her laughter when she appreciated one of our jokes.

But screw all the sweet and fluffy stuff.  My childhood was filled with more slaps, and scoldings, and belt threats, and curse words, not just between me and my mother, but also between her and my alcohol abusing father.  The majority of my young life was spent in a household where my mother's screaming fits came from an unexpected place.  My mother threw things to get her point across.  My mother's dark eyes turned shark-like when her episodes began and we closed our room doors as she ranted and raved about how jealous her daughters were of her and how her husband was more in love with his daughters than he was with her.  And there was guilt and shame and water glasses thrown, and garden hoses turned on me when my bike wheels touched mama's grass as she was watering and gardening.  I could go on and on.

Validation came when I wrote my book, but it came even stronger at the conference when I met my friends on Facebook FACE TO FACE for the first time after sharing tales and articles and letters for 3 - 4 years.  I met friends from Australia, Canada, Italy, my own US of A, and then listened to presenters from the Netherlands and UK and knowing we all had this THING in common was so reassuring.  We all survived a chaotic childhood.  Some of us had some supports and some of us had none.  But meeting my social network friends and colleagues for the first time in person was just heartwarming.  Looking into someone's eyes and knowing you didn't have to say a word about what it was like to have a schizophrenic or bipolar mother because you just look in that person's face and you connect and feel and understand because you let your barriers down. And just to KNOW that WE KNOW what it was like to grow up confused and feel emotional abandonment, to see a mom or dad hauled off to a psychiatric hospital, to heal from a beating, to overcome instability, to hide shame, to overachieve to make up for what was effed up at home, to convince our friends and teachers that everything was just fine when it was far from it...that was validating.

I listened and spoke with my new found friends over lunch, dinner, wine and coffee.  There are so many of us affected by mental illness.  There are so many of us who needed help.  There are so many of us picking up pieces.  There are so many of us with family members still in denial, even if a shared ill parent is deceased.

So, I walked away from the conference with validation and I am still wearing it like a badge.  I recently spit out the truth at my aunt and uncle and sisters who all know that something was wrong with our mother but just act like it is pointless to discuss.  But they may not feel comfortable with the baby sister roaring out about the pain and the secrets and the therapy sessions that took place when not even college friends were told where I was going on campus for an hour a week to keep from losing my own mind.

And validation came at the conference when the academic researchers talked about pets adding something to the healing of the wounded child.  I wrote about that in my book without any research needed.  Validation came when we were told to share our stories because story telling is reality.  And that is why Crooked House is here!  And validation came when I left to fly back home to Los Angeles and realized that I never needed one psychology class to explain why I was the fragmented yet strongly glued together woman I am.  My experience had made me more than an expert in the field.


A group of colleagues sat in a hotel room the eve of our presentation at the Child and Youth Mental Health Matters Conference.  I believe it was May 7, 2012.  Just like Civil Rights, Women's Suffrage, AIDS Awareness, and all the myriad social issues that have taken time, sacrifice and political shifts to achieve, HERE WE ARE.  A group of people saying that it is time to recognize Mental Illness as a social issue that is long overdue for recognition.

How do we make a topic matter to a world where stigma exists?  How do we make governments recognize the needs of children whose parents are probably not even well enough to seek treatment?  How do we give kids a place of refuge without getting them into trouble with family member who don't understand?  How do we get money to treat the ill and their families and not let them get started and then lost in bureaucratic madness?  How do we make ourselves equal when we are the sons and daughters of the mentally ill?  Why are we talking about this now in 2012 when people have undergone exorcisms for centuries when all they were was sick?  How do we make The Church view mental illness like any other physical illness and not view it as some form of sinful state of being?

I ask better questions than I offer solutions.  I refuse to feel guilty about that because at 45, I just now know that I can come out of my closet.  I can stop kicking myself for dumping all the journals that kept me hanging on as a kid.  I can pat myself on the back for creating a group and writing a book and talking openly in forums about my dysfunctional family and my own self destructive tendencies.  So I won't fret about not having answers yet as to how to get started. 

But I am writing and I am ready to talk and I want to be heard.  I want to do my part however small.  Grassroots start with the strong, the weak, the scared, and the meek.  There are followers and there are leaders.  We need both.  We can't be picky now.  We just need to mobilize.

Thank you for reading.

Melisande Randall
Author:  Under the Invisible Umbrella:  Surviving My Mother's Mental Illness &