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6527212 February 16, 2009

Psychotic Break: An Aberration Story

I have more empathy for the suffering of others and for the mentally ill, who are not bad or scary people ...

Are you depressed today? Did someone stab you in the back? OMG, are you addicted to coffee? So ... if you don't get a break, or have a vacation soon, you're going to lose your @#$!x& mind, right?


Norman Vincent Peale's book, The Power of Positive Thinking, written in 1952, was the first to teach me a thing or two about the power of positive thinking. I read it in the 80's. In the 90's, Tony Robbins emerged, saying that the way we communicate with others and with ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives. Using strong words out of context can create an unintended, negative mindset. This insidious drama queen language, in itself, can be damaging. And now we have Rhonda Byrne's The Secret! When are we all finally going to get it?

Lost in both our blatant and more subtle negativity, we often forget that there are people out there who actually have a real disease called depression, and are in jeopardy of losing their minds on any given day. Heck, some people actually grew up in neighborhoods where people were stabbed every now and then. When we take their words are we downplaying the seriousness of their history and/or ongoing struggle? Does it make their experiences somehow less severe, and therefore worth a bit less attention from those of us lucky enough to simply be a little down from time to time?

And it's not about political correctness. It's about language, and the powerful messages we feed ourselves--mental loops that influence our emotional programming.

I often wonder who those truly depressed, mind-losing, struggling people are. Surely they aren't my neighbor, the soccer mom with the fake nails in line at the grocery store, or my co-worker who just got promoted. They must be tucked away somewhere having problems or trying to recover.

Wrong again ...

The more I come to appreciate that normal is a farce, I realize that these people are all around me, at times weaving in and out of my life on a daily basis. Maybe you are one of them. If not, are they listening to you talk about your so-called depression, and your emotional stab wounds, wondering if you actually know what those words mean? If you have experienced some of these serious issues, hopefully you've come to appreciate the words you use to describe your life, being careful to avoid those that should be reserved for the emergence or re-emergence of those heart-wrenching challenges you manage to keep at bay.

Liimu does just that. She's a young consultant with a bright smile and quick wit. If you met her for coffee, or crossed her path at the grocery store with her three young children, you'd never guess that she once dropped acid and lost her #$#%x@ mind. She has joined the Aberration Nation. Her name is Liimu and she's an alcoholic ... she's also your neighbor.

Your past includes a psychotic break and time spent institutionalized. Can you tel
l us what happened?

I was 24, and was finishing up my final year of college. Over the Christmas break, I went to see my boyfriend in New Mexico. We met in Las Vegas, and then for some reason, he thought it would be a good idea for us to drop acid before we made the 17 hour drive back to New Mexico.

Flash forward two months: I wake up hearing voices. I swear I can communicate with my cat without opening my mouth. I can think “come here” and he come s prancing into the room. I start writing letters like crazy, all the while showing up wherever, whenever I please. I miss appointments I've had for months and sit for exams without opening a single book. When my mom finally comes looking for me, she tells me we were going to see a doctor. We go to the mental health clinic on campus. They lock me in the ward, only releasing me to have an occasional cigarette.

When I was locked up, my mom visited daily. Every time she came, I had my bags packed and ready by the door. Every day, I was told I could not leave; they didn’t know when I’d be released. What was supposed to be a couple days’ stay turned into a five weeks of lock down. I finally agreed to go to rehab, and was released. I found out later that if I hadn’t agreed to the rehab program, they would have sent me to a long-term facility where my chances of getting out would have been slim to none.

Like myself, you were raised in a dysfunctional home. How did that environment bear out on your mental health as a teenager and young adult?

There were so many ways that have a dysfunctional home played out for me, the most impact probably being that I was raised in an alcoholic home. I didn’t learn any real coping mechanisms, and certainly didn’t learn that it was okay to be different, or to have feelings, or to be scared or sad. You just put on a good, strong front and muscled through, or you gave in entirely and were a complete loser drunk. So, although I finally realized I was a drunk and had to get sober, I put on a brave face for many years. It was that pressure, in part, that led to my breakdown. I have to be careful about that to this day.

You’ve said that being institutionalized changes a person forever. How so?

When someone else says, “If I don’t get a vacation soon, I’m gonna have a breakdown,” they don’t really mean it. For me, it's truly a deep-rooted fear. In the same way that a person is changed forever by the experience of seeing a violent crime or losing a loved one or becoming a parent, a person is changed forever by losing his or her mind. Suddenly, the idea that the mind is a thing that can be lost takes on new meaning. I'm always aware now of where that line is and how close I am to it. I know what lies on the other side of sanity.

Can you describe your mental break?

I was completely removed from reality. Until I entered the mental institution, it wasn’t scary at all. I had this overwhelming sense of calm, actually. Like I was completely in tune with the energy of the Universe. But, once I got locked up, it was a whole different story. If you’ve ever seen one of those movies from the 1950's where they show a funhouse with scary looking faces flying in and out of the camera, and people laughing and screaming at the same time while the room is spinning around and around--it was sort of like that, only scarier. I remember at one point (during a drug-induced, fitful sleep), dreaming that I was literally standing at the gates of Hell, facing the Devil Himself. When I woke, I felt like I had very narrowly escaped Hell.

You recovered from your psychotic episode, and went on to finish college and begin a successful career. How were you able to walk away from such deep pain and mental disarray? How are you now?

For me, it was a simple process of recovery--not easy, but simple. I surrendered to my alcoholism and addiction, and began to work the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Soon after, I developed my own understanding of a Higher Power and since then, it has been easy.

Were there any particular individuals who influenced your recovery, or was it ultimately a case of, “I will survive?” Did it take a combination?

Each person is unique. What are the key success factors in your ongoing mental health? My sponsors, my mother, my therapist, my husband, and my female friends have all been instrumental. The key success factor in my ongoing mental health is my commitment to recovery--in all the ways it manifests in my life, whether it's workshops, recovery programs, friendships, therapy, exercise, etc. My commitment is to improving myself, and improving my relationship with God. As long as what I do is fundamentally based on one or both of those priorities, I’m doing fine.

Having grown up in the shadow of mental illness, how much of your own issues do you attribute to nature versus nurture? How does one stop the vicious cycle of familial dysfunction? Is it possible?

I definitely believe that it's possible to break the cycle, though for me it's impossible to deny that I had it in my blood (my father and mother were both alcoholics). What I hope to pass on to my children is how to recover, so that if they are afflicted with the disease of alcoholism, they will know there is a solution. I also think there is a line between teetering-on-the-edge-of and full-blown addiction, and for some people, that is where environment plays a role. In my case, I've had an addictive personality from as far back as I can remember.

Looking back, can you tell us if and how your experience being institutionalized, and the associated struggles, have changed you for the better? What are the positives you’ve found in yourself and in others as a result of your unique life?

I don’t take anything for granted. My commitment to recovery is strengthened by how much is at stake for me. I have more empathy for the suffering of others and for the mentally ill, who are not bad or scary people, they are just ill and need help. I have a complete awe and love for my Higher Power for having taken me to the depths and brought me back again. That’s what it took for me to fully accept my alcoholism and recover. And ever since then, I have been committed to serving God and others.

When I start to feel sorry for myself, I immediately look for ways to be of service to others. That’s the quickest way to get over anything that is causing me pain.

For more on Liimu, visit here and here.

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6527212 January 16, 2009

Hunger: An Aberration Story

"... this circuitous path I've walked has brought me to a wonderful place."

The verb hunger means to have a strong desire. Lust, crave, itch, thirst. Those are its synonyms. We all hunger for basic emotional needs such as love, acceptance, control, and freedom. And the reality is that some of us focus on these necessities much more than others due to genetics, stress, and personal history.

If only we could place our hands around those wonderful intangibles and shove them into the few open orifices we have. If there were only a safe, fantastical pill that could carry all that we crave deep into the bowels of who we are. Could we finally be satisfied? Could we be content with the face in our mirror--warts, curves, and all?

If there were such a pill, it just might work. But there is no magic panacea, and there never will be. If there was, Marya Hornbacher would surely have found it. In her critically acclaimed memoir, Wasted, Marya shares her courageous battle with anorexia and bulimia. Both conditions continue to be perpetuated by our size zero, competitive society. If our strengths can also be our weaknesses, it may also be true for culture. The American dream, the self-made man, and the ability to have it all has a darker side in more ways than one. Our cultural legacy to control our own destiny, and captain our own courageous ship, has a sharp edge that just may kill you on the way to your dream.

Marya has joined the Aberration Nation. Her reflective answers about her journey as well as how our culture continues to undermine those susceptible to all types of eating disorders is fascinating, well-said, honest, and inspiring. No doubt, the same aspects that made her memoir a Pulitzer Prize nominee.

You've been diagnosed with and have overcome anorexia and bulimia. While many of us are now generally familiar with anorexia and bulimia, can you tell us in plain terms what they're really all about? I suspect that some of us still don't get it.

Eating disorders are complicated, and touch all areas of a person's life--his or her body, mind, and spirit are all affected, and all are involved in the development of the disorders as well. The usual answer given to the question of "what are eating disorders about?" is "control"--and that's not wrong. People with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and the variations on these themes, tend to struggle with a sense that they are out of control of their lives and their worlds; the desire for control is then projected onto the body, as a kind of "object" that can be controlled, or so we are told and often believe. In my own experience, eating disorders are very much about fear; the fear that one is too much, not enough, not right, all wrong, and on and on, in a kind of endless refrain of inadequacy and excess, as well as a fear about one's ability to navigate the challenging waters of life and the world. They are also a manifestation of this culture's obsession with food, body, and weight, and a literalization of the rather deathly images of beauty that are plastered on the walls of our Western world. I am always surprised that people can possibly wonder why some of us get eating disorders, when they are in fact encouraged and rewarded in so many ways. The hell of it is, you often set out with the belief that "losing a few pounds" will make you happier in some vague way, and find that, because of your personal makeup and set of issues, you are caught up in an often-fatal addiction.

Your struggle with eating disorders began at very young age. Can you tell us about that, and explain how young children can also be susceptible to eating disorders?

I developed bulimia when I was nine. It was less common back then for someone to develop an eating disorder so young, but it's terrifyingly frequent now. Children are exposed to the same cultural messages as the rest of us, but they have even fewer filters to help them understand what they're being told; children who are predisposed, through personality, chemistry, and/or family, to develop addictive or otherwise unhealthy behaviors, may develop eating disorders very early on. Children, both boys and girls, are aware of the pressure to have some mythical "perfect" body, translated usually as a thin body, and they may take that pressure very seriously and try to respond. Some kids grow up in families that are actively body- and food-obsessed, so they are aware of the pressures at home as well. In my case, there was a combination of family pressure and obsession with food and weight, plus my own excessive awareness of the larger cultural pressure, plus the various personality traits that contribute to eating disorder development (such as perfectionism, competitiveness, and self-dislike), as well as an underlying mental illness (in my case, bipolar disorder); this combination is not terribly uncommon.

How did you come to be diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia? How did you initially cope? What were some of the greatest challenges to overcoming these aberrations?

I was diagnosed at the age of 16, when the medical toll of the disorders was great enough that I couldn't hide them anymore, and I was hospitalized. My hope is that families, friends, teachers, and counselors are more aware of eating disorders these days and can identify the signs sooner. As is usually the case, I was deeply disinterested in recovery at first, and seriously in denial about the severity of the problem; I didn't want help, and refused to cooperate in my own care. It wasn't until several years and many hospitalizations later that I made the choice to recover. At that time, I clung hard to the people I loved, who were extremely supportive, and I worked my butt off in therapy to get at the root of my troubles. But the simple process of re-learning how to take care of my body, and to trust it, was the most immediately necessary step toward recovering. You can wonder about your issues all you want, but if you don't take active steps to change your behavior, you won't get far. The greatest challenge was my own fear of recovery--I had had an eating disorder for so long that I couldn't discern where I ended and the eating disorder began, so recovering seemed very threatening. A second challenge was tuning out all of those cultural messages that encourage obsession and self-damaging behaviors. That's hard to do, and very necessary. You have to become stronger than the messages you hear, and define for yourself who you want to be, defining that person not by how you look or how much you do, but by who you are and what you believe.

Was there a turning point in your recovery? If so, what made the difference in your life? Was it ultimately something that someone else did for you or said, or was it an internal change or resolve that saved you?

There were people all along the way whose words helped me, even though they didn't magically make things better. I drew on those words of support and encouragement and challenge, and I still do. There is unfortunately no magic moment when one turns the corner; it's a combination of other people's assistance and your own internal determination to live a better life unrestricted by obsession. At a certain point in early recovery, though, I did make the decision to stop the behaviors (binging, purging, starving, over-exercising) absolutely, no matter what; that was a tough decision to make and stick with, but it can be done. I told myself that I was giving health six months--if I hated living without my eating disorder, I could always go back. And while it was hard to live without it, it was so much better in every way to live in freedom that I stuck it out. Gradually, living healthy got easier, and then it became natural, and now it's just the way I live. Getting through those first difficult stages is the hardest part; then the rewards of health come fast and furious, and you begin to see how much you were missing while you were sick.

Can one fully recover from anorexia and/or bulimia, or do they pose a lifelong struggle similar to alcoholism? How have you managed to remain healthy?

One can fully recover. It isn't easy, and unfortunately there is the belief that it can't be done; this belief encourages people to think it isn't worth trying. But it is worth it. The comparison with alcoholism isn't entirely off, though; I am a recovering alcoholic, and I don't think of it as something I "struggle" with, or will struggle with all my life. It isn't a struggle to stay off the sauce; it's a choice, and the real work is the personal growth one needs to continue doing over the years. I also know that I am at a higher risk of winding up drunk than is the average person, so I have to make sure I'm doing the personal work I need to in order to stay away from that first drink. Similarly, I'm at a higher risk for relapsing into eating disordered behavior than your average person is; I need to keep doing the personal work to stay away from that, too. But the idea of these things as "struggle" gives them a negative connotation that they don't have to have; they are choices one maintains with consistent effort. That's a good thing, not a bad thing.

You have gone on to become an accomplished writer and advocate. What has been the biggest struggle in achieving your goals and how have you managed?

The biggest obstacle to meeting my goals has always been my fear. I think that stops more people from realizing their personal dreams than anything else. Fear is my biggest challenge, and I meet it by doing the things I want to do whether they scare me or not. As Georgia O'Keeffe said, "I'm afraid all the time. But I never, never let it stop me." I wouldn't say I'm afraid all the time. But when I am, I don't let it stop me.

Anorexia and bulimia can be killers. While there seemed to be a considerable amount of attention given them in the late 80's and 90's, they seem to have slowly dropped on the radar since the year 2000. In the meantime, while the media and social pressures to be thin may have shifted a little, a large number of girls and women still idolize size zero, and obesity remains a national issue. Do you feel that enough has been done to educate people about eating disorders?

No. But I also feel that people are very resistant to seeing the way in which they are engaged in their own degree of obsession and body-hatred, and this is a big part of what perpetuates eating disorders. We have normalized a hatred of the body and an obsession with food to the point where we expect people to behave and feel in ways that are actually not normal at all; this is what I mean when I say that our culture is eating disordered. Not many people know what it would mean to truly take care of and respect their bodies, and that's what's strange. The fact that some percentage of the population develops full-blown eating disorders isn't odd at all; it's just an extreme form of what we have come to see as normal self-dislike and lack of self-care. I'm not saying it's acceptable, just that it isn't surprising. I believe the most effective education about eating disorders would be to ask people to look at how they, too, obsess and engage in unhealthy behaviors; what do they believe about healthy, beauty, food, their bodies? The most important tool in changing society is the individual act. Until each of us, as individuals, make the decision to stop playing this game, there will be a problem in the cultural as a whole.

We would all love to have the easy route to happiness but it doesn't always happen that way. In what ways have the negative, powerful forces in your life enabled you to emerge as the courageous, positive person you are today? When you look back on your life, do you believe that the path it took led you to a great place?

I do. I am a very, very happy person, very grateful for the people in my life, and very blessed. Experience is a great teacher. I would prefer it if it hadn't taken me so long to learn what I have; no person's troubles are theirs alone, and the people I love have suffered through a lot with me. I wish that were not the case. But yes, I believe that this circuitous path I've walked has brought me to a wonderful place.

What are the top three things that friends and family can do for someone dealing with eating disorders?

1. Be honest. Don't ignore the problem. Tell them what you see, and be honest about how that makes you feel.
2. Help them find help. Don't try to take care of them, cure them, or fix them; know that these are complicated disorders that require the help of professionals wherever possible.
3. Once they have that help, don't coddle them. Love them, but be firm in your insistence that they keep working toward recovery.

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6527212 January 05, 2009

Manic: An Aberration Story

"Everything I feel, I feel intensely--whether it's joy or pain, love or desperation.

There's an aberration that charms the most brilliant of us into believing we're invincible, capable of impossible dreams, beautiful, godlike, high on ourselves--just before crushing us into a million tiny pieces of nothing. Manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder, is a mental illness characterized by extreme changes in mood (poles)--from mania to depression--that can be serious and disabling.

Terri Cheney knows firsthand how the whirlwind of emotion caused by bipolar disorder can twist reality, turning every day life events into dramatic, painful escapades of secrecy and survival. Her memoir, Manic (HarperCollins) will be released in paperback on February 3rd. Per HarperCollins, this harrowing yet hopeful book is more than just a searing insider's account of what it's really like to live with bipolar disorder. It is a testament to the sharp beauty of a life lived in extremes.

Having specialized in intellectual property and entertainment law at several prominent Los Angeles firms, Terri now devotes her talents to the cause of mental illness. She was named a member of the board of the California Bipolar Foundation and the Community Advisory Board of the UCLA Mood Disorders Research Program. She is also the founder of a weekly support group at UCLA’s Semel Institute.

Terri was fascinated by Aberration Nation, and quite eager to join the ranks. Being a fellow writer and having my own set of aberrations, I'm in awe of her accomplishments. Reading her story helps me feel understood--not based on a diagnosis but rather on our shared humanity. After all, isn't that much bigger than any common aberration? We're all human; that's what Aberration Nation is all about.

You have been diagnosed with manic depression. Can you tell us in plain terms what it's like to struggle with manic depression, particularly alone, as you did for so many years?

It wasn't until the past few years, when I've been relatively stable, that I've been able to look back on my life and realize how incredibly hard it has been. It's amazing, after so many suicide attempts, that I am here today to respond to this question. Everything I feel, I feel intensely--whether it's joy or pain, love or desperation. I'm slowly beginning to realize that much of the world doesn't respond this way. My survival is a source of great amazement to me.
For most of my childhood and early adulthood, I was consumed by guilt. I was sure that whatever was wrong with me was purely my fault--that it was volitional, and if I just worked hard enough at being normal, I could. That guilt eased somewhat when I was diagnosed in 1987, when I was 27 years old. It was the wrong diagnosis--the doctor assumed I was "just" depressed--but still, it helped. Then when I was finally diagnosed in 1994 with manic depression, I felt an enormous sense of relief. My chaotic life actually made sense to me, for the first time. It wasn't all my fault. It was a chemical disorder for which there was help, and hope, and treatment.

Was there anything that seemed to trigger your illness as a teenager? As a child, was there any indication that your path would take the direction that it did?

I'm writing a second book now, a childhood memoir. It's been surprising to discover how much of my bipolar disorder had its seeds in my childhood and adolescence. I was a very intense overachiever, extremely sensitive to criticism or the threat of rejection or failure. I was suicidal at age seven, which should have clued me in to the fact that I was ill, but it didn't. I just learned very early on to hide my illness behind my achievements, a pattern that continues to this very day.

Once you were diagnosed, did the burden ease significantly or do you still struggle day to day? How have you learned to cope and keep the swaying tides of manic depression at a level that you can feel happy and fulfilled?

I still struggle--I'm just coming out of a bout of depression as I write this. But I'm so much saner than I've ever been, because over the course of the past eight years, I've harvested so many recovery tools. I go to therapy every week, I have a good relationship with my psychopharmacologist, and I'm very medication-compliant. I run a weekly support group at UCLA for people with a dual diagnosis--mental illness combined with substance abuse. (I've been sober for nine years, which still amazes me.) And my writing has been immensely cathartic. I'm in two writing groups, which give me support and structure and discipline. I also had to make the tough decision to give up the practice of law, because it was too stressful for me. But I've always wanted to write, so doing what I love best in the world is a tremendous gift. I miss the money, but I'm so much more personally fulfilled now.

Obviously, like many aberrations, manic depression isn't fun nor is it to be celebrated. It stinks! However, through your diagnosis, recovery, and ongoing challenges, what positives have you found? In what ways has this negative, powerful force in your life enabled you to become the courageous, positive person you are today?

I think it's obvious to everyone by now that there is a definite link between manic depression and creativity. Were it not for my bipolar disorder, I doubt that I would be a writer. My illness has kept me on the outside, watching; it makes me feel things very deeply; and I think I see the world at a slightly different angle from most people--all of which are two-edged swords, of course, but great for writing. Also, as a result of my own suffering, I am very attuned to others' feelings. My empathy helps me put my own struggles into perspective.

What are the top three things that friends and family can do for someone dealing with manic depression?

First, don't try to argue or reason with depression. Just ask where it hurts. Your empathy will mean more to the person than all your cheery, well-meaning attempts to make it better.

Second, educate yourself about the disease. Know the signs and symptoms of the different mood states. If you can speak the vocabulary of the illness, you will be able to help your loved ones articulate what is going on with them--which is invaluable, not just for their own need to be understood, but for their communication with their doctors.

Third, do whatever you can to help your loved ones get sober. Many people with bipolar disorder self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. But the medications simply don't work when someone is abusing substances. Find out about twelve-step meetings in your area (google "Dual Recovery Anonymous") and offer to go along. Sobriety is a critical step to bipolar recovery, which is all too often ignored.

If you could tell the world anything about manic depression, what would that be?

I would tell the world that it's not just a mental illness. It's physical, incredibly physical. I'm amazed, every time I slip into depression, how true this is. My entire body is affected, not just my mind. Manic depression is a chemical disorder of the brain. It's as real and physical as diabetes or cancer. I think if more people understood this, stigma would lessen and true compassion would emerge.

To learn more about bipolar disorder, go here and here.
To learn more about Terri, go here.

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6527212 October 28, 2008

Raising Mommy: An Aberration Story

"Growing up with a very volatile person has given me great patience when dealing with others."

This painting, Brute Strength, represents the struggle of growing up in the shadow of a mental illness. As the adolescent or young adult grows, reaching for the road that leads away from the pain of childhood, an almost organic entanglement with the mentally ill parent constantly pulls them back toward an unhealthy world. This unique conflict mixed with the more common adolescent struggles with right and wrong, and what falls in between, can create a situation that follows the child far into adulthood, impacting their behaviors, choices, and perceptions.

I've lived it and so has Ali, the newest member of the Aberration Nation. I had the pleasure of meeting Ali at a narcolepsy support meeting in Toronto earlier this year. She's a courageous young woman who refuses to let her own aberrations inhibit her strong positive focus while also helping others to do the same. She's a role model for me, and I'm delighted to share her story with you.

What it was like growing up with a mentally ill parent?

I'm lucky to have a few memories of my mother when she still behaved like a typical mom. She was very creative and involved with my sister and me. She liked making crafts and taking us on mystery tours to playgrounds we'd never seen. However, around the time of my ninth birthday, things changed drastically. My mom became confused, and couldn't express herself properly. She couldn't use the phone, had very poor balance, and couldn't cook. Although I wasn't aware of any specifics, I knew something was very wrong. The following year, Mom moved in and out of the psychiatric ward for several weeks at a time. That's when I became the mother figure.

Twice, I came home from school and found the house full of smoke. My mom had been trying to cook. I had to call the fire department. Another day, she climbed on a chair in the kitchen and fell. I picked her up and put her to bed, then called my dad and asked him to come home from work because I was scared. My younger sister was quite sheltered from most of this. I didn't realise how much I protected her until we discussed it as adults. We're very close because of what we've been through together, and my sister is grateful that she was able to have a childhood while I took on responsibilities beyond my years.

As a child, what were your top priorities?

When my dad left for work each morning, he always reminded me not to let Mom touch the stove, not to let her go downstairs, and so on. It never seemed unusual to me that I had to do so much for my mother. After school I would babysit her instead of going to a babysitter myself. My dad worked in the city, and rode the bus two hours each way, so we were very much on our own. My top priorities became making sure my mom and sister had what they needed until my dad got home. My kid time was in the evenings when Dad took me to Guides or a church youth group. In school, I didn't relate well to the other kids. I was an easy target for bullies, but I thrived in Guides where maturity and responsibility were prized.

How did you come to understand that your family was different in this way, and how did you cope?

Around age twelve, my parents took me to see a social worker due to depression and my dislike of school. Not knowing that my mother had been diagnosed as mentally ill, I was only able to describe her behaviour and how it made me feel. The social worker tried to have me role play communication with my mom; she pretended to be my mom. I became very frustrated when the social worker wouldn't believe that my mother wouldn't listen if I told her I wanted to talk about something, and would instead either ignore me or become very angry and rude. This was the first of a string of social workers and psychologists who made me feel like an alien because my family was like no other they were aware of.

My coping mechanism became to stay away from home when possible. I immersed myself in volunteer work with Rangers, the local youth centre, and anything else I could get into. When things became too intense at home, I would walk to a local park and sit under a tree reading a book for a while. Sometimes I would walk around town all day, window shopping, talking to strangers, and just trying to forget what I had escaped from at home.

How did having a parent suffering with mental illness impact your ability to relate to others as you matured? Did it somehow expand and/or squelch this ability?

Having been a caregiver at such a young age, I have always assumed leadership roles. In Guides, I was a Patrol Leader, and as a teenager, I was an assistant Brownie Leader. I joined a committee to create a youth centre in my town, and often initiated new projects with that group. I made a lot of friends through that committee, and they came to rely on me as the person to go to for advice, or just a sounding board when they needed to talk. Even now at age thirty, friends come to me when they want straightforward, honest advice.

The flip side of my honesty and strength is that I can be blunt and sometimes bossy, but I'm able to acknowledge this. I try to keep myself from getting too pushy. My friends know that they can be equally honest with me, and I appreciate that. My drive for volunteerism has remained strong as well. I run two singles' social clubs, a support group for sleep disorders, am a member of Scouting, and an all-purpose volunteer fund raiser and cage cleaner for the Humane Society. People ask me for help, and I step right up to the job. At times this has been overwhelming, but in recent years I've learned how to say no sometimes as not to overburden myself. I always need to have some kind of project to focus my energy on, someone or something to take care of, and I think this comes from my early years of always having to keep watch and look after everyone else at home.

As an adult, what are the most difficult aspects of your relationship with your mother? Are they completely different from those your struggled with as a child or is it a continuation of the same?

To a large extent, the struggles with my mother are the same as when I was a child. We still have a power struggle where my mother tries to show her capabilities by refusing to take any of my suggestions. Last year, my father passed away, and she became violent. I had to leave town and for the first time in forty years, she was alone. I had to learn how to step back and allow her to make her own mistakes, although I'm always afraid she'll do something to physically harm herself or someone else. I've done everything I can to let doctors and others know what to watch out for. However, the law prevents anyone from intervening until she actually causes harm to herself or someone else.

I try to humour her and show her love from a distance in an attempt to keep myself from being drawn back into the whirlwind of confusion, control, and rage my mother lives in. We talk on the phone a couple of times a week, and I visit her once a month. I worry, but have accepted that I can't protect her. I think that's something every parent struggles with.

How do you cope as an adult?

Now that I've moved to a different city, I'm focusing on the self-care I ignored for so long. I got a gym membership and go several times each week. I do yoga and take belly dance lessons. I joined a choir and several social groups here. I live with my sister now, and we get along very well. I don't know where I would be without her love and support.
I have fantastic friends and plenty of volunteer projects. I have two cats that I love dearly. I also see a psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder, and have taken cognitive behavioural therapy to deal with the trauma of the past. People who live close to my mother have my phone number and have promised to check up on her regularly. My mom and I are now developing into two separate entities, instead of one constant struggle.

How has living in the shadow of mental illness made you stronger? Can you share the positives that have emerged for you as a unique individual? Has it shaped your views on motherhood and parenting?

Growing up with a very volatile person has given me great patience when dealing with others. I've always had to figure out the underlying meaning of things--why my mother said and did the things she did--so I'm very attuned to the things people don't say out loud. I'm a caregiver and am very mentally and emotionally strong, and I lend this strength to others who come to me for help.

Although I like children, I've decided not to have any. I've been a parent for more than twenty years, and my mother is still very young and has many more years to go. Now is the time for me to live my own life. I appreciate the difficulty of being a mother, and that while it's very rewarding in many ways, it's the biggest commitment you can ever make. Other kids got their parenting lessons from carrying an egg or a bag of sugar or a robotic infant. I got my parenting experience from being a parent to my own mother, and it was a very steep learning curve.

What are the top three things we can do for children who may be in this lonely quagmire?

Teachers, neighbours, relatives, and anyone who may become aware that something is wrong should report the situation to Children's Aid. Often the other parent is too wrapped up in dealing with the mentally ill parent to give the child the necessary care and attention required. If a social services agency checks in on the family regularly and monitored the children's mental health from inside the home, a lot of trauma can be prevented. I would like to see support groups made available for children of mentally ill parents. Individual counselling is helpful only if the child feels understood, and in my experience, children are not given credit for what they really know. Even now as an adult, I would like to see a support group for adult children of mentally ill parents. This would help us deal with the lingering effects of our childhood.

If you could say anything to the world about being the child of a mentally ill parent, what would it be?

About being a child in the situation: Please make it your business to reach out and find out what's really happening at home. A child in such a situation is very isolated and feels that nobody could ever understand. What is most needed is a healthy adult role model and a place to just be a kid without adult pressures.

About being an adult child: Please don't ask why we bother having relationships with our parents. Just like a parent unconditionally loves and supports a mentally ill child, a child will often unconditionally love and support a mentally ill parent.

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