photo credit: chuttersnap/unsplash.com
By Alice M. Kenny (pseudonym)
(The article below is an excerpt from my new book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members.)
The emotions adult children of parents with mental illness experience are a mixed bag. Sometimes a jumble. Guilt, loss, grief, and resentment are among the emotions that persist or bubble to the surface in adulthood. Some feel ambivalence about their relationship with their mentally ill parent. Others feel no remorse in saying they may have been better off growing up without a mother.
Outcomes for children of mentally ill parents aren’t always cut and dried. I never realized until recently how many people function in the middle ground, as I do. We demonstrate competency in society while masking internal struggles.
Suzette Misrachi, an Australian mental health practitioner, wrote a thesis, “Lives Unseen: Unacknowledged Trauma of Non-Disordered, Competent Adult Children of Parents with a Severe Mental Illness (ACOPSMI)” as part of her requirements for a Master of Advanced Social Work (Research) Degree at the University of Melbourne. (http://hdl.handle.net/11343/37852) Her intent was to make visible the needs of Competent and Non-disordered Adult Children of Parents with a Serious Mental Illness (new acronym CaN-ACOPSMI).
Misrachi’s criteria for competence included measures of productivity such as employment, and social functioning, such as relationship status. She excluded people who had other risk factors such as drug and alcohol issues, unemployment, or emerging mental illness.
Misrachi writes that her study participants experienced sadness and trauma symptoms which were sometimes diagnosed as “generalised anxiety or depression” or “low self-esteem.” She notes, “They had professions, their own families, and were otherwise competent, even highly successful in some cases.”
“They had rebuilt their existences as competent, non-disordered, useful citizens,” Misrachi continues. “But the impact of being raised by severely troubled parents contributed to their sense of desolation, vulnerability, detachment, physical and mental exhaustion—often involving deep shame and loneliness. It was also accompanied by physical symptoms, such as migraines, stomach ailments, body tensions, and sleep issues.”
Misrachi notes that these individuals live life as chameleons; nothing about them would stick out in an ordinary crowd.
Misrachi’s findings really hit home for me.
I consider myself to be a non-disordered, competent adult child of a mentally ill parent.
Despite accomplishments in my professional life, I often felt like an impostor. I doubted my capabilities, especially in corporate settings. I hid my anxieties. I declined promotions because I didn’t have the confidence to compete, to move on to the next level. I’ve put those experiences away in the lost opportunity file.
In the realm of relationships, I’ve experienced love and heartbreak, but no more or less than most people—if there is such a way of measuring these things. I have no children of my own, and can honestly say I possessed no maternal instinct in my twenties and thirties. I never heard the ticking of a biological clock. I attribute my lack of desire to have children to my tumultuous upbringing. Now, every so often, I feel a twinge of resentment. Maybe I lost out. When I see parents playing with their children at beaches and parks, it all looks so natural. Yet it’s alien to me. I don’t dwell on my childlessness. I have close relationships with my nephews and step-children.
Still, I know what playing chameleon feels like. Throughout my adulthood, I’ve suffered from anxiety, which I trace back to my upbringing. But it is not debilitating.
There is a wide spectrum of outcomes for adult children of mentally ill parents. While some were lucky enough to have supports to buffer childhood trauma and mitigate the impact of stress, others deal with lifelong physical and mental health problems. Then, there are those of us—huge in number—who fall in the middle and fit into the category of competent, functioning CaN-ACOPSMI.
Misrachi found that the unique, trauma-based needs of CaN-ACOPSMI “are not being adequately met within existing family-focused policies and practice, which focus on the needs of parents with SMI [Serious Mental Illness] to the potential detriment of their adult offspring.” She believes that concepts of trauma should be used in interventions for CaN-ACOPSMI, and she advocates addressing grief and loss.
Misrachi doesn’t seek to blame parents and recognizes that mentally ill parents themselves may have been traumatized during their childhoods.
Notably, researchers report that adults who grew up in homes with parents with serious mental illness say they have become stronger, more compassionate, considerate, and independent.
(My book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids, is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions. You can reach me at www.Alicekenny.com)