Talking to My Children about My Mental Illness
For years, I tried to hide my mental illness from my children. They were aware that I had some issues, but I downplayed the severity of my situation. I shared joint custody of my boys with my ex-husband, with them travelling back and forth between our homes. The entire time they were with their father each week, I would do the bare minimum, stockpiling my energy for their joyful return. When they would arrive, I would do my best to greet them with exuberance, making plans with them and baking their favorite treats. I would paint on a smile and pretend everything in life was as it should be, hoping to be that idealized mother I felt they deserved. My children were my everything and I wanted every visit with me to be special, whether we ventured out to do things or stayed home for family game nights or bad movie nights. We always made time to have extended talks about books, movies, shows, games, friends, school and life in general so that they always knew every aspect of their lives was important to me. Meanwhile, my demons were eating me alive from the inside. I’d take long showers, silently sobbing so they could not hear me; After they went to bed, I would quietly sob into my pillow. When they left to return to their father’s, I would collapse until their next visit. Wearing that facade was exhausting.
I dreaded them discovering how bad things truly were for many reasons. Primarily, I didn’t want them to view their mother as damaged or broken. In my mind, parents were supposed to be these strong, invincible, larger than life entities that guide their children through life. Children were not supposed to worry about their parents. Their parents were not supposed to be weak or easily destroyed by their own emotions. I was supposed to be their rock, their pillar of strength, someone they could look up to in life. I felt that by letting them see how bad things truly were, I was somehow failing them as a mother.
I also feared their father, my ex-husband. As much as I try to never speak unkindly about him, especially within earshot of my children, purely out of respect for the fact that he is their father, truth be told our break up was horrendous. I carried with me the constant fear that the severity of my depression might get back to him and it would be used as a weapon for him to try to lessen my time with them. From time to time, we would end up back in family court, him wanting to change the order for no other reason than that frequent swaps were inconvenient. I dreaded him getting his hands on true ammunition he could use to get his way.
One of my biggest fears, though, was that my children would have questions for which there were no easy answers. I’ve gone through different types of abuse from different people throughout my life, some of them my children genuinely admire or love. These people, though they have caused me heartache, have always been good to my kids and I did not want to be the one to share anything with them that may cause them to see the people they cared for differently, especially their father. There may come a day when those hard questions will be asked, but I never wanted to taint their childhood or make them feel they had to hate anyone solely based on my interactions with them.
There were a handful of times when I had breakdowns throughout their childhood and would end up admitted to an inpatient setting for a short period of time. As far as my ex-husband knew, it was to balance medications; As far as my children were concerned, I was just feeling under the weather so I was exchanging a few days this week for some more the next. Eventually, though, my entire life collapsed. My then-fiance had left me for another woman. I had no real support system and no family to turn to in my time of need. There was no way for me to paint on a smile and pretend everything was okay. Things were the farthest from okay they could possibly be and I was scared to death. There was no way to hide it.
By this time, my boys were fifteen and eighteen. They were no longer the fragile little children I had to watch over and protect, regardless of the fact that they were still my babies in my heart and mind. I sat down with them, terrified to the bottom of my soul, and had the most honest conversation with them that I have ever had. I didn’t go into details about a lot of my past abuse, but I didn’t sugarcoat it’s affect on me, either. I explained the struggles ahead and all I would need to do to put my life back together and get back on my feet. While I let them know that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, I made it clear that the journey ahead would not be an easy one for me.
I also let them know I had begun to write, having put my life’s story out there both in a book and a follow-up blog. I was honest with them that they may want to wait until they’re older to read my book because, while I discussed things I needed to talk about for my own self-healing, there were some hard truths in it I didn’t feel they were ready to face. I welcomed them to read my blog, however, if they wanted to so they could follow my journey as I worked through things and healed. I also let them know I would answer any questions they had because I did not want them worrying that things were worse than they appeared. Both my sons hugged me tightly after our talk and have continued to do so more often since then. They both admitted to not feeling ready to read anything I’ve written so I did not press the issue. I had not expected them to want to read anything I wrote or to have any questions, but I wanted to leave the lines of communication open just in case they wanted to talk.
I had another blog I had begun, as well, that focused primarily on the positive aspects of my healing, that I welcomed them to read as an alternative to the blog that revolved around my struggles with mental illness. The other day, I recommended that my older son read my most recent positive blog about stepping out of my comfort zone and trying to live my life more fully. After reading that blog, unbeknownst to me, my son decided to follow a link to my mental illness blog. Much to my surprise, he read every entry I had posted so far. After finishing, he left me this message:
“after I read that article you sent me earlier, I saw the link to your blog and read it. I didn’t want to at first, but something in me told me to listen to your story and finally be able to truly empathize with you. After reading it, I can hardly believe you went through so much without reaching out for so long, and am glad you finally did.”
Truthfully, I cried when I received that message; Not small tears that cascade gracefully down your cheeks, but rather chest-wracking, snot-bubble-inducing sobs that shook my entire body. For so long, I had been terrified of my children finding out about the extent of my mental illness, fearing that they would see me as broken or damaged or not worthy to be their mother. Yet here was my son, after reading only a fraction of what I had endured, able to empathize with how much I had struggled. Even more amazingly, he was proud of me for surviving it all, finally coming out with my story and reaching out for help.
The truth is, as much as in my heart and mind my children will be frozen forever as those sweet-faced, innocent babies they once were years ago, they’ve since grown into strong, intelligent, empathetic young men. While it is every parent’s greatest fear that they will let their children down in some unforgivable way by not being that strong, unbreakable entity atop a pedestal, in reality no one can live up to that ideal. I’m slowly beginning to accept that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of because we all have our struggles and our demons to face. I couldn’t be prouder of the men they’ve become or how supportive and compassionate they’ve been when facing the harsh truths about my mental illness.
Republished on The Mighty on 9/6/16.