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When something’s not quite right with my parent
This woman with whom I once shared a close relationship, one more matured and a mother of one son, reached out to me. She had been living with depression and managing well. Then a time came when she was severely affected by issues of lethargy and continuous fatigue, loss of interest in everything, including food and friends, decline in personal hygiene, persistent tears, relentless irritability, and severe mood fluctuations.
As she finished her recounting of her secreted debility, I realised—only when I heard my deep exhale—I wasn’t breathing. Nothing in our relationship ever betrayed her diagnosis. In fact, she was once the greatest thread of support in a period when I felt fragmented and trapped by my own mind and moods.
And nothing prepared me for her son’s reaction. He had been always extremely supportive, kind and humble, loving and caring, until he had to treat with his mother’s worsening illness.
They had shared over three decades in the same home and seeing his mother declining, a fragment of herself, seriously affected him. Now, where love and kindness should have been evident, disgust, derision and disappointment were his reactions.
In disbelief, I listened to some of the vitriol in her accounting of the things he would say to her. It shook me up a bit but I recovered sufficiently to offer her the support I knew she needed.
My disbelief though, had only to do with the closeness and dedication I knew between the two for many years and not because I cannot imagine that that could happen. I have experienced many adverse reactions personally and have counselled both parents with ill children and children with ill parents struggling to find “a way” with each other. I have my own heartbreak stories on both sides, too.
Sometimes, worse than the impact of stigma and its engendered prejudices, is the fact that many of our loved ones cannot be bothered to invest sufficiently in understanding the issues affecting people living with mental illnesses.
In her instance, the now grown man, who once rode high with her, felt her isolation and her irritability were excuses for her “life failure” (that’s how he summed up her very progressive life once she became incapacitated).
“Failure?” I blurted out, without restraint— something I rarely do if I am lending support.
Still, I understood the dynamic, the inability of a child to reconcile with a parent being ill and waylaid by an ailment he could not see—it could all be made up, to his mind it could just be her “folding up” because of the weight of her past. Unfortunately, it could be anything the child perceives it to be!
I am always thinking that in T&T we have to consider support for children of parents living/thriving with mental illnesses. It is still very much a hands-off situation because of people’s fear and ignorance. I know. No one intervened when I was considered a “mad”, abusive mother.
Everyone felt more comfortable holding counsel with others (gossiped) rather than offering assistance.
And, while there is more consciousness now than the 90s, I do not get the sense that the barometer has moved much.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (4th ed.) says, “Mental disorders is conceptualised as a clinically significant behavioural or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (eg, a painful symptom) or disability (ie, impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability or an important loss of freedom.”
Recounting this definition in a 2013 study titled: Promotion of mental health in children of parents with a mental disorder, Verrocchio, et al say, “We must consider that a majority of people with mental disorders are or will be parents and that it is necessary to give due consideration to the protection of their children.
“Children who receive proper care, protection, emotional warmth, stimulations, guidance and support, develop their autonomy and a proper sense of self; they learn to recognise their own emotional states, to establish satisfactory relations and to deal with life events,” they say.
Living with psychopathology makes for a difficult life; parenting is extremely challenging and children may suffer a great deal without appropriate care/support. Mental illnesses rob parent and children of their quality of life.
I learned, however, I am the only one who can preserve me.
That’s what I share with my friend. I say, “Love yourself, forgive yourself, apologise to your better self on behalf of the self which presents when you are ill. Apologise to your son where he feels wronged, and where you have wronged him, also. But, do not allow him or anyone to hold you ransom for past hurts. Your health will decline under that constant beating and berating.
“Understand that his harshness and vengefulness would only heal through his love for and compassion towards you, and you cannot give any of those to him.”