The love begins the moment we know we are pregnant – or perhaps even before that, as we dream about the child we might someday have. Then, with each passing day with our child- from the womb, to birth, and as the child grows -our love grows, and the commitment strengthens.
Parental vows may be unspoken, but they are as strong as steel. We witness such vows all the time at weddings, but we parents silently take the same vow from the moment we know we are parents:
I, Mom/Dad, take you, son/daughter, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.
All parents – indeed, all spouses too – know that hopes and dreams must alter as pieces of reality sets in. Our child may be a different sex than we had envisioned; he/she may be born with a birth defect; he/she may want to be a scientist when we had always hoped for a musician in the family. Reality may test our vows, but love is powerful enough to help us ride the waves – and when love seems harder to access, vows take us the rest of the way.
When Mental Illness Tests the Family
When illness enters the family picture, vows are more seriously tested. When that illness is a mental illness, the test is even more difficult. Sometimes, we feel like we want to give in, and give up. But that is never an easy decision, and we never escape guilt and doubt no matter what we do. This is true for every family member of someone diagnosed with mental illness that I have met.
Parents, though, seem most bound to the idea that “we
could have done something to change it” – maybe because, when our children were younger, we often could. It’s the “band-aid-on-the scrape” syndrome: Once upon a time, we at least felt like we had had some power in making hopes and dreams come true for our kids.
But the tests grow more complicated as our children grow, especially when that growth includes mental illness.
- for better, for worse – this may include
- homelessness, substance abuse, accusations, psychosis
- for richer, for poorer - as many families go broke, spending any savings or college funds on care that may or may not make a difference, and seldom permanently
- in sickness and in health - the “sickness” comes all too frequently, treatment may not work, recovery is often only partial and always precarious
- to love and to cherish – yes. always. but difficult when your child has irrational, sometimes even harmful, thoughts
- till death us do part – too many of our children are lost to suicide.
Definition of “Success” in Parenting and Mental Illness.
I must admit, I am a little bit jealous. Although my book Ben Behind His Voices is selling steadily (nice) and (better) reaching families who and professionals who seem to need its message most, it has yet to break through to the same degree as some other recent books that address similar issues, at different stages of life.
What gets more national attention? Tales of measurable success, perhaps (USC Gould Law School Professor Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness). Celebrity authors (Jenny McCarthy’s Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism). An adorable young child, willing to be interviewed and filmed on Oprah even before a book was written (Michael Schofield’s January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and a Father’s Struggle to Save Her).
And yet – most of us living with mental illness in the family exist somewhere in the middle. Our loved ones are neither heartbreakingly young and adorable, nor successful to point of being an endowed professor. Nope, we live – if we are lucky – in the world of ordinary miracles, like when we have a stable day, or our loved ones make it through a family function without incident, or when they achieve the things many are fortunate enough to take for granted:
- decent school grades
- a job
- a hug
- a friend.
My son Ben is now 30 years old. The definition of his success is mostly up to him now – and yet it will always reflect, in some ways, on the family who loves him.
Our vows are easier to keep these days – Ben is currently stable, and has a life – with school, friends, and sometimes even employment. But this could all go away in two days without treatment – as has happened in the past.
If that happens again – despite hopes and prayers – we will rely on our parental vows to get us through the pain. After all, that’s what vows are for.
No one said it would be easy.