What you can do when you can't help a mentally ill parent

When someone you love suffers from mental illness and they won’t get help, it can be frustrating and terrifying. You might feel helpless or angry. There is no wrong way to think or feel, but there is a right way to act. There is no shortage of potential topics to write about for Mental Health Awareness month, yet I think the subject of loving someone with mental illness ranks right up there with one of the most important. Hold on, let go, laugh, cry, scream, intervene, or let it go? This is tough stuff!

When someone you love won’t get help, what can you do?

do what you can

What you can do is to take care of YOU. Whatever that means, however you do it, you must take care of YOU.

The following guest post was written by A. She has asked to remain anonymous, but if you’d like to send her a message of support or acknowledgement of her thoughts, you can email me and queenofcussinmwdas@gmail.com and I will make sure she receives it. You can also leave a message in the comments after the post.

A is struggling. Her mother suffers from mental illness. Her story is full of heartache, hope and the kind of insight and exhausted acceptance that can only be earned through experience.

Here is A’s story.

What you can do when you can’t help a mentally ill parent

I think my mother’s mental illness is making me crazy. How insensitive is that statement? (aside from using the words “crazy” and “mental illness” in the same sentence- probably the epitome of insensitive)

I know I can’t “catch” her mental illness, although for a long time I lived with the paranoia that I could be like her and not realize it. I know that sometimes these things are genetic, which fueled my paranoia. So far, I think I’m still okay as far as legitimate, diagnosable mental illness goes. So why do I sometimes feel like I’m going crazy?

I’ve likely lived with my mom’s mental illness for my whole life and not consciously realized it until the past decade or so. Her extreme moodiness, proclivity to isolate herself, and her downright nastiness were probably all early indicators of an issue, but to me that’s just how she was. She was the only mom I had, so I didn’t really know any different. And she wasn’t all bad. She could be funny, made a good healthy dinner for her family every night and at times was involved with her kids’ lives.

But within the past five years or so, it’s been impossible not to acknowledge that something was very wrong. In fact, the diagnoses were so plentiful—depression, bipolar, anxiety, sleep issues—that each merited its very own medication, with doctors always seemingly willing to address the newest diagnosis with a pill (or several).

And even if her odd behavior could be overlooked, the numerous hospital visits over the past few years could not; some were caused by the medications (an overdose, not to mention multiple injuries suffered while she was under the influence) whereas others were related to the mental illness itself when we didn’t know what to do aside from hospitalize her. Her most recent “accident” landed her in ICU for two weeks, followed by a few more weeks of psychiatric inpatient treatment. But there has been less tangible collateral damage, as well: she doesn’t remember her daughter’s wedding, has lost friends and has alienated herself from her grandchildren.

So where was her family through all this? Why didn’t someone do something? She has a capable husband and three children who all live nearby. But ironically, rather than close in and take over her care, us kids pulled away, even knowing that she was spinning closer to another crisis. So, again, why didn’t we do something? That’s the part that really plagues me.

As it turns out, it’s hard to make someone do something they don’t want to do- in this case get the kind of help and treatment that my mom needed. And in her mind she was doing everything she was supposed to: she was under the care of a therapist and a psychiatrist in addition to her family physician. So she bristled at even the slightest suggestion that something more could be done. To her, this was the best she could do and we should accept her as she was. And our way of doing that was to pull away, maintaining only a very superficial relationship. How tiring to be evaluating how she seemed with every conversation and gathering, the embarrassment of inappropriate comments and behavior and the anxiety of waiting for the next crisis.

But this latest incident that put her out of commission for nearly a month gave us an opening to actually do something. Do something, do something, do something! Spring into action! Get information, get organized, make phone calls, band together and be ready for life to be different upon her release! We could do it!

The only problem was that despite the severity of the situation, she still didn’t want our help or involvement. And with that realization, my confidence and energy swiftly deflated. Worst of all, I could feel this starting to impact my own psyche. I worried about what she wasn’t doing and the fact that she doesn’t want to “bother” her kids with her problems. Which was code for “leave me alone.”

I’ve told my story to so many people during the past weeks, always with the thought that maybe someone will have a nugget that I’ll find helpful. And I have- I have gotten amazing support from so many people, some of whom I barely knew before all of this. I have gotten names and resources as well as moral support.

But without a doubt what I’ve heard most frequently is what I still can’t accept: “You’ve done all you can do.”

That’s such a subjective thing. I could move into my parents’ house, for instance, and be in charge of dispensing my mom’s medication. That’s not particularly realistic since I am married and still have kids at home. I could go to court and get medical power of attorney, but I’d almost certainly ruin my relationship with my mom for good. So it’s not strictly true that I’ve done everything I can. And what does “do something” even mean?

But maybe I’ve done everything I can without getting pulled totally underwater. One of the things I’m most proud of in my life is the great relationship I have with my own kids. And I’ve always prided myself on being fairly level-headed and pragmatic. But this thing with my mom…it’s really thrown me. And I don’t want it to throw me off balance to the point where it negatively impacts my relationship with my kids. If that sounds like I’m rationalizing why I’m not really “doing” anything for my mom right now, you’re thinking like I am. Because the cost of not doing anything is to feel persistent, almost agonizing guilt.

Right now I am working hard to appreciate the momentary calm with my mom’s situation. I’m not overly hopeful that we won’t be repeating the cycle we’ve become familiar with at some point in the future, but I’m trying not to let myself go there too much. I’ve met with a therapist a few times in the hopes that she can help guide me toward a new relationship with my mom. But it’s still really hard to shake the feeling that I should be “doing” more. Because underneath it all, she is still my mom and I still love her and hope for better someday.


Is you or someone you love is struggling and you need help knowing what to do or where to get help? NAMI can help. Click HERE to be directed to the website for NAMI – The National Alliance on Mental Illness

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