Mental illness is something society doesn’t like to talk about much. It has taken a long time to shake off the images and beliefs passed through from each generation. While there have been definite improvements over the years, the stigma remains, tainting suffered inaccurately. It is sad that as a society, there is still shame in being mentally ill. Sufferers do not ask to be different. They do not ask to be sick. One would not feel shame in saying they had diabetes, asthma or heart problems. Yet there are people too scared to admit they have a mental illness. What makes it any different? Issues of the body cannot be controlled; it is the same for issues of the mind.

The stigma that still surrounds mental illness is due to many people being uninformed. These misconceptions prevent people with a mental illness from speaking openly about it. They fear being judged.
These days, more and more people are suffering with some form of mental illness. Some are being brave and opening up, despite the possibility of judgement. Some are passionate advocates who believe the stigma needs to stop here and now.

It has taken me a long time to get to this point, but now I feel like I have something to offer. I have experience with mental illness because my father has schizophrenia. And I am one of those people who don’t like to talk about it much. The topic makes me uncomfortable. It makes me squirm. I feared being judged for his illness. I feared that people will think I have it too. I know that growing up with a schizophrenic father has changed me, and I let it affect me negatively. My attitude towards mental illness has changed now that I understand it more. Yet there are still lingering doubts in my head, based on the many years where I misunderstood my dad and his illness.

What if speaking up makes others see me differently?

What if others judge my dad, based on what I tell you?

But then I remember the facts and how I am now closer to my Dad than ever before and I think: SO WHAT! I want to help in the quest to de-stigmatise mental illness!
I want to use my experience, my fear and insecurity, to finally talk openly about it. I want to help people in the same situation; because I know that they are out there, and possibly experienced the same feelings as me.

Here are some quick facts about Schizophrenia:

* The function of the mind is altered, along with their experience of reality.

* The illness is more common than we think: worldwide, up to 1 in 100 will experience schizophrenia.

* Schizophrenia is marked by the disconnection between thoughts, feelings and actions.

* The most common symptoms are delusions and hallucinations, where they may have unusual beliefs or thoughts, and see or hear things that are not real.

* Other symptoms include low motivation, reductions in speech, blunted emotional responses, social withdrawal, reduced social performance and neglect of personal hygiene.

* Much of what we hear about schizophrenia is false. Many people believe schizophrenics have split personality. This is not true. Schizophrenia means ‘divided mind’.

* Schizophrenics are rarely dangerous or violent. Those being treated for schizophrenia are no more violent than other members of society. In fact, they are often the victims of violence.

* Mental illnesses are not a form of intellectual disability or brain damage; they are illnesses like any other.

Illustration of a mentally ill mind - piece missing out of head, held by somebody's hand

Here is my personal account of how having a mentally ill parent affected me:

I was about seven or eight when I found out my father had schizophrenia. That’s when my life changed. When this happened, I had no idea what this illness was. No one took me aside and explained what was happening. All I knew was that my father was now a strange and distant man, one that I was afraid of and grew to dislike.
I just knew that my dad was different. I didn’t understand why he would say strange things, proclaim that he saw things that weren’t there, and yell and cry. Food had been poisoned, people were spying on him, and sometimes he was God.

I remember lying in bed one night, shaking uncontrollably in the dark, as I listened to my dad have a psychotic episode.

I remember the police coming to take dad to hospital, the neighbours sitting on their porch listening to the commotion, using us for some cheap entertainment.

I remember my Dad stopping me from practising for a test at school the next day because he believed I could do it, even though maths was my worst subject and I still hadn’t learnt my times tables.

I remember all the visits to the hospital and the way the place made my skin crawl and my stomach turn.

I remember no longer feeling safe around my dad, our relationship fractured and broken the moment this horrible illness came and took my dad away.

I remember the anger at seeing my dad sleep on the couch, night after night, wishing he would just have a shower and sleep in bed like normal people did.

I remember wishing I could have my friends over to play, but being too embarrassed at the thought of them seeing his strange habits.

I remember the years of shame, embarrassment and bitterness, which turned into self-hatred and living in a constant state of anxiety.

I remember wishing so badly my dad could be normal, watching other children with their dads and feeling such a deep ache that we didn’t have the same bond.

I became a confused and angry teenager. I was bitter that I had to have a sick father, when all my friends at school had fathers that worked, and took them out on weekends and watched them play sport. I was bitter that my father was always at home, and to me he was a persistent presence. I felt stifled that he was always underfoot and I felt deep humiliation and shame that I was his daughter. I also began to fear that because I was his child I would develop his illness. I was adamant that I would not end up like him, that I would defy the odds.

Those feelings, entrenched into my being, stopped me from understanding for a long time. Those feelings shaped who I am and how I see myself. But then I grew up and I can see that those feelings greatly hindered my enjoyment of my childhood and teenage years. They stopped me from having a proper relationship with my dad. I wasted so much time feeling negative and unhappy, lamenting the fact that I had a sick father. But the feelings of shame and embarrassment were unwarranted. Mentally healthy people will never understand how it is and there will always be that barrier that prevents us from truly comprehending.

If you are an adult who still suffers from your childhood experience of having a mentally ill parent, then know that you are not alone.

You are worthy and having a mentally ill parent does not make you any less of a person. Look at it positively and you will see that you are probably a stronger, more responsible and mature person because of your experience. I can understand how you feel, and there would be many others out there who do too. Don’t suppress your emotions. Talk to people you trust; learn to talk without feeling ashamed and embarrassed. Become who you really are. You can cry, but always make sure you laugh. Wipe those tears away; don’t give them a chance to dry. If you smile and laugh, things won’t seem so bad. Learn to use bad experiences in a positive way. The only way people can become stronger and realise their true capabilities is to have something negative happen to them. Please remember this and start living, instead of wishing for what could have been. Mend your relationship with your parent, tell them you understand that it wasn’t their fault, and try to make the most of every second with them, making up for lost time.

Child's hands holding two adult hands together

If you are a parent who has a mental illness, and you have children in your care, know that you can still have a good relationship with them.

The key is to be open and honest; don’t feel like you have to hide what is happening to you. This creates fear and uncertainty, and it is better to educate children so they don’t form their own ideas. If they understand what is happening, they are better equipped to deal with situations that arise. Stay connected, be affectionate and reassure them that you still love them, no matter what. At times you may feel like you are not emotionally able to do this, due to your illness, but there will be times when your illness is controlled, and that will be your chance to connect and reassure. In the times when your illness has control of you, make sure your spouse or partner, or even another loving adult, is there to give the love and affection to your child. It is so important that children receive love and affection, or they grow up feeling unworthy and unloved.

Dad holding young daughter's hand

If you are a carer of someone with a mental illness, I salute you and think you are truly amazing.

My mum has been the sole carer for dad for the majority of their marriage (38 years), so I know the sacrifices carers make. I know they suffer too. The frequent visits to the hospital, the trips to the chemist to get medicine after medicine, the emotional and mental exhaustion of dealing with relapses, all the while trying to care for the rest of the family. Losing yourself because you are too busy caring for someone else. The guilt you feel, when you’ve just had enough and want a break, or maybe run away for good. It is hard. It is easy to say, but for the benefit of your own health and sanity, please take time out for yourself. Pursue your own interests; ask for help when you need it. Talk to someone. Try to see your partner as a person, and not just a person with a mental illness.

Pile of different coloured medication tablets

If I get through to even one person, then my discomfort about sharing this will have been worth it! If you haven’t already, check out the details about my upcoming book, inspired by my experience with having a mentally ill father.

Is there anyone out there who has had a similar experience to mine? I’d love to hear from you, and how you dealt with turning a negative situation into something positive.

 

* I’d like to note that Dad and I have come such a long way from where we were and now have a very close relationship. It makes me uncomfortable to re-hash all those negative feelings I had towards him, but because those feelings have changed and I only see him in a positive light, I feel it is testament to how much can change when there is understanding and acceptance.
He has changed so much over the years, and has not had a relapse in a very long time. He has learned to have a positive attitude, and has such a deep love for his family. His smile is incredibly bright and wide, which hides the many years of suffering he has had to endure. Sadly, we are now losing him to stage 4 liver cancer, and I can’t even imagine how my life will be after he is gone. I am just thankful we repaired our relationship before it was too late.

Information about schizophrenia gained from:

SANE AUSTRALIA
https://www.sane.org/mental-health-and-illness/facts-and-guides/schizophrenia#factsheet

MIND, HEALTH, CONNECT
http://www.mindhealthconnect.org.au/schizophrenia

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6 responses to “Learning to Live with a Mentally Ill Parent: Breaking Down Barriers”

  1. Gus says:

    Well done, Suzi. I had never really thought about what it would be like to be a child in that situation, but then also, whenever I have met your Dad, he has always seemed to be ok, so I didnt realise how badly it could and had affected you all. You have done so well to get close to him. Your Mum has been through hell, and still is. I know what it is like to be a carer for someone you love who is dying, but she has been going through hell for such a long time. She is a heroine. Take care.
    Love from us.

    • suzifaed says:

      Hi Gus, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. Yes, Dad is a different man to all those years ago, but as a family we certainly went through a very hard time for a very long time. It has certainly left some scars, but I am so grateful we were able to move past it and become closer. Mum is definitely a heroine and is the strongest woman I know. Being a carer (in whatever capacity) is such a hard road, but we do it for those we love.
      Much love xo

  2. Joanne Faed says:

    So well written Suzi. You should contact the Schizophrenia society and ask if they are interested in putting this in a brochure. It could help a lot of children going through the same. You are incredible. Your Mum must be a “rock” to deal with all of this that’s affecting her loved ones. Trying to look after you kids as well as your darling Dad must have been a juggling act. You never know how strong you are until the need arises. Hugs and love to you all! xoxoxo

    • suzifaed says:

      Thanks so much, Jo. That is my goal – that eventually, my book, and the blogs that I write about mental illness, will hopefully help others who have experienced the same. Thanks for the suggestion, I’ll look them up.
      Mum is without a doubt a rock, and there is no way I could have done what she has done. Both my parents are so strong and resilient and I feel I fall short compared to their strength and courage. But they are my inspiration, and I will aspire to develop those qualities. Thanks again for your encouraging comment! xoxo

  3. Dave Ladnet says:

    Thank you for sharing this Suzi… It was incredibly brave and courageous. It adds to our understanding of those who travel with mental illness and the incredibly maturity you have… May your journey of healing continue…

    • suzifaed says:

      Thanks for your comment, Dave. It took a very long time for me to be brave and speak up. Part of that was due to my immaturity I think, and not fully understanding the illness my dad has. Now that I am older and understand more, I feel guilty for the lack of understanding I showed towards him. Thankfully, we have healed our relationship and I can support him now, when he needs us most.
      Thanks again for taking the time to comment, it is much appreciated.

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Suzi Faed Author Avatar

Hello& welcome to my blog, What If Warrior

Here you will find my multi-topic blog, told from my humble point of view. I write from the heart; for me, self-expression comes easier through written words. If you would like to read more about my inspiration for this blog, click here.