We recently posted an article about the effects on a child growing up with a mentally ill parent. Within days, we received numerous emails from users wishing to share their own experiences of their lives with mentally ill parents, and the subsequent effects this has left lingering into their adult hood.
Posted below is the story of one user. She has asked for her name to be withheld.
“I remember a friend of mine showing a group of us that famous Larkin poem which starts “They f… you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to but they do.” We all laughed and shared comments about how much they do “f… you up”. While my friends were going through the trivial things their parents had done to mess them up… “They didn’t get me a bike that Christmas, so I felt left out” and “God, they always grounded me for not cleaning my room”, I sat there laughing along. I did not dare to tell them what exactly my mother had done to “f… me up”.
My mother is mentally ill. My mother has had problems, and has caused me problems for as long as I can remember. I hate the illness. I hate my mother for having an illness.
She was first diagnosed with what they then called “nerves” back in the 1960’s. At the tender age of 17, she was put on Valium and remained a slave to the drug until 40. My earliest recollections of her was as a zombie woman, half starved with anorexic tendencies and spending every day in the doctors office with some new, imaginary illness. She was always cold towards my father and I, refusing to give affection and refusing to do anything that would benefit us (even cooking food).
I remember I must have been about four years old when I first realized how hurtful she could be. I was sitting in the living room and playing with a plastic saucepan set. I asked her to play with me and her reaction was to stand up and walk into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her. I had no clue what I had done wrong, and I also never asked her to play a game with me again.
My childhood was mixed with fun, courtesy of my dad’s active interest in doing fun things with me, and pain, feeling like a burden to my mother. In front of her friends she would be overly maternal, but alone I would be ignored. Sometimes she would slip in front of others and show what she was really like. When I was 8, my friend was staying at my house and we were playing with our dolls on my bunk-bed. My mother walked into the room and slapped me for making too much noise. My friend didn’t know how to react as the bed shook from the force of the hit. I remember not crying because I was used to her slaps. My friend made some comment about how she would have cried if her mother did that and I was shocked. I thought that was the way all mothers acted.
Life with my mother always went this way. Daily trips to see her doctor took up all of my school holidays, unless she could palm me off on my aging aunt and uncle. When I got to be about 9, she would keep me out of school for days on end, forcing me to go to the doctors for illnesses she imagined me to have. I realize now that this was basically Munchausen by proxy.
Most of my formative years were spent, by my choice mainly, with other relatives. I grew very close to one aunt, whom I consider to be my mother more than anything. It would be a relief to spend time at her house, even though she was in her 60’s. We would spend hours cooking and she would tell me all about life during the second world war. I still love going to see her and would much rather spend time with her than with anyone else in my family.
I never really had a real relationship with my paternal side of the family. This is mainly because my mother didn’t like them. She would accuse my grandparents of hating me and, as I child, I believed her. It wasn’t until after my grandmother died and I had contact with other family members that I learned my grandparents wanted my father to remove me from my mother and to go and live with them. They saw what was going on, and let my mother know…that was their biggest mistake. The damage of knowing I had loving grandparents that wanted to protect me, but I was denied a relationship with them is irreparable. That’s just one thing I can never forgive my mother for (and trust me, there are a lot more.)
Around my 11th birthday, my mother was taken off Valium and put onto lithium carbonate. It was clear that doctors considered her to be suffering from Bi-polar disorder. The consequences of the change in medication spurred on the worst moments of my life. My mother changed from being the Valium zombie to an erratic monster. She would start fights with my father that were unbearable. Once she had him on the floor and tried to stab him in front of me. I tried to leave the house, but she dragged me back in and locked the doors. After that, she locked herself in the bathroom and shouted about how she was trying to cut her wrists. My father kicked the door in and it hit her in the face (accidentally, I should add). She then called the police and members of my father’s family, stating he was abusing her. All I really remember happening after is the psychiatrist arriving and refusing to take her away. He said she wasn’t a threat to anyone, despite being told the events.
Life continued with her crazy swings for a while after. Her behavior also became more and more bizarre. I remember coming home from school when I was about 12 and finding a note from her, saying she had gone to throw herself on the railway track because I had been a bad girl. She was nowhere to be found in the house. I got hysterical, calling everyone and desperately trying to get my dad home from work (he was in a meeting and had to rush out immediately). I went upstairs and heard her laughing manically in my wardrobe. In her insane mind, she thought it was a funny thing to do.
Not long after these events her medication was switched again. Although it curbed her more insane behavior, it brought out some very nasty sides of her personality that other medications had masked. She was extremely controlling, manipulative and a compulsive liar. All emotion towards us seemed faked and used to get her own way. She could turn on the tears and feign emotional hurt to get absolutely anything she wanted…those things were generally materialistic wants. Her main passion, as it turned out was hurting as many people as she could, and she genuinely enjoyed doing it.
When I was 17 she took me to see the doctor. I had a chest infection that would not go away. She insisted that she accompany me into the doctor’s room to tell him what was wrong. All I remember is crying in there. I was crying because I felt so sick. She convinced him I was crying because I was depressed, just like her. Hence my own trips to psychologists and psychiatrists stated…all because she wanted me to be mentally ill. It was hard trying to convince them that there was nothing wrong with me as she would always take them aside and make up stories about my activities. Of course, they always believed her over me. That’s the great thing about having a master manipulator and compulsive liar as a parent. Also, she reveled in the fact I was going to see these people. After all, she could play the “poor hard-done-by” act to her friends and get sympathy.
When I finally left home to start university, I thought I would finally have a chance to break away. How wrong I was! She would telephone everyday in tears about some made up hardship and force me to travel 200 miles home every weekend. When she came to visit me, she made sure to tell my friends a bunch of lies about me, insuring they began to ostracize me. Actually, she did this with every single friend I ever had and later even tried it with the man who is now my husband.
One day in my psychology class, we were discussing the diagnostics for being a psychopath. Considering all the characteristics my mother displayed, this is her most apt diagnosis. Out of the 21 common characteristics, my mother displays 17 in her regular behavior. The only ones she is lacking are : criminal versatility, promiscuous sexual behavior, sexually deviant lifestyle and abuse of drugs including alcohol, although she does have a very bad gambling addiction. So, that’s it, my mother is a clinical psychopath.
Over the past few years her problems have become a lot worse in regards to me. She has done things recently that have devastated me and I can no longer have a relationship with her, or with my father, who continues to support her and ignore the problems. For many reasons, I can not go into all the more recent events as there are other people involved.
The long lasting effects of growing up with a mentally ill parent are devastating. I have no friends and no confidence to hold a friendship based relationship. My mother constantly told me that no one ever liked me, so I find trusting the kind motives of people towards me a very hard thing to do. I also have a lot of anger for not being able to have had a “normal life”, and am extremely jealous of people who have great relationships with their parents. I am also scared of being a parent myself. My experience of mothering is very bad and I’m scared I’ll end up the same way.
One good thing that has come out of all of this is that, due to wanting to understand my mother’s behavior, I’ve entered into a career field I love. Clinical psychology is about the only gift my mother ever gave me that meant anything.
I guess Larkin was right. Some parents really do “F… you up”.”
Originally Published In Clinically Psyched on December 2nd, 2008.