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Millicent Monks Headshot

On Being the Parent of a Seriously Ill Child

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Being the parent of a seriously mentally ill child changes the mother's and father's life in many ways and so many times, it means a divorce. As a mother, I feel blessed to have a husband who has shared the often painful, disruptive, but also love-filled role of parenting a child with a diagnosis of "Borderline Personality," one of the most serious and neglected mental illnesses. At the age of 15, after the illness disrupted family life beyond what we could cope with, we decided we had to think of our other children, who pay a difficult price with an ill sibling. We decided to admit our daughter to a hospital for mental illness. She started in the adolescent ward and soon was moved to the most severe locked ward, where she stayed for 7 years.

We were slowly loosing any control over our daughter's illness. All of us in the family were getting help, and I was grateful we could pay for it. No amount of psychiatric help from the age of 6 to 13 was of any help to our daughter. As the mother of a very sick, disruptive child over whom we had absolutely no control, I often felt that things were becoming unsafe, both for her and us. I was getting exhausted.

Before I was married, I was at the New England Conservatory of Music, a voice major, and when the children were older, in the voice department at Boston University and singing around in small opera companies occasionally and in the chorus of the Met when it came to our city. When our daughter was about 12, I was accepted in the soloist department at Tanglewood where students, professionals, musicians and world-renowned conductors came.

I never got there, I simply lost my voice. As the situation got more and more out of hand at home and we had simply lost control of our daughter, me and my husband began to feel overwhelmed. She left the hospital when she was about 20 and lives near us now on a family farm, surrounded by a large family.

I wish I could offer brilliant ways to cope with someone who is seriously mentally ill. My daughter and I have some good times together and we love her very much. Over the years we have, as a family, worked with a Jungian analyst without whose help I don't know how we would have managed. There is better help out there today I believe than there was 60 years ago, but I find, sadly, it is still very difficult for mothers with a seriously ill child to share and speak out.

I do so hope that will change. Mothers could help each other so much if that would change. Perhaps we can form strong groups of mothers of children with mental illnesses and be heard much the way the gay community has. Both groups have dealt with shame, and we have their excellent example to emulate when it comes to advocating for our kids and ourselves.

Possible Help for Mothers of Seriously Mentally Ill Child

  1. As they say in case of drowning, help yourself first.
  2. Hold on to love for yourself and your child.
  3. Hold on to your marriage
  4. Create a life for yourself that your child doesn't upset, if possible.
  5. A seriously ill child can in many powerful ways interpret the truth in ways that distort it. Take time out to think through what your child has said as long as it is still not too painful and you can have some distance. It can help to write down your truth and remember it.
  6. Find ways that are helpful to you to get through more difficult days and situations. For example, have good psychiatric or Jungian or other professional help when needed, meditate, pray and talk with a friend or family member.
  7. Remember that as a Mom, you are not at fault or responsible for your child's illness, this is dark ages thinking.
  8. If possible, find other mothers who have very ill children and form a small group of mothers that meet to share problems and maybe spread out to reach other mothers.
  9. Remind yourself that you are in an extraordinarily complex position and that others may not understand the difficulty of how completely overwhelming and exhausting it can be, the sense of loss you feel or how destructive the child can be to your relationship. As a mother, you feel the terrible inability to help your child, and there are times in spite of the pain that you can love them very much.

For me, music is healing, as is looking out on the ocean where we live, talking with a friend and writing poetry.

Everyone I guess has to find their own way. There own still place to work through the pain and try to come to some place of peace with it.