I loved being pregnant. When I carried my first born inside me he was safe and I controlled everything. I ate healthy foods, never drank alcohol or even took a Tylenol. I took naps and tried to think positive thoughts. I just knew he would grow up to be beautiful, smart, talented, motivated and full of joy for life. I would make it so, or, so I believed. That’s not exactly the way it turned out.
Instead, I have a son who suffers from a thought disorder. For me, his disease has been another dangerous opportunity filled with both exquisite pain as well as fertile ground for my own growth.
One of the most powerful insights I owe my adult son’s debilitating mental illness is an understanding of my utter powerlessness in the face of a biological deck stacked decidedly towards schizophrenia. No amount of love, positive parenting or health food could overcome his genetics. Now, no amount of discussion or professional intervention can convince him that his reality is not real. And so far, nothing I, or anyone else has done can get him to take medication or seek treatment.
Understanding the limits of my power with my son has helped me also understand the limits of my control in terms of everyone I am in relationship with. I have learned that I do have some influence, but not any real control over others. And, in order for my influence to take root there must be willingness on their part. In fact, one of the reasons I become a mental health counselor was to help those who are willing, those who want to change. Practicing therapy gives me a place to put all the frustrated impulses to help my son.
Loving my son has taught me a lot about how difficult it is to practice loving unconditionally. We often throw off the term unconditional love nonchalantly as if it is an easy thing to do. But I have found it to be very difficult. How do I love someone who is so paranoid he sometimes thinks the money I give him is cursed, or that I am trying to poison him with a cup of coffee?
How do I stay aware of the sweet soul that lives somewhere behind his vacant eyes? How do I allow myself to feel proud of him just for doing his own laundry or still taking some pride in his appearance? It is definitely not easy.
The greatest help I have found in loving him unconditionally is to radically accept his condition and the limitations it places on him and on our relationship. This doesn’t mean I like it or don’t wish it could be different, but accepting it does shift me. When I can say,” This is my son. “and can accept that fully, I can love him. This is not something I do once. It must be done again and again. Over and over I accept what is, and in that acceptance the suffering loosens a bit. It is as if the hot coal I have been holding in a tight fist is released and rolls out of my hand. Yes, there is still a burn left behind, but the damage has ended.
When I was a young mother and still believed in my invincible power to shape my children’s lives I could be very judgmental. I just knew that if someone’s kid grew up to be an addict or abusive or a criminal that it was the parents to blame. So, one of the true gifts of my son’s illness is a lessening of this kind of judgment. It is sometimes true that parents mess their kids up and cause them to be dysfunctional. It is also true that kids can also damage their parents just as profoundly and that no matter how well they are parented they will still be self-destructive or disordered.
In my counseling office and in life I have met many people who endured indescribable abuse and yet became loving and effective people. I have also met people who were loved and nurtured, given boundaries and structure, and yet grew up to live lives of despair. There are several books that have helped me understand the misplaced blame often heaped on parents. If you are struggling with a teen or adult child and blame yourself for their struggles, but also feel you were a “good enough” parent, I highly recommend the following books:
The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along by Joshua Coleman.
Of course, having a son who is mentally ill has had a profound impact on me as a counselor. My compassion for others struggling with mental illness has deepened, and I no longer feel afraid of people with thought disorders. The truth is that despite the way mentally ill people are depicted in movies and popular culture they are less likely that the guy next door to act out violently against another person. They are more likely, however, to attempt suicide, which bespeaks their own deep pain and suffering.
I owe so very much to my son’s illness, including a stronger instinct for my own survival and a fierce determination to protect my own well-being as much as possible. There was a time when I thought that if I gave up enough of myself, enough time, enough money, enough energy, enough love, enough compassion, then somehow I would make it ok for my son, somehow he would heal. But now I know that this is a long game and if I plan to continue to love and care for him, I must first love and care for myself.