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Living with a Mentally Ill Parent

Trigger warning: Suicide attempt, alcoholism/ alcohol abuse

    One of my two of my parents was in inpatient therapy for nearly a month. They went in to have a place that was completely alcohol free, though they weren’t too sure if they were going in because of alcohol abuse or for the general stresses of parenting on top of depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure.

    What possessed me to write this article was the feeling of helplessness that I’ve felt towards my parent and how I’ve been handling the situation. What am I supposed to say to my grandparents who must think the worst of them? Or to our family friends who are hurt that they couldn’t make it to a couple of birthdays? And with that, how do other kids feel when their parents are in this position? Who can they go to? How must they feel? I can’t be the only teenager who has one or more parents struggling with mental illness. So I want to shed some light on how my situation with my parent is normal and that it’s healthy for them to being getting help instead of remaining miserable at home.

    It was late September when my parents’ therapist recommended for Parent 1 to stay at an inpatient treatment facility for 30 days but it’s quickly seeming like they will be away for another week on top of the original 30. Which isn’t for a lack of effort or any reason other than the fact that they just needed a little more time.

    Their family has a long history with substance abuse going back farther than I could track. The majority of their family members are alcoholics and smokers. My parent was the youngest of three children, each adopting their own addiction. My mom smoked and had an alcohol problem, which is different from being an alcoholic. Both of my uncles smoked, but one of them got into hard drugs.

    They didn’t originally know that they were suffering from a mental illness until I was born. My parent found themself having a very hard time with me. Depression after the birth of a child is super common and not at all unexpected. Their symptoms improved as we both grew and it didn’t become a problem until their blood pressure medication was changed once we moved to Seattle. At the age of five my parent was bed ridden most days with migraines. This was the absolute worst time for this of course because they had one five year old and a three year old and my sibling and I have always been a loud crowd. Luckily, their doctors changed the medication and it hasn’t been a serious problem until last school year. It was then that my parent felt an all time low and felt like life was no longer worth it. What made it worse was that the suicide hotline they called was full and could no longer take any more calls. Thankfully, my parent called up their best friend who talked it out. For a while everything seemed fine, we talked about it as a family, they went on a yoga retreat, came back, it was okay. But then the alcohol consumption increased, and increased, and increased and didn’t show a sign of slowing down.

    At my age my parent was suffering from severe anxiety that caused them to get sick to their stomach constantly. Keeping down food was a daily struggle and has recently started to torment them again in the form of IBS. One of the purposes of them spending time in an inpatient facility was to give them a space to safely and easily stop their alcohol consumption which may have been adding to their digestive problems. During their last round of doctors visits concerning their IBS they learned that many different alcohols can’t negatively affect your digestion, even if you’re drinking it within a safe amount.

    Recently they were suffering from an alcohol problem, which is different from being an alcoholic. Alcoholics suffer withdrawal and often can’t stop drinking on their own. The simplest definition of an alcohol problem, is simply that alcohol is causing problems for you. Or, that result of your drinking has caused a problem for you or others. In my case, there was one night where I didn’t know if my parent could drive me home safely because of their history of drinking and it wasn’t apparent that they were fit to drive. It turned out that they could drive safely, but their drinking made me worried. And beyond not knowing if it was safe to drive or not, they said that their drinking and inability to express how not drunk they were caused an additional problem of my other parent and I feeling like they weren’t taking responsibility for their actions. After some time in inpatient therapy they were able to draw the conclusion that I had made the right decision to question whether or not I should have gotten in the car with them. They felt like it was important for me to get comfortable with asking that question now, so that if I had to ask one of my friends, I would know to maybe not get in their car.

    I think, in a way, I’m privileged to have my parent’s journey from the outside. I didn’t have to feel their pain first hand, but I can now better understand the other people in my life who are struggling in similar ways that she does. I’ve also been able to step back and think about the ways that I can try to avoid extra anxiety and depression. I go to school and pour every ounce of effort into my work, my extra curricular activities, and a consistent sleep schedule.

    I’ve also gotten a taste of how hard it is to be a parent. I can’t truly know what it’s like because I don’t have my own children, but I get a taste of parenthood every time my younger sibling needs an adults help and I’m the only person there to help them. My other parent has a full time job so when my sibling asks for help with homework, I’m the person they go to. Or for advice on dating, friendships, their teachers, school, everything. Which is not to say that it’s a burden because it’s helping my sibling and I work together better which in turn makes my life easier. But I can imagine how balancing your life and your needs with someone else’s who’s more dependant on you than your spouse may be.

    The point of this article is absolutely not boo hoo I have terrible parents, it’s that I am a happy person who happens to have a parent who requires more mental health treatment than most of the parents you hear about. And that just because you have a mental illness, doesn’t mean that you can’t have happy kids. You also shouldn’t be ashamed that you or someone you know has a mental illness and has to see a therapist or participate in in patient therapy.