Mental Health Month: The Impact of Mentally Ill Parents

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, y’all.

One of the biggest cumbersome clusters as a child was trying to figure out my parents. It became another school. I was the only student. Trying to read moods and soothe myself when they were unavailable, learn personalities, how to approach and ask for something I may want. I couldn’t figure them out. It was too unpredictable.

My father was an addict and has been absent for a majority of my life, diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder by the streets only, and my other caregiver had a mental illness, doctor diagnosed with depression. Growing up, both of these things were normal to me. I knew no different, never paused to wonder why I was so comfortable saying “they left because of drugs.” It rolled off the tongue comfortably, already a part of my life by the time I could form the words.

As a 4-year old, I never stopped to mourn the abandonment after my father left. It was never explained and I never asked, instead connecting the dots in my head. He used to be in Tacoma. Now in California. Richmond. Someone said they used to do crack. Time to go play. I was accustomed to growing up in a 1-parent household, for my village to include something other than a mother and father nuclear family. But there was still a gaping hole there: no one to exemplify healthy relationships, to navigate romantic and sexual feelings, to explain religion, ghosts, and all the other ways of the world that confused me. He would pop up randomly, around 11, 20, 24, with a sheepish shrug and mumbled ‘sorry it’s been so long.’ My father was never one for transparency and explanations; I felt I had to wade through the thickness surrounding him and land at understanding on my own. Big smiles, another calming ‘it’s ok,’ nudging my half siblings to give him a chance- well, he’s here now. After he left again, chasing the high and numbing the neurotransmitters, I had to pretend all was normal. Any hole that was starting to get stitched back together by his absence was ripped raw again. My pain was floating around the adults in my life, with no one available to ground and holster it, so it boomeranged back to me full force and found a home somewhere in my chest.

I didn’t want to be an ‘old soul’ at 11. I wanted to be a child. Sweaty dance and sing off-key in my bedroom mirror to Usher and practice kissing on my pillow.

Throughout middle school and high school, the parentification was strong. I would have to wake everyone up in the household to get ready for school/work, often waking up first so I was quasi-ready by the time I had to wake my mother up, give them medicine every morning while still half-sleep myself, check that they were actually up and in the bathroom. If they were late, it was my fault. Always tiptoeing around the house, trying to brush my teeth and wake them up. Keep the peace. The chaos lurked right beneath the surface, waiting for me to do wrong. My heartbeat would thump incessantly as I looked at the clock. We’re 5 minutes behind. 10 minutes and I still haven’t helped them find a matching shirt. They don’t like my style or what I chose. My ass is grass.

Not explicitly stated, but I knew complaining wasn’t allowed. If I was too tired, I couldn’t say so. I could hear the response ringing in my ears: I’ve taken care of you your entire life. When are you going to help me? Selfish. You’re a spoiled brat.

A sprinkling of times, she would ask me to come get her in 5 minutes, only to find her crying in the living room. Thinking I couldn’t show any emotion, couldn’t explain that seeing her contorted face and dripping tears tug at something inside me I didn’t know how to explain, I would give my best reassuring smile, put on my ‘calm voice’ and say time’s up.

I never knew which way the mood swings were going to land. Some days were full of joy and laughter, as we drove around looking at houses decorated with Christmas lights and twinkling in the dark, as I sang loudly in the car on the way to Denny’s, forgetting half the lyrics and mishearing the other half, as we walked around JoAnn’s Crafts and knitted together in the living room. Other days sucked me into a different vortex, an impending tornado. Any slight transgression, the first sign of imperfection, and the yelling began. I became smaller as she became louder. I was triflin, selfish, a waste of a daughter. Stupid. Dinner wasn’t ready when she got home from work- almost worse, it wasn’t what she wanted- and the emotional turmoil rocked me in different directions until I lost my appetite and would cry in my pillow. No noise. No one wants to hear all that.

Forever waiting for the pendulum to swing the other way, for things to switch. There was a ticking time bomb lodged somewhere between those walls, and it was up to me to assess the level of danger, calm her anger, and change something about myself (less pepper on the chicken, gravy’s too thick, I made too much noise, I wanted to go to after-school events but needed to get home) to maintain some semblance of happiness.

I was never good enough.

With everything that happened, the gaslighting made me believe that I was worthless, there was a bar and standard of perfection that I would never be able to reach. My emotions weren’t valid, they were me trying to shirk responsibilities and such behavior had no place here. With so many random provocations, there was no room for deviation from what she thought was right. There were poor boundaries and an unhealthy dose of co-dependency. I didn’t live up to expectations and my self-esteem suffered because of it.

This was all normal to me at the time, navigating her depression diagnosis on top of my then un-diagnosed mental health issues. I thought it was a good thing, how depression, medication weren’t swept under the rug and were openly known. And while I still think it’s important to talk about mental health in the Black community, there was still emotional abuse and minimizing of its effect.

One of the main things trauma did to me growing up was shape how I navigate the world and interpersonal relationships. Communication looked like not bringing up any issues I had and thinking I had to deal with it on my own. That the ‘problems’ stemmed from some imperfection of my own, and the simple solution was to change who I was.

It put child Nique on the defensive as I struggled to figure out some way to anticipate the chaos swirling around me. I was little, I didn’t understand what was going on. I took on the blame myself for the actions of my parents and the responsibility to fix them. To fix everyone around me. Going into adulthood, I had internalized it all and was primed to accept calamity in my adult relationships. Even when I would seek peace, it felt foreign and fake. It wasn’t until I started taking my own mental health seriously that I would begin to find peace within myself and how to define myself as something other than the sum of my parents.

Did you have to deal with the impact of mentally ill parents? What has your mental health journey been like? Holla at a homie

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