by Rambling Rambler in Identity on 23rd May, 2022
Joe Wicks’ recent documentary, ‘Facing My Childhood’, has been praised for its bravery in tackling a taboo topic head on; the impact of parental mental health on children. It took me three attempts to complete the documentary because of how triggering it was to watch Joe come to terms with his childhood, a childhood which so closely mirrored mine. Hearing his reflections, his challenges and seeing his grief was all too familiar for adults like me who also grew up with a mentally ill parent.
I am so grateful to Joe for being so vulnerable and bringing this important conversation to the fore. As a community we must continue this conversation for the sake of the children currently growing up in these households.
Like Joe, for those of us who grew up with a primary caregiver with a mental health illness and appear to be ‘successful’ on the surface, it can be hard to come to terms with the conditions we grew up in or to be taken seriously by those we confide in. When I finally plucked up the courage at the age of 30 to talk about my childhood, I was frequently met with, “But look how well you turned out! Say Alhamdulillah!” Joe’s documentary, however, laid bare the hidden scars and wounds that many of us carry with us into adulthood, despite how ‘normal’ and ‘successful’ our lives may appear to be on the outside.
My mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was 9 years old and she was 30.
I remember it clearly. I was in year 4, transitioning to year 5. We’d had a turbulent few years of family life and the culmination was my mother’s complete mental breakdown.
At first she developed a sense of paranoia; a feeling that someone was out to harm her but she couldn’t quite put her finger on who. Then the voices started. She was plagued with a constant internal narrative in her head. Often the voices would be mean, foul-mouthed and belittling but occasionally they would be so funny that they’d make her laugh out loud in inappropriate situations. I became primed at reading my mother’s facial expressions from across the room. I’d know exactly the type of voice she was hearing from how contorted her face was, how furrowed her brow became or how she smirked sheepishly. Later, she entered the worst phase of her illness; violent and terrifying hallucinations. As her paranoia peaked, she taped up all the motion sensors in our house, convinced someone was tracking her through them. She would cover her face with a scarf whilst listening to the radio – convinced that the hosts could see her. She would travel around local shops, with 9 year old me in tow, and beg the owners to explain to her what they knew about the ensuing ‘plot’ against her. The culmination of these episodes was of course suicidal ideations, her desire to end all the misery, which she openly shared with me as I tried my best to beg her not to follow through.
My father buried himself in his work, all but absent from our family home. My brother’s coping mechanism became going to his room, closing the door and gaming. He became a social recluse, preferring to be alone than developing healthy relationships with his peers.
I, on the other hand, the dutiful daughter, saw it as my personal responsibility to step up and become a parent to my own parent at the tender age of 10. My mother slept next to me in bed, during the nights when she was particularly frightened by her hallucinations, while I recited the Quls in desperate hope of the words of Allah calming her down. Outside of the home, I worked carefully on curating a façade. I was social, popular, fun loving, and I guarded the dark secret of my schizophrenic mother with my life. Seeking the approval of my peers was paramount for me, since my homelife was so chaotic. I was convinced that if my peers found out I’d be rejected by them, and my mother would be mocked and ridiculed by the community. And so it remained a secret until my 30s.
My own entry into motherhood at 28 was a turning point. As my daughter approached 1 year old, despite our close and affectionate relationship, I had a general feeling of grief and depression that would not abate. I truly felt like I was at a mental rock bottom. I decided it was time to seek professional help. It was the first time in my life that I had spoken to anybody about my childhood. My therapist was indispensable in helping me to connect the dots between my childhood experiences and how they were having an influence on my life as a mother.
For example, by trying so hard to meet my child’s physical and emotional needs and provide a secure attachment for her, I was subconsciously realising (and grieving) everything I had lost out on during my own childhood.
If you asked me 10 years ago about my childhood, I would have told you it was normal – which sounds rather strange considering the reality I experienced. But for me, my mother’s mental health illness and the consequences of it were a norm and I developed coping strategies accordingly. That first therapy session was the first step in realising my childhood was not normal and I had a lot of emotional unpacking and healing to do. Without the guidance of my therapist I would never have been able to arrive at these realisations and may not have started my healing journey.
In his documentary, Joe mentions having no recollection of a major childhood event; when his mother went to rehab for 6 months. This is not uncommon in children experiencing trauma like a parent with a severe mental health illness. I personally have huge blanks in my childhood memory banks, months and sometimes years where I can’t recall more than a single event. This is a protective mechanism bestowed on our young minds by Allah, our mind will often simply ‘delete’ memories that are traumatic or unhelpful to us in a bid for self-preservation. As a child, your body’s primary concern is survival and so it develops strategies to help you survive – which often continue on into adulthood. The emotional scars, however, remain.
Many adults who grew up in a home with a mentally ill parent develop a distorted sense of self. Our self worth is always linked to how much we can be of use to other people. Often we grow up to be extreme people pleasers and we abandon our needs to fulfil the needs of others, suffering frequently from burnout. If we’re not needed, we’ll often leave and go somewhere where we are. We enter professions where we can feel useful and needed such as healthcare, or go above and beyond in the workplace, making ourselves the integral cog of the company – again often leading to burnout.
We struggle to focus, some of us developing ADHD behaviours. We develop addictions; addiction to drugs to numb the pain, addiction to work to feel ‘useful’, or addiction to relationships to feel loved and wanted. All of these addictions serve to mend a hole in our childhood self caused by a parent who couldn’t nurture us due to their own mental health issues.
At one point in the documentary, Joe talks about feeling responsible for responding to the mammoth amount of messages from people struggling with their mental health, almost feeling personally responsible for their mental anguish. This is a trauma response many of us have, being unable to ‘save’ our parent means we feel an overwhelming sense of despair when we can’t ‘save’ someone in adulthood. It’s an exhausting burden.
Continuing the conversation
If you know a child growing up with a mentally unwell parent:
1. Be a support system
Children who grow up in homes with mentally unwell parents often develop a sense of shame around their parent’s illness, particularly due to social stigmas surrounding mental health. For this reason they are unlikely to mention their struggles or reach out to anyone for support. As a result they often feel abandoned by the adults around them, which can cause trust issues and resentment. If you are a trusted adult for the child, be proactive. Raise the topic of the parent’s mental illness, ask the child if they have any questions about it or how they are feeling and remind them that you are here to support them.
2. Preventing parentification
Parentification is when the role between the parent and child is reversed. Instead of the parent being responsible for the physical and emotional needs of the child, the child becomes responsible for the parents’. Parentified children often feel like they lost their childhood and may develop their own mental health issues in adulthood like depression, anxiety and OCD.
It’s important to make clear to the child that they are not responsible for ‘fixing’ their parent and to remind them of all the adults around them working to support their parent and meet their needs. Knowing that someone is looking after their parent gives the child permission to be a child and not feel overly responsible. Thus hopefully mitigating the negative consequences of parentification in their adult lives.
3. Talk about the mental health condition
Be transparent with the child about the condition and how it presents in their parent. Ensure that the child understands that their parent’s mental health is not their fault and that any mood changes on the part of the parent are not related to the child but a feature of their illness. Parental mental illness can be terrifying for children especially if it presents alongside psychosis or rage. Provide reassurance for the child and remind them that you are a place of safety and refuge.
If you’re an adult who grew up with a mentally unwell parent:
It’s important for adults who grew up with a parent with mental health issues to begin to develop self awareness and become curious about how it may have affected them as a child and in their adult lives. It’s easy to bury our heads in the sand and not think about painful childhood experiences. But by doing this we also bury painful emotions – which will show up in other unhelpful ways in adulthood such as in our relationships.
Next time you’re feeling ‘triggered’, stop and think about what might be the root cause of the trigger. For example, being unable to tolerate raised voices could be a trigger from growing up in a home where a parent would frequently become enraged. Or feeling triggered by the duties of motherhood could be because you were not nurtured by your own mentally unwell mother, so you don’t have a healthy capacity to nurture your own child.
The first step of healing is reminding yourself that you are now safe. You are no longer a vulnerable child and you are capable of meeting your own physical and emotional needs. Give yourself permission to have needs and then try your best to meet them. This can feel uncomfortable, even selfish, for adults who have always put others before themselves, but it’s an essential part of your healing.
As you develop more self awareness, you may need help with processing and healing from your childhood. For this, I would recommend a qualified somatic therapist who can guide you through the process. While it is possible to heal from childhood trauma and shed the behaviours and beliefs that no longer serve you in adulthood without a therapist, using the plethora of information on the internet, it would be a much slower process. A therapist can help you develop a deeper understanding of yourself and connect dots in ways that you may otherwise be unable to.
Joe Wicks’ documentary was an excellent starting point for this conversation. Let’s maintain the momentum and keep the conversation going. Were you a child of a mentally unwell parent? If so, I encourage you to break the stigma and open up to those around you about this important topic. Mental illness is more common than we are led to believe, let’s open up for the sake of the next generation.
Manchester based healthcare professional and mother of one with a keen interest in the intersection of trauma healing, attachment theory and conscious parenting. Outdoor enthusiast.