Written by Jennifer St John

“Kindness is doing what you can, where you are, with what you have.” Raktivist

This one is a doozey for me.  And I’m sure I’m not alone here.  We all know that kindness is a basic virtue, and I believe we’re mostly born kind.  But then life happens and that whole ‘nature versus nuture’ thing kicks in, and presto – I’m thirty plus years old trying to heal from being raised by a parent with addictions and mental health issues, and on the other side of this coin is my Mom, a fifty-plus Grandmother still buried in addictions and unhealthy coping mechanisms stemming from untreated mental illness. 

My side of this kindness coin felt heavy.  I felt cheated of a solid foundation, a stable upbringing and any real connection with her.  I felt like the addiction and mental health issues always won – my sisters and I would ask her to recognize this to no avail, only to be left sobbing from verbal insults spewing from her enraged state.  Many days I was just in survival mode, and as soon as I had a chance to leave when I was finished high school, I ran.  My bucket was beyond empty, the end of my rope had come and gone many years ago and I was done.  I was angry; I was hurt; I was trying to move into adulthood as best as I could given the circumstances I had dealt with as a child.  

My Mom’s side of this coin was heavy too.  As a mostly single parent, with no post-secondary education and four children in tow, she woke up each day trying to cope with the weight of her emotional, mental and physical reality, all while riding constant states of manic highs and lows that addiction blurred away for her.  But I was only a child and didn’t understand everything that was going on for her internally.  I only saw and felt what was in front of me, what I was experiencing every day.  There were so many sides to her, ranging from loving and kind to mean and hurtful, and I never knew what I was waking up to each day.  What version of Mom am I going to get today?

It took many years as an adult to process the weight of having a parent with addictions and mental health.  Decades in fact.  And this saying kept haunting me: “Kindness is doing what you can, where you are, with what you have.” I felt like I was being told ‘to get over it’.  My Mom’s addictions and mental health had an indelible and traumatic impact on my life, but she ‘was doing the best she could’, right?  But how could I just let all the painful, hurtful actions be forgotten because she was struggling and doing ‘her best’?  Especially if ‘her best’ wasn’t good enough.  And actually, caused more harm than good.

This didn’t sit well with me, so I kept reading and digging and searching for something to resonate.  Over the years, I processed what was in my head and heart, and eventually, new thoughts started to form.

Once I learned more about addictions and mental illness, slowly, I was able to separate her behaviours from her as a person.  This only came from knowledge and understanding about addictions and mental illness, specifically Bipolar Disorder. And once she found a treatment plan that worked and she committed herself to healing, all that love and kindness she had always had for us and for herself were there. 

For me, once I was able to deflate the anger and the pain, kindness did come to the forefront.  And it led to understanding.  With knowledge and empathy, came forgiveness.  And with forgiveness, there was a healthy relationship and an abundance of love. 

NOTE:  All excerpts from 'Be Kind, Love Hard, Make Memories: A Mini Memoir Meets Guided Journal', Curated by Jennifer St John