If I’d only known then, what I know now…famous last words, right? And yet, so true in so many cases. But would I have done anything differently? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’m a firm believer that all of my experiences have helped shape who I am today, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I do believe knowledge is power and that my feelings towards my Mom would have been so different growing up if I was coming to the table with knowledge and understanding. Truthfully, it took until my adult years to come from a place of love and understanding towards what I thought were quirks and personality traits for my Mom. Unfortunately, her mental health difficulties went undiagnosed and untreated for our entire childhood lives. As such, my Mom treated her symptoms with various addictions; to cope, to survive, to try and mask all of what was happening for her on the inside. And yet the outside world only saw the resulting behaviours and lifestyle, which were often problematic. My mom started her young childhood off with horrific sexual abuse and was raised in a culture where that abuse was not to be spoken of, acknowledged, or efforts made to cease it. This set her on a trajectory for a difficult path to determine good vs evil, coping vs masking, and avoiding vs healing. That’s a long and lonely journey, one I would not wish on anyone.
We were taught by Mom to live our lives with a big brave face as we left the house each day. What happened at our house, stayed at our house. You didn’t talk about it. You didn’t compare. You didn’t question. You just got through it. I recall the instability and chaos that mental health and addictions brought to our lives, the lives of four young girls being raised by a single mother with significant difficulties. We just always seemed to be chasing something. Chasing the next job, chasing the next apartment rental, chasing the next partner of choice….when in reality, it is with hindsight I can see that what Mom was chasing was a sense of peace and tranquility. She often lived in the moment without much foresight to what lay ahead- late night parties she would spontaneously host while us three girls tried to sleep, the empty house we would wake up to when mom would leave at bedtimes to spend nights gambling at the Casino, routinely getting to the checkout at the grocery store and having to put items back because we hadn’t prioritized grocery money, random individuals staying at our place because they were down on their luck and Mom felt the need to ‘save the world’, repeated incidents of domestic violence and poor choices in partners, the group contagion Mom would create in our household towards her enemies and the expectations that we align ourselves with who she decided was an enemy or ally based on the day. These are but a few examples of how mental health manifested itself for a single parent just trying to keep her head above water. We spent so much of our lives with Mom wrapped up in her manic episodes that far outweighed the lows when she would ‘hibernate’ as I call it, not answering the door, not answering the phone, not wanting any interaction with anyone.
Again I circle back to the fact that I always knew things were a bit different in our household than in others. But did I attribute that to mental health growing up? No. I had no knowledge. We didn’t talk about that stuff at home. We didn’t talk about that stuff much at school even. It wasn’t in the media like it is these days. I just didn’t have the information to understand where the erratic lifestyle choices came from. I just knew as a teenager that I needed out. I needed to get away from the chaos, I needed to feel like I could have some control of my life. I spent the first part of my final high school year staying at my boyfriend’s because of a falling out with my mom. I judged my Mom harshly for actions and behaviours that I felt she had control over, when in reality she did not. I built resentment towards my Mom for not prioritizing her children over substances and partners. I remember seeing my sisters leave one by one as they aged and launched and wondering what life would be like for all of us. My Mom loved us, that was never in question. But her ability to prioritize our needs over hers was not always at the forefront. How we avoided child protective services will always remain a mystery to me. Perhaps it was the 22 times I can remember moving between kindergarten and Grade 12, perhaps it was because the Universe had another plan for us.
When I look back and count my blessings, I hold my sisters near and dear to my heart. We mightn’t have had it easy, but we had each other. We mightn’t have realized that childhood shouldn’t feel/be like this, but it was all we knew. And we mighn’t have had the stable upbringing that many of our peers did, but we grew up to be hopeful, resilient and aware individuals. It took until our adult years to essentially stage an intervention-like approach to get my mom the help she so desperately needed. A combination of the proper diagnoses and the appropriate treatment plan were the two most meaningful gifts my mother ever received in her life. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a ‘happily ever after’ ending where everything was tickety-boo afterwards. It doesn’t work like that. Bipolar doesn’t work like that. There continued to be highs and lows, ebbs and flows and fluidity. But the solid treatment plan allowed my mom to finally feel a sense of peace from the inside out, and allowed her to navigate the last years of her life with a genuine smile on her face, instead of the fake brave facade that had been in place for so long when facing the world. The last years were not without effort and great energies to manage herself, but she did it. She finally found the confidence to put effort and energy into herself and her overall wellbeing. The result was her ability to play a significant role in the lives of her grandchildren. A role that might otherwise have been disconnected, if the substance abuse and self-medicating phases had continued.
What would have helped me back then? Outside of external forces to add stability and structure to our lives which would have been a welcome reprieve from the chaos of what we knew, I think that a forum to become better informed and to gain insight into how to thrive would have helped. I am encouraged by how much more we talk about mental health now, in the school systems and in Society at large. We are working hard to end the stigma associated with a mental health diagnosis, and this is so important so that people feel comfortable seeking out the right services and supports that can enhance their quality of life in immeasurable ways. My wish for every child being raised with a parent who experiences mental health difficulties is that they have an avenue to share their thoughts and feelings, that they are reminded of their worth, and that they can feel a sense of community that they are not alone in the journey.
What helps me now? Knowledge. Understanding. Compassion. It took going into a Human Services field, increasing my knowledge base about mental health, and finding a way to come to peace with the cards I was dealt. It is easy to build resentment, to judge, to be angry. The harder choice for me was to choose a life of joy. To shift the Kaleidoscope in viewing my Mom and see her through the lens of someone who was very sick for a very long time. I celebrate her journey with mental health and to find the right treatment plan to help her feel well. I cherish the memories she made with me in my adult years and the closeness we shared in her final years; when she was truly present in those moments and not wrapped up in her unhealthy habits. And I appreciate the person she was, the hard battle she fought from a very young age, and how she did the best she could on any given with the tools she had available. Although not ever able to sit down and apologize for the effect of her choices on our lives, her tenacity and efforts towards committing to lead a life of wellness was better than any empty apology could have been.