Shelley's Ten Commandments Print
Written by Shelley   
I am 41 years old, the child, the niece, the cousin, the grandchild, and the grand-niece of mentally ill loved ones. As my dad had prophetically told me when I was nine, I was going to learn many things "the hard way". So many of you who are writing in this forum are in your twenties, unable to trust that you will have a fulfilling life yourselves. I was there once, in the process of becoming seriously depressed myself, without knowing why, but I figured out what I needed.
1) If you have a chance to move out of the house, do it, ASAP. If you have a well parent that is living with your ill parent, they will understand. They're staying around so YOU have a shot at a decent life and break the circle of pain that accompanies the "family curse".

2) Do what you need to do to get well/stay well yourself. Learn what you need to do to sleep through an entire night, to stretch and relax your muscles when anxiety puts you in pain, to get the stress out of you through writing or art or music, to stop the pain with meditation and breathing exercises. Dance. Remember, you couldn't help your parent when you were young because you were not strong enough yourself. Strengthen yourself in every way you can: socially, financially, psychically so you CAN help without snuffing yourself out.

Sometimes You Have to be the Bad guy to be the Good Guy

3) Search and read what you can, and explore EVERY possibility as to what diagnosis fits your ill parent. The more you know, the better armed you are when you are in the position of dealing with your parent's doctors and medications. Remember doctors have NOT observed everything you have, especially if your parent has a history of putting on a public persona to appear "well". If you are dealing with a psychiatric emergency, and have to get a parent to the hospital, document as much as you can on paper BEFORE you call 911. Because after you make that call, and the nice policeman comes to buckle your parent into your car to drive them to the hospital, YOU may be the one that's pacing and upset, and your parent may be putting on the show of their lives for strangers. Also, beware of the "official" version of your family history: for years, I'd heard about what a monster my grandfather was for putting my grandmother in the hospital, where she was subjected to electroshock in the 1960s. After having to call the cops on Mom so I could get her in hospital, I am left wondering about what kind of monster I'm supposed to have become... Sometimes you have to be the bad guy to be the good guy.

4) Good spouses do exist. Marry them. Enjoy them. But don't load all the problems you grew up with on them. They won't tolerate it for very long at all.

Love people and

5) Give your kid the hugs you didn't get. Practice the consideration to your husband and kid you never got. Have the sleep overs, the birthday party with guests, the vacations you never had when you were growing up. Don't feel guilty about it. Buy yourself flowers.

6) F***k the secrecy of what's happened in your family. At my age, I am surrounded by coworkers dealing with their parents' dementia and Alzheimers', which is catching them blindsided. They'll understand where you're at when you have to take family leave to attend to your parent. For a while, I hung a Newsweek cover of Robin Williams as Patch Adams, pressing stethescope to forehead, in my cubicle at work. The cover story was, "Is Everybody Crazy?: The New Science of Brain Chemistry". And yes, my daughter knows Grandma isn't well, and the nature of her illness. She's unhappy that she's been deprived of a Grandma like her friends have, but she's not deprived of wonderful relationships with other adults.

7) If you have siblings, talk to each other and support each other any way you can. Talk to and support your siblings. You need to not only the support of siblings. Establish connections between you and relatives that have been alienated from your family during your parents illness. This includes not only your well relatives, but those who are ill, and those are in similar position of care-giving, They can provide you with an enormous amount of perspective! Lastly, if your il parent is still living on their own ,establish connections between you and their neighbours, because They will be your immediate support in an emergency.

8) Take pleasure in things you can get for yourself now that you couldn't as a child. I get so tickled every time I buy new underwear. I revel in the dance lessons I induge in once a week.

9) Love your ill parent, but DON'T ever let them make you choose between your spouse 'n kid and them. If this happens, your spouse 'n kid take priority, DESPITE the guilt you may feel. Maintain the boundaries you need to to stay well.

10) If you are accused of being callous and unfeeling (most of all, by yourself), talk to someone else - your friends, your clergyman, your counsellor, your shrink - and get a reality check. I have lost the ability to cry when loved ones (human or animal) die - I'm all cried out, I guess. But I do my best to show my love in other ways: I've been called upon three times last year to deliver formal eulogies, which I am honored to do.

Peace to all who have written to this site,

Shelley, who's been there.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.