In Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Choke, the main character, Victor, goes to high end restaurants and pretends to choke on his food because he wants the care and concern he didn’t get as a child from his mentally ill mother. He claims he does it because the people who save him keep in touch and send him money so he can pay for his mother’s care in a nursing home for people with dementia and/or mental illness. So he goes through his whole life taking care of his mother, who didn’t have custody of him while he grew up because of the legal problems his mother had as a result of her illness. Victor’s mother finds him throughout his childhood in foster care and covertly arranges for them to meet. She expects him to believe her ideas of reference, which in her case are delusions that every time she hears an announcement over an intercom in stores or airports they are specifically communicating to her. Victor becomes a sex addict because he didn’t learn to have normal relationships growing up because his mother insisted on keeping their interactions with each other a secret. Victor misses out on developing trusting relationships. It increases the shame he already feels about his mother. His sex addiction is a secretive activity just like meetings with his mother were when he was a child. He tries to find out more about his mother’s past in the diary she kept before he was born, but it’s written in Italian so he can’t read it. According to a National Institute of Health article children who grow up with a mentally ill parent search for an explanation for their parent’s behavior. Victor grew up anxious and confused because he couldn’t categorize or comprehend his mother’s problems. His clandestine meetings with his mother made it difficult for him to communicate with others because he had the impression that he wasn’t allowed to discuss his mother’s problems with anyone. He was afraid betraying his mother if he spoke to persons outside his family about her illness. Since he grew up with no one to talk to about his mother he was abandoned to himself.
An organization created to help adult children of a mentally ill parent, Band Back Together, reveals that people like Victor are an example of the isolation and failure to develop healthy relationships that linger in adulthood.
On the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ website, there are ways to mitigate the damage of growing up with a mentally ill parent. In real life, there are suggestions to help people like Victor. I hope these suggestions help those of you who grew up with this predicament.
It’s not your fault.
Mental illness affects the whole family.
If you feel resentment towards your parent, you are giving too much.
In spite of your best efforts the illness may worsen.
Delusions have nothing to do with you and do not require discussion.
Acceptance is helpful, but not necessary.
Try to separate your parent from their illness.
You have needs too and neglect is not ok.
You may have to reassess your expectations.
It’s ok to grieve about what you never had.
You may need professional help learning about setting appropriate boundaries with others.
Don’t take the manifestations of the illness personally.
The needs of your ill parent don’t always come first.
If you don’t take care of yourself first, then you can’t take care of others.