A Baffled Look

The straight dope on mental health

Month: May, 2013


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.


Word Salad World

I started another blog called “Word Salad World” about Pathways Drop-In Center in Orlando, Florida where I used to work. Pathways is a drop-in center that serves the mentally ill, most of whom are on Social Security and about half of whom are homeless. Pathways offers its members a wide array of services including a meal, computers with internet access, an address if they are homeless, showers, a washer and dryer, TV, a phone and a pool table. Pathways also has a half dozen apartments for a lucky few of its members. I named the blog “Word Salad World” because a word salad is speech in which words that are unrelated are strung together in a sentence. It’s incomprehensible speech that sometimes occurs as a symptom of a psychotic disorder. My original intention for this blog was to empower the members of Pathways to tell their stories in their own words and artwork about what their lives are like.
I got involved with Pathways as a board member while I was pursuing my BA. When I graduated I took a job there as a general manager and worked there for two years. I have bipolar disorder so I have some idea about what its members go through on a day to day basis. I want to give them a voice with this blog and educate people about what it’s really like to be mentally ill and desperately poor.
I’ve started a weekly art workshop at Pathways where members can use a variety of art mediums to express themselves. I started doing this last week. I originally wanted to feature writings and artwork from members about what their lives are like, but after being away from Pathways for seven years few members know me and they are wary. I don’t blame them. Who am I, some stranger asking them to bare deeply personal accounts a few minutes after meeting them? It’s going to take time building their trust, but I’ve discovered that the participants don’t feel comfortable writing. They would rather color, draw or make collages than put a description of their lives onto a piece of paper. So I’ll chronicle what happens each week and post their artwork.
I use pseudonyms and omit identifying information from their stories in order to protect their privacy. I hope this blog will raise awareness of people who are often shunned and silenced.

You don’t know what you’re talking about

This week I’ve had two people suggest that a spiritual approach like meditation and mindfulness will cure me of my need for psychiatric medication. I practice meditation every day. I go to yoga classes when I can and they have reduced my anxiety. Both of these people have PTSD and I know that they only meant to help and these practices do help people with PTSD and other anxiety disorders, but my bipolar disorder is a whole different animal. I’ve tried to go without medication several times in my life and tried a holistic approach and each time it landed me in the hospital.
This idea that if I only tried harder this “spiritual” approach would work, which means it’s my fault that I’m not cured. I have had a spiritual awakening through my love for my husband. It helps, but it didn’t cure me. I’ve heard this argument a lot of times – in 12 step meetings, discussion boards, from proselytizers, and from people who smoke pot. They’re all clueless. And I’m not defending the abysmal history of psychiatry or the greedy, exploitative drug companies. Everyone has their own path and right now my mood stabilizer works for me. Just because it works for me doesn’t mean I believe it works for others and I would like others to treat me with the respect I show towards them and their own choices. Everyone is different and I’m tired of these over generalized judgments towards my choice of seeking psychiatric treatment. I just don’t understand why these people judge others who make different choices than they do. It’s disrespectful and it’s not going to make me more open to their approach if I’m being judged harshly for my choice to take a mood stabilizer. It works for me most of the time so why not leave me alone and show me some respect? I’m not really angry. They seem genuinely sincere and are only trying to help. And my psychiatrist has suggested several times that I meditate and practice yoga and cut down on my consumption of caffeine so I can have less anxiety and cope better. So not all shrinks are pill pushers.
It increases stigma to suggest that I should replace medication with some sort of “spiritual” approach. Am I supposed to not take antibiotics when I have a lung infection? I’m tired of it and have had enough. Sure some therapies change your brain – particularly cognitive behavioral therapy. But being told that some kind of “spiritual” approach will cure my bipolar disorder suggests that my illness is my fault.
Everyone is different and this one size fits all attitude towards mental illness is both misguided and dangerous. I had a friend who bought into this bullshit of not taking medication and he ended up killing himself. The last time I saw him at my bipolar support group he told me of his disdain for the other members who took medication. I told him to mind his own fucking business. That’s the last thing I said to him. I should’ve asked him to explain his position and not judge him as he was judging everyone else at the meeting, but I became defensive and missed that opportunity and I have to live with that the rest of my life. I don’t know if medication would’ve helped, but it may have spared him his life.