I have recently seen several posts/articles making their way across Facebook with titles like “My Heroin Addict.” These posts serve an important function as they put a face on the struggles of those suffering from mental illness and/or addiction and they need to be seen by as many people as possible to promote a broader cultural understanding of these diseases. With a wider awareness there can be more support for the patients, as well as their friends and families.
So, why do these posts make my stomach knot, tears come to my eyes, my heart break a bit, and my teeth start to go on edge?
The answer, like much in life, is complicated.
Between the two of us, my partner and I have several family members who have mental illness and addiction issues. It makes it excruciating to read comments like, “it affected my relationship with my other children” in context of a parent trying to help their child with addiction issues, because you so strongly identify with the “other children.”
You know what it’s like to be “the others.” It means you know your parents love you but will have to drop everything if something comes up with your addicted sibling. You desperately want your children to enjoy your parents as fun grandparents, and your parents try, but they are financially, emotionally, and physically stressed and beaten down by dealing with your sibling’s issues.
You watch your friends go away for kid-free getaways while their parents watch their children, knowing that might not be possible for you, even if your parents offer, because you never know what is going to happen next with your sibling. It means having very hard conversations with family about bottom lines and limits. You cry. They do too. It is awful.
You struggle to come up with a semi-truthful answer when people who aren’t in the know ask you what is new with your sibling because statements like “Well, we’re currently estranged, and at the moment they are at in-patient treatment for detox and to hopefully address the mental illness component of everything. I sure hope it works better than the last several times!” brings conversations to a very rapid, awkward close.
It means mourning and missing a sibling who is still living. In some cases, you feel like the sibling you loved is just as gone as if they had died, and you’re left with a monster in their place. You don’t think you have it in you to hope for the best any more as your heart has broken, both for yourself and for your parents, one too many times.
In spite of that, there is still that little voice in your head saying, “Well, maybe it will work this time.” It’s deciding you have to cut that sibling out of your life for your sanity and the health of your family, especially your young children. Then you have to explain that decision to your children and defend it to other family members.
Worst of all, in your darkest moments, it means wishing the call that it’s all over — that the worst has finally happened — will come. At least that would mean an end to the uncertainty, and freedom from the fear of that call. Then you beat yourself up as a parent, child, and human being. How could you ever wish that on any parent, especially your own, who you love so much?
In our situation, one of our parents also struggles with mental illness and addiction. That raises a whole new set of issues that have to be unpacked. It means supporting your partner through conversations no child should have to have with a parent, regardless of their age.
Sometimes you have to support your partner when they decide it is time to cut that individual out of your lives for the sake of your family’s mental health and safety. It means you have books about addiction and mental illness in your Amazon cart in case you have to explain all of this to your sweet babies who can’t even read yet.
Speaking of those babies, you know that sometimes they know something is wrong, but they don’t know what. In those cases, you wind up lying to them about why they cannot see their grandparent because the truth is a burden you just aren’t ready to put on their tiny shoulders.
You also want to give them a chance to develop a relationship with that grandparent without all the background crap and all of the time, there is that little voice in your head, “Maybe it will get better… maybe this time…” You hope, in moments of magical thinking, maybe if you shield them long enough, this will all go away, and that parent will finally show up as the wonderful grandparent your children deserve.
All of this goes on while we “others” are going about all of the other aspects of normal life. We are going about our jobs, adulting, and enjoying our families. We’re not walking around in perpetual misery, we have good times, we love our partners and our children. We have all of the highlights of a normal life, we even may appreciate these a little more because we never know when the next call is going to come and the dark cloud is going to descend again. We probably watch our children a little more vigilantly, always on alert for any signs that there is a genetic component to any of this.
We discuss it with the pediatrician anxiously at the first sign of anything that might indicate that we’re going to be traveling this hard road yet again in the worst way possible. Hopefully, we work with a compassionate pediatrician who is either able to reassure us sometimes a tantrum is just tantrum, or direct us to the resources we need.
There are no perfect answers. I guess the best advice I can give right now, as someone who’s in the thick of it, is when you hear about someone who’s going through addiction and/or mental health issues, spare a thought for the “others.” I agree with all that has been said before by many more knowledgeable eloquent voices about recognizing the disease and showing compassion. Just remember there are people on the sidelines who are also in need and deserving of that compassion, though it might not be as readily apparent.
It can be as simple as listening to a friend who’s grieving a sibling who is still living but not able to be a part of his or her life. When you realize you almost never hear about your friend and his/her partner getting time away from their kids even though there are grandparents and other family members who should be theoretically available, if you are able, maybe offer them a chance to get out.
Or, when you read a post, just spare a thought and send good vibes to these “others” who, though not as visible, are just as much victims of these diseases. To often, they get lost in the shuffle.