Sons of Madness

Sons of Madness book cover

Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent

Considering the huge numbers of people who have a mental illness, their suffering and lost potential, and the tremendous cost to society, it’s high time we made mental illness a priority. Instead, it continues to be a topic we avoid. Our mental health services are shamefully and sorely lacking. Those who suffer from mental illness are not being served, nor are their families.

I’ve written about this topic before at Books Can Save a Life when I’ve featured books about families with mental illness, particularly the plight of children and adult children with mentally ill parents. (See Children of Mental Illness Part I, Children of Mental Illness Part 2, Encountering the Dark Matter of Mental Illness, and Do Genes Affect Our Mental Health?) I grew up with a mother who had schizophrenia and, as I’ve conducted research for a memoir about our family’s experiences, I’m sad to say many aspects of the mental health system are no better than they were decades ago, and mental illness carries as much stigma today as it did in the 1960s.

Today, I’d like to highlight the newly published Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent, by Susan Nathiel, PhD, LMFT. It’s a companion volume to her first book, Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Mother. Susan (whose mother had schizophrenia) has collected here interviews with twelve men whose mother or father suffered from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, or another serious mental illness.

These are deeply disturbing stories of men who in many cases have never talked about their families or their childhood and teen years. They were too ashamed and traumatized to reveal their family secrets, and they’ve never been asked. Consider these chapter titles: “Nobody cared until my family was destroyed,” “My mother’s lobotomy saved my life,” “If you leave the house, you’ll be murdered,” “Our family code: Protect Dad at all costs,” “I called them nightly shows – all violence,” and “I should have been able to save her.”  While it’s never easy having a mentally ill parent, boys and men are especially challenged by the cultural expectation that they not show their emotions.

Some of these men have healed, some have not, and all are scarred. I want to point out that most people with mental illness are not violent, but their families, including their children, must contend with a high degree of dysfunction that can be continual, extremely frightening, and traumatizing. It’s painful to read the words of these men, but what impressed me especially was their profound isolation as children. In many cases, it was impossible to get the mentally ill parent anywhere near a psychiatrist or treatment facility. Saddest of all is that extended family members and sometimes the healthy parent turned a blind eye to the needs of the children. No one helped them, and no one seemed to care.

I can’t fathom how children this neglected, with no support systems, encouragement, or empathy, can grow up to be healthy, trusting, fulfilled, and able to contribute their unique talents and gifts to society. Many do. But consider all the lost potential. I also wondered, as I read the interviews, where child abuse and addiction end and mental illness begins – my point being that I believe many children grow up contending, alone, with parents whose dysfunctions can cause lifelong damage and persist across generations, whether or not the parents are ever formally diagnosed with an identifiable mental illness.

There’s been some criticism of the many memoirs of family dysfunction that have been published in the last few decades, and accusations of whining and naval gazing. This only increases shame and makes those who’ve been affected hesitate to bring their experiences into the light of day, where solutions can be found and those who need it given relief and support.

We need to pay more attention to our children and the invisible traumas they may be contending with.

In his New York Time’s column today, Nicholas Kristof has identified mental illness as an issue that needs more attention. I hope you’ll add your thoughts about mental illness and families here in the comments or on Kristof’s blog, On the Ground.  You can also visit his Facebook page and leave a comment. I welcome comments about this on my Facebook page as well.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Ian Maclaren, Scottish author and theologian

Books Can Save a Life: most viewed posts in 2013

Snow-covered trees

Attractions in 2013

These are the Books Can Save a Life posts that got the most views in 2013.

I was gratified to see three of my most popular posts are about having a family member who suffers from mental illness. Early in the new year I’ll be writing about Susan Nathiel’s new book, Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent. There is still very little written about the experience of having a mother or father with a mental illness; Susan’s book is an important contribution.

Joyce Maynard, Elizabeth Gilbert, George Saunders coming up

Been away for a bit while designer Nicole Bateman of The Pixel Boutique gives Books Can Save a Life a fresh, new look. (Thank you, Nicole!) But I’ve been reading, as always, and here’s what’s coming up:

After Her book coverAfter HerJoyce Maynard’s latest novel. Joyce has written several novels as well as the memoir, At Home in the World. After Her is loosely based on the true story of a serial killer who terrorized Northern California in the late 1970s.

Tenth of December – I don’t usually read short stories, but I’d heard so many wonderful things about George Saunders I had to pick up a copy of his latest collection when I saw it on our public library’s “Most Wanted” shelf. Besides, he teaches a stone’s throw away at Syracuse University – he’s someone I should know about.

Sons of MadnessI’ve written about Susan Nathiel’s excellent Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Mother, a collection of interviews with adult women. Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Parent is a companion volume.

The Art of the Commonplace – I’ve always wanted to know what Wendell Berry is all about, so I’m reading his collection of agrarian essays.

Catching Fire, the second book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has been made into a movie and will be released November 22. I wrote about the first movie and book here, so I just have to check out the next installment.

The Signature of All Things book coverAnd last but not least, I can’t wait to dip into Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. Beautiful book jacket and end papers. The epigraph: “What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.”  Lord Perceval

I’ll be back with a closer look at all of these.

Children of mental illness, part 2

“…so we just took her home to wait for a bed in the good hospital, which was going to take a few days, according to him [the psychiatrist]. He said to keep a watch on her, remove all the knives, put sheets over the mirrors so she can’t see herself, because that would set her off. And of course, make sure she doesn’t kill herself, or anybody else.”  June, from Daughters of Madness, when she and her sister (ages 13 and 15) sought treatment for their mother in the 1980s.

Daughters of Madness book coverI’ve been reading Growing Up With a Schizophrenic Mother by Margaret J. Brown and Doris Parker Roberts, and Daughters of Madness by Susan Nathiel. After my last post, Children of Mental Illness, I was thrilled to hear from author Susan Nathiel. Susan tells me she will publish Sons of Madness this August.  There are fewer interviews in her forthcoming book than in Daughters of Madness because male volunteers were harder to find. Susan says, however, that the interviews included in her new book are excellent.  I’m glad to hear about this new publication, because there still isn’t a lot written about the experience of growing up with a seriously mentally ill parent.

When I was coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, I thought I was the only daughter in the world who had a mother with schizophrenia. Many of the individuals interviewed in these books are baby boomers like me. Some of us had encounters with mental health professionals who were compassionate and helpful, but more often they were uninterested in helping children and teens with a mentally ill parent, unaware of their needs, or not permitted to help by the mentally ill parent or another adult family member.

Back then, there was no NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). There were no support groups for families of the mentally ill, little in the way of books or educational materials about mental illness, and no Internet where you could plug in a keyword such as “schizophrenia” and retrieve information. Sometimes, I think that dearth of information and the fact that mental illness was kept secret by all concerned were the reasons I went into communications and later medical librarianship. I wanted a voice that could be heard, and I wanted to give people the vital health information they needed and deserved.

Thankfully, things have changed, though I don’t think they’ve changed enough. There are excellent mental health family services at the medical center where I work, and we librarians at the medical library often give information and educational materials to patients. One of our librarians specializes in providing mental health information to patients and families. But mental health care in our country still needs fixing; unfortunately, too many patients and families don’t get the services they need.

When I was a teenager, it didn’t occur to my mother’s mental health care providers that I might need to know her diagnosis. Now, when I give a patient or a family member health information, I feel I’m doing a little bit to validate their experiences and make their lives better. But I’m also making up for what I never got until quite late in the game. I’m saying to patients and their families: You matter. You need to know. You deserve the best information we can give you.

Book Giveaway

In celebration of my first anniversary as a blogger, I’m giving away a book to one lucky person who leaves a comment on any of my posts here at Books Can Save a Life in February. There are still a few days left to join the conversation and add your name to the drawing, so please do!

Quote from: Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Mother, Susan Nathiel. Praeger, Westport, Connecticut: 2007.

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