Since I appeared on The Ricki Lake Show: Inside Childhood Mental Illness last Wednesday I have heard from dozens of parents. Most say some variation of “Thank you for sharing your story. It makes me feel less alone.” Some are pleas for help finding appropriate services (How painful, not to have an answer, but I am just a mom with a blog, not an agency.), and quite a few say something like, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but……” followed by an outpouring of fear, anger, rage, hate, despondency, terror, helplessness, hopelessness, and regret.
I have tried to answer every one, but I got a little lost somewhere among Facebook, Twitter, blog comments, and email, not to mention the comments on the show’s website, FB page, and Twitter feeds, but I’m answering all the people who write, think, and say, “I shouldn’t feel this way!” with the following commandment:
Give yourself a break.
There is no way that any of us should or should not feel. We get enough judgmental crap from family, friends, and that guy in line at the post office. We don’t need to do it to ourselves. Let’s start with some truth: having a child with a serious illness sucks. It sucks giant, hairy, unwashed monkey ass. Yes, there are blessings. Yes, some of the consequences are lovely.
We will see the blessings and the loveliness when we are good and ready and not one instant sooner. Do you know to whom we owe a sunshiny, rosy view of things?
Not one person, anywhere, ever.
Here’s the thing: the first step to learning to live with all those painful feelings is to stop condemning ourselves for having them.
Feelings are not like actions. Our actions are up for debate. If I punch someone in the nose, or drop my drawers in the middle of a restaurant, or drive my car too fast, or starve my kids, people (perhaps represented by law enforcement) have every right to say hey, cut it out! That’s not OK. We don’t accept your behavior.
Feelings, though, belong to the feeler, and they are never good or bad, right or wrong. Some of them are wonderful to experience and some of them are like being ground to bits, but they are morally neutral.
When Carter was a baby, I was consumed with guilt over the fact that I had enjoyed my other babies so much more. I believed that I loved my other children more than I loved Carter. Dozens of people have written to me in the past few days expressing similar anguish over loving other children more than their ill children, or not loving their ill children as much as they believe they should. We wring our hands and ask over and over, “Do I love him/her enough? How can I love one more than the other? Am I not supposed to love my child unconditionally? I must love this one as much/enough/more! I must! I am a failure as a parent and a human!”
Could someone please show me the cosmic measuring stick of love?
There is no love measurement. Remember where we started: having a child with a serious illness sucks. Here’s another truth: having a child with a serious illness that causes that child to act mean/vicious/violent/cruel/aggressive, or prevents us from taking care of our own basic needs (sleep, cleanliness, food, exercise, socialization) sucks ultra-triple-super-extreme.
Another truth: when someone is being mean/vicious/violent/cruel/aggressive to one or more of our children, we will have a protective reaction, even if the person being mean/vicious/violent/cruel/aggressive is another of our own children. That makes those feelings of love and kindness really difficult, if not temporarily impossible.
When we are restraining children who hiss and spit and bite like angry cats, and our hearts are thundering like trains and we ball up our fists and press them tight so we do not punch and we clench our teeth so that we do not bite, that is love. It doesn’t feel like love. It feels like raging helplessness. Nevertheless, that’s love (with teeth), and it’s the same love we feel when we enjoy ice cream sundaes with smiling children who tell adorably bad jokes.
Love is only sometimes about warm, happy feelings. Every parent learns this lesson eventually (by puberty at the latest), but we must learn it earlier, faster, deeper, and more violently.
Another truth: humans have emotional limits. If you’ve ever watched someone near the end of a long race hit the wall, you know the human body can come to the end of its endurance. What most people don’t know is that we can hit an emotional wall, too. None of us has a bottomless well of compassion, empathy, and kindness to share. Not even parents. Not even the mothers of special needs children, who, in spite of popular myths about saintliness, great strength, and an abundance of patience, are utterly ordinary.
It is a misery to have conflicted feelings about our own children, to be plagued with regret for birthing or adopting them, guilt for our shortcomings in parenting them, and fear for the ways they will continue to change our and our other children’s lives.
Self-flagellation is not the cure for that misery. I promise you, with all the confidence of 19+ years of parenting and more practice in brutal remorse than anyone I know, that there is no problem so great that self-flagellation cannot make it worse.
The outrageous and surprising irony is that, once I gave up on trying to see the bright side and looking for the silver lining and other assorted nonsense and admitted to myself that having a kid with serious mental illness sucks, and I hate it, and I would trade it in red-hot instant? That’s when I started to come to some kind of tentative peace with the whole mess.
And it’s a mess. Oh, yes, no mistake, we are not on some alternate-but-just-as-lovely-in-its-own-way life path over here.
Do you know who needs me to see Carter’s illness and the fallout it has created in our lives as an alternate-but-just-as-lovely-in-its-own-way life path? A whole lot of people who don’t matter; people who don’t get it; but the fact is, I can love Carter wholly and completely and also feel bitterly angry at what his illness has brought into my life and my family.
The more fully I accept that anger, the more often I feel the love.
What happened to Carter is flat lousy. I don’t help myself or anyone else when I pretend otherwise. I say again:
Give yourself a break.
What you feel is what you feel. It’s all OK.
All that said, sometimes our feelings get the best of us and we do things that are destructive and hurt us, our children, or others. If you need help or support, please ask. (All these resources are in the US.)
If you have hurt or are afraid you may hurt your children, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD.
If you are concerned about your own or a loved one’s alcohol or drug use, call the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence at 800-622-2255.
If you are suicidal or feel like you might hurt yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
If you feel that your health and safety, or that of your child (or anyone else), is in danger, or that you or your child (or anyone else) may hurt someone, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
If you want to talk to other parents who are raising children who have special needs and you’re on Facebook, send a join request here.