You would think that living with depression and anxiety would better prepare me for having a child with a mental illness. I certainly thought this would be an advantage when my older son exhibited concerns in his first year of university. Turns out, the maternal instinct is far, far stronger than any logic and knowledge I brought to the table.
Despite the fact that intellectually I realized everyone experiences mental illness and recovery in their own way, I was overwhelmed by my instinctual need to save my son from the pain that I had experienced through my own challenges. I had spent decades finding my way through the rocky roads, mountains, and valleys of depression and anxiety. I was sure I could direct his journey and save him from the trials that I had faced. Unfortunately, mental illness isn’t the same as a scraped knee – I couldn’t just scoop him up in my arms and kiss it better. What I did discover is that we could grow and learn about and from each other in way I would have never imagined.
When he first became ill and moved back home, I was sure I knew exactly what he needed to get well. I gave him advice about what he should do, what worked for me. I did this despite the fact that I had experienced firsthand how unhelpful it was when people did the same thing when I was sick. He had to remind me almost daily: “Mom, I’m not you.” I still felt I needed to make it right for him. Perhaps it was the guilt I felt for having passed my genes on to him. Maybe it was my belief that moms are supposed to make everything better for their children. In retrospect, I believe it was A, B and a little of C – my need to focus on someone other than myself so I could avoid recognizing my own dysfunction.
For the last three years we have had at least our fair share of difficulties. We butted heads a lot – he would say I am unwilling to face my fears; I would suggest that he is dogmatic in his views. We are, of course, both right. We also support each other through difficult times, albeit in a ‘tough love’ way. When I worry about being unemployed, that I might not find another opportunity, he tells me I’m being an idiot. If he tells me he is anxious about how his future will unfold, I assure him that some women are attracted to men who live with their mothers. We know that the simultaneous translation for both of these statements is ‘you’ll be fine, I believe in you.’
These days our household still experiences stressors and upheavals – that’s life. But, I am happy to say that for every two steps, there is now usually only one step back – and so we slowly but surely move forward together. My younger son will start university in the fall studying Biotechnology – suffice it to say that he did not get his science brain from his mother. Similarly, my older son’s life will follow a path that is entirely his own. It is true that my Mom brain still wishes I could shield them both from pain and disappointment, but I know that it is by navigating their own journeys through these challenges that they will gain the life skills to live well, with or without mental illness. I wish for them love and laughter, resilience and wisdom. And that’s not just because they will be the ones who will pick my nursing home.
About Susan Mifsud
Susan Mifsud is a 49 year old mother of two adult sons who has worked in university administration for the last 25 years. She is an active volunteer and advocate in support of the elimination of stigma and shame related to mental illness and addiction. Follow Susan’s story on HMC’s Supportive Minds blog or additionally follow Susan on Twitter.