On a cold, moonless night in January 2008, I woke up to the piercing of my cell phone’s ringtone. A call at that hour could only be an emergency. On the other end was my mother, but it wasn’t her voice I heard. She sounded like a crying child – a shrieking, frightened child. Suddenly she hung up. Moments later she rang again, but this time she sounded entirely different – cold, certain, abrasive. She said, “I’m going to kill them all and there is nothing you can do about it.”
My mother has bipolar I disorder with psychotic features. That night in January it was clear to me that she was experiencing a psychotic episode, and although I was hundreds of miles away, I knew I had to call the police. The trouble was that my mother is an avid gun collector, and when she is in a psychotic state, she nearly always brings out a weapon. To have the police respond when I was not physically available to mediate could mean that she would be shot. But I couldn’t allow her to potentially harm herself or others, which she had done in the past – more than once.
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I sat for several minutes deliberating what to do, and then I called the police station in the county where my mother lived, and pleaded with them to send personnel familiar with mental illness. To my great relief, a sheriff’s deputy called me back a couple of hours later. He sounded astonished as he explained that when officers had arrived, my mother had been naked and “speaking in tongues.” She’d given him the gun she had been holding when he asked her for it. Then he explained that it had taken five male officers to place my 5’2”, 100-pound mother in the police car. She was taken to a psychiatric facility and committed by the sheriff.
Five Years Later
After her hospitalization, my mother made threats I chose not to tolerate, and I went without contacting her for more than two years. She found me a year-and-a-half ago, and we’ve been speaking ever since. To my knowledge, it has been four years since my mother had a psychotic episode. She is doing extraordinarily well, and although there were hard feelings on her part after her hospitalization that winter, she has since let go of the resentment. We now share the best relationship we’ve ever had. This is due largely to my mother’s current sense of independence and heightened self-esteem, brought about by a wonderful job and several positive lifestyle changes she made entirely for herself. I’m proud of her, and enormously happy at the relationship we are able to have today, but I’m not gullible enough to believe that she is cured. Bipolar disorder, insofar as the experts attest, doesn’t ever go away; it’s a chronic condition.
Dealing with my mother’s illness, especially her episodes of psychosis, has meant a lifetime of learning for me. It has never been easy, but I have gotten better at it. From the age of 13, I made it my mission to learn absolutely everything I could about mental illness, and what I have learned along the way has helped me substantially in coming to terms with the unique parent that I have, as well as enlightening me as to how best to respond when she is in crisis, such that her crises do not become my crises. I’d like to share some of those lessons in hopes that if you are a parent who suffers from psychotic episodes, you may be able to pass these on to your adult children.
Lessons for the Adult Children of Parents with Psychotic Mental Illness
- As illustrated by the term mental illness, your parent is ill. If it were diabetes, or lupus, or any other illness, you’d feel empathy and offer assistance where you could, provided you are a decent human being. Psychosis is a brain disease. Its symptoms are largely behavioral. Your parent suffers. Feel empathy; offer kindness.
- Whatever your parent says to or about you during a psychotic episode, ignore it. Forget it. Put it in the recycle bin of your brain and immediately click ‘empty.’ He or she does not mean it. It doesn’t exist.
- Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Employing a victim mentality is childish and immeasurably boring. Find a way to make this aspect of your parentage beneficial to your character. You can choose to allow it to stunt you or to grow you, and trust me when I say that your parent, deep down, wants you to grow.
- Never ignore the fact of your parent’s psychosis. When she or he is in the throes of their disease, get help. Even if you fear what may happen, get help. Even if you or your parent is afraid of embarrassment or hospitalization or disagreeable of doctors or medications, get help. Sticking your head in the sand is dangerous. You may risk something – communication, inheritance, etc., but you will gain the confidence that comes with integrity and doing what is right for someone you love.
- When your parent becomes escalated or psychotic, your job is to become very calm. Do not express fear, anxiety, stress, or alarm, and certainly not anger. Speak quietly in soothing words if you must speak at all, and again, get help. Have your parent’s psychiatrist or therapist’s emergency contact and be prepared to contact 911 if necessary.
- A good idea is to have a plan of action in place that you and your mom or dad arrive at together before an incident arises. Get both parents, if possible, and all siblings or other relatives on board if you can. You do not have to do this alone.
I’ve heard many adult children of the mentally ill bemoan that it shouldn’t be our responsibility to have to care for our parents in the ways that we do; many of us have been doing it since we were children. But these are the parents we were given; no use crying over what cannot be changed. If we care for our parents, we want to ensure their safety and well-being. We do whatever we can to ensure they receive treatment and come to no harm. There is something reciprocal in the parent-child relationship and those of us who are the children of the mentally ill may meet this exchange earlier than others. Though it is never easy, it can be a gift if we look at it in the right sort of light.