Story 18

What’s it like to have a mentally ill parent

Hi, I’m Ştefana, the human behind this edition of Upstairs. From 9 to 5, I’m a communication specialist for a higher education institute. Outside working hours, curiosity is what gets me out of bed most often. I’m eager to see places, people, the sky that day, or whatever I may find out there. I believe that hunting for the hidden beauty in everyday life is a great source of joy.


This is a topic I’ve rarely dared to speak out loud about, let alone write a blog and publish it. However, last night I binge-watched Love & Anarchy on Netflix and what I realized by watching the entire season in one go made me want to write this. Fyi, the main thread in the series is probably not the relationship between Sofie, her dad, and the rest of her family, but to me, this has been one of the more interesting aspects to reflect on. Maybe because I find it relatable.

In my family, mom’s sickness was a secret we had to do our best to keep from the outside world. My grandma and I had a sort of deal we never made or spoke of, which meant that when we’re “out in the world,” we behave as if nothing is wrong, like nothing ever happened. One had to be clean, well-dressed, chic, have courage, speak, show up (always show up), and study hard and shine. In many ways, this mentality saved me.

In my teenage years, I always felt a sort of mad satisfaction after I managed to pull off a glorious exit after a very heartbreaking moment. When I stepped out the door looking flawless and having my typical “fuck the world, I’m dope” attitude, I felt invincible and free. I was hiding my pain in plain sight. I hid it so well, I even fooled myself.

My default way of existing

Back home, I would find the same stale reality, just as I had left it or a little bit worse. Mom was sitting somewhere, her head bobbing sideways as she had very discrete imaginary conversations — she learned very harshly that this isn’t normal or socially acceptable, so she sometimes resumed to humming small little sounds to herself and sparing us of the full imaginary dialogue. My grandma treated the whole thing with the resigned severity of someone who’s seen everything, while my grandpa would dismiss her as hopeless and mind his business, trying to involve me here and there for the sake of fun and distraction.

I would usually immerse in my headphones and TV shows, and much later on, my computer, rejoicing in the fact that others can carry the bigger burden of housing and feeding all of us. I was free to retreat into my semi-ignorant world, daydreaming and drowning in mild background fear and desperation.

None of this ever registered as worries, challenges, or moments of a potential breakdown. This awareness came much later. I will remember forever when I spoke about it for the first time ever with a good friend in high school. I was very nonchalant about it while she cried as I was shrugging it off. My shrink would say she “cried my tears,” mirroring what I couldn’t allow myself to do.

This was just my default way of existing: life hitting in waves and me taking it all in, cruising on periodic little tsunamis, probably going through shocks according to some definition in some manual of child psychology, but just minding my business according to me.

Despite all this being the default, I did decide, aided by my fine deduction skills, that I would never end up like her. That I would do anything and everything to not end up like that — weak, sick, the mockery of everyone, locked up, talking alone, laughing at the walls, turning against family, and living by rules which make no sense in the real world. I saw myself when I heard Sofie from the Swedish series telling the same thing to her father.

It hurt, not only because I know by now that such goals are pointless, but especially because there is an antagonizing dynamic that makes you deny your own love and find really unhealthy places to deposit your pain and frustration.

This is all avoidable—this antagonizing dynamic fueled by a negative narrative that society likes to weave around mentally ill people. That they’re weak. That they’re somehow less than the rest, somehow not strong enough to “just deal with stuff” like the rest of the world. That all this is somehow a choice to give up and not fight hard enough. It’s painful. It’s also very far from the truth.

A pain that can be diminished

Living around someone who struggles with their mental health, you can only hope there comes a moment of breakthrough (usually in therapy) when you realize you internalized this negative narrative the world feeds you. A moment of clarity when you are finally able to label the pain you feel when turning against a loved one to place the blame on them.

There’s the grief about everything you don’t get to experience together, the anger about all your unmet needs, the frustration of not being able to change anything, and, of course, shame, fueled by society and other people.

Until you get to that point, though, there’s a long way to go (and, if I dare say, after that too). Naturally, it’s hard to be a small child who can’t depend on their parent. It’s heartbreaking to see them cry and not understand where all that sadness came from. It’s awfully frustrating to want to engage with either a disengaged or a delusional person and not have your attempts met with a reasonable response that’s anchored in reality. It’s infuriating to not see the role model you need and have to deal with a very different picture when you know what the normal standard is.

A lot of pain came from that, and even more pain came from crisis moments. Seeing the desperation of an adult you care about being forcefully committed while you have no choice but to witness their pain and wonder where they’re being taken. Seeing adults in your life hurting or threatening each other. Seeing adults in your life crying or screaming or fearing for their safety. Seeing adults in your life hurt. It’s hard to understand what you are to do, what’s your role, how they could possibly be coping, and how you’re supposed to. This pain is hard to avoid.

But there is a kind of pain that can be diminished, if not avoided.

It’s the pain of comparison, the pain of remarks, the shame society pours all over you for being different or living in different circumstances.

This is what I found in Love & Anarchy in the dynamic between Sofie and her husband Johan, a character whose image and behavior around a mentally ill family member mirrored the same shame and fear society breeds: trying to avoid what you don’t know and dislike, fearing and bashing the weird people, to preserve your own sense of normality.

We all have our troubles

When I was in kindergarten, I would often hear, “What’s up with your mom? Why is she so weird?”

Later on, when my grandma took over these duties while my mom stayed at home permanently, I had already embraced that narrative and those words myself. I would get angry when visiting friends or colleagues said, “Oh, your mom is so nice! She looks so normal!” I felt like they couldn’t understand what I was talking about. 5–10 minutes of smiling and offering polite cookies when meds were kicking in cannot be compared with all the things that showed up while living in such a household.

So I was the odd one screaming and shooing my mom away whenever she got near, ashamed she would say or do something weird to screw up my cover, just because painful earlier experiences and mean comments taught me so. Sadly, the biggest influences regarding this negative discourse were within my own family.

This pain can be avoided if we all changed the story we tell about mentally ill folks. Recognizing they’re just people like everyone else, whose lives were unbearably hard, would suffice.

How did this change me?

Well, I‘m sometimes still a bit jealous of what I perceive as ideal family circumstances when I look around. I’m still aware that we all have our troubles, visible or not, so I try to keep a realistic view.

For me, being in this situation has not been easy. As a child, I did not fully realize the implications of growing up like this. I marched ahead with “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” hiding any trace of vulnerability and piling on unprocessed issues, but I know now we are not invincible gods, and our souls need healing.

Harsh circumstances did push me to find resources and strengths within me that most of us don’t know we have, and that builds character like few other things.

They also pushed me to notice my own humanity and my need for healing, love, compassion for myself and for building a healthier relationship with myself and with others, which I can only hope we all get to do at some point. I always thought I still have a long way to go, but it’s an ongoing process, so we’re never really done taking care of ourselves 🙂

Among my best friends back home, many people carried heavy memories of unspeakable things, which made them undeniably stronger, but also caused them a great deal of pain and distress. We all need healing, and it would be easier to unpack all that as an adult in a society that doesn’t deepen the wound.

Be kind, you never know what everyone carries in their heart,
—Ștefana

Contributors of this story: Ștefana Cozan wrote this story, Oana Filip edited it, Andrei Ungurianu put it all together, George Olaru designed it, Răzvan Onofrei was in charge with the development.

Ștefana Cozan
A question by Ștefana, the author of this story:
What methods of healing emotional wounds have worked for you so far?

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Alexandrasays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Architect and overthinker :)

Hi, Ștefana! Thank you for your brave story. Reading it was healing. My mother struggled with clinical depression during all my childhood and adolescence, so, on some level, I understand how hard it is to not be understood or accepted, or having to live a „double life” in a way. My heart goes out to you. Regarding your question – therapy definitely helps, and more than that talking to friends or peers that have had similar experiences. This mirroring experience is the most powerful one that makes you feel less alone, less broken, and (finally) understood. 

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Although, naturally, I wish nobody would have similar struggles, I do find some level of comfort in knowing others find my experience somewhat relatable. I’ve yet to experience sharing with peers that have similar stories as an adult, but therapy surely did and does help 🙂  Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts!

Hey, Ştefana! I recently realized that speaking openly about emotionally charged moments from my life helps me take good steps towards healing those early wounds that show up even today. I struggled to find the right context, language, or confidence to share these affairs, but it didn’t happen until I leaned into the fail-safe space given by a therapist. It’s unfortunate that I could not find a better way out with the help of my close relatives, but I consider myself fortunate to have the curiosity to look into therapy.

After reading your thoughts, I’m making myself a promise to be more aware of other people’s emotional struggles and do my best to give them an echo chamber to speak up about their wounds with the hope of making them less painful. Thanks for sharing your story!

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I found therapy the most helpful, safe space so far. I think it being neutral served me the most in finding my own path guilt-free. Glad to hear it’s something that others also find helpful and congrats’ to you for taking care of yourself in this way.  And yes… other people 🙂

We all have our own thing going on and it’s good to be mindful of it. I feel like vulnerability with each other is something so rare in adulthood. Maybe creating this kind of space for each other is healing. Or at least just using this as a filter to label what others do as something related more to them than to us… I think this can also bring a lot of peace and freedom.

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Madalinasays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Highly-sensitive smartass

Hey, Cozana! Thank you for writing this story, thank you for opening up.

In my experience, healing is available once you’ve hit yourself raw enough times that you can see beyond pain. I found reading to be an anchor in times of storm, both external and internal hurricanes happening sometimes at once.

I’m convinced that if we’d all go to therapy, the world would be a better place. Not only to ground ourselves, to learn what feeds us and what puts us down, but to normalize getting mental help the same way I’d get physical help if I get hurt.

I remember thinking trauma is something that happens to others, it’s the big unforgivable things that you can’t get over. Little did I know trauma is made out of scars that events leave on us.

Other methods that I’ve seen working are (hot) yoga, pain processing patterns (what do I need right now? what am I feeling?) and honestly, just accepting that it’s fucking hard sometimes. ❤️ love

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 Ohww, thank you for reading, Mada! I also love reading pretty much anytime and 100% agree on therapy just at least to help us navigate our inner landscape and gain emotional literacy. Big hug to you! 

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Larasays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Personal experience

Thank you for your beautifully evocative story Ștefana!

I once lived as a carer to a partner whose mental landscape I didn’t understand at all. It was very difficult. Towards and after the end of the relationship, I found great assistance in *energy healing*, whether kinesiology or other, because the talking therapy didn’t feel right. It was too hard to talk out the ‘damage’ that I didn’t understand, but the energy healing I didn’t need to understand everything for it to work.

So that has very much helped me over the years with different emotional or long-standing problems that have manifested physically after a while. It is truly magical. Thank you for sharing your story.

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Thank you for reading and for sharing your experience! At times, I also found talking not fitting and had movement therapy sessions instead. It helps 🙂

Hi, Ștefana! I just want to say your story is very moving and I admire you for the way you’re transforming your broken childhood and see the possibility of a fulfilling life beyond it. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

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Oana
Oanasays:
Relevant commenter background or experience:Storyteller and community builder
Talking about healing emotional wounds, what I learned during therapy, and walking through various life experiences, is that it takes time. Being gentle with ourselves and accepting that we can’t speed up this complicated process could bring a bit of hope.

Thank you all for contributing with amazing insights, and I hope we will continue the dialogue. In case you did not join us yet, please do it to get the upcoming stories in your inbox: https://pixelgrade.com/upstairs/community/

Waving from Pixelgrade and keep the dialogue up and kicking! 👋

Thank you for these thoughts! I feel the need to add that I don’t see my childhood as broken, as that was normal to me and I understood only later the implications of growing up in a certain family context.  Besides that, I was fortunate enough with the rest of my very caring family and I have countless happy memories to cherish from that time as well. I think of my life being fulfilling also because of it, not beyond it 🙂

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