F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”
If this is the case, then I’ve cultivated my intelligence with a lot of practice holding two opposing ideas for well, about the last 27 years! When I try to describe to friends what it’s like raising a child with complex mental illness, I describe having to hold two thoughts at the same time, always. I have to go to work and function in the world and relate with other people (and hold the belief my son will be ok), while my heart has broken for my child as he sat alone in the detention hall, the hospital isolation room or in a jail cell (while I feared the worst).
I often use the term, unconditional acceptance of what is. And sometimes I’m better at it than others, as friends will tell you, as recently as last week when I had an overblown reaction to what I perceived as my son’s “reckless” actions.
Small and inevitable crisis of typical young adulthood can catapult me into a “worst case scenario”. This simply is never helpful for my child. On so many occasions, he’d be just fine two days after a major crisis, and I’d still be curled up in a ball in my bed with a shock reaction! Every day I must practice unconditional acceptance of what is while also thoughtfully doing what I think may be helpful (and sometimes that means doing nothing and trusting him to figure it out on his own, which in my experience, he nearly always does!). Children with mental illness are also typically highly intelligent and resourceful!
The best thing a friend ever said as I raced out of work, sobbing, and booking an airline ticket was, “You matter too.” I decided that rather than hop on a plane again, I’d let him work through his seemingly insurmountable problem on his own, and I’d stay home for a few days to decompress. And you know what? It was the best thing I could have done because he figured it out on his own, and he gained both confidence and competence, and I gained confidence in him, too.
Children with mental illness can also drive their parents crazy! Or at least to PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) due to the severe and chronic natures of their children’s crisis. If you are a parent of a child with mental illness, I guarantee you have PTSD. How are you treating you?
So, when I’m in an optimal state of mind, caring well for myself, maintaining good boundaries with him and the other people in my life, I hold these divergent thoughts at the same time.
1) There is a chance he is not meant to live a full lifespan. There is a chance he will die by accident or by choice, due to his decisions, a result of his dichotomous thinking (in extreme black or white). I have come to accept this, and ironically, it makes me grateful for each and every day we have together. There is huge relief in accepting what is, knowing that I can’t fix it, and that I’m not at fault, and neither is he. It is what it is. We do our best, taking each day as it comes.
2) My beloved son, who careens through life on a precarious precipice is also the strongest, most brave person I know, and I have confidence in him to figure it out one day at a time. Before he even gets to work each day, he’s fighting inner demons, voices, physical pain from motorcycle and other accidents, and patching together relationships that are sometimes ruptured by his distorted thinking and angry outbursts. Imagine if your worst enemy lived inside your head? If you had a chemical imbalance that affected your perceptions of how others view you? If you had voices telling you that you’re unlovable, not worthy, a piece of shit. And these voices accompanied you your whole life? I’d say he’s one brave person, to continue choosing life, even though he is filled each day with “existential dread”.
To be the parent of a child with mental illness is to know that the worst could happen, and yet to hold them in such high esteem, that the container of your unconditional love and high regard may contribute to more positive outcomes. And it may not. But it may.
When my own thinking becomes dichotomous in relation to my son, these are the questions I ask myself (and also suggest him to consider):
Is there evidence that supports my thoughts?
Am I considering all angles or am I leaving things out?
Could my assumption be challenged by someone else? How?
Does everyone else see it this way?
Am I being fair to others in making this opinion?
When I’m scared and my reactive brain enters fight, flight or freeze mode, the best thing I can do is switch up my internal dialogue. I ask myself these questions. I replace my negative thinking with gentler thoughts, I distract myself, and I call or text an old friend who can help me gain perspective and equilibrium again. Only in this way can I be of any help to my child!
As parents, we must model and practice constructive coping mechanisms, not lecture or preach on deaf ears (have you noticed that never works?). (I acknowledge these are lessons learned over time and over the last 27 years, I indulged in many counterproductive coping mechanisms and made countless parenting mistakes, as all parents do). Over time, I have learned to wait and “reason” with my son until “the episode” – whatever it is - has passed. At these times, I think of him lovingly as a tantrumming two-year-old, and know like with a toddler, there is no reasoning until the tantrum has passed – but in his case, it can be days or weeks! I practice a lot of patience, I trust his inner and outer resources, I rely heavily on my own resources including friends, spiritual texts, art making, writing and time in nature. And I play a lot, without guilt – self-care is not a luxury in my case, nor is it in yours.
And some days, you toss up your hands and laugh in complete surrender, because what are you going to do when you are on your knees feeling completely hopeless and powerless to help? Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine, especially when you can share it with your child, even in your darkest moments together.