I didn’t ask myself ‘Is she emotionally sick?’ I was eight years old and like many other kids, I just wanted to go play outside and make sure I had a clean pair of pants to wear to go to school the next day. Plus, what does ‘emotionally’ even mean to a kid?
I didn’t even ask if she was sick. I mean, she looked fine on the surface. She could walk and talk, though she said and did things that even I found strange by moments. Like that time she put my hands on her tummy and told me she had a baby inside. She said she was the Virgin Mary and she was going to give birth to the child of Jesus Christ. As strange as she sounded and behaved at times, my mother was not running a fever or having a drippy nose.
When I looked at her, I couldn’t see any physical symptoms of her illness. She had no broken bones or missing limbs. She could read a book, taste food, and even make the occasional joke. So what was wrong with her? In my kid’s mind, nothing was wrong with her. She was my mother and I loved her. She seemed fine to me.
My father didn’t speak to me about my mother. I would wake up one morning and found her gone. That happened quite a lot in my childhood. One moment here, the next moment gone. I didn’t get it. Because I was scared of my father, I didn’t ask him questions about her.
Sometimes a child has a circle of entrusting adults and sometimes they do not. I did Not. The neighbours knew my mother was emotionally troubled and they did nothing, except hurling insults at her and us. As for her parents and siblings (my maternal grandparents, uncles, and aunts), they either said nothing or looked the other way even when they knew she wasn’t dressing herself or feeding us. As for my father’s side of relatives, it was pretty much the same thing. To these supposedly ‘trustworthy’ adults, mum seemed to be the word.
I became more and more confused.
What was truly going on here?
It is said our ‘normal’ is whatever we grew up with. If this is true my normal was, having a mother who believed she was pregnant with the child of Jesus Christ, a father who couldn’t face himself or his own children, neighbours who thought it was okay to bully us, and an extended family who looked mostly the other way. What kind of ‘normal’ is that?
At school, I pretended I had a ‘normal’ parent. I told others my mother helped me with my math homework and I made excuses for her when she could not attend a school meeting. I told the teacher she was busy taking care of my grandmother who was ‘sick’. But that was Not true. My mother was the one who was sick. But I was in denial.
Lying about my mother’s condition became my next ‘normal’. I pretended she was fine and that she loved me. I even fooled myself into believing she would be cured one day and we would live happily ever after, she and I.
As I got older, I got angrier. I yelled at my mother, telling her there were no children in her belly and to stop that shit or she would be sent back to the mental hospital. I thought scaring her out of her wits might stop her folly. Truth is, I only made things worse.
So I came up with the next ‘normal.’ I thought to myself, ‘What if I become the perfect child?’ If I made her proud of me, then maybe she would realize I existed? I was the first member of my family to attend university. I didn’t just attend university. During most of my adult life, I accumulated over eighteen (18) degrees, diplomas, and certifications. I guess I reached ‘super-normal’?
Chasing diplomas to make my mother stop being pregnant with holy ghost children did not work. Throughout the years, she continued being pregnant on and off as if a pregnancy was something we could order at a drive-through window.
I was grieving badly. I needed a mother who could love me and I didn’t have one. Having not learned how to properly love and take care of my wants and needs, I sank into a dark depression and I didn’t even know it. Why wasn’t I enough for her? What did I do wrong? Why couldn’t she love me? In my heart, I kept secretly wishing she could give me what I craved from her, but she couldn’t. Stuck in my head, I became my mother.
I went through adult life on autopilot. I wasn’t present emotionally with my three children. When they told me, “Repeat what I just said!” I looked at them with troubled eyes, using the excuse I was too busy with ghost shit that hadn’t happened yet (what anxiety is about) to really pay attention to their wants and needs. Like my mother, I was terribly lost.
Sadly, it took me decades before I sought a mentor who helped me make healthy sense of my then ‘normal’ life. When we met, he asked me the weirdest question ever. He asked, “What do you need right now?” A flood of tears was my answer. I didn’t know what I wanted or needed. How would I? I had spent my whole life chasing the love and approval of others. My mentor started teaching me about self-love.
Through his mentoring, I learned to feel all my feelings and emotions. I felt the rage at my father for him having ignored me my whole life. I felt the hurt at my mother for her having pretended that she loved me though she was unable to feel it or show it. Most of all, I felt the grief of not having been emotionally present in my own life. Over time, I accepted that my ‘normal’ was highly dysfunctional and the only way through was with self-love.
What are the stages one goes through when dealing with an emotionally sick parent?
denial – ‘She looked fine on the surface.’
anger – ‘I yelled at her to stop that shit.’
bargaining – ‘What if I become the perfect child?’
depression – ‘I went through adult life on autopilot.’
acceptance – ‘I accepted my ‘normal’ was highly dysfunctional and the only way through was with self-love.’
Here are FIVE tips to assist you deal with an emotionally sick parent:
Acknowledge all feelings and emotions. Because someone around you is emotionally sick, it does Not mean that you should behave the way they do. Absolutely Not! Therefore, throughout the day, regularly ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling right now?’ Your feelings are important, they are your inner guiding system. Feel what you need to feel without the fear of rejection.
Ask yourself, ‘What do I need right now?’ If you need to leave the room because you are about to explode in a fit of hurt and anger, leave the room immediately. However, if you have to stay put (some ‘normal’ is that), make a deal with yourself that no matter what happens in that room, you will never shut down emotionally. Keep acknowledging all feelings and emotions no matter what. Never make yourself or anyone else wrong for what you/they feel.
Journal. In a journal, write about what you are feeling, like anger, rage, resentment,… Write about the good stuff too, like when a friend texted you to say hello. Many people think journaling is for ‘losers’, but let me ask you… Who’s the biggest loser? The one who never acknowledges openly what they are going through and shuts down emotionally (like the old me)? Or the one who faces their hurt with compassion and forgiveness in their heart so they get to upgrade from ‘normal’ to healthy. Your choice.
Create a balanced life. Make a list of all the things you find dysfunctional in your life. Be brutally honest with yourself. Look at the your list square in the eye. Ask yourself, ‘Do I want to become or continue being that?’ If the answer is yes, go have another look at your emotionally sick parent… and ask yourself that question again. If the answer is no, congratulations! You are taking charge of your life! For every exposed dysfunctionality, come up with a lifestyle change in contradiction to your ‘normal’. For example, if you see/saw your parents fight a lot, write down something like ‘I speak and listens from my heart.’ You matter!
Seek professional help. Dealing with a parent who is emotionally sick… aka depressed, suicidal, psychotic, narcissistic, rageful, distant,… can be severely taxing on your current and future life. Get in touch with people who have gone through similar stuff because they get you! No one does it alone!
My mother is now 80 years old. The last I heard, she was 26 weeks into her latest ‘pregnancy.’ It’s okay. That’s her ‘normal.’ I have a different one.
You have the power to change your life!
Your Emotional Intelligence coach,