#1 in Love Is Action Series
Lots of us were raised by parents who were alcoholics or drugs addicts, or who acted like jerks, or who were mentally ill, or all of the above. Many of us had a sibling or other family member who suffered with a bad attitude or mental illness (or who had a personality that we suffered from).
Being a child living with a parent who laughs at your behavior one day and slaps you across the room for the same behavior the next day makes you unsure of yourself and wary of people. Or living with a sibling or other family member that is mean or downright abusive keeps you hyper vigilant because you know that you're never completely safe.
When home isn't safe, your natural tendency is to withdraw. You give the untrustworthy people a wide berth when passing through a room they’re in. You tiptoe past their room and pray that they don’t hear you so you can maybe, just maybe, get to school on time. In most cases, leaving isn’t even an option because where are you going to go when you’re 8?
Being the child of a parent who experiences manic episodes is fun (or lonely and scary if they take off for days). Being the child of a parent who falls into deep pits of depression makes your heart heavy. You are effectively abandoned. You’re on your own to find something to eat, clean your own clothes, negotiate with the landlord who hasn’t been paid, get yourself to and from school, and yes, parent your parent.
Being the child of an addict or alcoholic means that you have no idea which parent will walk through the door—the one who loves you or the one who’s screaming, yelling, or throwing punches, or the one who’s passed out on the floor. Living with this parent means never, ever having a friend over, not knowing whether or not you’ll be picked up on time or at all, whether or not there will be dinner, whether or not the electricity will be on, or even whether or not you will have been evicted while you were at school.
Adults who were children of parents with addiction, mental illness, or other “issues” learned a lot in those years. We learned how to read body language and micro expressions—before kindergarten. We learned how to tell what kind of a night it would be within the first few seconds of the crazy person (a technical term of endearment for the person we love but don’t trust) walking in the door. We learned when to run, and whether or not we could outrun the crazy person. We learned when to hide, when to make a joke, and when to redirect the conversation.
Some of us got so good at redirecting the conversation toward a unanimously agreed upon enemy that we could have taught that course at Quantico by the time we were 14. A few of us got so good at deescalating tense situations with jokes that we could have done standup at 9. (Some of us did do standup in school and were punished for being disruptive—imagine your best coping skill being the very thing that derails your education, which could be your ticket out of that mad house.)
We learned how to survive inconsistent, chaotic people and dysfunctional environments. We know what it feels like to be in an uncomfortable or downright painful situation that we just can’t get out of.
When I say “mentally ill,” I’m not referring only to those people who have had a formal diagnosis by a qualified mental health professional. I’m talking about the people who will tell you something and then deny that they ever said any such thing; the people whose moods swing from one extreme to the other with no notice; the people who lie, even about completely inconsequential things; the people who make decisions that make no sense at all or make completely different decisions from one hour to the next; people who are mean, rude, and hurtful for seemingly no reason at all.
If you are in a relationship with someone who is mentally ill, or who is acting like it, the tips in this series of articles are for you. Whether you are with someone who you are obligated to care for, like a chronically ill or mentally disabled family member, a child whose development is limited, or someone you care about who is acting like a jerk but who you know is capable of so much better, etc., and leaving is simply not an option, this is for you.
HOLD ON. Survival tips are coming. You can make it through this. It will pass, and your life will be better. It happened for me, so I know intimately that it is possible. Don't give up.
For more info on how to change people and circumstances, get a copy of Love Is Action and check out the community initiative of the same name: www.loveisactioncommunityinitiative.org.
Rhonda Sciortino was abandoned by her parents and raised by a mentally ill man and his alcoholic and addicted wife, her maternal grandparents. She learned at an early age the survival tips that will be included in this series of articles.