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Troubled Minds: Read an Excerpt
Like mine, my brother's sense of responsibility inflated—and exploded into guilt. Although he was the first to experience the trauma of finding Mom in an incoherent state, because he was away from home he escaped much of the direct experience of living with a mentally ill parent. He says, "Since the most severe problems began after I was away from home, I have felt unmerited guilt that I was the only one who escaped without having to live as a teenager in a home with a mother who was severely mentally ill. I often feel pain as I think of the pain that my sisters lived through, and it makes it worse that I was somewhat removed from it."
Interestingly, this strong sense of responsibility and guilt arose in my older sister, Cheryl, as well. Without knowing that Scott was feeling responsible for all of us and I was feeling responsible for myself and my younger sister, she felt responsible for everyone and strove to take the burden on herself as much as she could to protect the people she loved.
Our home life revolved around protecting ourselves and preserving Mom's peace. Cheryl knew we needed to protect Mom's feelings and keep her from getting upset: "If there was a conflict, what mattered was not the truth of the event or our true feelings, but resolving it quickly in a manner that appeased Mom's feelings. It has always been, and continues to be, very difficult for me to be honest about my thoughts or feelings, especially if they may be in conflict with anyone else's. I definitely shut down emotionally, because acknowledging my feelings would require me to admit to them, and that would be too difficult."
Kate, the youngest, also tried to "fix" Mom. Twelve years old at the time, she remembers "trying to figure out what was actually wrong with her, like a puzzle, because I wasn't satisfied with the explanations we were given, but at the same time I didn't really want to know." Kate says that each time Mom went to the hospital, "I purged the house of anything she had touched that I might come in contact with. Some of it was real cleaning, like washing all the towels, doing the dishes, scrubbing the counters and toilets. Others were not so direct, like throwing out all the prepared and opened food that I thought she would have touched—just erasing her existence in any way I could and pretending she was never coming back."
Dad, already feeling low and inadequate as he struggled through long-term unemployment and then underemployment, sank into depression. He wondered how to help his family and himself. He needed help, but as he says, "With mental illness, you don't have a cast on your head or anything else to show that you're a hurting person who needs sympathy."
Because we were all in crisis individually, protecting and preserving ourselves as best we could, we didn't openly reach out to one another and develop solidarity...We desperately needed an outside voice to lovingly name our trouble and call us together.
-from chapter 3, "Suffering People"