The Usual Suspects

by Alice Woodrome

That would be me, along with every other mother of a kid who has mental problems. The mother is almost always suspected of causing the mental illness unless there is obvious evidence that points elsewhere. Some say things are changing in that regard in our society, but if they are, it's a slow go.

Be honest; when you hear that someone has manic depression or schizophrenia, do you immediately wonder what his childhood must have been like to cause such a serious disorder? I hope not. I would like to believe that the families of these poor souls are given the benefit of the doubt, but I've heard enough remarks on the subject to think differently. We mothers of the mentally ill, for the most part, are normal people, who - like everyone else - were not perfect parents. But because our kids developed a serious mental illness, we are made to feel responsible for damaging our children. And the worst of it is that we look back at our normal flawed mothering and wonder ourselves if we are to blame for their terrible suffering.

There has been ample evidence from the brain research of the past couple of decades to the contrary. It's been demonstrated that most mental illnesses are physical diseases of the brain, like diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. It has a genetic component like other diseases, and therefore runs in families. I suppose that because some mental illnesses can be caused by abuse, it muddies the waters.

Even psychiatrists usually suspect the family. It boggles my mind that doctors are so willing to believe a patient, whom they have themselves diagnosed as delusional, when the patient is talking about his childhood. The sufferer can talk about being implanted with a torture device or the aliens who are coming for him, but the therapist or doctor accepts without question the same person's memories of childhood. I suppose that is the reason that psychiatrists usually aren't anxious to work with families in a treatment plan. Instead of enlisting the help of the very people who love the patient the most, who are inclined to move heaven and earth to help their children, the doctors shut the family out and leave them in the dark. The message is clear. We are viewed too often as part of the problem.

In some high profile cases, innocent family members have even been jailed as sex offenders when a patient falsely accused them of molestation. Some have been imprisoned for years before the truth came out. Parental abuse does happen, of course, and any parent who abuses a child, either mentally, physically, or sexually, deserves to be punished severely. Who knows, though, how many innocent parents are in prison now because the doctors and courts believed the false memories of a mentally ill person? And how many more parents of the mentally ill are held prisoner by stigma, imposed by a society that assumes they are the cause of their child's mental illness.

I think some of the attitudes spring from a misinterpretation when people have only a superficial picture of a family. They may see an "over-involved mother" interacting with a dependant young adult, and call it an unhealthy relationship. They suspect that the mental illness is the result of a relationship that is out of whack. They may not even consider that the mental illness is the cause of the dependant relationship.

Just this week I was reading a book by a respected psychiatrist who referred to" the typical schizophrenic's mother," as if we all fit one pathological pattern. The book was published, admittedly twenty years ago. One would hope that by now that same psychiatrist has a more enlightened view; but who knows? We are such easy targets. Who hasn't blamed their mother for something that didn't go right in their life?

Few people have even an inkling of how difficult motherhood is until they have children of their own. Anything short of perfection in their parents is judged harshly by adolescents, and also by those people who never grow out of an adolescent mindset. Most parents live to see their children grow out of it - often only when they become parents, themselves. Finally there is some understanding of the struggles a parent endures to raise their children. Mothers of those with schizophrenia never see that day. Our children rarely gain that level of maturity. Add to that the suspicions of society, and you get a glimpse into the heartache that becomes routine for the family of the mentally ill.

I try to hold my head up and do my best to be open about our family's experiences precisely because I want people to become more educated about mental illness. As long as people hide in shame when there is mental illness in the family, things will not change. Our society will continue to treat those with schizophrenia as lepers and their families as suspects.

Do you think I overstate the case; that I am too defensive? Ask yourself this: While you were reading this piece, did it ever cross your mind that I might have done something to my child that I am not owning up to? It wouldn't surprise me; we mothers are the usual suspects.