To this day, I still think of my childhood home as "the crazy house." Like me, millions of adult Americans are living with the effects of the precarious childhoods they experienced as offspring of mentally ill parents. If you are one of them, this book is for you. As a child, you most likely lived in crazy house of your own. As an adult, you’ve probably retained and may even relive memories of the madness you experienced there.
You may not realize that mental illness of a parent qualifies as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), a potentially traumatizing childhood event, which poses risks to health and well-being over children’s lifespans (You can take the ACEs test to gauge your level of risk.)
Crazy Was All I Ever Knew explores the impact of maternal mental illness on children through memoir and research. My book intersperses episodes from my life with research on the risks faced by children of mentally ill moms, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in general, and the science of resilience.
In the memoir portions of my book, I divulge secrets and embarrassments long hidden due largely to the stigma of mental illness. I share the abuse I suffered as a child and the anxieties and self-doubt that still linger.
I don’t remember exactly when all the craziness began in my home. It was just the way things were. By the age of 6 or 7, I knew something was wrong with my mother. I realized she was mentally ill even though no one in my family talked about her erratic behavior. As I watched my friends and their mothers interact lovingly, I wondered what it would be like to have a nice mother.
What happened to me as a child and later as an adult mirrors research findings in many ways. The research in my book details the risks that children of mentally ill mothers face and the spectrum of potential outcomes. Importantly, though, the developing science of resilience sends a resounding message of hope: resilience can be built at any age.
Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University have found that having a single supportive relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult can make the difference in a child’s life. For me, my brother, Alec, six years older, was that supportive person. He saved my life twice.
For adults with unresolved trauma, research shows there are pathways to leading healthy, productive lives. For adults, the key is learning to forgive—yourself. As Dr. Philip R. Muskin of Columbia University Medical Center says, “You have to be able to say, ‘It’s not my fault.’”
It is my hope that my story and the research I’ve cited can help adult children of mentally ill parents build resilience and tap into their inner strengths to turn adversity into advantage. For young children of parents with mental illnesses, it is my desire to help alleviate the distress they experience and the sometimes debilitating long-term consequences. Kids need to be kids so they can grow up to be healthy, happy adults.
Topics of future blogs will include brain science—why what happens in early childhood may matter most; what happens to kids when mommies hit and humiliate; the social, emotional, and physical risks faced by children of mentally ill moms; and the aftermath for adults. Blogs will also address resilience—why some children are amazingly resilient, how resilience can be strengthened with interventions for kids, and strategies that promote healing for adults with unresolved trauma.
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