You don’t have to have a mental illness to go to therapy.
By Lizzie S.
Recently, I was speaking before a large group in Illinois, when a man sitting with his family in the balcony raised his hand to ask a question. He said he had a son in his 20s who had bipolar, was out of control, and was noncompliant with his medication. “What can I do to help my son?” he asked.
Since I wrote my 2002 memoir, DETOUR: My Bipolar Road Trip in 4-D, in which I interviewed young people who had successfully managed their bipolar disorder, I have been asked this question hundreds of times. In fact, I had already heard and answered it twice that evening, responding that I wasn’t a doctor, a trained therapist, or a parent (yet!).
However, I did point out that the best three things to do were to get educated, get support, and get therapy. I tried the same answer with this father.
“That’s not what I’m asking about,” the man replied, rather angrily. Then he proceeded to ignore me and talk to the person sitting next to him, evidently frustrated with my response.
I empathized with this parent, and with all parents who are looking for advice during the wretched, confusing, and terrifying circumstances of an out-of-control child who has a mental illness. But sometimes I think parents want me to tell them to flip their child around, remove his shirt, and check for the control lever beneath the left shoulder blade, just to make sure it is set correctly.
Parents typically accept the educational piece of my advice. And rarely do they express resistance to going to a support group run by one of the life-saving mental health organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness or the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.
But when I suggest therapy to parents, I almost always get, “Me? It’s my kid who has the problem, not me.” Resistance, denial, defensiveness are the norm; my advice to these parents clearly requires additional context.
So, for all parents in this situation: When I suggest therapy for you, it is not because I think you are crazy, or a bad parent, or that you caused the mental illness in your child—I really mean that. I know that mental illness happens to highly functioning families, and to wildly dysfunctional families as well. However, I think therapy could help your situation and here’s how.
… therapy can help you manage stress, communicate better, and find peace and stillness in a time of storminess.
First, therapy can help you be balanced and relaxed when you are around your child, when you are with your spouse, and when you are alone. Admit it: You don’t feel relaxed and balanced and therapy can help. Your family needs your balance, because it can be very difficult to feel love from someone who is anxious and preoccupied. Having a child who has a mental illness does not mean you resign yourself to a life of anxiety and preoccupation. Rather, therapy can help you manage stress, communicate better, and find peace and stillness in a time of storminess.
Second, because of the genetic component of mental illness, it is more than likely that you and/or your spouse have already dealt with mental illness in an intimate way. It’s important to understand how your previous experiences with mental illness are influencing your parenting. In this way, you can learn and practice fresh, levelheaded behaviors based on professional advice, not one’s personal trauma.
Third, you can’t ever make a child—at any age—embrace wellness since, of course, there is no control lever beneath the left shoulder blade. But you can always model good behavior. I tried as hard as I could to ignore everything my parents tried to teach me verbally, but ended up being heavily, secretly, and uncannily programmed through their own positive behavior. (These are the things you realize at age 30!)
Moreover, there is opportunity in pursuing therapy. You could openly discuss how you don’t want to go, and don’t think you need it, and fear that people will judge you for it, wishing everyone would just leave you alone when it comes to discussing it. And guess what? You might suddenly have a lot in common with how your child is feeling—doors could open. You might discover therapy to be a cherished time in your week, as many people do. And you can share why, or choose to say nothing and allow your child to notice how relaxed you’ve become—even in the face of his or her ups and downs.
In effect, you are saying to your child, through your own actions and state of relaxation: “Here I am, vulnerable, humble, persistent, and powerful in my own quest for balance.” This is the mirror your child will be looking into, not the anxious, preoccupied, unbalanced one. I’m no expert, but I think one of the best ways to help a child be responsible for his or her mental health is to be responsible for yours.
It’s also the best way to survive in what could be an enduring struggle.
Printed as “20-Something: Me get therapy? It’s my kid who has the problem”, Summer 2006
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