Mental Illness: A Family Affair

Mental illness is not always confined to one individual, or the result of one specific occurrence. Sometimes there's a long history to be taken into consideration. In light of Mental Illness Awareness Month, I submit to you my story. Nurses Announcements Archive Article


Mental Illness: A Family Affair

I was born into a tumultuous family. My father, scarred by his own childhood and my mother, a survivor of her mother's suicide and abuse at the hand of her father, met, married, and I came along soon after. During their brief marriage, my mother was admitted to a psychiatric unit three times, and released with a diagnosis of Manic Depression and Borderline Personality Disorder. She refused to believe either of these diagnoses and was noncompliant with her treatment. She said she'd "just had a nervous breakdown." My parents' marriage was rocky, to say the least. My dad tried to hold on to his dream of finally having a perfect family and attempted to stick with the relationship for better or worse, sickness and health. My mom couldn't do it. My sister was born prematurely, and shortly after she was released from the hospital, my mom left.

My dad did the best he could as a single parent, living with the stigma of being a single father. But he was unable to cope in any healthy way. He was rarely home, and when he was, he took his anger out on my sister and me. We were emotionally and physically abused, and scared to death of our own father. I bore the brunt of the abuse, and I'll never know why. I've speculated that I look more like my mother than my father, and I never lived up to his expectations of a "good girl." I was different than all the girls my age, and it was obvious. I was anxious all the time and frequently depressed. I was painfully shy and I had trouble making friends, as the kids in school also saw me as different. It was clear enough that the parents of other kids my age refused to allow their children to associate with me. I didn't do well in school, even though I'd been tested and admitted to our district's gifted program. I considered suicide for the first time at the age of 8.

One person noticed something wasn't quite right, and that was the school psychologist. She frequently asked to speak with me, and recommended to my father that he seek a therapist for me. He took me, in hopes of "exorcising the weirdness out of me," but soon stopped because he was embarrassed at having to explain to his boss that he had to take his daughter to a counselor.

When I was 10, my father remarried. While I know now that this woman was mentally ill, at the time she fit the description of the Evil Stepmother to a T. She tormented my sister and me, and when my brother was born, she neglected him terribly; she never wanted him in the first place. She had a son from a previous relationship that she favored above all others, and the rest of us were only there for her amusement. My dad finally threw her out after she beat my sister and tried to kill him. My brother stayed with us while she took her other son with her. The last I've heard about her is she believes the voices in her head are spirits and she's doing drugs.

At the age of 13, my dad knocked me unconscious and I'd had enough. I'd had sporadic contact with my mother as she flitted around the country, from relationship to relationship. She'd finally settled down in one place and told me I could live with her. I repeatedly asked my dad if I could go, and he adamantly refused every time. I finally got the courage to call the police on my dad, and my siblings and I were taken to a shelter while my dad was arrested. As there was no visible evidence of abuse (he knew how to avoid leaving marks) and my word against his, the case was dismissed. But he realized I meant business and let me go to my mother's.

At the time, my mother was classically symptomatic and absorbed in her own little world. My depression and anxiety increased as my existing issues collided with puberty, and I considered suicide on several occasions. My mother did end up having to take me to the ER at one point, and I was referred to a psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with Major Depression and tried a few medications. They turned me into an apathetic zombie and I hated it. I stopped taking them.

By then I'd made some friends, many who were going through similar issues. We found solace in music and art. My one escape since I was very young had been reading, and now I'd discovered a new outlet. I became quite a good guitarist (if I do say so myself, haha) with one caveat: paralyzing stage fright.

During this time in my life, I still experienced debilitating depressive episodes, but there were times when I experienced wonderful highs. I was full of enthusiasm, creativity, over-excitement, impulsivity, anxiety bordering on paranoia, irritability and insomnia. I didn't have any point of reference for understanding these symptoms, so I continued to believe I was just different and that was who I was. My mom was oblivious. These kinds of things were normal to her, so there was no need for concern.

Once I graduated high school (a miracle, considering I ignored school as much as possible), I'd had enough of my mother's apathy towards me, unless it was to beg me to forgive her for abandoning me because she couldn't stand to have someone not like her, and her increasingly absurd behavior. I found a job and moved out.

For the next couple years, I drifted aimlessly, partying and reveling in my independence. I met and married my husband. I continued to have episodes, and occasionally tried medication when my bewildered husband asked me to. He had no experience with mental illness. He was and is incredibly stable, and my rock. I don't know how he's stayed with me all these years, with all the trouble I've put him through, and I don't know how I got so lucky as to find a man who is so good to me.

Soon after I was married, my mother suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. The CCU nurses told us they'd rarely seen anyone survive an injury like she had. However, she's made a remarkable recovery, and is physically and mentally functional. She continues to have memory problems, and it also exacerbated her existing mental illness. But now, she was willing to admit it and asked for and received help. Perhaps her neurosurgeon removed the stubborn part of her brain ;). She's compliant with her treatment for the most part now, and it mostly stable.

Taking care of my mom after her accident made me think about pursuing nursing as a career. I started pre-reqs and nursing school soon after. At this time, I'd been on a regular medication regimen that I believed was working. I wasn't depressed all the time. I still had episodes of depression, and the highs occasionally. Didn't think anything of it. I had become resigned to them and figured they would just be part of my life for the rest of my life.

Then came my son. My OB and psychiatrist had planned for a high risk of postpartum depression. Pregnancy hormones and my existing issues was a recipe for disaster. I hated every day of my pregnancy. I was constantly depressed. I considered ending my pregnancy, ending my own life, and just running away and leaving my son with my husband after he was born. I believed my son would be better off without me. I was able to stay on only one medication while I was pregnant and nursing, and it was totally ineffective. I had breastfeeding issues after he was born, and wasn't developing an attachment to my son. I felt I was a terrible mother and a horrible person and my son didn't deserve to have me as his mother. I questioned the wisdom of passing on my clearly defective genes to another generation and knowingly allowing him to suffer as he got older. I still question my decision to procreate to this day. I can only hope that he inherited my husband's mental stability instead of my problems. I did eventually develop a bond with my son, and love him with all my heart, but still feel so much guilt. I can only try to give him a better childhood than I had in hopes his environment will negate any genetic predispositions he may have.

After stopping breastfeeding, I resumed my previous medication regimen. My mood improved. I continued to have frequent depressive episodes, but once again was resigned to them just being a part of my life. However, a little over a year after my son was born (several months ago, this is pretty recent), I had a hypomanic episode. This time I recognized it, thanks to my nursing education. I met with my psychiatrist and he realized the medications I was taking for so long were completely wrong, and I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II. We've tried a few different medications, and I think I found one that's finally working. I feel more stable than I ever have in my life.

I've never been able to handle full-time work, the stress and no time to my introverted self always take a toll and throws me into a whirlwind of symptoms. I've learned how to balance work and home, and a PRN position gives me the ability to work as much as I can handle, and be home when I need to be.

I sometimes lament my lot in life, but more often I'm happy about who I am. I am creative, smart, and the intensity of emotion I'm able to feel is a gift. I am empathetic and giving. These are traits that I don't know if I would have without my disorder. There's no loss without some gain.

As for the rest of my family, my brother was recently diagnosed with schizophrenia. My dad is his caregiver, and has had a change of heart about mental illness. It is no longer something to be berated, swept under the rug, mocked and avoided. He has become an advocate for my brother and for the mentally ill in his state. He has since apologized to me for the way he treated me when I was a child. I don't know if we'll ever be able to heal completely from any of this, but we're trying.

8 year(s) of experience.

425 Posts

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Long Term Care Columnist / Guide

VivaLasViejas, ASN, RN

108 Articles; 9,985 Posts

Specializes in LTC, assisted living, med-surg, psych.

What an inspiring story! You have turned tragedy into triumph, in spite (or because) of your mental illness. You may not think of yourself as heroic, but to me, you are. :yes:


1,082 Posts

Specializes in ICU.

Wow, thank you so much for sharing your story! Your story gives me hope that I can eventually get married, have kids, and have a "normal" life, a life that I dream of. I know life will never be normal for me, but at least I can strive for those goals that I have for myself. It is amazing how much you never know what someone has gone through, or is going through, especially if you never ask. Thank you so much for contributing to Mental Health Awareness Month!!


425 Posts

Thank you. This is the first time I've ever written all of this down. It was a bit of an emotional experience. I'm glad I could contribute.

allnurses Guide

BCgradnurse, MSN, RN, NP

1,678 Posts

Specializes in allergy and asthma, urgent care.

Thank you for sharing your story. You are a person of tremendous courage and strength.


2,452 Posts

Specializes in ortho, hospice volunteer, psych,.

Thank you so much for sharing your story. Cathartic though it was to write your wonderful article, I also realize just how difficult it was. Hugs!

Specializes in LTC, Hospice, Case Management.

I just can't imagine! I'm not sure I would ever have had the strength you have had from a very young age. Hugs and peace to you.


77 Posts

How courageous to open up. Sometimes the best therapy is when you write it out and are able to go through your past step by step. Now, you can go back and read what you wrote... and know just how far you've come! Keep the progress! :up:

Specializes in Medical Surgical.

Thank you for sharing your story and I am happy that you became a nurse and pushed on with your life despite all the hardships! That takes courage. I can relate to feeling guilty about not having an instant connection with my child. I am not going to go into too much detail because it is more complicated than most can understand but the fact is you worked through your issues and did develop a mother-child relationship with him. You obviously care. Good luck to you and all your family!


63 Posts

Your story about dealing with Mental illness is inspiring! I can relate to feeling guilty about not giving my child enough of my time. I stayed home with her until she started elementary school but I never really enjoyed being home with her because I was in constant torment with my husband. Dealing with an abusive husband destroyed my self-esteem and sent me into a deep depression that went untreated for over 5 years. I already was introverted and shy before husband mentally abused me. XOXO. Good luck to you.

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