Raised by a Parent With Schizophrenia
A parent with an illness like schizophrenia is not always equipped to care for a child or to provide a child with all the emotional support they need. Children in these situations have varying experiences, but research indicates they are more vulnerable to their own mental health challenges, both due to genetics and adverse experiences. This does not mean it is impossible to be functioning and healthy. The involvement of other supportive adults, early interventions, and therapy can help a child of a seriously mentally ill parent grow into a healthy, happy adult.
I know from firsthand experience that it is possible to survive and later thrive after being raised by a parent with an illness as serious as schizophrenia. My mother struggled with this mental illness for decades. There were earlier signs, but she didn’t start showing the most troubling indications of psychosis until her last year of college. By then, she had gotten married and had my younger brother and me. She never graduated.
After years of sorting through what happened, learning more about schizophrenia, and getting therapy, I understand my childhood more. I have empathy for my mother and her struggles, and I forgive her for the difficult times. I know she did the best she could but coming to this realization and finding peace has been a long journey.
Inconsistency Ruled Our Home
As far as I can remember, the first time I realized my mother wasn’t like other moms was the night the police came to the house. She had flown into a rage, pushing and shoving my dad. It wasn’t the first time they had fought, but this time she pulled out a knife and threatened him.
I had a friend over, and while I was scared, I wasn’t surprised. My friend’s face told me everything I needed to know. This wasn’t normal. The police arrived to subdue my mom and took her to the mental hospital, where she would stay off and on for years.
That was an example of the worst times with my mother. There were great times too. She could be incredibly nurturing and loving, but never consistently. I didn’t always know which mom I would get when I woke up. Would it be the one that got me dressed and took me to school? Or the mom that insisted I skip school and join her in the woods out back to start building a shelter and stockpiling food for the end times.
Support From Outside the Family Saved Me
I also think my dad did his best, but he didn’t do enough to erase the effects of my mother’s erratic and frightening behaviors. When she turned violent, he would have me lock myself in my room, not to open the door until he said it was OK. When she criticized me and told me I was a loser, he only told me not to take her seriously.
He had his hands full trying to take care of the woman he loved, and I fell by the wayside, not always, but often. I believe to this day that things would have been much, much worse for me if I didn’t have other adults in my life who took an interest.
The first was my paternal grandmother. She wasn’t in a position to care for me all the time, but when she could, she took me away for breaks. I called her whenever I felt like no one else would listen. When I doubted my own parents cared enough, I knew that at least she did.
I also had a friend whose parents were good to me for many years. They let me stay over for more sleepovers than is typical. Between this family and my grandmother, I had periods of normalcy throughout my childhood.
I Was at Risk for Mental Illness Too
It’s not a surprising statement in retrospect, but as a child and even in college, as I tried to get away from my family, I didn’t know how deeply I could be affected by my mother’s illness. According to research, a child of a parent with schizophrenia has a greater risk of also having the condition.
Researchers have long tried to figure out the causes of schizophrenia and the family connections. The most up-to-date theory is called stress diathesis. I am more vulnerable to having schizophrenia because of specific genes and the stressful environment of my childhood. I could have the genes that predisposed me to this mental illness, but it’s the stress of my upbringing that really made me vulnerable.
Fortunately, I never developed schizophrenia. I do have diagnosed depression, and I struggle with anxiety. Through therapy, I have learned that my childhood experiences were traumatic. Trauma was a word I used to think was too drastic to use, but I understand now that I did have trauma, and it impacted me for life.
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My Childhood Affects My Adult Relationships
My current state of mental health is not the only consequence of being raised by a schizophrenic parent. I also have a hard time with relationships and have fought hard to build healthy partnerships.
My mother was hot and cold throughout my childhood. She was loving when stabilized on medication. When she went off her meds, she could be harsh, cold, and indifferent at best. At worst, she said she hated me and that I ruined her life and hopes for a career.
This ensured that I did not have a healthy attachment to my mother. My father could have provided more stable support, but he found it more convenient to retreat. In developing romantic relationships as an adult, I had a hard time trusting anyone. Once in a relationship, I became needy and overbearing.
The way my mother sometimes treated me, and the neglect I felt at times, left me with low self-esteem. Until I met my now-husband, I had a very hard time feeling worthy of anyone. I let myself be taken advantage of by manipulative and even abusive boyfriends for several years.
Working Through Therapy and Building Resilience
It was my grandmother who encouraged me to start therapy in college, which is where I got a diagnosis of depression. She is the main pillar of support in my life, and without her, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to get the help I needed. According to my therapist, she brought the stability to my life that I so desperately needed and that this made a world of difference.
I have gone through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to build my self-esteem and to learn to value myself. My CBT therapist also pushed me to try trauma-focused therapies. I resisted initially, but recalling the experiences of my childhood in a safe environment has been life-changing.
I have come to understand how deeply ill my mother was and how poorly equipped my father was to do any more than he did. I let go of resentment long ago. I forgave them.
Through therapy and a lot of work, I have become resilient, not just in the face of difficult memories but also in managing healthy adult relationships with my parents. Before working through these issues, I couldn’t fathom continuing any parent-child relationships.
Now, I am rebuilding with my dad and spending some time helping him take care of my mother. She is now physically very sick due to years of antipsychotic medications and failing to look after her health. Initially, this felt retraumatizing, but the resilience I built in therapy has helped me embrace a new role as a daughter.
I had a unique and damaging childhood, and yet, I came out on top. I want this to give hope to other people raised by a parent with serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. I hope it also helps those parents, many of whom feel guilty about their limitations in raising their children. Support from other loving adults, therapy, and facing my trauma are what helped me become a healthy adult.