Is it my fault? Am I to blame?
I laid in bed that night, tears pouring into my pillow, desperate for answers, desperate for rest, more for my son than for me. I’d just admitted him to an inpatient facility for treatment - and safety. We were weary, and everywhere I turned I seemed to receive the message that this was all my fault. Perhaps, like me, you have faced the barrage of questions from medical professionals, first responders, family and friends that leaves you feeling like perhaps, parents are to blame for mental illness.
What was your health like when you were pregnant? Doctors would ask. And I would recall getting the flu and taking medication just to be able to breathe, recall the long working hours I put in longing to provide financial stability for my growing family, recall the emotional stress from an unhealthy marriage. Overall, my health was poor - was that to blame?
You just need to discipline him more. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Frustrated family members would chime in. They couldn’t understand my son’s outbursts, the meltdowns in the middle of the grocery store, the screaming, and plugging his ears. Were they right that I simply needed to introduce more consequences, was his behavior just a sign of poor parenting?
Has he experienced any trauma? Sadly, he had, more than any little person should ever have to endure. Relationships he should have been able to trust, that were anything but safe and trustworthy. Why hadn’t I been able to see the danger, what did I miss, how could I have protected him?
What is your family history of mental illness? A long list of grandparents, aunts, cousins, siblings, parents all with diagnosed mental health conditions came flooding forward. With everything I knew about the heritability of mental illness, had it been wrong for me to have children in the first place?
How’s his diet? What’s his sleep schedule like? How many hours does he play video games? What type of school does he go to? Is he bullied? What vitamins does he take?
The questions never seemed to end, and they all felt like great big, flashing marquee lights pointing directly at me. It’s me, I’m the problem. The shame set in like a dark cloud, and I couldn’t see a path forward. No one in this world could love my son the way I love him. I would do anything in my power to take his pain away, to erase the mental illness from his world. And yet, I felt I could never do enough.
I shared my feelings with my therapist and she kindly, yet firmly asked me, “Is it your fault? Did you do something so awful to your son that you think you caused this?” I answered her, “No. All I’ve ever done was the best I knew how to in the moment. I just don’t understand why this happened.”
I wanted so desperately to have the answers. I wanted to know WHY? What caused this? Despite knowing that mental illness is caused by a combination of hereditary factors and life stressors, I still wanted the exact answer. A self-proclaimed “fixer” I thought that if I could figure out what or who was to blame for my son’s mental illness, I could concoct the perfect recipe to fix it. A pinch of the right medicine, a heavy scoop of therapy, a dash of supportive environments, a sprinkling of fairy dust and my son would no longer be sick. He wouldn’t hurt any more.
My culture delivered the message over and over - every illness has a cause, and for every problem there must be a solution. And if I was the problem, then maybe I had a heavier hand in controlling the outcome. If I was the problem, maybe I could also be the solution. And the shame I was feeling, that I might be the problem, but didn’t have the solution, kept me frozen.
I came to learn that shame is not a healthy emotion. Shame traps us; buries us alive. It goes far beyond healthy guilt. With guilt, we can see that we are a good person, but that some of our actions don’t align with who we desire to be. And we can make amends, be part of another person’s healing journey. But shame, shame tells us that who we are is unworthy of anything different. Shame leaves us without hope.
Perhaps, like me, you have internalized all of the messages in our culture that point at parents as the cause of their childrens’ mental illness. Perhaps you’ve heard the message from our society, from friends, colleagues or even close family members that you must be the reason.
And perhaps you are carrying shame that isn’t yours to carry. “Yes, parents are responsible for their children; no, they did not create the world in which they must parent them… Parents do their loving best; I know I did. I also know full well how my 'best’ was constrained by what I didn’t yet know about myself, nor about child rearing… I’m aware that guilt and blame are unhelpful and beside the point.” (Mate, Gabor. The Myth of Normal).
For all the things I could have done differently, there are a million I would do again in a heartbeat. I did my loving best. And, I know that I am not the beginning and end of the world in which my children are a part of. I can not control for the specific genetic make up they were born with, nor can I control for the stressful events and traumas in their world. And there is no magical recipe I can concoct that is going to make my son instantly better. So pointing a finger of blame at myself, or allowing others to do the same, is not going to be part of my son’s recovery - it simply won’t help him.
We must move beyond blame and shame in order to move forward in healing. Mental illness impacts the whole family, and in turn, the whole family participates in the path to recovery. When we learn to set aside shame, to accept that we did our loving best with what we knew, and make amends for the times we were not our best selves, we can help our children on their path to recovery.