Many of us with mentally ill parents shouldn’t have “made it” this far. But we did and I’d be willing to bet it’s because the power of witness was present in our young lives. When I was littlest I was unaware of anything “wrong” with Dad. I walked with him downtown to the Post Office, letters to his Congressman in his hand. (He was convinced the government was controlling the weather and his letters demanded the government come clean.) I figured him a good dad protecting me from a government who wanted to create drought, take us all out by preventing rain from falling. However, as I developed into a teenager and my emotions grew more complex, the slow dawn of embarrassment revealed my truth, something I kept pushing away: Dad was very sick. Every day he slipped further away. I experienced his abandonment of his own self and his abandonment of me; tricky to understand because his physical self was still there. Yet his mind wasn’t. None of us knew what to do. There was little help for someone like him, not then.
When I hitched rides home from church youth group outings I dreaded all the questions people asked about why did my dad keep so many derelict cars in the yard. Why so many cats, and why the blue tarp over the roof? And the worst question of all…why did Dad insist on keeping a monkey? My own questions I could not answer. Then I remember asking my friend’s parents to start dropping me off a few houses away from mine, in order to avoid embarrassment.
We were required to keep Dad’s illness secret too. So, instead of talking to someone about it I had to pretend everything was fine. Not talking turned me into a silent observer. As a result, I found there were many good people in this world. I watched the good ones and tried to imitate their healthy behaviors. I made decisions for my future self. Even as a teen I vowed I would get help if I ever felt like I was catching whatever Dad had, and I was plenty worried I might. I could have caught it but it passed me by. Though I could could not get help, I didn’t have nothing with which to cope. Three important things made the difference.
The most powerful thing in my young life in the face of so much secrecy turned out to be the power of witness. Kids whose parents suffer with mental illness need a witness. Otherwise they feel completely alone, floundering in a sea of neglect and abuse. Even if the witness can only stand with a kid but cannot do anything to help their circumstance, if a kid knows someone sees them, they don’t feel quite so invisible. This is very important. Back then there was no support. Now there is an organization, NAMI, to help with advocacy, education and support. Here’s a link: https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI
Witness can take a few forms, that of a fellow human being the most critical. The second can be the witness of pen on paper. My years as silent observer spilled out onto the page. I found the written word to be powerful and satisfying in a world where there was precious little satisfaction. Writing story or composing poetry provides a safe place for the sufferer to go and speak silently. Strangely enough, the act of putting pen to paper provides a way for the sufferer to be heard, if only for himself. It provides a record and proves the suffering exists. Third is the power of music or art. Those who suffer tend to run deep. The artistic outlet can be priceless and enriching for the sufferer as well as for those lucky enough to witness their work, because it helps transform frustration and grief into something beautiful and tangible, worthy of visual and aural consideration.
I was blessed to have a few good people who cared for me, people I considered gifts, ones I observed and tried to emulate: Grandma Coriander up on Third Street who made chicken and dumplings every Sunday, a Sunday School teacher who took our class for hamburgers every Saturday, a school teacher who encouraged my creativity — writing, music and art — but one very dear friend stood with me through it all, though she could do nothing to actually change my situation. I believe my witnesses, along with the witness of my writing and music, were the reasons I survived.