Parenting Yourself: the Power Of Witness

With a mentally ill parent love may very well come hard or not at all. When a child comes into a family you can bet your life that little kid is very interested in getting the parent to notice her, because that kid believes her daddy is equally interested in his offspring. My dad’s interest in me started out as genuine, then slipped away as his mental illness took him over until his meager efforts appeared phony.  Confused the heck out of me, why, at every turn he had abandoned me. I kept trying to get him to see me.

As I grew older I mistakenly believed that, since my dad was still present bodily, then he must still be there for me. I really didn’t understand how ill he had gotten. His downward slide paralleled my growth incrementally. As my material, emotional, and spiritual needs grew greater his provisions for me quickly dwindled to nothing. For example, living conditions got so bad we had to haul water from town for months on end because the well pump stopped working. He seemed unable to make things better for those who depended on him. I did not have adequate clothing or heat. Mom happened to be a resourceful hunter/gatherer so she made sure we were OK in the food department. In the midst of Dad’s wealth, and in spite of Mom’s efforts, desperation ruled our days.

His body was still there, living at the house, fed by Mom. He talked, yes. He had gumption to feed the monkey. He worked some, too. However, the thing I couldn’t quite wrap my head around was this: he was not really at “home.” Though I could see, touch and speak to (at) him, his mind, the thing that made him him, had gone away.

A kid loves a parent, right? So, the parent loves the kid, right? If not, maybe the kid thinks she hasn’t tried hard enough. Some adults think this, too. If the kid tries harder he or she can get Daddy to love him or her back, right? Wrong. Not a little kid’s responsibility to present the love model to the parent. The onus is on the parent to model love for the child. Imroperly modeled “love” by a parent is something a lot of kids don’t receive, an awful gift that keeps on giving. A lot of time passed from early childhood to adulthood before I was ready to swallow that pill–my truth–about my mentally ill father who could not love me. No matter how much I looked to Dad to even see me, his window had closed long ago, and would not be opened by him again.

However, I vowed at a fairly young age not to let Dad’s depression rule my life. While I still lived at home I did everything my gifts allowed in order to offset the overwhelming influence his illness tried to exert on my life. Later, when I had the freedom, in my early twenties I sought counseling. Counseling invoked the power of witness. Witness is powerful. Witness sees and understands. Witness validates things that cannot be seen. Witness helps us parent ourselves.

  • Witness can be a professional counselor. You can trust yourself to find a good one because you are caring for yourself.
  • Or, witness doesn’t have to be in the form of a counselor. Witness can be a five minute phone call to a friend. Sometimes simply hearing someone say, “I have your back” is enough for that day.
  • You can experience the power of witness by reading the story of Hagar in the Bible, or inspiring stories like Jeannette Walls’ book, the GLASS CASTLE.
  • Witness can be writing a letter to yourself and keeping it in a safe place.
  • Witness can be a book or story you write, a song you compose or even someone else’s song you sing.
  • Witness can be a poem you write about a little tree that grows in spite of lack of rain, a tree whose roots learn go deep to find an underground pool.
  • Witness can be painted, drawn or doodled on paper, then hung on a bathroom mirror to remind you you are caring for your heart.
  • Witness a powerful tool and helper, a good one you can trust yourself to find.

When I was old enough, free enough to parent myself I followed my instincts to care for me. I wrote, created music and drew. I walked a lot, got into nature. Still do. Not afraid to say it, I still get counsel from time to time. And what a difference counseling, writing, walking and creating has made in my life.

These are smart things we do for ourselves so we can break the chain of neglect. Neglect has to stop somewhere. Why not with us? Why not explore the power of witness?