Parenting Yourself: the Power Of Witness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith 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?

 

Caged

That’s the thing about having a parent afflicted with mental illness: you feel caged. I can only imagine how my dad felt. Speaking of cages let me tell you about my dad’s monkey’s cage. Talk about the Taj Mahal For Primates, an edifice Dad took great care designing and building. The finished product boasted a warming room, a tunnel leading to a sunlit monkey run about twenty feet long, and a sun tower that jutted far above the tar papered roof of the adjacent building. It really would have been impressive except for the fact that the Taj Mahal For Primates was warmer than my bedroom at home. Dad saw to it. Why my dad afforded the monkey every comfort and failed to build warm fires for me, his flesh and blood, was something I spent a lifetime trying to figure out. Plus, the monkey had fur. Not fair.

About my dad’s monkey (there were six total). Think Rhesus. Think Mean. Fangs. Cage rattler. You would be those things, too, if you were caged most of the time. This monkey’s name was Squeako and I am here to tell you I am not making this up; Squeako was born the exact morning as I. Not kidding. The day my mom came home from the hospital with infant me in her arms she found a surprise awaiting her: a monkey in the oven. Baby monkey. In a shoe box. Sadly, while I was busy nearly dying from my own birth, Squeako lost his monkey mother in his. Thankfully I lived so I could tell you — work with me here — everyone has got to have a purpose — this completely ridiculous yet true story.  From what I understand of the situation, my near death experience couldn’t hold a candle to Dad’s concern over his monkey in the oven. An incubator, Dad said, since the mother was dead, and could we please use the baby girl’s diapers for Squeako? I had a name for Pete’s sake.

Squeako lived forty years. Just like my dad’s mental illness, Squeako watched, chased, terrified me, terrifies me still, in dreams. Growing up I simply could not get away from him, especially when Dad got bored and “accidentally” left the door to the Taj Mahal open. He laughed and laughed a scary high pitched giggle when he was pleased with himself, especially after he had done something stupidly dangerous, followed by, “See, kids, it’s funny, isn’t it?” Not funny, Not at all. I was terrified of the monkey. None of my needs registered with Dad. So I stayed cold and afraid and there was no comfort. Until I learned the power of pen on paper, the power of witness. Then I learned to express myself through music. At last, when I finally learned there was no shame in talking about mental illness I shared my truth and got some great tools to help me cope with the strain of a mentally ill father.

I was glad when that monkey died forty years later. My whole life I pitied Squeako, yet feared he would get ahold of me eventually. He seemed a perfect picture of my dad’s sickness, of our family’s torment, something I couldn’t understand, something that chased, caged us all, for a very long time.

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Squeeko looked like this Rhesus, fatter due to excessive consumption of Dads buckwheat pancakes.

The Power Of Witness

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.