I remember the first time I told someone my mom was mentally ill. I was trying not to overexpose myself and didn’t want to go into detail about my life or dominate the conversation, so I simply stated that things have been difficult because my mom is mentally ill and had been going through an episode. Finally! One sentence explained it all. I didn’t need to explain the complicated scenario and back story, nor did I minimize it all by labeling her as “difficult” (as I imagine many children say about their parents). It was a freeing and illuminating moment, as I typed the words. Why hadn’t I thought of doing or saying that before?
It’s complicated. As children, it’s impossible at first to know that your parent is not typical. It takes an even longer time to recognize that certain behaviors are a symptom of mental illness, and not just a quirk. In my case, friends of mine and friends of my mother’s pointed these things out to me. I was unaware that her behavior wasn’t normal. I was used to reacting to her provocations and blaming myself for not being able to make things right. As an adult, it’s difficult to express that your parent is mentally ill when they themselves adamantly deny it (as denial is part of their coping mechanism). Most persons with personality disorders (especially NPD) do not believe they are mentally ill. In fact, they likely believe that you — and everyone else — are the real problem.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what your parent believes, or what others think they know to be true about them. It doesn’t matter what your parent tells their therapist, their friend, the family, or their colleagues. What does matter is that you recognize the true issue: your parent has a specific mental illness that has very little potential to change.
Call it what it is, and act accordingly. Some say no contact is the only way to peace… perhaps this is true. But no contact hurts when you love someone. Others recommend a myriad of ways to become a sort of Jedi-master of deflection, redirection, validation, and non-reactivity. This is more difficult to do than no-contact, and it is especially difficult for children of personality-disordered parents; we were trained to react, always. To not react is an affront to the parent, an abandoning of sorts, and it is uncomfortable as well. Not only is it uncomfortable, it is not well-received by the PD parent. For me, it is my forever challenge. I will continue to try to have a civil relationship in which I diffuse situations and decide to ignore & disengage when things get unbearable. I’ve noticed that the sooner I choose to do this, the greater likelihood I have of preventing long periods of no contact. Having the self-discipline to know my own limits helps me to re-engage without fear of being completely engulfed. (Making a limit such as one text conversation a day, and/or one phone call a week, can provide some structure within a toxic relationship.)
There is no perfect game plan, and there is no solution. There is, however, a peace that comes from truly accepting that the term “mental illness” explains a lot. Rather than promoting a stigma, owning the fact that a family member is mentally ill can lead to radically accepting them as they are.