Growing Up with Two Mentally Ill Parents

Growing Up with Two Mentally Ill Parents

No one is watching. No one is listening. No one cares.

It’s funny, when you want to send something out to the world, those words are among your greatest fears.

But when you want to keep something from the world, those words can bring you the greatest comfort.

So, what happens when those two desires collide? You get this essay.

For days and even weeks, I have been agonizing and ruminating over whether or not to write this. The full story is so deep, so personal, so raw, that I have never even told my closest friends. It’s a story full of the deepest pain, yet the most amazing beauty. It’s a story so improbable, yet so inspiring. It’s something I’ve avoided discussing my entire life, until now.

If I had to summarize my life, I’d point you to a poem by Tupac, The Rose That Grew From Concrete. 

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

Life works in strange ways. And it’s even stranger when you are the rose.

Life has a way of taking our assumptions, flipping them upside down, turning them around, and obliterating them right in front of our eyes.

And that is how my story starts.

Procrastination or Avoidance? 

If you’ve read one of my previous posts on how to avoid procrastination, you might have sensed that I was putting off something that needed to be done. Ironically, in writing that, I was procrastinating.

What you might not have sensed was that I have been avoiding something for a very long time. I have done everything in my power to avoid doing something that I am just now bringing myself, kicking and screaming, to do. Well, writing this essay is that something.

I’ve realized that confining my story within the walls of my mind is a bit selfish. There are millions of people in this world who need to hear my story because there can sometimes be nowhere or no one to turn to for help. Millions of people have dealt with the effects, whether internally or from others, of mental illness. I hope my story can offer a glimmer of support or hope. And furthermore, I realize in order to move fully into the future, I must first set myself free from the past.

Questions

For the first 29 years of my life, I have been running. Running for 29 years can become exhausting, especially if you don’t stop to breathe. But stopping to breathe is, ironically, the best way to keep what’s chasing you from consuming you.

I have always shuttered at the idea of small talk. Sure, it might be necessary for connecting with people we wouldn’t otherwise speak with, but I think we would all be better off without it.

I’ve especially disliked being asked small-talk questions like “what do you do for work?” or “what do you plan on doing with your college degree?” I always forced myself to answer in some sort of smart and sophisticated way, but in reality, my story has never folded and unfolded so nicely.

And then, there is the set of questions that I loathed the most. The ones inquiring about my parents. Having faced so many of those questions throughout my life, I have become adept at sidestepping these questions with the dexterity of Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix.

My training ground for these types of questions was in school. When greeted by the question “how’s your mom?” I’d answer with a simple and superficial “good!” It wasn’t very difficult to hide the truth since my mom was fairly active in my life growing up. People knew who she was. They didn’t always know the battle she was fighting.

Occasionally kids would ask questions like “where’s your dad?” I would answer with something along the lines of “he’s busy.” These questions were much more challenging because I only rarely saw my dad. Once a week at best. He never was able to take me to school. Kids never saw him. Teachers never met him. To the outside world, he was, and still is, a mystery.

Each time I faced these questions, I knew I had to come up with some sort of creative way to weasel my way out in order to keep the truth about my upbringing hidden. I wish I could say I would have rather told the truth, but I had always felt a relief by keeping everything hidden.

This is no way for a kid to grow up.

One of the deepest pains in my life has come from the fact that I’ve never had what you would call “normal” parents. The ones who showed you the right way to live. The ones who took you to football practice. The ones who helped pay for college. The ones who cooked you dinner. And the ones who tucked you in at night.

Whatever “normal” parents do, I never had growing up.

But one of the deepest joys of my life has also come from the fact that I’ve never had what you would call “normal” parents.

My Source of Structure and Stability

Until I graduated high school, I lived in a rough neighborhood just outside of Philadelphia. As an only-child, raised predominantly by my maternal grandparents, I’ve had no choice but to figure out this world on my own.

My grandfather, a Filipino and Japanese man, of few words and even fewer visible emotions, instilled the discipline that always kept me in line; a discipline that kept me focused on achievement and away from making the wrong decisions. Combine that with eating rice with every meal, and I had an almost stereotypical East Asian upbringing.

My grandmother, who came to this country to escape the turmoil brought on by Fidel Castro in late 1950s Cuba, provided a sense of reliability and steadiness that I would never have had otherwise. She knew the value of personal freedom, and it showed through in how I grew up. She was the yin to my grandfather’s yang. She was there to watch cartoons with me before school, pick me up from the bus stop after school, and wash my clothes every week.

This is the structure I was so lucky to have as a child, considering that I lacked what most people would think of as “normal” parents. The one thing I’ll always be indebted to my grandparents for is that they kept me off the streets. For anyone who has lived in poorer inner city or suburb neighborhoods, you know how incredibly important that is for the development of a young mind. Put simply, if my grandparents hadn’t been there for me early on, I have no idea where I’d be today.

When Mental Illness Colors Your Outlook On Life

This is a part of my life that has never been revealed to anyone outside of my family. This is the story that has brought me the most pain over the years. But it is also the story I’m most proud of. While not the entire story, this, in a nutshell, is what made me who I am today.

My Mom

My mom is a wonderful and loving woman with an extraordinarily creative mind. She has been creating artistic masterpieces through drawing and painting since before she gave birth to me at the age of 17. With as magnetic a personality as you’ll ever imagine, she infuses any room she walks into with an array of vibrant colors that you would find in one of her paintings.

As visible as her talents and personality are to everyone, equally invisible to the world has been her struggle to simply live a stable and consistent life. Since before I was born, she has struggled with the debilitating effects of Bipolar Disorder, a mental health condition that closely resembles a pendulum swinging wildly from one extreme to another. But she never let her condition hinder her from trying to be the best mother she could be.

As a young child who couldn’t possibly understand this, I became accustomed to the unpredictable and, at times, volatile behavior that my mom would occasionally exhibit. As a young mother, she was still coming to terms with how to manage her condition, while simultaneously learning how to raise a child of her own.

There were long stretches of time when she would be home to help raise me. There were also stretches of time when she would be absent from home, for reasons I could never understand. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I began to recognize that my mom wasn’t abandoning me during those times, but she had been seeking help with her condition in the best way any mental health experts could offer.

Through all her struggles, she has fought her hardest to give me the best life possible within her means. Through all of her sacrifices and horrible circumstances, she has shown me that I have always been her “why.” And through her determination to give me the kind of life she fought so hard to live, she proved that with a strong enough “why,” she could endure just about any “how.” Her example has taught me that, with a meaningful purpose in life, just about any obstacle can be overcome.

My Dad

My dad is someone everyone needs in their life. He’s the type of guy who would never hesitate to give his umbrella, his coat, and the shirt off his back to someone in need in the middle of a rainstorm. He is truly a special soul, and someone who I’ll always look up to as an incredible source of inspiration. The tragedy of his story is that he simply never had the chance to live a normal life.

My dad was born in Italy in the 1960s. Much of the world, and Italy in particular, did not have much of an understanding of mental illness at the time. It is no surprise that two traditional Italian parents would never quite understand their only son who would make it past birth. Even when he came to America in the early 1970s, doctors could not offer any advice other than to wait for him to “grow out of it.”

Simply, my dad was born with a set of mental health conditions in an environment hostile to mental health conditions. In poker parlance, my dad was born with a 7-2 off suit.

His youth was plagued with delays in speech and walking, difficulty learning, anger problems, and a complicated and difficult relationship with his father. His only true solace would be in the Bible, a book which to this day he can recite cover to cover.

He was 20 years old by the time I was born. Despite his mental deficiencies, he was well aware of the possibility that I could be born with similar circumstances. But to everyone’s amazement, against overwhelming odds, I grew up with none of my parents’ disorders.

I lived with my mom’s family, and for many reasons, I wasn’t able to see my dad very often. But when he wasn’t able to be around, my dad was busy doing good for the world. He would make sandwiches to give to the homeless in Philadelphia. He would visit the hospital at a moment’s notice if he heard someone he knew was there. He would go out of his way to push his disabled friend in a wheelchair across town. This is the kind of man he is.

Out of his poverty, he has always given the world everything. This is the standard I strive to meet every single day.

Easy to Judge, Hard to Appreciate

There are certain flashpoints from my time growing up that my mind always returns to. Moments when I didn’t understand the situation or what to think. I never knew why I could only see my dad once a week, and why we couldn’t have a typical father-son relationship. I never knew why my mom’s mood would drastically change in a moment’s notice. I never knew why they both would disappear from time to time as I was just learning to navigate the world. For an outsider, it would be easy to judge my childhood as sub-optimal.

But when digging deeper, you begin to appreciate their amazing story. One day, this essay will become a book, and then you will see exactly what I mean. 

While they may live with lifelong mental health disorders, the parents I have are fun-loving, free-spirited, passionate people. They gave me the freedom to make my own decisions and the inspiration to persevere through any obstacle. They are two of the most amazing human beings I’ve ever known. My mom, a talented artist, full of love and life. My dad, an incredibly charming man with a heart of gold. Both have fought through the lowest of the lows, so they could create a life for me that they couldn’t live. The sacrifices they have made in their life, and the good they have done for other people in the process have set a lofty bar for me. It is the standard they set that I continually strive to meet.

When you first saw that rose growing from the concrete, and when you first read the poem, you might have assumed I was referring to myself. But the more you read, the more you’ve begun to realize that isn’t the entire truth. That rose is also my parents.

Why Not Me?

There is a touch of survivor’s guilt that I feel from time to time. It sucks sometimes to think that I have a life my parents never had the opportunity to live. It’s the type of guilt that always makes me question what business I have doing any of this. Who am I to graduate from college? Who am I to run a multi-million-dollar restaurant? Who am I to travel the world and walk across countries? Who am I to build a website? Who am I to tell their story?

Then I stop myself.

This is what my parents fought so hard to see. All they want is for their only son to succeed in life!

So that is what I’m going to do. It’s the only thing I can do with this one precious life.

This is and always has been my driving force.

When you ask me why I quit managing restaurants, it’s not just for all the reasons I say.

When you ask me why I walked 500 miles across northern Spain, it’s not just for all the reasons I say.

When you ask me why I never talked about my parents until now, it’s not because I wanted to hide them, but to protect them.

When you ask me why I am working 16+ hours a day, 7 days a week to build something I believe in, it’s not just because I want financial freedom and to do meaningful work. It’s not just because sitting in a cubicle is not something someone with this kind of story should be doing.

It is what my parents, as imperfect as their lives are, created such a perfect opportunity for me to do. Everything I do is in honor of them. Everything you see is made possible by them. Two imperfect humans with the odds stacked against them throughout their life. Two imperfect humans, creating the perfect opportunity for their only son to thrive.

For that, I am forever indebted to my parents. I have no choice but to make the most of my perfect opportunity. 

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Thank you so much for reading. I encourage you to share this story with someone important in your life. Everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about, but through our compassion, we can all come together to support those in need.


Resources

I have always been on the lookout for some of the best mental health resources. Here are some of the more nationally known. If you have more that I can add to this list, please comment below.

NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

NIMH: National Institute of Mental Health

Social Work License Map has an amazing list of resources.


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    9 Replies to “Growing Up with Two Mentally Ill Parents”

    1. Love your story and honesty. Having grown up with a mentally challenged sister and now as we are adults, I have looked for the parts of joy that she could enjoy.

    2. I could have written this essay (aside from the more specific details). I grew up with a mentally ill immediate family (mother, father, older sister AND brother), so it rings so many bells for me.

      Would love to connect

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