Living with a mental illness, there were definitely benefits to my mom being a therapist. But sometimes I just needed the care of a parent, not another professional.
I am standing beside my mother at the Macy’s department store, going out of my mind in a very public way.
The perfume from the makeup counters is making me dizzy, and everything seems to be spinning before my eyes. My mom wants me to step into the glass elevator and ascend to the third floor so she can check out the sweaters and scarves. But I am so afraid of heights and this glass elevator is really unnerving me right now.
I can feel myself plunging to the bottom of the store, turning into a mangled mess of limbs and blood.
“You have to face your fears, Elizabeth,” my mom says in her usual psychotherapist tone while I whimper and whine. I am digging in my heels. I will not get into this elevator.
“This is magical thinking,” she continues. “If you don’t get into this elevator now, you will continue to be dominated by your anxiety, in this case, your phobia of heights. Think about how empowered you will feel if you join me on the third floor. Maybe I’ll even buy you one of those cashmere sweaters that is on sale.”
I have no choice. She will not leave the store, and if I want a ride home, I must follow her into the glass elevator.
I bury my face in my jacket so I cannot see the outside as it goes up, up, up. I’m used to my mom behaving like my psychotherapist. This is how many of our shopping excursions take place.
But my mom also helps me see that it’s ridiculous to be so afraid of a glass elevator or riding the escalator (which, heaven forbid, is even worse).
Instead of screaming at me through her frustration for pacing around the elevator but refusing to step inside it, she talks me through my meltdown. She helps me ground myself and stands with me until the fear washes over me. My breath evens out and my hands stop trembling.
Still, I just want her to hug me.
The best part of having a mother who is a psychotherapist is that she’s a keen observer of all the symptoms of my mood and anxiety.
She can often pick up on my symptoms of mania even before I can. She notices when I’m getting revved up, running around the house, and talking really fast about how I am going to save the world.
My mother has preempted some pretty nasty bipolar episodes, reminding me when it’s time to reach out to my psychiatrist for a medication adjustment.
And my psychiatrist always listens to her. He respects her professional opinion more than my attempts to talk my way out of more medication. She often accompanies me to my doctor’s appointments because of this ability to pick up on the subtleties of my mood swings.
When I was struggling through high school, she was able to get me emergency appointments with new doctors and therapists because of her position in the mental health community. This made my journey to mental health so much easier, and I am still grateful all these years later that she was tirelessly on my side.
I couldn’t have asked for a better advocate as my chronic depression turned into unrelenting mood swings that frightened us both.
Some of my high school friends who were also dealing with depression and anxiety had parents who didn’t believe in seeking professional help for these symptoms. Some of them remained dangerously ill with suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behaviors.
My mom knew what psychiatric hospitalization can be like and tried to keep me out of the child/adolescent psych unit as long as she could. I was falling apart every day in high school, and the school social worker was recommending hospitalization because of my inability to function.
But my mom was worried that the experience would traumatize me. She held strong in her belief that she could take care of me on her own, even when I was so self-destructive that I probably should have been in a hospital environment.
But I have to say that she was right: the week I eventually spent in the hospital did stick with me.
I can often find myself drifting back to the stickiness of the apple juice residue on the tables where all the patients ate, crying so much in group therapy that the therapist ran out of tissues, and staring listlessly out of an unbreakable glass window for hours at a time.
But my mom never denied that I was very ill, and we paraded through our city’s mental health community seeking answers to my worsening symptoms.
When the diagnosis turned out to be bipolar disorder, my mom was unsettled — to say the least.
She predicted a life full of lithium capsules, erratic mood swings, and even more time spent in psychiatric hospitals. Being a psychotherapist, she knew just how dangerous bipolar disorder could be and all the ways it might impact my life.
She had always been somewhat of a helicopter parent, but now she really had a reason to worry. Now there was a bipolar diagnosis code in my mental health chart, prescriptions for lithium, and countless visits to the outpatient lab to make sure that the level was both safe and effective.
We do have to pay strict attention to boundaries. I often tell my mom that I have to make my own successes and failures.
And I do have a team of doctors and professionals who take care of me — who notice when I am starting to go off the deep end.
I usually agree with her that I might be speeding up a bit and that mania could be around the corner, but I have to take it into my own hands to reach out to my psychiatrist.
And it can be annoying when she tries to analyze everything I do, constantly looking for errors in my thinking. In her work, she does a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), so she’s always on the lookout for the black-and-white thinking that I frequently engage in.
I need my mom and therapist to be different things. They are both indispensable — but in different ways.
I want my mom to envelop me in her arms when I am scared to get into the glass elevator, not tell me that my thinking is “off.”
First and foremost, I want her to be my mother. I can pay those mental health professionals to prescribe medication and tell me when I am veering off into familiar cognitive distortions.
I know that my mom would do anything for me to keep me sane, but sometimes to be sane, I think I need her to take a step back and give me that emotional, unconditional support that I so desperately crave.
Medically reviewed on December 19, 2022
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