Forget Me, Forget Me Not

August 01, 2008

Growing up in the whirlwind of alcoholism has received considerable mainstream attention over the last twenty years or so. It’s widely known that adult children of alcoholics often struggle with common issues such as feeling isolated, a dependant personality, and judging themselves without mercy (http://www.adultchildren.org/). Another less exposed affliction is growing up in a home overshadowed by mental illness. Perhaps even more than alcoholism, the stigma of mental illness creates a veil of secrecy. This curtain can be so tightly woven, that it not only brings profound loneliness, but also a skewed sense of reality for the children struggling to cope.

Some varieties of mental illness can't be hidden while others seem to disappear once the front door is thrown open, delicately and brilliantly cloaked by those who seek to hide them. If you could peak into most of the homes on your street, you would likely see the normal ups and downs of relationships, laughing toddlers, and boisterous teens, everyone spreading their wings, trying out life, stumbling between those exquisite moments that take the breath away. But some families live in quite a different world. For them, there is an insidious aberration adding extreme complexity to all of the above. This aberration twists the normal experiences of life into painful, misunderstood, and/or misinterpreted realities that are not easily washed away despite the most skilled coping mechanisms.

Even when mental illness isn’t carried forward into the next generation, a legacy of confusion, low self-esteem, out-of-whack emotional development, and fear creates a new kind of aberration that can take years to overcome. This is the legacy of the forgotten child. Much like that of children of alcoholics, these children share a common struggle as adults.

Forgotten children often struggle with a complex blend of emotions for the suffering parent. The nature of our love is a confusing mix of love that a parent has for a child, and love that a child has for a parent. These should never have to mix but they do in this case. The emotional turmoil of wanting to parent someone and wanting to be parented by that same person is an aberration that can sometimes be tucked away just neatly enough to pursue a normal life. The tucking process takes time and is usually achieved the hard way, but in the world in which we grew up, the hard way was the only way. No one remembered to make it easy; there were bigger issues to resolve.

In times of stress, this conflicting love can rear its ugly head. It reminds us that we were never quite good enough to wash away the adult pain we saw as very young children. This message lives outside the bounds of logic or intellect. It hides inside the emotional core that defines us as solidly as the beating heart that keeps us alive.

The hardest part of being a forgotten child is finding oneself. For us, the normal coming-of-age experience is complicated by a lack of proper mirroring and out-of-whack emotional development. Internalization of childhood experiences is diverse, of course. My brother’s life took a different path than mine due to our individuality; however, we did not go forward without an equally intense internal struggle for normalcy. All we wanted was normal but all we could relate to was abnormal.

I still fear that if I share the facts of my life with others, I’ll be branded. People may think that I’m mentally ill. And furthermore, is there something so terribly wrong with me that I wasn't worthy of my mother’s love? Was that why she couldn’t pull herself together for me? She was my mirror and when I looked into it, I saw myself; therefore, when others look at me, perhaps they see her. This skewed logic impacts my ability to feel loved and accepted by others. Again, these fears are blind to reason; they're embedded like roots I cannot pull completely out.

Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying. We forge on, knowing that we have so much to be grateful for, and to look forward to. But that dark spot hangs in the heart, tangling, groping for a place of comfort. And so we still long for a caring smile, for understanding and acknowledgement that what we bear is sacred. It played a huge role in making us who we are. Like the edges of a puzzle, it somehow holds us together although we long to break away. If others can embrace it kindly, our plight to do so becomes a bit easier.

With all that said, we are survivors. We are victorious! Forget me or forget me not. Toss me a challange and watch me shine.

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