Content Warning: this piece contains profanity and discusses mental illness.
As a kid, I spent a decent amount of time in hospitals — broken bones, asthma attacks, and that time I tripped in gym class and split the entire underside of my chin open. I remember sitting in the stale waiting room with my mother while the buzz of a small TV played home renovation shows on repeat. The sanitized smell of the room bothered my nose. We were there for eight hours before doctors patched up my chin with 14 stitches. I still have a visible scar.
My own hospital trips aside, I spent a lot of time throughout my adolescent years in the PsycHealth Centre visiting my mom. Some call it the “looney bin” — I called it an after-school activity.
Toast and pickles
I remember the day I knew my mother was ill.
I came home from school to find my father already home — strange. He always came home later in the evening. He worked hard to make sure my three siblings and I had a regular childhood and were able to pursue whatever extracurriculars we wished. My two older brothers were talented hockey players, my older sister was a dancer/flute player extraordinaire, and I, the youngest, dabbled in hockey, dance, soccer, and eventually gymnastics. I was a jack of all trades but a master of none.
He told me that my mother had to go away for a little bit. She wasn’t feeling good and the kind people at the hospital would take care of her.
Is she sick? She seemed fine to me yesterday, I thought to myself. Later I found out it wasn’t as simple as that.
My mother couldn’t cure her illness with chicken soup and a day in bed. Her sickness was invisible.
She spent over a month in the PsycHealth Centre that first time, and it would be the first of many stints over the course of my teenage years. She gained 40 pounds during her first stay from all the medication they used to keep her out of psychosis. She was unrecognizable. I didn’t cry for her because I didn’t understand. I was 11 at the time.
In the era of social media and #BellLetsTalk, talking about mental health is as common as taking a selfie. For me, neither of those things come naturally.
This never felt like my story to tell. They were my mother’s experiences, not mine, and I never wanted to rob her of her voice to speak her truth.
I never wanted pity. No one wants to be the kid with a sick parent, especially a sickness that most kids don’t really understand. It irked me that my friends could talk freely about how much they “hated” their parents for something they did, but I couldn’t voice my opinions without feeling guilty or explaining the whole story.
I felt cheated out of my teenage years because everyone was always concerned with my mother. The holidays, back-to-school season, and birthdays triggered her bipolar. Her highs were sky high, and her lows sunk deeper than the Mariana Trench. She put on a brave face for her kids, but there were days when I saw cracks in her porcelain.
When she went away for treatment, I was sometimes alone after school. My siblings hung out with friends or worked part-time jobs. I wasn’t old enough to serve coffee or do dishes for pay, so I had the house to myself after the short walk home from the bus stop. Hungry and left to my own devices, I took half-loafs of bread and toasted each slice one by one. As they popped up, I buttered and topped them with peanut butter and sliced pickles. It was my perfect combination. My mother wasn’t the only one who gained weight.
Mental illness sent ripples through our family — even if we didn’t notice it at first. I always thought I was a strange kid with even stranger circumstances. Then, I started peppering my adolescent experiences in my conversations as an adult. It was a relief to hear someone say “me too.”
I met Anthony Malazdrewich in a dark pub. He uses grandiose gestures when he talks and avoids eye contact when talking about personal things, but his blue eyes meet mine when he speaks about music or his guitar.
Anthony grew up with his parents and four siblings in a Volkswagen bus adorned with a hippie-era paint job. The family traveled from coast to coast working odd jobs.
He once lived in the Okanagan, picking apples and taking lunch breaks in provincial parks. His parents home schooled him for his primary years. He recalls his mother teaching him and his siblings handwriting and multiplication.
At the time, he rarely thought his upbringing was out of the ordinary, minus little moments that felt weird.
“We had our breakfast at, like, picnic tables in provincial parks, and I was like ‘This is weird’ because people are here playing on the play structure — they’re throwing frisbees to their dogs, and we’re sitting here with fucking cereal and milk and bowls for breakfast.”
His family eventually laid down roots in Winnipeg. Upon re-entering the public school system in grade five, Anthony knew his life wasn’t like everyone else’s.
Anthony also grew up with ill parents. His mother is schizophrenic, and his late father was an alcoholic with bipolar disorder.
Carolyn Klassen, a family therapist, describes parenting with a mental illness as trying to keep your head above water; it’s hard to look beyond yourself because you’re trying to take care of everything going on within your own head.
When he was a kid, Anthony sensed there was something off about the way his parents acted, but it became clear to him as he got older.
“Sometimes I would go home for lunch. There’ll be nothing to eat. My dad, he’s sleeping at 12. My family didn’t always work either, so that was weird. It was like, you know, Mom and Dad just sleeping all day. And they don’t ever come out of their room. I thought that was really, like, not normal either.”
I can’t help but giggle when I talk with Anthony. Between his scattered thoughts and many timelines going during one conversation, he tells me all about his childhood experiences. The more he tells me, the more I realize we have in common.
His parents were impulsive spenders. When they had money, they spent it all. When there wasn’t money, there was none. This resonated with me. I remember my mother taking me on shopping trips when I was young, but I was never to tell my father about them. I still lie about how much things cost.
Anthony doesn’t want to be anything like his parents, but he gives credit where credit is due. He says his parents instilled values in him that shaped him into the person he is today. He has a strong dislike for pretentious people, likes to go with the flow, and has a dream of owning a hobby farm outside city limits one day.
He attributes his nomadic spirit to his formative days in the van but would never wish to do that again. He’s getting married in the spring and wants to give his soon-to-be-wife, Lauren, the life she deserves.
Anthony says he and Lauren share a lot of qualities, and their differing traits balance each other out.
“She’s an external processor. Like, she doesn’t deal with things very well in that she needs to, like, go and just talk constantly to understand things.”
Anthony, a bit of an introvert, is the opposite. He says Lauren helps pull him out of the ruts he’s in when he’s unable to process his thoughts and emotions. It’s something he works on because he remembers his mother never showing much emotion towards him and his siblings growing up.
Difficulty processing thoughts and emotions can be a result of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Nearly two-thirds of adults have at least one, and studies show the more ACEs an individual has, the more susceptible they are to chronic and mental illness, violence or being a victim of violence.
Done in the 1990s, the CDC-Kaiser Permanente study was one of the largest investigations into childhood neglect and the after-effects it had on individuals going into adulthood.
It was a result of 17,000 patients receiving medical exams and a survey inquiring about their childhood experiences and what their habits are today. The results of the research led to the findings and eventual adaption of the study into the ACE quiz. Today, the quiz is online for anyone to take.
ACEs have three main categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Those categories include things ranging from sexual abuse to divorced parents to having one or more parents with a mental illness.
Carolyn analogises ACEs to a growing tree.
“If you have a tree that’s only a year or two old, and you take a good swing at it with an axe, that tree is going to be, like, deformed and really marked for the rest of its life,” she says.
In her analogy, as the tree grows older, it can defend itself from the axe more and more, but it will still leave marks.
Anthony loves trees.
Arielle Johnston describes herself as fire.
She lives outside city limits in a beautiful home with her husband and his family. It’s a quiet street nestled on the outskirts of a small town, but the petite blonde’s impassioned tone when she speaks wakes the sleepy neighbourhood.
The way she speaks about her partner, Nick, is like a page torn from a romance novel. After six months of dating, they eloped in Las Vegas. Four years later, they are as happy today as they were then.
In addition to Nick, she loves Harry Potter, her cats, and staying organized.
Her organizational habits come from a time in her childhood when things were always messy.
She recalls dishes piled high in their small apartment when she was a child. One memory she has is of her father walking up to a stack of plates, nudging it, and watching a swarm of fruit flies escape from the dirty ceramic. He laughed, she cringed.
Carolyn says those who have ACEs will grow up to be a few different things: some become very angry, some are clowns, and some become perfectionists. This is due to feeling like they grew up in an unstable environment.
Arielle’s parents fought a lot, and she could never understand why they were together in the first place. Growing up, she had a lot of friends with divorced parents, which made things even more confusing.
“I wanted my parents to split up, but they wouldn’t. Whereas my friends, they wanted their parents to stay together, and they wouldn’t,” she says.
She remembers her father as an angry man and her mother as a sheepish wallflower who rarely talked back. She says she’s not sure if they were ever diagnosed with mental illness but thinks they were both severely depressed. That led to their vices — her father drank and her mother gambled their money away often.
Through a series of events, Arielle ended up living on her own in an apartment at the age of 17. The pad was supposed to be for her and her mother, but she ended up being alone most of the time. She worked as much as she could when she wasn’t in school to buy herself something to eat.
“I was paying for my own groceries since I was 15 because my parents, they’d gamble the food money away,” she says.
Her mother lived with a boyfriend at the time, and she refused to live with her father due to his anger and manipulative ways. Although, it wasn’t always like that.
She remembers as a child defending her father in front of her mother’s family when they were critical of him, which made her angry. It’s a feeling that stayed with her into adulthood.
A few metres from Arielle’s bedroom is a black punching bag. It hangs stationary for the moment, showing visible wear and tear.
It’s the one thing that can calm her down from almost any situation. She holds a lot of anger from her childhood and how her parents treated her. She even sees this anger come out at work, where she helps people with cognitive and physical disabilities find employment.
“I just have this anger towards any person mistreating a child, especially one that’s their own.”
I admire Arielle for seeking help for the damage her childhood brought her. Her axe wounds cut far deeper than mine, but she recognized she needed to get help when she had severe depression.
It’s even how she met Nick.
“I was going through a really rough period. I was super, super depressed and suicidal. And I thought maybe a trip would help,” she recalled.
She traveled to New York with a friend, and as she was coming home, she noticed a Facebook post from Nick. He shared something she’d come across on her trip. She reached out to him and they got chatting. She instantly fell for his humour.
The rest of the story is in the romance novels on your bookshelf.
ACE in the hole
The more I speak with Anthony and Arielle, the more I see reflections of myself in them.
Vinita Mehta, a psychologist, writes in an article that children who grow up with mentally ill parents have six core experiences. They range from feelings of betrayal that they weren’t cared for growing up to what she calls “transferring the pain.”
She says information about a parent’s illness is often withheld from children. It can manifest as confusion, shame, and the need for secrecy.
“One participant recalled, ‘All I knew was, um, my grandparents were telling me that mum’s sick and dad was telling me that mum’s sick and, um, I was confused because she didn’t look sick to me.’”
Mehta also notes these children sometimes grow up in fear of passing their parent’s illness to their children, which makes them question having a family of their own.
Arielle and Nick have chosen to live child-free. She says they want to travel and have the freedom to roam wherever and whenever they please.
“I’m pretty fucking depressed still. Like, I still have a lot of issues that I’m working through on my own. So, I don’t want to ever put my kid through what I went through ever,” she says.
Anthony’s fiancée wishes to have a child one day, but he’s indifferent about it. He says if they ever do have a child, he would love it unconditionally. He’s also adamant that he will never be like his parents.
Carolyn offers perspective on the matter. She says parenting with mental health issues can be an asset.
“There are ways in which a parent, because of their own struggles, can have empathy for that child and be there for them and cheer them on.”
ACEs are often linked to children who suffer physical abuse and neglect. But more often, a large population of children are overlooked because their wounds cannot be seen. A study published by Frontiers in Psychiatry shows one in five children live with a mentally ill parent worldwide.
Sometimes I wonder if I had friends who I could relate to when I was younger, I’d be different today and wouldn’t feel the need to write this story.
Carolyn encourages people struggling with the effects of their childhood trauma to reach out and find others with similar experiences. She says it helps to speak with people who understand. She also says to keep active relationships with people who have functional families to see what a typical family dynamic looks like.
I never sought out anyone to talk about how my trauma affected me. I felt isolated because I thought no one could relate to me or my story. When I was growing up, no one talked about mental illness the way it’s spoken about today.
These days, my family is what some would call a Mötley Crüe. We are all dysfunctional but complement each other. We get along — for the most part. My father still works hard, and my mother still battles her demons when they try and pry their way in. As an adult, recognizing I grew up in a dysfunctional household and working through it helped me grow my broken tree branches back.
Carolyn is right: growing up with a mentally ill parent can be difficult, but it can also be an asset. Anthony might not be as creative if it wasn’t for his parents forcing their hobbies onto him. Arielle might not be as empathetic as she is today without her father’s anger. I might not seek refuge in writing without my childhood experiences. With adversity comes power.