When We Get Demonized by a Relative with Mental Health Challenges

Published on March 3, 2023

Sharon Dunas, MA, LMFT
President Emeritus
NAMI Westside LA

It is a painful walkway for many of us. We back off. We reflect, ‘Did I really do all these terrible things that she or he said that I did? Am I really to blame that someone got ill on my watch?  Is it really my fault that my daughter, my son, my spouse, or my parent has a psychotic illness and cannot function very well with their time on this earth?’

Yes, the truth is you made mistakes as a parent or a spouse or a sibling. We all did. We are imperfect because we are human. Recently, a good friend of mine got angry with me and she said I crossed her boundaries. This conversation I understand this. I told her I was sorry I crossed her boundaries, but I am human and I probably will do it mistakenly again. I encouraged her to use those words if I ever did cross her boundaries again.

The truth is, all of us do the best with what we’ve got.

None of us learned how to be a parent or a child or a spouse from a master in living. We learned how to parent from our own parent’s strengths and their weaknesses. We learned how to be a child from attempting to live up their expectations or dodging their barbs or ridicule.

We have all learned what we have from the ethics and values bestowed upon us by our families. Our individual families have a myriad of ways of relating, ways of caring or withdrawing, ways of rewarding or withholding. We only learned what we learned by our ways of enduring or appreciating the values and ethics that we were taught to us when we ourselves were little.

Then we work to impart the values and ethics which we have internalized from our earlier years and then our relative goes and develops a brain disorder. How can this happen when I am at the helm you ask yourself. The paranoid psychosis in our relative seeps into their brain that used to be fully functioning brain. This very brain made our child or relative be kind and loving. The loving parent, or spouse or sibling or a child, of a mentally ill person can become demonized by a brain illness.

Whatever we do or however we are, we are told, “we are not  good enough. We are not smart enough, not caring enough, not rich enough, not poor enough, not, not, not”. Whatever we are as their significant other, from their perspective of their ill brain, we are not enough.

As a mother of a child with mental health challenges, I would sit around the dinner table and hear the barbs and accusations from my adolescent child. I would fall into a cascade of worthlessness, hopelessness, and utter devastation. I would break down and weep in my child’s presence. And then I would be banished because I was made to feel guilty for weeping.

I could never get it right or could be emotional soothing to my child. I have caretake many an ill individual in my profession as a psychotherapist, but I could never caretake my only child to her satisfaction. Little did I know that these were the beginning days of her psychotic illness, that I would not be able to fix, nor alter, nor help her get well.

Now, yes, we family members may have to own a small piece of this puzzle. We did not actually do everything correct and right in our parenting. We all passed on many of the good values of the generation that came before us and we also passed on some stuff that may not have been so good. None of us know how to be good parents all the way through. Some mothers and dads are great with infants and toddlers and not so great with school children. Some of us were great when we could be their friends in high school. Some of us were at our best out on the ball field with them, and if they weren’t good in sports, it wasn’t easy for us. No parent is great all the way through the parenting process. The same is true for spouses, siblings, and children of mentally ill parents.

But the truth is for those of us in National Alliance on Mental Illness, our relative’s brain may have been invaded by a psychotic illness and we are perceived as being “absolutely awful” and it feels “absolutely awful”. What you need to remember all the time is: our relatives demonizing us is not personal! Our relative’s brain has been literally kidnapped by the hallucinations and delusions that their brain creates, due to the malfunctioning of their neurotransmitters. Our relatives cannot help their negative perceptions. These perceptions often improve with medications, but then our relatives struggle with the side effects of these meds. Just remember, the way your relative speaks to you is the same way he/she is speaking to herself or himself. If he/she is verbally abusing you, he/she is also internally saying abusive things to him/herself.

What we must do is begin to know that you have done the best with what you have got. You cannot know what you do not know about relationships or parenting. You can only be your true self, and if you are attempting to help your relative’s life by attending NAMI meetings and taking NAMI classes, that is pretty damn good.

Your present job is to listen and to validate their lived experience – even though you did not agree with it and to not take it personally. It is their Illness that has kidnapped your relative’s brain talking. It is truly not about you. Our relatives feel better when they devalue us. It reduces their guilt and shame and helps them believe that they are not sick. Your relatives will get well as you get well. Take care of yourselves so your relatives can see how one takes care of themselves. Lower your expectations and not try to fix them.

Perhaps you may find the following quotes helpful:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are adequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.  We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, talented, fabulous?”   Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small and self-accusatory does not  serve the world.” – Nelson Mandala

“My imperfections and failures are as much a gift from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” – Mahatma Gandhi

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