Just Finished, Up Next
The S Word, by Paolina Milana
What could drive a daughter to consider murdering her mother?
In The S Word, the author recounts her childhood experience of growing up with an untreated schizophrenic mother. Milana focuses on the years that spanned middle and high school and with skill recounts the confusion and terror associated with living life in the vortex of her mother’s rages, hallucinations and delusions. The family never discussed mamma’s problem. Silence. One of many S words that comprise The S Word. Secrets. Shame. A couple more. Milana shows us how the environment eroded her self-esteem, riddled her full of self-doubt and almost destroyed her.
When I finished The S Word and contemplated what I wanted to share with you from reading it, one word that popped into my mind was empathy.
Though the blatant honesty in The S Word was at times hard to read, I appreciated Milana’s ability to give us a look inside the life of a child of a person living with mental illness. I felt deep empathy for the narrator as she tried, unaided, to traverse her extreme life circumstance, for the toll it took on her physically and mentally. There was virtually no empathy between the book’s characters, none from the adults toward the children. In that vacuum, the collateral damage of her mother’s severe illness spread far and wide. Whether she intended to or not, the author generated empathy in me for her mother. No one would choose to live such a life.
Empathy is a skill that some people come by more naturally than others. The good news is that it is a skill and one than can be practiced and honed. We don’t often give the necessary attention to these sorts of life skills, unless circumstance forces us to. The reason, I think, is because it requires an awful lot from us and it’s hard work. If I want to get better at golf, I stand on a beautiful grassy green driving range and hit buckets of balls. If I want to get better at empathy, I have to be vulnerable. I have to be willing to dig deep inside and understand complicated emotions. I have to let go of my perceptions and embrace alternate points of view. I may have to access memories I’d rather forget.
NAMI’s Family to Family class has an entire class devoted to empathy. Here’s their definition: “The intimate comprehension of another person’s thoughts and feelings, without imposing our own judgment or expectations.”
Without judgment? Without expectation? Easier said than done, no?
Empathy is something we could all use more of in our lives, whether we’re living with a loved one suffering from mental illness or not. But if you love someone with mental illness, you’ve likely experienced baffling and frustrating behavior to the extreme.
Early on with my daughter’s eating disorder, she decided she could survive by consuming only one meager meal a day. To my rational mind, this was ludicrous and I told her so. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if we don’t eat, eventually we get sick and could die. More than once I screamed at her through her locked bathroom door over our difference of “opinion.” You have to eat to survive! The car won’t drive without fuel in the tank! While factually correct, my approach missed the point and was not at all empathetic although it was judgmental. Also, it didn’t change a damn thing except my blood pressure.
Looking back on those early days, I have so much empathy for the me of then. Some people might call that selfish, to focus attention on myself. I call it imperative. We can’t give to others what we don’t have for ourselves. It took me a long time to figure out that the best way to improve my relationship with my daughter and to aid in her recovery (aside from facilitating the best professional treatment I could) was to improve my relationship with myself. Developing empathy was a major step in that process.
Empathy fuels connection. It combats feelings of despair, isolation and loneliness. Empathy fosters acceptance and is a bulwark against shame. Empathy is the foundation for compassion. Sounds great, right? Fantastic. Very pie in the sky. But how exactly do you develop empathy?
It’s not easy. I was forced to take stock and to look my low self-esteem square in the eye. I had to make friends with it. I had to stop pretending I was fine thank you very much and stop beating myself up over unmet expectations. I had to accept my imperfections. I had to let go of my fake façade.
I didn’t wake up one day and have the Mary Poppins voice inside my head say, Spit spot. You simply must deal with your low self-esteem today, and then just go do it. It’s accurate is to say that when my daughter was in treatment, I was mired in feelings of terror and confusion and uselessness and guilt. I saw no way forward. Then, the universe grabbed me by the shoulders and bitch slapped me. “Get a grip on yourself,” it yelled.
At the time, I didn’t understand the wake-up call, and I sure didn’t want to deal with it. In fact, I hated dealing with it. Suffering is funny that way. When we suffer enough, we’ll suffer more for the chance of a reprieve from our suffering.
I kept at it, and slowly but surely, in between moments of wanting to give up, I excavated my self-loathing, brushed it off and welcomed it into the light. I acknowledged the ways I numbed painful feelings of helplessness with gallons of wine and piles of excessive food. I made a point of talking to my shame: It’s nice to see you. We have some things to discuss about your rage. In other words—over and over and over again—I had to get in touch with my yucky emotions and give myself a break. I kept doing so until I believed I deserved that break. I kept doing so until I understood how my emotions and negative self-talk controlled my behaviors. I kept doing so until learned that my thoughts are not the truth of me. Phew. That was a relief, I tell you. I kept doing so, not until I was “cured,” but until I could put myself in my daughter’s shoes, as best I could, and try to understand the same complicated emotions in her. And until I could remember that more often than not her baffling behavior was a symptom of her illness, not willful disrespect or disregard.
From this place, I started to regain her trust, and together, we moved forward. That’s when the hard work began.
If you’re looking for insight into how mental illness can impact the lives of everyone in its orbit, I recommend The S Word.
One additional side benefit of reading the book—as a parent with first-hand experience to the myriad ways our mental health care system is failing its patients, when I finished the book, I was encouraged. The system has come a long way in the last several decades. It’s not great, it’s not even sufficient, but we’re heading in the right direction.
That's my two cents. What's yours: Could your life benefit from a dose of empathy from or for another? If so, how?
Brainstorm, The Power And Purpose Of The Teenage Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
Let’s face it. Who doesn’t need help understanding the teenage brain?
Right off the bat, I’m hooked. Siegel writes, “Adolescence is not a period of being ‘crazy’ or ‘immature.’ It is an essential time of emotional intensity, social engagement, and creativity. This is the essence of how we ‘ought’ to be, of what we are capable of, and of what we need as individuals and as a human family.” He goes on to say that when we lose the distinguishing features of adolescence in adulthood, our lives can become boring, isolating, dull, and routinized.
I can relate. Can you?
I can’t wait to learn how having a better understanding of the inner workings of my brain and of my daughter’s brain will improve our relationship and my life in general. Adolescent attitude as gift? “Hmmm,” I say, tongue in cheek or maybe not. I can appreciate Siegel’s point that my teenager may have much to teach me about reconnecting to a life of vitality, creativity and fun. I witness hers every day.
This was a great post – one to which I can totally relate. I feel there is a fine line between empathy and being judgmental. If we are that which we have experienced, where do those lines intersect?
Forever struggling to find out,
I appreciate what you've written so much, Tracey. Thank you for your very personal reflections on the book, and for sharing so honestly. I too know what it's like to butt heads with a teenager and try to use rational thought or logic to appeal to them. It just doesn't work that way, and all it does is, as you say, raise our blood pressure. The pain is real none the less. You've been so brave to look at yours and walk this journey next to your daughter, rather than trying to drag her somewhere. You both have blossomed in the process. Damn, if our kids don't have things to teach us!
Empathy is a big one. I try to practice it everyday and it's not easy. It's so much easier to get angry but as the Dalai Lama always says… Anger will not change anyone, only compassion and empathy will.
Thank you Wendy, Maria and Crystal–That's a great question Wendy..maybe I'll turn it into a post! That's the work, learning and continuing to work on how to put our preconceived notions aside so we can get to the core empathy. It's so hard! Ongoing work, for me anyway. Especially as it relates to anger, like you say Crystal. Anger is and always has been my go-to. It's so easy, much easier than understanding where the anger is coming from or what fear and hurt it's originating from. And yes, Maria!! Damn, our kids do have so much to teach us…I learn from mine every single day! Thank you all.
A great post – such a serious topic and with humor (as usual… I love it!).
Empathy is critical in my relationships. If someone doesn't "get me" at least most of the time, the relationship is not fulfilling. I think I am empathetic most of the time. When I'm not, I think I'm being judgmental, like I might think to myself, "That's not such a big deal… especially if that is your biggest problem!" I'd better get better at this, and work on not being judgmental. It's important. It can be difficult.
My question: Is it ever okay to be judgmental? Like when someone says, "We ate at Outback on Friday night, CPK on Saturday night and on Sunday we saw a movie at the theater and then ate at the Lazy Dog Cafe. Oh, and did I tell you that the phone company turned off my service because I hadn't paid my bill on time?"