The “Thin Places” Suffering Can Break Through The hell a child endures alone when a parent has a mental illness.

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Legs superglued to the car’s hot vinyl seat, I chatted nonstop, my swimsuit a rubbery second skin beneath my clothes. It was finally Saturday, and we were going to the big turquoise pool in Clayton, the one with a separate deep end and a high dive. Our little apartment was in a far less fancy neighborhood, but my mom had wangled a pass at her secretary job. I was going to jump in with the biggest splash ever, eat a mustardy hot dog and an ice cream sandwich from the concession stand, watch the tanned older kids shoot like arrows off the high dive … I could already see the toddlers tugging at their hot pink ruffled suits, hear the shouts of “Marco!” “Polo!” and feel the gritty sun-baked concrete beneath my feet, wet footprints vanishing while I watched, my mom swirling me around in the water then watching my froggy backstroke from a braided lounge chair the color of a Dreamsicle and—

“We have to go back, honey,” she said, her voice faint, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. “I don’t feel so good.” When I was a little older—but not old enough—she explained that she would all of a sudden feel like she was dying, for no reason at all. My father was already dead; this was scary.

Decades later, I would read about panic attacks, and all the random details I had stockpiled in childhood would click into place. My mom was not just high-strung and a little neurotic, gulping the valium doctors then prescribed for any woman in vague distress. She suffered from a generalized anxiety disorder; her fear came from molecules.

All those years of trying not to seem disappointed, because I knew how much she loved me and could not bear to add to the upset. All those years of feeling sick to my stomach when she got worried or sad or scared; of giving pep talks that must have been absurd coming from a nine-year-old but that she actually listened to, because she was reluctant to confide in anyone but me.

Decades later, I would read about panic attacks, and all the random details I had stockpiled in childhood would click into place.

What if it had been worse? What if her mind had snapped from its moorings, broken from reality? There are episodes of psychosis so powerful, you are sure your child is your enemy. There are bouts of depression so intense, you cannot even get yourself out of bed, let alone pour your kid a bowl of cereal or blow on his skinned knee to stop, with love as much as air, the stinging.

I started thinking about this a year ago, changed jobs, dug out my notes, and then, if you like understatement, the pandemic distracted me. Caught up in a flood of terrifying data and a new sort of angst (I am my mother’s daughter), I turned to other topics. Then it hit me: What would it feel like to be quarantined with a parent who was stressed to the breaking point, symptoms flaring, but could not seek help, either because illness had them paranoid or because they were afraid they would lose custody of the one reason they stayed alive?

 

• • •

 

A mother organizes the world for you; she makes it make sense. At least for the first decade or so, her emotional responses are cues for your own. If they are hysterical or chaotic, you feel it inside, and even if the chaos dissolves fast and a rush of tenderness takes its place, the seesaw makes it hard to find your balance.

“Did Mother smile at us with her eyes, did she enjoy laughing with us, did we bring her pleasure?” asks Susan Nathiel in Daughters of Madness. “Or were we a burden, seeing ourselves reflected in her tired, distracted, depressed gaze? Even worse, did she see us as the cause of her unhappiness? Did she treat us as though we were the enemy…or just look through us as though we weren’t there?”

How much unintentional damage a parent’s illness might do depends on how early in life it took place, Nathiel adds. Bursts of manic energy, tears, rage, or paranoia can terrify an infant. If “intense distress continues for long without comfort or soothing or repair, it overwhelms the infant’s limited ability to cope.” The lesson is that “negative states are intolerable and overwhelming and must be defended against.” Later, the slightest stress can send the child right back into crisis mode, brain primed for danger. They “keep a low profile, damp down feelings, and avoid eye contact,” playing life safe because they so often feel at risk.

Have you ever seen a Star Trek episode about an empath, someone who jeopardizes their own mental equilibrium by absorbing the thoughts or feelings of someone else? Combine those skills with those of a hostage negotiator, alert to every inflection and gesture and constantly working to predict the unpredictable, and you have the child of a parent with mental illness.

Parents in the throes of severe depression interact less, smile less often, have trouble mirroring a child’s spontaneous joy. Parents suffering through an episode of schizophrenia have a hard time giving consistent guidance or recognizing physical signs of distress; some even try to drag their kids into the delusion. Any mental illness can muffle a parent’s emotions or cause them to swing wild when what their child needs is constancy. The fight to stay alert and loving must feel like trying to struggle free when someone has thrown a heavy blanket over your head.

There is a growing awareness that it is tough to be the adult relative or partner of someone with mental illness, but “the situation of being a relative as a child is less explored in research,” notes a 2019 article in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

How many parents are waging this internal battle? Somewhere between twenty and fifty percent of people with mental illness have children. Yet “it is only recently that the need to support children of parents with mental disorders has become an issue,” notes a professor of psychiatric nursing. There is a growing awareness that it is tough to be the adult relative or partner of someone with mental illness, but “the situation of being a relative as a child is less explored in research,” notes a 2019 article in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. “Children living with a parent with a mental illness have been labelled as invisible or hidden, and research in general ignores the children’s perspective,” notes an article about public health in New Zealand.

 

• • •

 

Chatting about psychology with a gentle-voiced young man who works in one of the labs at Washington University, I mention this topic. He looks up like someone just called his name after a three-hour wait at the DMV. “I … could talk to you about that,” he says. He tells me he just learned that a score as high as his on the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) index can warn of mental-health challenges later in life.

“I thought, well, that makes sense,” he says calmly. I want to write that he panicked or railed against the correlation—because it would heighten the tension, and because I would have. But Dustin is stoic and matter-of-fact, self-contained after years of practice. “It almost seemed too obvious,” he remarks. “But it led me to see a psychiatrist. I just wanted an eval.”

What he really wanted to know was whether there were any signs that he might develop bipolar disorder, the one sure diagnosis in a long list his mother received. The psychiatrist noted only depression and anxiety, which hardly came as a shock. What helped was the way “ACE made it clear that was expected.”

More than half of all children with a parent who has a mental illness struggle with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. In relationships, old needs can drive them too close too fast or send them running, terrified to depend on anyone. Parenthood can be terrifying—how do you do it right? Kids get tough in ways that are only temporarily useful.

A few weeks later, in the anonymous din of the library café, I ask Dustin how it felt to know he could not count on his mother to take care of him. He shrugs narrow shoulders. “I just sort of got used to it, I guess. She cut her wrist on my bed a couple times. I guess I thought that was normal at the time. Eventually I realized it wasn’t.

“She would threaten to kill herself with me in the car,” he adds, remembering how, the first time she overdosed, he found her in the car, “hanging halfway out. Neighbors called the police, and my grandparents came. They asked me if I knew where her medication was.”

He was five years old.

After that, he says, he lived with his grandparents, and his mother came and went. “I had pretty bad grades when she lived with us,” he recalls. “It made me less social, because I didn’t want to have to explain or have friends over, stuff like that. My grandparents didn’t talk to me at all about it. I don’t think they knew how.” He shifts in his seat, still trying to get comfortable with his own life. “I got big into band, and I’d stay after school for hours. I smoked quite a bit of weed. And then in college, I made friends.”

More than half of all children with a parent who has a mental illness struggle with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.

I let out a breath I did not realize I was holding. “What did the trick?”

“My anxiety! It’d force me to get out. I definitely used anxiety to get through college.” Every once in a while, he even met someone he thought might understand, and while he never tested the possibility, it made friendship more possible. “It’s a lot easier to connect with someone who’s been through this kind of thing than with someone who’s had a less problematic life.”

“Do you notice common traits or attitudes?”

He shrugs; the truth is simpler. “There’s a lot more worrying you do.”

“If you have kids someday,” I ask, “what will you tell them about their grandmother?”

“I wouldn’t talk to my child about it, probably. I don’t know enough to accurately describe the situation, so I don’t want to paint her in a bad picture—and they wouldn’t meet her anyway.”

Later, he tells me he does not want kids.

A while after that, he says suddenly, “My mom said she left because of me. I was too much of a—I don’t want to say burden, but—”

“Responsibility?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you believe that?”

“Oh, yeah, for a while. But once I realized that her mental disorder was affecting things….”

We talk about that liminal space between understanding and forgiving. Then I ask what advice he would give his five-year-old self.

“Don’t keep everything around you out,” he says instantly. “Get to know people you might not otherwise talk to. And just because an adult says something doesn’t mean it’s right.”

 

• • •

 

How life unfolds for the child of a parent with mental illness depends on a cascade of variables, the main ones being genes, family relationships, the nature of the mental illness, the child’s age when the parent becomes ill, temperament, other life challenges, and the involvement of adults outside the family.

If, that is, anyone dares speak of the illness outside the family.

Rather than risk separation, single parents will wrap their arms around their child and stay silent. And as a consequence of this fierce love, neither one will receive any help.

More often, it is hidden away like Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre, for fear of the stigma (our imaginations remain gothic) and because parents are afraid they will be branded as incapable and lose custody of their children. This secrecy exasperates me—until I realize just how realistic those fears are.

“Historically, the mental health literature has focused on the negative aspects of parenting by people with serious mental illness,” notes an article in Social Work, adding that this “is one of the most common grounds on which courts terminate parental rights.”

“Even in states where mental illness is not listed explicitly as a reason for terminating parental rights, parents still face bias,” notes a 2014 article by Pro Publica. It lists five states where mental illness is on a short list of “aggravating circumstances” that exempt authorities from any obligation to try to help piece the family back together again. Also on that short list? Murdering, torturing, or sexually abusing a child.

Rather than risk separation, single parents will wrap their arms around their child and stay silent. And as a consequence of this fierce love, neither one will receive any help.

 

• • •

 

It was Christmas Eve. Gina Werninger’s mom grabbed the tinselled, carefully ornamented tree by one branch and threw it to the floor, then started ripping up presents. Gina grabbed her sister’s hand and ran out the door. When she heard the lock click behind them, she knew there was no going back. But she could not think where to go.

It was freezing cold, dark, and quiet outside, families all tucked inside their own homes, their upright trees glowing in the windows. She knew what their lives looked like—she used to walk over to the nicer streets at dinnertime and peer inside to see the food and laughter. Could they knock on one of those doors? Absolutely not.

On the days when Gina sensed warmth and interest, she opened up like an unstuck faucet, her secret joys and worries rushing out. Hours later, her mother would use those confidences to taunt her.

By age eight, Gina had figured out that something was wrong with her mom. There were days on end when she lay on the sofa refusing to get up, followed by frantic instructions to hide their lack of food and soap from the social worker. On the days when Gina sensed warmth and interest, she opened up like an unstuck faucet, her secret joys and worries rushing out. Hours later, her mother would use those confidences to taunt her.

Once, the medical resident in the apartment next door gave them his key to let the plumber in, and Gina came home from school and found her mother lying on the floor of his apartment, all his liquor bottles empty and scattered around her. Gina dragged her mother back to their apartment. Her little sister went to another house for dinner—the home of Gina’s best friend—and blurted what she had seen. The next day, Gina’s best friend came up to her at school and said, “I’m not allowed to be your friend anymore.”

What saved Gina was showing up to help another friend babysit. The parents came home and invited both girls to stay for dinner, and when they saw skinny, fourteen-year-old Gina wolfing down food, they took her friend aside and asked if anything was wrong. When they learned Gina’s situation, they invited her to come and live with them for a while.

Bowled over, she stammered, “I can’t, because my mother gets welfare money for me, and I work and give her that money, too.” The couple wound up paying Gina’s mother to let her stay with them until she finished high school.

She continued to give her mother money. Finally, Gina had made enough waitressing to go to college. Her brother took their mother to live with him.

A few months later, he called close to tears—the situation had spun into chaos. Could he bring her back? So Gina quit school and moved her mother into her apartment. “She’d talk about German spies across the street,” Gina recalls, “and a man who was going to kill the whole family. ‘You gotta get your hair cut off,’ she told me. ‘You need a disguise!’”

Often Gina’s mom was up all night typing feverishly, and in the morning Gina would peer at the sheets and see that her mother was retyping the Encyclopedia Brittanica line by line.

Often Gina’s mom was up all night typing feverishly, and in the morning Gina would peer at the sheets and see that her mother was retyping the Encyclopedia Brittanica line by line. “She’d take little things around the house—a penny, a little wishing well I bought her at Montauk State Park, bobby pins, buttons—and have this whole display set up and have a story about it. She said she wrote all Barry Manilow’s songs: ‘He sucked them right out of my brain.’ And you are trying to tell her, ‘You need to go to the hospital,’ and you think she’ll come home better, and she comes home, and she’s no better.” Gina sighs. “I kept wanting her to be a mom. To take care of me.

 

• • •

 

The next time I talk with Dustin, he is still tense, his face shining with more perspiration than the glassed-in fireplace warrants. The anxiety seems well worn, though, not raw; I get the sense that this new ease he is finding could nudge him free at any moment, like a secret crush grabbing his hand and pulling him onto the dance floor.

Around us, students are teasing, flirting, groaning over tough classes. What does he see when he looks at them—happy normalcy, unscarred and blithe, or the possibility of hidden suffering? He nods at the question; he has thought about this since high school, because back then, he did a lot of comparing. “Just because you look happy doesn’t mean you are,” he says. “Everybody’s always going through something.”

We fall silent, letting that truth settle. “This is something I never would have talked about a year ago,” he says abruptly. “I just don’t care about the stigma as much now. I don’t care if I tell my story and someone thinks differently of me.”

“What changed?” I ask, worried that he might regret his openness later.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back? Eventually it was just, fuck it. I don’t care. It was too much to carry around, too much to worry about.” He pauses. “And realizing that what I was going through was pretty normal sort of helped with the self-consciousness.”

He tells me he wants his full name used in whatever I write. He is done hiding.

I nod, glad for him. Only later do I realize that I cannot comfortably using his surname without tracking down his mother—whereabouts unknown—and giving her a chance to speak. I will have to stick to first-name-only, throwing him right back into the secrecy he was hoping to escape.

When I apologize, he shrugs. “I found out with the background check for this job that she’s using my ID—she used ‘Dusty’ and a different birth year, so I guess it slipped through somewhere.” She once got a credit card that way, he recalls, “but I was thirteen at the time, so they realized I wasn’t the one using it.”

As I carefully type Dustin’s first name, it occurs to me that she has stolen his identity again. Our society has developed so many ways of protecting so many people in so many situations that we have reached a place of paradox: Identities must be concealed before you can speak honestly.

 

• • •

 

Slumber parties, attempts at tennis, giggling pranks—that is what I remember from my grade-school friendship with Linda Briggs (now Briggs-Harty). So I am startled when I mention this topic on Facebook and hers is the first reply.

We wind up talking for a long time about her mother, whom I remember as beautiful and funny. “She had five kids pretty quickly,” Linda says, “and she had a classic nervous breakdown just as I was starting kindergarten. She was gone a year. I remember different hospitals, and we’d go visit her, and there would be this … distance.” The middle child of five girls, Linda created an imaginary friend whose only job was to console her. Then the family moved to a small town—no nosey churchgoers whispering, no bossy older relatives—and Linda’s mother was able to become herself again. “The instant she got well, she was very loving and maternal. Maybe a tad overprotective, but that was a good counterbalance, because my dad was kind of English and aloof, more intellectual.”

When he became the director of the St. Louis Zoo, they moved back to St. Louis, and Linda came to my school for fourth grade. She was bright and sweet but even more quiet than I was, not yet flashing the creativity, zany humor, and thirst for social justice that would emerge later, when she stopped being scared and worried. Every year, she relaxed a little bit more.

We went to different universities and lost touch for a while, renewed friendship over chatty lunches. Now I listen, frozen, as she describes how her mother, without warning, spiraled back into her mental illness in the middle of a baby shower for Linda’s oldest sister. Convinced of dangers only she could see, Mrs. Briggs could not be calmed. The girls called their dad, who was out of town for work. With his usual calm, he slid back into crisis mode, arranging to come home. All night, while her mom paced, Linda lay with her eyes squeezed shut, wondering how bad it would be this time and how she would get through her college courses.

For the next five years, Linda’s mom was in and out of hospitals, her symptoms refusing to be boxed. “Finally they said bipolar, but she was never classically depressed,” Linda says. “She’d get more paranoid; her whole ego state just fell apart, her sense of who she was, her security.” At one point, she nearly died by suicide, but Linda says that was so unlike her mother that the overdose had to be accidental.

What a complicated picture she is giving me: how warm and maternal her mother was when she was “on her game”; how self-absorbed she had to be just to keep going; how she worried nonstop about her daughters; how she once said, almost nonchalantly, “I guess it was hard for you guys.” Eventually, lithium began to help, and the erratic hormonal fluctuations of menopause subsided, easing the biochemical storm, and counseling brought up past sexual abuse that could have fractured the foundations for her adult self.

And what about Linda, who was listening and worrying even as she tried to forge her own adult self? “I’m taking yoga and going to counselors,” she says wryly. “You become incredibly good at dealing with crises, and when the chips are no longer down, you breathe a sigh of relief, but then you have to deal with your own life. I had difficulty focusing, a lot of free-floating anxiety. Fear of the bottom dropping out again. Having to be rigid and controlling because, my God, life is crazy.”

Her dad’s reaction, she says, was to drink. “He always had something just gnawing at him”—fear that the woman he loved might shatter at any moment? He took shelter in the privacy of his fine mind, escaping into newspapers, books, classical music.

One day, Linda’s counselor asked, “What are you feeling?” She said she did not know.

“Why do you look so sad?” the counselor asked the next time.

“I don’t know.”

“You look angry,” the counselor tried.

What? No. No! I’m not angry.”

“I felt scared by my own anger,” Linda says now, “but after we talked about it, it was like this amazing world opened up, and I started seeing how green the trees were. I thought, ‘This is what people mean by “born again.”’ I had finally unlocked a huge part of myself, and I have felt pretty free and honest ever since.”

 

• • •

 

This will come as a shock: The United States is way behind. Australia has an organization called Children of Parents with a Mental Illness, and in searches for strong programs and research, Canada, Japan, and Germany all crop up. In England, Dr. Alan Cooklin, a family psychiatrist, realized while treating his adult patients that the needs of their children were being overlooked. Parents were carried off for treatment, and no one explained much of anything to the kids, because no one knew how to explain. Cooklin created Our Time (originally the Kidstime Foundation) and the KidsTime Workshops—some for adults, others for kids—that showed, without jargon, how we use filters to control our thoughts, and how, when they break down, the brain gets flooded, and “people get muddled and confused and say muddled and confused things.” After one of his KidsTime sessions, a girl said in relief, “It was good to know that there are people who, like me, have to remind their parents to shower and eat.” Then she added, “The annoying thing is that because I have lived with my mum, I can usually tell when other people are down as well. You start to feel guilty if the people around you are not happy, which is illogical, but I can’t help it.”

#MeToo—just ask my husband, who is bemused by the way I worry, like a terrier gnawing a soup bone whenever anyone I love is sad or upset or unwell. The tenderness of family life, writes novelist Norman Rush, exposes you to the “hellmouth” — all the “thin places” suffering can break through. Emotionally, we all grow up quarantined with our parents. This pandemic is only an intensifier.

Still, every time I hear a news report about COVID-19, I think of parents who are trying even harder to hold symptoms at bay as they homeschool, work, juggle bills, and doomscroll the death counts, sure that at any moment they or their child will get sick. And that child is cut off from friends, teachers, outlets, refuge.

The tenderness of family life, writes novelist Norman Rush, exposes you to the “hellmouth” — all the “thin places” suffering can break through. Emotionally, we all grow up quarantined with our parents. This pandemic is only an intensifier.

Are there places here in St. Louis where kids can safely go for help without a parent’s consent? School counselors tell me they are limited in what they can do, because parents may not give consent for a referral. I google and find a ton of programs and agencies—for parents of children who have mental illness. Nothing pops up for children whose parents have mental illness.

The woman who answers my call to the Missouri Department of Mental Health crisis line says, “I don’t know of any programs like that.” At Behavioral Health Response, a woman says, “Oooh, okay, I see. So you are looking for support for the child. The schools would first probably have them call here.” There is a drop-in center at one county high school that offers free and confidential mental health counseling as well as HIV and STD testing, she continues. “And there’s lots of agencies out there that will help the child as long as the parents are involved.”

There is the rub.

I try the Youth Connection Helpline and am told, “We do get calls. We have a list of providers, and we can talk to them too, offer support, and we do follow-up calls, too.” Whew. And the kids can get help from a provider or find a safe place to go, even if the parent is unwilling or unresponsive? “Er … usually not. The guardian has to be involved. We can give kids safe-place locations, but someone has to talk to the guardian first.” I click off, imagining how Gina must have felt that Christmas Eve.

Back to my phone list. A woman with a kind voice answers the phone at Youth in Need. She tells me they do family therapy sessions after kids have run away from home and sought shelter with them. “Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint if the parent has mental illness, but sometimes we can definitely tell,” she says. “Usually we won’t say anything, unless we feel the child is in danger.” And if a kid is worried about their parent losing custody? “That is definitely a fear they have. And parents don’t want their child taken away, so they don’t seek help. It puts us in a tough spot, because it’s not our place to do anything.”

If a kid shows up at Youth in Need, she continues, “we have to tell parents, because we are a voluntary program and all of our paperwork is guardian-based.”

“Say I’m the kid, and I tell you, ‘Forget it, my mom will never sign that piece of paper’?”

“We would have to tell you that we could not take you.”

At that point, my options would be to hotline my single parent or guardian into the system, get them hospitalized, and let a caseworker find me a shelter. Or couch-hop with my friends. Or just … keep … trying.

 

• • •

 

My mother may have been neurotic as hell (see, I still think of her that way, not with the cold clinical dignity of a diagnosis), but she was also extraordinarily resilient, capable of raising a child alone on a pittance while taking care of her parents, weaning herself off valium, and thinking tirelessly of everyone around her. We missed a lot of adventures, but I never lacked for love, or constancy, or even fun. Maybe because she had to dodge so many shadows, she knew instinctively how to keep life light for everyone else.

Dustin’s grandparents took wonderful care of him, too—but they could not explain his mother. Linda’s father fell back on reassurances: “You do not have your mother’s condition. You are not like her. You can do anything.” Gina knew that beneath all the chaos, her mother loved her; she was so sure of it that when she moved into a house with five bedrooms, she made one of them “my mother’s room, even though she was gone. Somehow I wanted her to know that she didn’t have to worry anymore, and she didn’t have to be alone anymore. I’d go in there and say, ‘I love you. And if you ever felt like any of this was your fault, it wasn’t your fault.’”

Damage can be minimized simply by the availability of a calm adult who understands what is happening, can be counted on for emergency help, and can convince children that this is not their fault or responsibility. Just one person. Not even a village.

This is the thing I never wanted to believe about parenting: that love is not always enough. Warmth, devotion, self-sacrifice, the best intentions in the world—are not enough. Some of what a child needs is practical: consistency, clarity, predictability, calm. If there are times a parent cannot offer that, other grownups should be able to fill in temporarily, listening, explaining, and offering physical and emotional shelter. Damage can be minimized simply by the availability of a calm adult who understands what is happening, can be counted on for emergency help, and can convince children that this is not their fault or responsibility.

Just one person. Not even a village.

Relatives and family friends often do step up. Even strangers do, like the couple who gave Gina a home. But when no one can or will? U.S. laws and social services are set up to define who “owns” the child, not what temporary support might help. Too often it is all-or-nothing, hands-off or remove custody, commit or abandon. When both the illness and the system cause a parent to resist treatment and help, the professionals’ hands are tied.

I get the insistence on parental signoff. Who would want their child’s mind commandeered by a stranger? Absolute deference to parental authority makes sense—until the parent needs help as much as the child, at which point secrecy is his or her only protection.

Secrecy always does damage (why do we not know that yet?) whether it is a necessary dodge of a system you cannot trust or a shamed silence at home. Everything starts at home. So when Linda says parents with mental illness should be as open with their child as possible, I know I should agree. But honestly? I wish my mom had kept a little more from me. Maybe because there was no other grownup around, and I knew I could not make her calm and happy all by myself (which never stopped me from trying).

Only now does it dawn on me: I am the one who should have been more open. As a kid, I never dared mention my mom’s anxiety to anyone. It would have felt disloyal, ungrateful, unfair. I envied kids who had a dad who could wink and say, “You know Mom. She’ll be fine,” or a sibling with whom they could trade eye-rolls, or a family friend who would say, “No worries, honey, I’ve got this.” But I was so aware of how much my mother loved me that I never wanted to admit how hard it was to see her so fragile.

What if her anxiety had spiraled out of control, though, and she had retreated into her own world, leaving me uncertain and alone? Or left for an indefinite hospital stay? Linda knows the cost of that kind of confusion. So do the academics: Study after study, the research makes it clear that a full and accurate understanding of a parent’s illness is actually a protective factor, making the child more resilient.

That kind of information is what I needed, I realize. Not so much the details of the panic but the reason for it. And my mom had no idea why those feelings kept trying to drown her.

Study after study, the research makes it clear that a full and accurate understanding of a parent’s illness is actually a protective factor, making the child more resilient.

We know more now. Gina became a psychiatric nurse, drawn to study the kind of pain she knew most intimately. She saw that science had sailed ahead, and socially, we had yet to catch up. “And there’s so much damage done by hiding it,” she exclaims.

What would she do for kids today?

“Create safe centers for them. ‘You can come here. You can eat. You can join different groups to be able to talk about what’s going on in your life. You can sleep here if things are bad at home.’ It seems extremely basic to me.”

I nod, remembering how hard Dustin had to work to reach courage all by himself. Since his reassuring psych eval, he has been thinking more intellectually about ACE, wondering about mathematical models and brain scans that could give some sort of insight. “It’s an ethical question—do you ask questions that might induce negative feelings in someone, even if they’re willing?” he says. “I don’t know. But it’s important to be able to help kids before more parts break.”

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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