National Alliance on Mental Illness
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For Siblings & Adult Children

Rex M. Dickens and Diane T. Marsh, Anne Sexton, by Linda Gray Sexton Laurie Samsel Olson

Anguished Voices: Siblings and Adult Children of Persons with Psychiatric Disabilities, edited by Rex M. Dickens and Diane T. Marsh.

He Was Still My Daddy, by Laurie Samsel Olson.

Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, by Linda Gray Sexton.

Review by Rex Dickens, Ann E. Hunt, Margaret Moorman, Kathy Nealen, and Betsy Samuelson Greer, the NAMI Literature Committee.

In these three books, persons with a sibling or parent who is mentally ill find realistic, well-written accounts of the experience of growing up in a family whose emotional energies are focused on dealing with the mentally ill family member. Personal narratives by members of NAMI in Anguished Voices, as well as autobiographical accounts by Laurie Samsel Olson and Linda Gray Sexton, illustrate how the lives of these very different individuals followed a similar pattern as they are radically changed by their experience.

The editors of Anguished Voices compare the common thread in narratives written by siblings and adult children to common themes in ancient myths: Separation, struggle, and return. Indeed, the personal narratives--short, direct and poignant in their portrayal of the pain each author suffered--embody these same three stages.

First, separation from life's normal relationships and expectations, and--to protect a fragile self from further shock-- separation also from others. Next, the struggle to find oneself and regain the ability to share emotions with others, and finally the return of wellness through knowledge and understanding of an illness that so overwhelmed them.

The stories told in Anguished Voices enable other siblings and adult children to understand that they are not alone, that their feelings are normal, and that they are not responsible for the illness of their parent or brother or sister. Each essay describes a unique experience, and yet, with courage and honesty, the various narratives weave a common thread. Initially, there is an awareness that "something is not right" at a crucial point in the authors' lives, "something" they cannot understand.

There is overwhelming loss, but no comforting support for the grief. Much as they love their family member, they are not able to provide the support that person needs. They blame themselves for their failure, and assume guilty responsibility for the ill family member. Eventually, through NAMI, each of the writers learns about mental illness and its devastating effects. They can cope, seeing the family member in a new perspective and with a new understanding.

Each of these narratives is different, but each portrays a similar emotional experience. As Laurie Olson writes of her family experience in He Was Still My Daddy, "If we had only been able to share our feelings about Daddy's illness, perhaps the changes in Daddy and in our life in general would not have seemed so overwhelming. As it was, we were of no help to each other. We didn't know we should be. So we each endured the traumas alone."

When Olson was 16 years old, her 53-year-old father became actively psychotic. The illness took away her loving father and left in his place a stranger who suffered from delusions and deep depression. Her older sister and younger brother seemed to cope better than she at resolving their anger about the incredible impact this had on their lives. Her parents' marriage failed, the family home had to be sold, and a continuing downward economic drift resulted.

Olson's own way to cope was by keeping her distance physically and emotionally from her family. She was--finally, 15 years later--beginning to reach out to her father when he died suddenly during surgery. Her book has been part of the process of resolving the guilt she felt over her anger and detachment. It is a book of hope and wisdom that other families may "look to one another (and others) for support and strength instead of suffering in silence and isolation as my family did."

There are many similarities to the account by Olson in the way Linda Sexton describes how she reacted to her mother and her mental illness in Searching for Mercy Street. Both felt betrayed, and each tried to withdraw from her parent.

Sexton evokes the scared feeling of a three-year-old snatched from her loving, caring mother; the ill-at-ease teenager who wanted to share her home with friends, but who didn't dare because she didn't know how her mother would greet them; the anxious child seeking solitude, but never able to have it with a mother prone to sudden, irrational outbursts. She had to cope at an early age, but without explanation or an understanding of what or why.

Sexton's famous mother, poet Anne Sexton, left her daughter the legacy of skill in using words, and as a result the daughter's powerful prose graphically portrays the early years of separation and the effect it had on her. She tells how she learned to avoid confrontation with her mother and how she yearned for a "normal" home that was never there. Reliving her relationship with her mother allows Sexton to finally understand and forgive.

These three books, while telling the stories of siblings and adult children, are also publications for mental health professionals and other family members. Anyone--professional, parent or consumer--who continues to accept at face value the often-polished surfaces of those who are well, but have grown up with severe mental illness in their families, should read these books to see what an immense price is paid for the appearance of success.

These books are also a reminder of the crushing impact that mental illness has on "well" family members. Unintentionally, as energies are invested to cope with the ill family member--as a spouse focuses on his or her ill mate or as parents focus on the ill child--"well" family members are slighted. Too often it is the child, the young sibling. These narratives tell us not to forget him or her.

Anguished Voices: Siblings and Adult Children of Persons with Psychiatric Disabilities, edited by Rex M. Dickens and Diane T. Marsh, Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Sargent College of Allied Health Professions, Boston, 1994. 83pp. Paper.

He Was Still My Daddy, by Laurie Samsel Olson, Ogden House Publishing Co., Portland, Oregon, 1994. 157 pp. Paper.

Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, by Linda Gray Sexton, Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1994. 308 pp. Cloth. $22.95. This book can be obtained from your local bookseller.

A Workbook for Maintaining Mood Stability by Mary Ellen Copeland. New Harbinger, Oakland, CA, 1994. Paper. This practical workbook is designed to help people take charge of their lives and respond to early warning signs of relapse. It will be reviewed in a future issue of the ADVOCATE.

An Introduction to Psychiatric Rehabilitation, edited by the Publications Committee of IAPSRS. 567 pp.

The Stepping Stone, by Mona Wasow. Science and Behavior Books, 1995. 235 pp.