Katie: Changing Expectations for Family Relationships

Spending holidays together is a challenge for Katy’s extended family. Although they try to manage difficult situations with Kevin, when he hears voices, family interactions become problematic.

I can tell when he’s hearing the voices because he’s responding to them while also trying to have a conversation with me. Sometimes he is paranoid, thinking it’s the family’s fault that he has this illness. “You guys did this to me.” And then, “No you didn’t.” Holidays at home with all the siblings can be tough for Kevin, and as a result, there have been times when we all have left during the middle of family gatherings because of his mood swings. . .In the past, my mom would try to convince us all that everything was okay. “Okay Kevin, it’s all good now. Let’s all have a nice meal together.” For many years we acted like it was okay. Then things changed. We said, “No, this isn’t okay. He needs help and there’s got to be consequences for some of his actions. We’re not going to stay in a situation where we’re disrespected or feel unsafe.”

Katy’s mom lives three hours away. Now that Katy and her sisters have children, they have stopped staying with their mom overnight. With Kevin living with their mother, they worry about what could happen overnight. Katy has little quality time with her mother because of Kevin’s presence in the home. Her mother is “very religious and believes this is her cross.” Katy has three other brothers who are either struggling with drug addiction now or have in the past.

That’s all she knows—four of my brothers have been mentally ill or on drugs or both. First and foremost, she says her most important job is being a mother. There were many years when she would cry and I felt like I needed to be a parent to her. I still kind of feel that way. I think it took her a long time to realize she needed medication too. I think she always had anxiety and depression.

Following years of experience with several children who live with mental illness, Katie's mom is doing better now. She explained to Katy, “I have to take my problems, give it to God, and decide I’m not in control and I trust that He’s going to help me figure things out.” Financially and physically, the stress has taken a toll on her mother, but on the positive side, Katy’s mom has accepted that Kevin lives with mental illness.

Katy talked about how her life has been influenced by Kevin’s illness and other challenges with her siblings. She believed she had to be “the perfect kid.”

I think I was always like that. I didn’t want to be the problem child, so I followed the rules. I felt my job was to support my mom, be there for her, and be a mother to her, be a mother to my brother. Be the strong one. We can rely on Katy. She’ll know what to do. Talking to the police. It made me very depressed. It made me very anxious. It made me very sad, stressed, and angry.

Through therapy Katy realized all her efforts were not helping Kevin and her mother was not changing, so she walked away from taking on that role.

Now it’s kind of like a well-oiled machine. We all know the cycle. There isn’t any freaking out anymore. I would say it dominated my life for a good 12 years where I spent a lot of time, thinking about it and having emotional anguish. Thinking I had to be the savior. I will be there for him when he calls. My mom doesn’t vent anymore or cry because there’s not much to talk about anymore. It is what it is, so she’s accepted it.

She realized that spending so much time focusing on her brother has negatively affected her relationship with her husband.

I think for a lot of years, my husband probably felt I was absent sometimes, emotionally. Because I was so focused on trying to help both my mom and brother. This was a strain on my relationship with my husband. We’ve been together now for about 20 years. He came from a family where no one talks about anything, everyone has a smile. My family’s the opposite. I love you; I hate you—the extremes. I think he would get angry because sometimes I wouldn’t have boundaries or I let it take over my life or my emotional capacity and there wouldn’t be any left for him. I think he also admired me for it. He would get upset and resentful because it was negatively affecting my health.

Over time, they learned how to manage holidays with Katy’s family, developed a routine for responding to difficult family situations, and determined to be open with their children about Kevin’s mental illness.

We talk a lot about mental illness and that it’s in our family, about drug and alcohol use and how it’s even much scarier for them because they’re very prone to probably wanting to try it and then potentially experiencing the horrible effects of bringing on a mental health issue that they otherwise might not have.

Recently, with a medication change, Kevin’s behaviors has improved with fewer outbursts and rude behavior. Although he left Katy a positive phone message about how he was enjoying life, she is also realistic, wondering how long this improvement will last.