Why Can’t My Ex-Husband Talk About Our Son’s Psychiatric Disorder?

Part of loving a person with a psychiatric disorder, writes Pauline Gaines, is acknowledging that the disorder is real.

I did not want to get amniocentesis, an invasive screening test used to detect birth defects in fetuses. Pregnant with my first child, I was under 35, the age at which women are thought to be at a markedly higher risk for conceiving a child with chromosomal abnormalities.

But my then-husband, Prince, insisted. He came from a long line of overachievers who excelled in business, athletics, and social networking. His family put almost crippling pressure to succeed on all their children, but especially Prince, their only son.

We lay in bed one night as I was nearing the end of my first trimester. Prince was reading a magazine article about a family raising a child with Down’s Syndrome. He looked over at me, his jaw clenched, color draining from his face.

“I don’t think I could raise a kid that wasn’t perfect,” he said.

We argued over whether or not I should get the test. I was under the recommended screening age, and the procedure posed a risk of miscarriage. He insisted I get amniocentesis so we would know that the baby was “normal.”

“But we won’t know that,” I protested. “The baby could be born with a predisposition for something that doesn’t show up till much later. What if he’s a teenager and develops schizophrenia? We’d have to deal with it.”

“You have to get the test,” he said. “And if something’s wrong with the baby, you’d have to abort. I couldn’t handle a kid who’s messed up.”

I got the test. The chromosomes were normal. We learned we were having a boy. When he was born the obstetrician told us, “That’s one of the most gorgeous babies I’ve ever seen.”

♦◊♦

Luca was gorgeous. He grew a mop of wavy golden hair. He had tawny skin and thick, dark eyelashes. As a toddler, he had a precocious way of engaging people, especially adults, who routinely asked me if he was a child actor.

Once I was in a make-your-own-ceramics store, holding Luca on my hip. I glanced up to find Paula Abdul gazing wistfully at my son. “If I have a baby,” she smiled at me, “I’d want him to look just like yours.”

One year after Prince and I lay in bed debating the risk of having an abnormal child, we lay in bed, night after night, basking in the narcissistic glow of having a son who garnered copious oohs and ahs. Luca was the unabashed favorite grandchild in Prince’s family and, as the only son of the only son, would be the only one to carry on the prominent family’s well-known surname.

Luca had “it”—an indefinable larger-than-life quality that took hold of any room he walked into. Everyone who met him agreed: this kid was going to be a star.

♦◊♦

Luca was six when the calls from school began. The calls to schedule meetings to discuss “incidents” and “concerns” about his disruptive, impulsive, non-compliant behavior. The calls came more frequently. We tried behavior charts. Time-outs. Rotating therapists. Medication. A different school. Nothing worked.

Despite several different psychiatric diagnoses Luca received, and despite his being prescribed psychotropic medication, Prince refused to believe his son had anything that resembled mental illness. He blamed Luca’s troubles on me. On his school. On other people who didn’t treat him fairly.

Luca’s behavior problems erupted when Prince and I divorced. I hoped, as time went by and he adjusted to the separation that he would settle down. But as Luca careened towards adolescence, the problems got bigger. And scarier.

Drugs. School expulsion. Endless explosive outbursts. When the police came to my house for the second time, I realized I couldn’t keep Luca safe anymore. So I sent him to live with his dad, who maintained that Luca was “perfect” with him.

We couldn’t agree on how to help Luca, an impasse that triggered a horrific custody battle. Running out of money, and unable to tolerate the psychological warfare any longer, I gave Prince essentially full custody of Luca. For years, he had been telling me he could fix Luca. I knew that he couldn’t, but I also knew I had to let him try.

Just one year later, Prince sent Luca—now 14—to wilderness camp, then to an out-of-state therapeutic boarding school where he’s resided since September. Because Prince told me virtually nothing about what went on in his house, I didn’t know the extent of Luca’s behaviors until I read the results of the psychological evaluation administered to him at wilderness camp.

It was clear, from reading Prince’s interview in the psych eval, that he recognized the severity of Luca’s problems. But he was still blaming the problems on others. In essence, what he was saying was: if his mother had done a better job of raising him, if he had been in the right school, if those other kids hadn’t gotten him in trouble, my son would be fine.

♦◊♦

My daughter Franny, almost ten, is the opposite of her brother—easy-going, resilient, compliant. She has the same set of parents as her brother yet completely different brain chemistry. Prince and I don’t deserve credit for her sunny personality anymore than we deserve blame for Luca’s genetic loading.

So why, in the 21st century, do people still equate mental illness with weakness? And why do Alpha-Men such as my ex-husband have a hard time talking about it?

When Luca was ten, he received a diagnosis (which has since been discarded) of pediatric bipolar disorder. When the psychiatrist uttered those three words, I felt not horror, but relief. Finally we had a name for the problem, and therefore a treatment plan. Finally we had an explanation for years of unexplained behavior. Finally I understood what was going on.

Prince denied the diagnosis, and all the diagnoses that have come since — except for ADHD, a more palatable disorder that has come to be almost synonymous with boyhood. In the psychological evaluation, Luca was quoted as saying that his dad refused to tell him the real reason why he was on serious psychotropic medication, stating only that it would help him focus in school. And he was understandably pissed about being lied to.

What is the effect of minimizing, or denying, Luca’s mental health issues? What meaning does my son make of his dad’s cover-up, which eventually got uncovered? That mental illness is so shameful we need to lie about it? That having faulty brain chemistry defines a person totally instead of comprising just one part of him?

The other day, Franny told me she worried about her brother at boarding school. “He just has ADHD, Mom, and the other kids have much worse problems. He doesn’t belong there.” I told her Luca did not “just have ADHD” and in fact, might not have it at all. I reminded her of the ways he was acting before he left for wilderness camp, of the behaviors that scared her so much she hid in her closet.

I don’t want her to grow up believing that her brother’s symptoms were just a phase, and that symptoms suggestive of a psychiatric disorder should be swept under the rug. I don’t want her to grow up believing that if you love someone, you enable his troubling behavior.

Most psychiatric disorders can be managed effectively, especially when psychosis is not involved. Depression, mood disorders, OCD, Anxiety—these conditions do not by default doom people to wasted lives. But blaming, minimizing, sticking one’s head in the sand—these are not effective problem-solving strategies and are much more likely to hurt a person’s chance for success.

Why do we believe that a man is less a man if he has depression? Those men who are transparent about their struggles with mental illness—men like Mike Wallace, Ted Turner, William Styron, Art Buchwald—seem, to me, more comfortable in their manhood than someone concealing his condition.

Clearly, the struggles of these uber-successful men didn’t stop them from being high achievers. The fear that a psychiatric condition will prevent someone from being successful is, I believe, at the heart of my ex-husband’s refusal to acknowledge our son’s problem.

No one should feel shame about mental illness in the family—not the person with the diagnosis, nor those related to that person. Everyone touched by mental illness needs to be able to name the problem and feel safe enough to talk about it.

Maybe we need to come up with a new name for mental illness, something more fitting, such as psychiatric disorder. How archaic are terms like mental ward and mental institution that conjure up gothic images of catatonic lobotomized patients or deranged zombies writhing on the floor? Mental illness implies that someone has low cognitive functioning, or is homicidal, which is generally not the case.

I hope some day our entire family can talk openly about Luca’s psychiatric disorder, a diagnosis that is constantly changing and may not crystallize until he’s in adulthood. I hope that Luca will grow up to believe that whatever his condition is called, it is just one aspect of his Luca-ness, like his mechanical ability or predilection for exotic food.

What I hope, most of all, is that he feels he is loved, and worthy of love, no matter what.

 Read more from the special section on mental illness

Photo  janineomg

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About Pauline Gaines

Pauline Gaines is the pseudonym of a blogger who writes about divorce, custody, and complicated children. She has survived all three subsisting primarily on caffeine, chocolate, and red wine. Her second husband is a saint. Visit her at Perils of Divorced Pauline or on Twitter @divorcedpauline.

Comments

  1. “My daughter Franny, almost ten, is the opposite of her brother—easy-going, resilient, compliant. ”

    Compliant?

  2. If your son had Cancer, his father would be all over it.. But because he himself does not want to admit, he himself has a mental illness , he cannot admit it about his son also.

    Yes, I am positive your ex husband is mentally ill. His control issues, his lying, his inability to act like an adult. Until he is willing to help himself, he will never be able to care or love for other people the proper way.

    Being able to admit we need help and also able to ask for help and have empathy.. That is maturity.. Those that avoid it.. will never be mature. That is why some children can be way more mature than even a 40 year old man.

    • I think my ex, like many people, just has a hard time accepting he has a child with certain challenges. But, yes, as you said, it’s more acceptable for kids to have cancer than a psychiatric diagnosis. Hopefully that stigma will be eradicated one day.

  3. Sounds like the father is afraid. Labeling someone as mentally ill can lead to a life of misery, isolation, judgement & extreme loneliness. We as a nation are in deep denial about ”our” mental illness & still blame, judge, isolate & punish individuals who we label as mentally ill. 20% of americans take some anti-depressant, many are self medicating with alcohol, pot, fast food, tv,etc. We have a President & Congress that spend trillions of $$$$$’s killing innocent people & using torture, while schools beg for money & millions are unemployed. We have made an insane society & our young are supposed to make sense of it all.

    • You are absolutely right, Peter. We really are in the dark ages as far as acknowledging mental illness in a non-judgmental way, and woefully under-funding services that support children and the 99% in this country. My son is fortunate that his grandparents have the money to pay for his mental health treatment, but it’s awful that so many families are not in that position and thus are unable to get the help their kids need.

  4. Anthony Zarat says:

    It is more likely than not that your husband is right. It is more likely than not that you, and every “expert” that you have been to, is wrong. Completely wrong.

    Very few boys in non-feminist societies display disruptive behaviour. There are hundreds of reasons for this, none of which is pivotal by itself. Taken collectively, the pressure on boys is relentless and unendurable. Boys face a death of character by a thousand cuts that is neither inevitable nor accidental. It is the intentional manifestation of feminist governance, an effort to create the appearance of female success by engineering the failure of their male peers. It is the darkest shame of our time.

    When 1 boy behaves badly, the child may have a problem.

    When 1 in 4 boys are drugged with Ritalin because of “abnormal” behaviour, society has a problem.

    When our descendants awaken from this feminist nightmare, they will question how their supposedly civilized ancestors thought it was OK to compel 1 in 4 male children to take dangerous personality-killing medications to treat boys for the disease of being male.

    • Suzanne Beachy says:

      Anthony, I totally agree that there is a serious problem in how we view and treat “non-compliant” boys. It’s completely ignorant to blame “undesirable” male behavior on imaginary, man-made brain diseases. Almost 40 percent of the boys in my 10-year-old’s class are taking psychiatric medication! That is outrageous!

      Keep on speaking out against nonsensical psychiatric diagnoses! I am so with you. And so is this psychologist and former boy-with-a-psychiatric-label, Michael Cornwall. http://www.madinamerica.com/2012/03/i-dont-believe-in-mental-illness-do-you/

      • Suzanne, I agree with you to a point. I think many boys are overdiagnosed with ADHD and are just not cut out for an educational system that requires them to sit still for hours at a time. I think a lot of these boys would do better with experiential learning, where they can be outside, perhaps working with animals. However, serious non-compliance is generally caused by an underlying diagnosis, whether it be depression or mood disorders. Depression in boys often manifests as irritability and aggression. Kids who are aggressive, destroy property, and are impulsve in dangerous ways to the point where they can’t be contained at home or in a regular school have serious problems and need help. We all need to learn compliance and cooperation to get along in life. The world makes demands on us.

    • When 1 in 4 boys are drugged with Ritalin because of “abnormal” behaviour, society has a problem.

      Those figures are beyond shocking. It is interesting that in Europe Diagnostic Criteria specifically exclude “difficulty waiting and remaining seated”. In the UK we see uncomfortable seating as a quality control issue and no a child pathology. The idea that an inexpert teacher who has presumed authority can feed into a medical diagnosis and have a child medicated … It beggars belief. I’m not anti-teacher, but there are some bad peas in every pod.

      When I look at ADHD in the USA the abuse of children and Ritalin is for me Criminal and shows that some people will do anything to make a buck. It has the same perspective and historical patterns as Circumcision. I actually can’t understand why so many are so willing to stand by. It’s as bad as the misuse and over-prescribing on benzos 50′s to 80′s, except people are doing it to their own kids. That starts to look very much as Münchhausen’s Syndrome By Proxy.

      It’s astonishing.

  5. Frank Mundo says:

    My son (and namesake) has a mental illness. While it has been a long and painful personal journey to accept and come to terms with this myself, and that he’ll never “get better” or “grow out of it”… what has been particularly difficult for me has been the non-acceptance of this fact by his older step brother and sister. I don’t think this is a “male – father issue”… certainly not in my case.

    • That’s absolutely true, Frank. Prejudice against mental illness is not confined to one gender. How great for your son that his dad accepts him the way he is. Maybe he stepbrother and sister will one day follow your lead.

  6. Cristina says:

    I wept as I read this….my life to a T, all the way to having a sweet, happy, compliant daughter myself. The only difference is my 10 year old son is also a Type 1 Diabetic and has some learning differences. My ex has done everything from refusal to administer medications, allowed our son to self administer psychiatric meds unsupervised, be responsible for his own diabetes care (because he needs to learn responsibility), constantly questions the highly regarded child psychiatrist of her motivation for medications, and of course…me. My lack of parenting skills has created this and if “I would just stop everything, he will be fine.” Not surprisingly my son sees his dad as his hero and I am regarded as “The AntiChrist”…he tells me he hates me, there’s nothing wrong with him, the meds don’t help and continuously defends his fathers actions. As a last ditch effort, the doctor (of 5 years) has referred us to a psychologist who specializes in high conflict situations and is a child advocate. Oh…did I fail to mention, I am the primary custodial parent with all decision making!! Such a sad situation for all of us…but mostly for the little, sweet, compliant girl who just wants to tell her brother she loves him without getting punched or kicked. So many days I want to just give up and hand over custody….but I can’t. So I will continue to swim upstream alone and eventually I WILL make it.

  7. I would agree with the statement that people with mental illness/psychopathology often face incredible stigma within and outside their immediate social group. Lack of knowledge and understanding of individuals who have been diagnosed with an ailment often leads to others reaching unfounded negative conclusions. Some research has proposed that the evaluation of a person who has been diagnosed with a psychopathology is correlated with how much perceived control the person has over the disorder. People with depression and anxiety disorders, for instance, are usually viewed negatively because it is assumed they can simply ‘get over it’ whenever they choose, and, therefore, they are thought to simply lack the conviction to better their condition. In some ways I suspect that some people may see it as a personal moral failing as opposed to the convergence of multiple extraneous factors including genetics. I’m confident a lot of good could be done to improve public perception of psychopathologies.

    It may also be worth considering the limitations on current forms of diagnosis. If you live in North America and have visited a psychotherapist/psychological-clinician/psychiatrist they likely have used the DSM-IV-TR as a guide for diagnosis which has many weaknesses, including how it defines what constitutes mental illness. Some of its tools for defining illness include statistical averages and socio-cultural-religious values within North American society. While the criteria for what constitutes having an appendicitis is true everywhere in the world, the same cannot be said about a given mental illness.

  8. My parents didn’t think about the possibility of not creating completely perfect children. Both me and my older brother have severe chronic mood disorders (my preferred term). I don’t blame them for the genetic inheritance. But I do blame them for their reaction considering the extensive family history. I was diagnosed 6 yrs after my first obvious episode because my parents were ashamed and didn’t want anyone to know and that I was being selfish and should snap out of it.
    It’s never easy on the parents because its heartbreaking to know their child is suffering with a condition that they unwittingly passed onto them and yes that they fail every perfect image of what they wanted their child to be like. It’s disappointing and nothing can remedy it. Sounds like in Luca’s case you did all you could early on. I can safely say that once a parent-child relationship has suffered the cruel strain of mental illness it is never the same. I still graduated high school with top marks and go to a top ranking university, but the word ‘disappointment’ and ‘selfish’ is still thrown at me a lot by my mother. If I was never sick, I wouldn’t have needed to lean on her so exhaustively and worn through her natural eagerness to care for me so quickly. A child growing up with mental illness cannot help but take from a parent far far more than he or she can ever stand to repay. I know I never will take away the traumatising pain and disappointment I caused my parents in the past but I also know it wasn’t my fault and because of this I heart breakingly know I will never have children..the gene is too strong and I just can’t be that parent..not after being the child.

    • Stacey, I’m so sorry to learn what you went through. I can imagine how painful and lonely it felt to be misunderstood and rejected by your parents. I hope you’ve had a corrective emotional experience in therapy.

  9. When Luca was ten, he received a diagnosis (which has since been discarded) of pediatric bipolar disorder. When the psychiatrist uttered those three words, I felt not horror, but relief. Finally we had a name for the problem, and therefore a treatment plan. Finally we had an explanation for years of unexplained behavior. Finally I understood what was going on.

    Pauline – this is so common. Having a label a diagnosis allows people to re-orient their reality. Knowing that something is wrong and it not being acknowledged by experts is a peculiar form of cruelty that goes so very deep.

    It can be medical – legal – even spiritual – but it goes to your very core. Oddly, it does not matter 100% if a label is right, as once you have that label reality can be checked against it and if necessary changed. You can fight and challenge a diagnosis – you can’t fight a phantom that just hangs in the dark that surrounds you.

    The number of times I’ve dealt with people left hanging for years and even decades without a diagnosis of physical or mental health issues. One guy had been complaining for 35 years, since the age of 5, of chronic pain on walking that had destroyed his life – no Diagnosis – just years of being viewed as a malingerer, someone making it up a mental health patient seeking attention. He was finally disguised with chronic and congenital Plantar Fasciitis. Suddenly he could put so much into perspective, it was liberating. he was angry too at being messed about in so many ways, but being liberated meant his anger was justified and correctly directed.

    It seems that Prince fears labels and diagnosis which is odd, because even when bad they are normally accepted and used positively. It’s almost as if Prince was programmed as a child to believe in the bad seed meme, so he sees Luca as his responsibility. Biblical and Religious Types have a great deal to answer for.

  10. I just wanted to add my 2cents worth about a sentence that struck me.
    “That mental illness is so shameful we need to lie about it?”
    Yes. Yes. Yes it is. Of course you do a survey of peoples attitude towards acceptance of mental illness every ones going to spout some political correct garbage that they in no way truly believe or act out. I am bipolar. I lie in most aspects of my life. I have to. My work doesn’t know and I can’t tell them. My tutors at uni don’t know although I made the mistake of confiding in one when explaining my idea for a novel….he’s eyes nearly popped out of his head before he composed himself enough to patronisingly ask me if I was sure I could ‘handle’ postgraduate studies. He collaborates with the staff who decide who the ‘honours’ offers go to. Despite my stellar academic record I now doubt my chances.
    It is shameful. I feel ashamed even though it’s an illness and I was born with it. I feel ashamed when I tell someone I thought would get it…and they don’t. You see a very small change in the glint in their eyes, a combination of fear and judgement and cliched assumption. My parents have never told anyone or even discussed it openly with extended family where mental illness is rife but still in archaic fashion carefully ignored and swept under the carpet.

    I know its not my fault but unless people like Prince or anyone freely use terminology like ‘fix’ when it comes to mental ILLNESS I will always feel ashamed. Does someone someone with lifelong diabetes need to be ‘fixed’, does someone with cancer need to be ‘fixed’…ladies and gentlemen what they need is to be healed. Yet I will always need to be fixed in the eyes of society even when I go years without an episode. Bipolar for life. My mother told me straight after my correct diagnosis when I was 19 which was a massive relief because first I incorrectly got schizophenia and bipolar has slightly less stigma and explaining…so I thought I had moved up in the world…she told me not to tell anyone so that they wouldn’t see me as ‘damaged goods’. Gosh I love good parenting skills.

    I went to a lecture by a top researching psychiatrist this year. I asked him a question and I knew the answer-if it happened, would free me and everyone in the world who is suffers from an unwell brain. ‘What will it take for the stigma of mental illness to cease to exist, and for it to be viewed with the same amount of compassion/sympathy/understanding as any other sickness?’
    He replied:
    ‘When doctors find a single quick test that produces a physical, definite result they can immediately detect a malfunction in the brain and prove it’
    That’s it-like an x-ray of a broken brain you can show to everyone and say: ‘Look it IS physical..oh and it’s REAL’
    I pray I live to witness this day…
    Because as a 21yr old who’s spent far too many ludicrous-priced pointless hours in psch doctors plush armchairs via my parents volition, I am sick of doing all the talking.

    • I am bipolar. I lie in most aspects of my life. I have to.

      Odd but in the Commercial World Concealing acts that may adversely affect a business is Called Good Business. When it’s on a personal level it’s seen as terrible – nasty – even Evil. I do recommend that people self incorporate as it’s evidently the best way to progress.

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