The Serenity Prayer plays frequently in my mind:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
It doesn’t always help, since my biggest concern is something I have little control over, can’t fix—and yet I desperately hope that something can be done. It’s my youngest daughter’s mental health problems.
My youngest daughter doesn’t seem to be getting much better—the episodes of madness, of inchoate and unreasoning rage, remain. The only plus in this is that the meltdowns are shorter now, though no less intense—and thankfully lacking in property damage and physical violence directed at me. Verbal abuse continues, however. Worse, she has trouble maintaining friendships, her emotions control her and not the other way around; she has no ability to recognize whether another person is really nice or just trying to take advantage of her. She regularly makes poor and even dangerous choices.
The problem with the Serenity Prayer or any pleasant saying designed to try to help us make it through our troubles, is that we want it to be something like the “easy button” in the Staples commercial: a magical solution that makes life suddenly all ponies and rainbows. That is not what the Serenity Prayer is, of course.
In the support group that my wife and I attend for caregivers of those with mental illness, one of the common concerns that parents have is “how do you just let them go? How do you make the pain stop?” What we want to hear, is “First you do A, then B, and then C—and then you’ll feel great and the pain squeezing your heart will vanish.” But there is no fix like that available.
As parents, we have spent eighteen years or so caring for our children’s needs, solving their problems, always concerned for their welfare: we made sure they had food, we took them to the doctor, we nursed them through their colds and flus and other illnesses. We helped them with their school work and encouraged them to make good choices. We told them no. As they grew older, their need for constant supervision lessened. Our relationship altered, and we grew apart as we must: they became adults and went out to live their own lives. Somehow, as parents, letting our children go like that is not so hard. There’s some pain, of course, but it seems manageable. I don’t hurt all the time for my two older daughters who have gone off to college and adulthood.
But for those of us with children who are mentally ill, that maturity never comes to them. They never grow up, and you never feel any peace. They remain trapped in their childhood. At eighteen, they still behave as if they were twelve or even younger: they still desperately need help—but now at eighteen, it is help that they won’t willingly accept—and it is help that the law stands in the way of allowing us to impose. We can’t tell them “no” anymore and have it stick. They need to listen to us, but they won’t—and we no longer have much leverage. We know that they haven’t grown up and so our parental hearts are stuck in a childhood place with them: we want to bandage their owies, to keep them from harm, to protect them now as if they were chronologically still the twelve year old that they remain emotionally and cognitively. But we can’t. And so we watch them go out and hurt themselves and we can’t help them or solve their problems.
How do we let them go when they shouldn’t be going? How do we turn our parental compassion off?
I have no solution. Instead, I just repeat the Serenity Prayer. And I sometimes wish that my heart would grow calloused so the tears would stay away.