Invisible Trauma: The Children Left Behind When Parents Are Hospitalized

Cheri Bragg
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Frozen with fear and confusion, I had no idea what to do. My ability to cope hampered by youthful inexperience, I stood silently rooted to the strip mall’s parking lot pavement. My mind was racing, searching for an answer. The police officers had just treated my little sister and me with kindness and compassion, their smiles easily disarming me; then, as if flipping a switch when they turned to speak with my mother, the mood palpably shifted. At first, she tried to reason with them. Smiling her beautiful smile, she tried to explain why it made perfect sense to have walked several miles across town, hand in hand with her two small children in the dark of night, no real destination in mind. The police weren’t buying it. Unbeknownst to me, they had been tipped off by my father. He had called them, understandably worried when we were gone again, without a trace. But I felt blindsided. I was just out shopping with my mother. She didn’t drive, so it wasn’t odd to me that we had walked. It had grown late, the sun setting, but I was safe. I was with my mom. We weren’t doing anything wrong. So why were the police stopping us?

The discussion became heated: her voice incredulous at their inability to understand her reasoning, their voices threatening to put a sudden halt to our outing. I hated seeing them upset her. I felt instantly protective of my mother, but the feelings remained stuck in my throat, afraid to take on the authorities. Eventually, things turned physical and my brain flew into panic mode, a feeling that would later settle in my chest, becoming an uncomfortable yet familiar companion. They forced my mother into the back of a squad car and led us to the back of another. I don’t remember if I cried. I couldn’t speak. Forcibly separated from the person around whom my world revolved; in an instant, she was gone. Without notice. I had no choice. No chance to prepare. No control. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again.

It would take decades before I recognized the trauma caused by repeatedly being separated from my mom due to hospitalizations, institutionalizations, etc. With the world surrounding me narrowly defining trauma as things like natural disasters or war, it’s a wonder I ever arrived there at all. As an adult searching to make meaning out of my experiences, I find the theme of “Invisibility” rises to the top, time and again.

Society ignores my existence by perpetuating the myth that people with mental health labels don’t have kids, when statistics show that the majority do. This becomes the slippery slope into “people with mental health labels shouldn’t have kids,” when of course many people with these labels are great parents. Even if my existence is acknowledged, I’m told “It didn’t happen to you” (only to my mom) or that, as an adult, “You should be over it by now,” as if childhood trauma is magically erased at 18. I’ve even had people question whether my experiences of separation from my mother were traumatic… as if anyone else could ever make that determination! Birthdays, holidays, Mother’s Day… all the annual celebrations were continuous reminders that she was missing from my life.

In my mid-30’s, I landed at NAMI, labeled an “adult child” family member. While I did meet a few compassionate people locally, I found little real understanding of my experiences from a group comprised largely of parents. These parents often expressed horror at the mere thought of their “sick” child ever becoming a parent. Some fellow daughters and sons of parents with mental health labels were shamefully asked to “never speak about that topic ever again,” hushing our collective voice and sending a clear message: don’t talk about it! NAMI’s focus on illness and disease meant that we were genetically “doomed” to our parents’ fate of hospitalizations and forced drugging. Hope for recovery was overshadowed by the message of lifelong, chronic illness. Offering no alternative lens with which to view distress, NAMI left many of us hopeless, waiting to become “ill” and afraid to have children. As an extension of these fears, many of us unconsciously delayed or decided not to get married, found mates who already had children, or were afraid to have more than one child, fearing it would result in postpartum issues of the worst sort.

I feel most comfortable, by far, aligning with other people who have experienced system trauma. But I am far too often relegated to playing the role of “family member” as much of my mental distress occurred outside of the traditional mental health system. This categorizing not only completely dismisses my own experiences with trauma, but also goes against current efforts to knock down those walls of “otherness” that separate “us” from “them.” Advocacy movements have largely left parental/family rights behind, leaving deep wounds painfully buried. Many daughters and sons working in the mental health field choose not to disclose their experiences, fearing that discrimination by genetic association would be the death of their careers. The medical model only widens the divide. Viewing human distress through a shared social/trauma lens may be the best chance for families to heal, yet these experiences remain unrecognized by some of the very people with the power to shed light on them.

Mental health systems quite loudly continue to marginalize experiences like mine, first by neglecting to ask adults with mental health labels if they even have children, and second by responding with disproportionate child welfare involvement and removal via “predictive neglect” if they do. This further traumatizes families based solely on a parent’s mental health label (research indicates alarming 60-80% custody loss rates!).

Technical assistance issued jointly by the U.S. Departments of HHS and the DOJ (August 2015), as well as a report about ensuring rights to parents with disabilities and their children by the National Council on Disability, already exist. Backed by Title II and Title III of the A.D.A., as well as Article 12 of the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) and Article 23 of the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the foundation for change is there, but systems have not embraced it. Stopping short at the intersection of collaboration are the silos of Child Welfare, Adult Mental Health Care, Disability Rights & Family Law. Even the World Health Organization has a quality of life survey commonly used by mental health organizations that asks people if they have a satisfying sex life but fails to ask people about the socially valued role of being a parent!

In my personal experience, mental health systems further isolated me from my mother during hospitalizations and institutionalizations, failing to provide family-friendly visiting spaces and family communication options. The mental health system failed to recognize our firmly established, positive mother-child bonds, let alone help maintain them. They even erased us from the records, with my mom recorded as having two daughters upon her initial admittance to Norwich Hospital, and only one daughter upon discharge.

History has quite literally erased millions of daughters and sons from existence through the abominable practices of eugenics and forced sterilization. Perhaps “predictive neglect,” today’s so-called “legal justification” for removing infants from psychiatrically labeled parents in hospitals, came from these practices — a sort of “predictive defect,” predicting that a person labeled as “mentally ill” would certainly have defective children. Many mental health professionals carry on the negative spirit of that work today by automatically assuming negative outcomes. The lack of value assigned to parenting is reflected by a nearly total absence of positive parenting/family supports available. Personally, I found that parenting, while certainly very challenging and stressful, also gave me purpose. For me, being permanently separated from my son would have been mentally devastating. As a society we can sympathize when parents lose a child to death, but we don’t give a second thought to the trauma caused when positive bonds are broken by systems.

But perhaps this is beginning to change. As I write this, the news about immigrant children, traumatized by being separated from their parents at the Mexican border, grabs our attention and wrenches our hearts. While I have no idea if these children suffered trauma at home, nor on the journey to the U.S. border, I know they likely suffered trauma upon separation from their parent(s) as they ask the same questions I did: Where am I? Am I safe? Where are my parents? Are they okay? Will I ever see them again?

I am reminded that this is not the first time that our country has sanctioned separating families. American Indian/Alaskan Natives have a tragic history of government-sponsored removal of their children so severe that it prompted the creation of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978. Along with African Americans, both groups are disproportionately labeled with disabilities and disproportionately affected by child welfare involvement and removal. Our society condones separation of children from families through child welfare and court systems every day. Often these are lifelong sentences of separation; parents are almost never re-evaluated, even when a parent feels well or proves capable of caregiving again. Even when separation is necessary, trauma to children and parents is still likely. We need to stop separating children from their families based solely upon how “worthy of compassion” we judge parents and families to be and start supporting them, regardless of their current health and geography. Supporting parents and families through periods of mental distress instead of separating them forever, whenever possible, could avoid a lot of needless family trauma.

Ironically, my own mother also “erased me from existence” by forming the idea that my entire family died in a car accident when I was eleven. I don’t blame her — I believe she did what she needed to do to protect herself from the needless, continual “loss” of her children and family on top of being subjected to the torture of institutionalization. That does not mean that it didn’t affect me. To the contrary, it has affected my entire life. I wept when she first told us we were “spirits” and later in life I patiently endured countless hours of explanations of why I couldn’t be her daughter. Though I took heart when she called me “the best advocate and conservator in the world,” I would have gladly traded the title in for “daughter.” Yet, challenging times like these pale in comparison to the trauma of being separated from her. I could have understood human distress had it been explained to me. I don’t think anything could ever make me understand why the system thought I would be permanently “better off” without her. My mother was robbed from me, a “parental abduction.” I remember discovering that I grieved almost exactly the way children did who had lost a parent to death. Yet it was grief without closure because my mom was not dead, just… gone.

I took my cue from all these messages of invisibility surrounding me and shrunk to fit expectations. If you can’t be seen, you can’t be valued. Fulfilling careers, personal health, loving relationships, a good life… all out of your reach if you’re invisible. Even when I began telling my story, it often evolved into a story about the hardships my mother endured rather than focusing on how I was affected. Though our stories are inextricably intertwined, I sensed or perhaps put out the message myself that people would rather hear about my mother’s brave fight to keep the system at bay rather than the story of a heartbroken girl. Even the scanty amount of research available focuses on expectations of negative outcomes rather than the hope of positive healing solutions. With few exceptions, experiences like mine clearly have not been seen, let alone valued.

Though I grieve for that little girl within, I’ve also come to embrace the gifts that come with having survived trauma and humbly recognize the privileges I had that helped me through the darkest hours when so many of us did not survive. I know there are millions of other daughters and sons, young and old, in the U.S. alone, many of whom still struggle. The A.C.E. study acknowledges the experience of growing up with labeled parents but falls short by assuming only negative outcomes. Daughters and sons are as unique as any group of people, but there are some common needs. Systems need to identify their potential role in traumatizing or re-traumatizing children and families, and make changes based on valuable input from families. Systems need to think creatively about how to preserve positive parent-child bonds when families are separated, whether by hospitalization, jail, courts, etc. Family relationships are complex — why wouldn’t the solutions be just as diverse?

Systems need to stop judging parental competency from a snapshot of the parent’s most difficult hour and recognize the fluidity of mental distress and the potential for positive change. Systems need to use parenting assessments that fairly measure a parent’s functional capabilities and ability to parent with needed supports and services vs. judging solely on a label or negative predictions without proof. We need to recognize our potential joint power to support one another through a social lens of viewing human distress and hope for healing. Children need to be offered opportunities to express themselves through empowerment and artistic expression and learn how to care for themselves in stressful times through meditation, breathing exercises, self-love, exercise… whatever works. We need to learn how to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously when we make mistakes. We need to learn to take care of ourselves as well as we take care of others. We need to learn to trust ourselves and realize that it is impossible to please everyone.

Like all children, children of parents with mental health labels need to be seen, heard and valued. We need to change the false narrative of genetic destiny and invisibility to one of hope and continued healing. We need access to information about human distress and healing from trauma. We need to learn how to love ourselves, as we are. We need to know that no matter what challenges the world brings, we possess the resources to weather those storms and rise again.

26 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Cheri, thanks so much for this. It is more than past time that you as a person and as a cohort of peers come out in to full view.
    So much to unpack here for my own narratives and as a micro – macro- and meta narrative of trauma as it has been conceptualized by Medical, governmental, and other systems some more corrupt and self serving than others.
    We are all patented by trauma survivors. Any person who has or had a parent who survived Concentration Camps, DP Camps, Refugee Camps, War even those on the so called winning side and especially those children of vets or who were raised by nurses after their trauma in the WWII Philippines and Brit civilians in the Pacific Theater and after, there are so many incidences as many unfornately as stars in the sky. Can you imagine parenting after having a loved one killed by lynching?
    That there are survivors at all is something to honor in and of itself.
    Before my time in system – irony all of my life is irony- I created, developed, and implemented a program for children in the MH Clinic where I worked. For some reason, it was taken away from my control. Though one of the workers hired admitted to me her mother had issues with parenting and some sort of trauma. She did not last long and the program seemed to disappear as well.
    I also was involved in a parenting program which tried to address trauma and parenting using Selma Fraiberg’s work. Her essay , “ Ghosts in the Nursery” is old but worthwhile reading and should be in any educational syllabus for training any type or level of professional in the system. That it is not, is beyond comprehension.
    During my time in system both in and out of places – your story of children touched by the system in almost an immoral corrupt way and family matters as a nonissue, deliberately ignored was so very true.
    And what was I to do with my knowing anger? It was beyond BS for me and others but to speak and challenge was only punished by more drugging and more punishment.
    As a family, we have never processed in any shape or form what happened to me. Nada – nothing- SILENCE.
    I have learned to hate because of all of this. But I REFUSE to let hate rule my life. NO.
    I have spent thousands of dollars and still silence from all of the professionals I have tried to work with. So I exist and do what I would tell the kids I worked with, tell and tell and tell again.
    One’s voice becomes weak with the telling, one’s fear rises as one has had to deal with police intervention – illegal and uncalled for- so I exist and hope someday those involved with my own narrative and others will be brought to justice or the truth will come out and be exposed.
    Thanks again. And BTW your take on NAMI is on target. Ah trauma when it goes underground it creates minefields for all. They have their own issues and have fallen and are not allowed to get up and see.

  2. Psychological man is a major feeding ground for authoritarians, they are using dehumanization of others for their own survival. Normal people are using psychological man for their own purposes. That is why I am against apollonian(egoic, material, economic, pseudo medical, DSM) hegemony over psychological reality, because egoic people are the least psychological and do not have the right and abilities to judge psychological man. Their gods are lame -economy, career and money.

    Apollonian Ego is buying personality. Psyche creates character. And I feel respect only before psychological reality and death, not before authoritarians an their lame reality. Egoic, jungian, pseudo medical and spiritual fictions are for cowards who needs false hopes, lies and so on.

    Psychological man is a hero IN PSYCHOPATIC REALITY OF SHALLOW APOLLONIANS. Shame on you apollonian fundamentalists.
    Pay the same price to psyche and maybe you will talk with psychological people, as EQUALS. Forget about the profession, your lies are over, apollonian ego hegemony is over, even if it is not visible in authoritarian capitalistic reality. It is over, and you know that.

    Material shallow egoic development can not, and never will be equal to psychological development through death. Never. Empty reality of material egoic psychopats is only a form of inhumane fad for money making. Shame on you, egoic people. Technology medicine and money won’t save you. Only truth can.

    James Hillman, “Re-Visioning psychology”.

  3. Cheri:

    NAMI had no right to silence your voice. NAMI silences a lot of voices out of fear. Thank you for bringing up the topic of reproductive rights as it concerns people with mental health labels. This is an important topic that needs to come out of the closet. When my daughter was in hospital, she harbored a belief that she was pregnant (she wasn’t). To me, this belief though dismissed as a ‘delusion’ by the medical authorities, was something she was working through, it had to have meaning even though I didn’t understand it. Unlike ‘experts’ and other family members I didn’t see any point trying to convince her that she wasn’t pregnant, even when she cradled and refused to be parted from a silly wadded up ball of plastic and fabric ‘baby’. Later, over the course of many years of conversations, (she sometimes swings between the extremes of mutism and a stream of unfiltered thoughts) sometimes the shards of meaning became illuminated from the ‘static’ and began to present itself with greater clarity. I began to see she had many challenges establishing the difference between sexuality and intimacy and she needed to establish trust in at least one person before this could take place. I now believe that her biggest problem, is not a genetic or chemical imbalance but a broken heart that has been coloring her life for some time and the hospitalizations, forced medication, restraints, seclusion were distractions at best, and a compounding of trauma and erosion of trust at worst. When one acquires a mental health label, one may be condemned to a life of extreme isolation. My daughter who I now know is capable of loving very deeply, was stripped of her freedom and ability to explore her sexuality at what is considered the ‘prime’ of one’s life. After her diagnosis and many years of being locked up, she harbored a terrible fear of never being able to experience intimacy, even though she was beginning to understand her issues with greater clarity. So, by the time she began to take responsibility for her issues around sexuality and love (she no longer believes she is pregnant but is seeking an outlet for her maternal love as well as a healthy and safe outlet for her sexual desire) a secondary trauma presented itself: The fear of unrequited love due to mental health stigma (who would want to date a crazy person) not to mention the neuroleptic induced sexual dysfunction which i pray is not permanent. You see, people who are on heavy drugs, cannot often enjoy orgasms and then there is the dilemma, if someone who IS on neuroleptics wants to have a baby, how does one safely wean off the neuroleptics during the pregnancy to protect the brain development of the fetus? There are many issues that NAMI won’t deal with but we must talk about these issues honestly to help our children who have been labeled fulfill their greatest potential, not just as potential artists, healers, leaders activists, etc but as potential lovers. After all, they should be afforded the same rights of ‘normal’ people to express their sexuality, bear children and receive and give love.

    • Thanks for sharing this sad but moving story. It is a perfect example of how wrong-headed the current form of “help” really is. Well done to you and to her for figuring out what the issues were really about. What they call “symptoms” are not meaningless, but full of meaning, and the invalidation of this meaning is perhaps the most heinous thing they do to their “charges.” I hope that you will find peace and a pathway forward.

  4. Thank you for this moving story, Cheri. You are absolutely correct, the “mental health system” is destroying families. My family was pushed into the “system” because an ELCA pastor wanted to cover up the sexual assault of my very young son. By what I’ve subsequently learned is a satanic, child scarifying, Bohemian Grove attending pedophile, likely Baal or Moloch worshipping satanist, who now thinks he’s a “Mag Man,” since the ELCA bishops all cover up his rape of children.

    http://www.blurb.com/b/2934828-mag-men
    https://books.google.com/books/about/Jesus_and_the_Culture_Wars.html?id=xI01AlxH1uAC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

    And it’s likely this wealthy friend of the pastor’s, who may have been blackmailing this pastor with pedophilia sharing photos, according to people who know more about the satanic world of child abuse than I. Since millions of dollars are now missing from my former churches coffers, according to that church’s congregational trend reports.

    As an artist, my current paintings are about the ‘systems are satanic.’ Tons of people online now see this as a real social problem. Which means as a society, we need to get rid of the satanic systems. But these corrupt systems are the ones we were all brainwashed into trusting in, the religions, medical, legal, educational, and judicial systems.

    As a mother, who had the common adverse effects of antidepressant discontinuation syndrome, misdiagnosed as bipolar, when my children were very young. I do see the damage our “mental health profession” has and is doing to the American families. I have a daughter who has been brainwashed by our “mental health professional” miseducated educational system into believing she wants to be a man.

    A psychiatric system is satanic when it tries to miseducate other people’s children about their sexuality. God damn today’s psychiatric, defamation, iatrogenic illness creation, family destroying system. If you don’t repent, make proper amends, and change your evil ways, since you’ve been defrauding the American public out of billion in insurance for this exact purpose for decades. It’s time for repentance, proper amends, and a return to justice, which is achieved via a proper judgement.

    You are absolutely correct, Cheri, to believe our current “mental health system” is a family destroying system. It is a satanic system that needs to be judged appropriately, and gotten off this planet.

  5. Cheri,

    Thank you for writing this powerful article. It brought up a lot in me – a lot that needed to come up. I am grateful that I get to live in the state where you have done such great work. I would love to talk to you about our experiences as family members. Thank you, again, for this article – I needed to read your words for my own healing.

    Deron

  6. You’re not the only person NAMI has silenced Cheri.

    The friend who introduced me to the group left in disgust when those “safe and effective treatments” slowly killed her sister. And NAMI did nothing.

    My condolences. It sounds like your mother grew more psychotic due to her experiences–directly or indirectly linked to psychiatry.

  7. But the most terrible thing was chlorpromazine. The terrible effect can not be described. In what satanic laboratories was prepared this drug!? It was destroying the thinnest, most intimate strings of essence. Its action caused a complete rejection reaction. Every cell, every nerve were screaming with outrage. As long as overwhelming effect of chlorpromazine was manifesting, this reaction was completely suppressed. But as soon as this action is being weakened, the whole being is being filled with rage. But they were continuing to do chlorpromazine else and else.
    There was one nurse, very greedy and cynical. She was often substituting others and was on duty multiple shifts in a row. And in order that the duty roster would pass quietly she was doing chlorpromazine to all. She was getting this with different ways. At the beginning with help on duty doctors. There were a lot of young doctors. Basically women. With them she was in familiarly relationships. She was calling a doctor by phone, a doctor was coming and appointing chlorpromazine, even not seeing for whom she appoints. Then they ceased trouble oneself to arrive. They were assigning by a phone. Then and this turned out to be unnecessary. The nurse herself was doing chlorpromazine, and the appoint was being done after, backdating. Then others followed her example .
    And no salvation from this destruction remained.