Nothing fully prepared me for my daughter’s mental health journey, not even being a nurse with a personal history of mental illness. I am not proud of how I discovered that she was suffering, nor do I recommend it; I happened upon and read one of her private emails. However, I can’t say I regret finding out what was going on with my daughter. That email started a journey that may have saved her life — what I regret is that I was not able to intervene sooner.
As I grappled with my regrets, I told myself that I could have prevented my daughter’s pain, and I convinced myself that it was my responsibility to ensure she never struggled again. However, as both my daughter and I have progressed in our mental health journeys, I have learned that my guilt was lying to me — that it placed far too much blame on me and left little room for understanding, healing and acceptance.
I want to share some of these lies and how I overcame my negative internal dialogue.
I Should Have Been Telepathic
I often scolded myself for not knowing what my daughter was going through.
I should have seen the signs. There were some signs. Why was I so blind? I am a terrible mother for not being more in tune with my child, for not knowing.
With time and reflection, I realized that even good parents can’t always know how their children are feeling. My daughter did not tell me what she was going through for many months; she purposefully hid her pain from me. While it hurts me that she didn’t confide in me, I have come to understand that this was her journey, and she had her reasons for wanting privacy. Ultimately, I had no way of knowing early on.
It’s All My Fault
As my daughter struggled with her mental health, I believed that my parenting was responsible for her pain.
This is happening because I did A, B and C (insert a moment in time or a decision) and I did not do X, Y or Z. I should have known better. I should have...I could have...If I had only...
As I have reflected on the last decade, I have truly come to understand that no one is “at fault” for our situation, and I cannot claim responsibility. My daughter’s mental illness could have had many origins: Perhaps she struggled because our family has a genetic predisposition to mental illness, or maybe she internalized negative messages that our society markets to young women.
What I know is that I have done my best in raising her, and I have to trust that I loved my daughter and prepared her for life in every way I know how.
It Is My Job To “Fix” It
After discovering that my daughter was struggling, I slept on the floor of her room every night for more than a month, just to make sure she was safe. I barely slept during this time and felt like I had to track her every movement. If she did not answer the phone, I called all her friends asking if they had heard from her within the last five minutes. I called her work. I gave myself panic attacks doing these things. I locked up every potentially sharp object in my home.
With time, I’ve learned that I can’t fix everything, and my daughter has the right to decide how she will cope. It took both time and counseling for me to trust my daughter to care for herself after I discovered she was struggling. I can even remember the feeling of trust returning during a joint counseling session. Ultimately, our relationship and communication improved, especially after I encouraged her to feel empowered to make the best decisions for herself.
My Advice to Caregivers Who Blame Themselves
To any caregivers experiencing a similar internal dialogue, please know that it is ok to go through a process of guilt and doubt. It is ok that you may have told yourself these lies — in fact, it is normal. What I will ask of you is that you don’t get stuck in the lies. Breaking free of blame and guilt will allow you to better care for your loved one.
I also urge you to be patient with yourself; one self-talk session wasn’t enough for me to overcome an overwhelming internal dialogue. Talk therapy with trained professionals helped me to understand what I was feeling and how to step back and address it. It took multiple sessions and lots of time.
For a long time, I questioned my closeness with my daughter and my abilities as a parent. I thought we were close, but how close could we have been if she didn’t confide in me? Shouldn’t our relationship have protected her from pain?
Now, I can tell myself that we were close, and I was there for her. I took action and helped her get the care she needed. As a result of this caregiving journey, she and I have become even closer. We’ve learned so much about each other and about how to communicate; this new closeness is real, raw and growing.
My hope is that other caregivers can reach this point, with the support of loved ones and mental health care professionals. I did not get here without caring for myself with the same vigor that I cared for my daughter. By processing my situation and leaning on a supportive circle, I was able to prioritize my own mental health and be strong for my daughter. Caregivers deserve healing, too.
I wish anyone in this position luck in their healing. It can be a lengthy process — but it’s doable and worth it.
Ginger Robertson, an RN of nine years, entered nursing school the year her daughter started kindergarten in order to better her life. Now 17, her daughter is attending to the University of Dakota, majoring in psychology. Ginger hopes their story will offer hope to other families living with mental illness.