How to Survive a Large Family Including a Mental Illness and Remain Together:
An Exploration of Our Lived Experience

By Karen Anderson-Green

A retired Special Education teacher of 20 plus years and a proud mom of five

Our middle son came up from the basement where it was safe for him to play alone – he-proofed – and when he entered the kitchen I turned to see a five-year-old boy warrior with widened eyes, a ripped shirt (“I used my teeth!” was the proud response when asked how) and battle ready. Once again it was clear that the beast called mental illness was thrashing him around like a raw piece of meat by a wolf.  Little did I know, that we were ALL going into the battle of our lifetime. We wouldn’t have made it without perseverance and lots of support and unconditional love.

We went to our appointment, our son in full warrior mode including his new ‘uniform’, with “Dr. Anonymous” who was an intelligent, kind, dedicated doctor who was just as perplexed as I was. The answer was always yet another combination of some new medication, which was the “supposed” next solution to end the current set of symptoms (there were countless trials over the next 13 years). Talk about a double-edged sword; meds and their side effects or more hospitalizations and potentially dangerous behaviors? I persevered through many, many difficult decisions, including two out of home placements for the greater good of the entire family.

Our son endured eleven stays at a local private psychiatric hospital with excellent staff and amazing doctors/therapists and on his last stay at 18 years old, his body and mind came to an agreement that clozeril and depakote would quell the beast. Many years later, he’s still on those meds today.  Now as an adult, he lives on his own and functions well. He has worked a maintenance job at a local grocery store for the past seven years and is a punctual, great employee with few problems at work. He bowls with his uncle, plays golf with family and does rec softball. But, he’s lonely: has no real friends but does hang out with a couple of people occasionally.  Our son’s schitzo-effective disorder renders him unable to make the best decisions, especially when it comes to his personal life. He makes poor food choices which has resulted in some medical health issues. He keeps his apartment minimally clean and needs constant reminders to complete household tasks. My husband and I take turns with this task as it’s quite demanding and our perseverance driven by love endures: “Son, time to do your laundry” … “But I did it three weeks ago”. Cleanliness is his biggest challenge, but he does respond to both positive and negative consequences: “$20 if you clean by tonight” or “no golf with dad if you don’t shower”. We persevere with the help from lots of support and good old-fashioned love.

Talk about having forever support: my husband. When Life sent me him, I knew we’d be together forever. 28 years and counting! How do we do it? How do we stay married? By making sure WE were… we ARE… important. We’ve lived an extraordinarily chaotic life: five kids, appointments, school, full time jobs, sports and managing our son’s health and mental health throughout it all. My husband and I committed ourselves to a weekly date night while my daughter babysat. We took yearly summer vacations alone as well. Supporting each other has been necessary for our survival. Support for the family at a variety of levels was implemented. There is another essential ingredient in our “how to survive a large family including a mental illness and remain married” list of musts: therapy!

Picture of mother and son, standing side-by-side holding each other looking into a distance Family Support
A Family Support

We, I, them, individual, group, family – you name it. I knew that my youngest child would also need help so I started him with his own therapist which was incredibly helpful; he still sees the therapist today as needed. I think despite all of the services, the love, the support… no family comes out unscathed. So many factors such as – divorce, step/blended family, health issues, race issues, mental illness and financial challenges – make fractures easier to occur. There are broken relationships, harbored resentments and some deep, deep scars. And I personally, despite the supports, took a big hit. I am now faced with some health challenges that stem directly from unhealthy coping choices I made during those very tough years. I’m blessed that I’m young, have insurance, supportive family and doctors, and most importantly, the willingness to do the work to heal.  The other “must” on the list of essentials? Consistent family support. We speak with our son daily and he eats Sunday dinner with us weekly. His case manager of seven years is supportive as well. We are grateful that despite more than 20 years of mental health challenges, that our middle son is kind, stable, and functioning well.

With two main ingredients, perseverance and support, coupled with unconditional love, our family is blessed with our amazing son: drug/alcohol free, medication taken daily, appointments met independently, job holding, kindness abound as well as our other kiddos who are also faring well. The way I have made it is truly believing this: there is nothing that is given to you that you cannot handle. Trust the Greater Good even through the darkest of days.

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Karen Anderson-Green

First and foremost, I’m a proud mom of five, my children’s ages range from 43 to 24. I’ve been happily married to my husband for 28 years and we have an amazing blended family filled with diversity and unconditional love. I’m a retired Special Education teacher of 20 plus years and am looking forward to continuing to work with those who need help. I’m a strong advocate for any cause that I believe in! I grew up on Long Island, New York and now reside in Upstate New York. I love the beach, biking, gardening and hanging out with my kids and grand kiddos! My motto: Love never gives up!

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