170 Transcript: Mental Illness and Parenting (with Ally Golden)
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J: You're listening to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast episode number 170. We're talking about an important topic today, mental health and how it affects children and generations. Stay tuned.
Hey there, my friends, welcome back to Vibrant Happy Women, I'm Dr. Jen Riday and we have an important episode for you today all about mental health. I think all of us are affected by mental health issues in 1 way or another, whether that's ourselves or a family member or a loved one. And these mental health issues can range from depression to anxiety to bipolar disorder to borderline personality disorder and on and on. Well, the fact is, these mental health issues affect children in numerous ways, not only through genetic transmission of course when children are biological, but through patterns of behavior that those children learn.
Well, my guest today is Ally Golden and she grew up with a mother with borderline personality disorder, bipolar and depression, and it had significant effects on Ally and her brother. And she shares the touching, touching story of how that went through childhood, through college, and as she has now become a mom herself and is learning how to navigate that with her own children; it's beautiful. And as you know, mental health is near and dear to my heart because we have some of the same things happening in our family. My husband was raised by a mother with a mental illness and it affected him as a child, it affected his ability to be comfortable around expressions of emotion. And I found it fascinating that in this episode, Ally Golden said she learned the same behavior through the volatility of her own mother, that emotions weren't safe. And it wasn't until well into her adulthood that she learned to start feeling safe expressing and feeling emotions; so, so fascinating. And like Ally, I have dealt with some of the repercussions of mental health issues with my own children and I'm constantly navigating those waters.
So whether you or your children or parents or other loved ones have a mental illness or not, this is an important episode and interview to listen to because sometimes we can't figure out why we aren't acting, feeling, behaving like other people or why our kids might not be acting, feeling or behaving like other children. And we can feel marginalized like we've messed up and we don't know what's going on, but the fact is we can relax a little bit and recognize there are mental health issues across the board to some degree affecting behavior for all of us; some more extreme than others. And it's beautiful to just have that explanation and to see a way to create a new pattern for your own children going forward, or for yourself going forward as you interact with your loved ones, whether you have children or not. So I really, really loved this interview, I can't wait for you to hear it, it will touch your heart. I have to admit, I had a good cry after this interview and I can't wait to hear what you think. So let's go ahead and dive in.
Hey, everyone, I'm talking with Ally Golden today and she was born in Michigan in 1976 and raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC. She is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Fast Company in the Atlantic. And she's from Chicago where she lives with her husband and 2 kids. Well, she is a passionate advocate for mental illness because she has quite the story to share with us today of growing up with a mom with bipolar and depression, and severe levels of both. And, yeah, I am so grateful you're going to share the story with us today, Ally, welcome to the show.
A: Thanks for having me, Jen, it's really great to be here.
J: Well, let's have a quote and then dive into your story.
A: Okay. My favorite quote is Henry David Thoreau and it's, “March confidently in the direction of your dreams.” It's actually part of a larger quote, but that's the part that I like because it makes me feel that if you do what you believe to be true, what you believe to be necessary, what you believe to be important, that eventually, life will work out the way you hope. But you do have to take action and make an impact on your own life and take steps to make it better. And if you do that confidently and you do that with security and belief, then things will turn out alright.
J: Oh, I love that, I love that. And I'm sure you had to apply that with the circumstances with your mom. So let's go ahead and go right there and…
J: … hear your story. But first I want to say this is for everyone, whether you have a parent with a mental illness or not, it's important that we understand the effect mental illness can have on families and on people and just to have that compassion and empathy. But I think, you know, realistically, 1 in 4 women take an antidepressant, so I think most of us will relate some way or another.
J: We all have our moments of quote-unquote ‘crazy’, right? (Laughs)
A: Yeah, absolutely.
J: Yeah, right, yeah. Tell us your story then, Ally, go ahead.
A: Well, hi, everyone, it's really nice to be here. My principal reason for writing the book that I wrote is to reach out and provide support to other people who are going through similar situations, either struggling with mental illness themselves or struggling with a loved one with mental illness, which is a different animal, but in many ways just as stressful. And my story begins when I was very young. I was born into a family that really liked children, that really wanted children. Fortunately, we were in a good socio-economic bracket so I kind of had everything that I needed from an objective standpoint. But my mother had suffered from pretty severe depression from the time she was a small child herself, and she also had a rather unfortunate upbringing in that she too was raised in a good socio-economic situation, but her parents were rather emotionally abusive. And so my mother grew up without a lot of unconditional love and she developed what is known as borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by unstable moods and unstable relationships.
A: And it often exists with things like depression and some substance abuse. And my mother had had this from the time she met my dad when she was in her 20s to the point where my dad was told by psychiatrists back in the day, you know, “Don't… hide all the knives, don't leave any razors out,” like this was well before I was even born. And my mother had always wanted a baby girl, she really wanted a girl; like that was the famous story. And she had me and then she had my brother, and she suffered from postpartum depression with my brother that, unfortunately, she never seemed to really recover from. And the deal with my mom was that she… and I think probably a lot of listeners can relate to this, that she was very inconsistent. If she had been universally a bad parent, you know, abusive and mean and horrible, then it would have been a lot, I think, easier for me to extricate myself, but my childhood was punctuated by contradictions. It was… you know, my mom would throw a fork at me and tell me like I was a huge slob that didn't deserve to live in the house, but then the next day, she would locate my friend whose father had gone to the State Department in another country and tried to track down my friend who had moved. So my mother was alternately extremely loving and extremely rejecting, which was a confusing situation for a child. And then you add to that that she was suicidal from the time I was around 8 and she let me know that she wanted to end her life, and it became my job as the daughter she'd always wanted to save her. And so my life became, as I went from being a child into a teen, it went into this game of control. As long as my mother was alive, I had won the game. And I had this false sense that if I said or did the right combination of things that she would be alive, and that became my purpose for a living. And so that was the backdrop from which I formed all of my relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, relationships with other family. And when I came of age, I had a really hard time with relationships because I had never been properly nurtured myself. I wanted someone to take care of me, I only really knew how to be codependent, which means that I derived my sense of self-worth from my relationships with other people.
A: And I did that because of being responsible for my mom's life. And so was, as you can imagine, you know, Jen and everyone, that that was problematic, and I suffered through some severe depression myself during my college years as a result of those situations.
A: And eventually, I met… when I was late in my college career, met the man who would become my husband and he was a lot more of a stable kind of cut and dry type of relationship that I didn't have to worry so much about. It wasn't volatile, it wasn't passionate, it was just kind of a regular type of thing, and we eventually moved to New York and got married and that's the last part of the book. By the way, all this is recounted in a book called ‘A Good Soldier’, which is a memoir that I published back in 2017. And the end of the story, I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might want to read it, but essentially, I had to deal with my mother's depression, suicidality, and emotional abuse for the better part of the first 30 years of my life. And eventually, it did come to a head and, you know, my mother is no longer with us. But it was a significant part of my life and it absolutely reflected the person that I became. You'd like to think, “Oh, I think I am resilient,” but there's resiliency and then there's being shaped by your experiences. And so as a result of being shaped by my experiences, which there have been a lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones, I've really tried to share my story with others, help people out. Because it is the worst kind of hell to be living through this and you really have no control over what another person's going to do and you have to find a way to be okay with yourself and stable with yourself, and that is extraordinarily difficult. So that's just an overview. If you have any specific questions that you'd want to ask that you think people would want to know, feel free to…
J: Yeah, yeah. Well, so what's your first memory as a child of recognizing your mom wasn't quote-unquote ‘normal’? And I hate to use that word, but for ease. (Laughs)
A: Mm-hmm, yeah. No, that's a good question. And I talked about it in the book, it was when we had just moved from one house to another in the suburbs of Washington, DC, which is where I grew up. And my brother was about a year old and my mother was just sobbing in the living room, and I was 3. And I remember that that was the first time and I just… I remember even being 3 and wanting to fix it.
A: And that became kind of the whole mantra of my life was trying to fix it.
J: Oh, so… and then share a few more stories of, you know, stronger memories you have from your childhood.
A: The first time was when I was 8 when she told me she didn't think she could live anymore and like, you know, we would be better off without her. My brother was 5 years old, she told both of us, and I just remember trying to find the right things to say. And it's especially salient to me now that I have an 8-year-old daughter because I see my daughter how intuitive and helpful and empathetic she is and I can just imagine myself as an 8-year-old knowing what's going on and wanting to help, but not obviously having the tools. Adults don't have the tools…
A: … let alone an eight-year-old child.
A: So I remember being grounded for just threats that were real, threats that were imagined. I mean, people with borderline personality disorder, they tend to do something called splitting black or white. You're either the most amazing person on earth or you the most horrible person on earth. And in comparison with my brother, I tend to be the one who was split black, meaning that she would look at me more negatively and find things. In my childhood, there were always… my mother was always looking for something physical to be wrong with me, she was… it was almost… I don't know if you've heard of the disorder, Munchausen by proxy.
A: I don't know if you’ve…
A: … if you're familiar. For listeners that aren't, it's a disorder that's characterized by a parent or a caregiver (usually a mother) who derives self-worth out of their children being ill. And sometimes, it manifests in the parent actually causing the illness.
A: But in my case, I don't think my mother ever caused anything per se, but I do think she magnified things that were there and she definitely did get a sense of self-worth out of fixing my physical problems. And I had no more physical problems than the average kid really, but my mother was very much… and she was really only satisfied and happy when I was not. Either I was sick or I was having problems with friends, and so my childhood was kind of about her being the one to kind of come in and fix my life…
A: … when, you know… which is, you know, I mean, like I said, this is… the worst part about this was its inconsistency. I never knew from one day or another whether my mother was going to fly into a rage or make a scene in a supermarket or a restaurant or if she was going to be super loving and sweet and the one that I always wanted to talk to when things went wrong. She was both things and that… that's what made it problematic.
A: Because if she'd just been awful, then I would've been like, “Well, she's crazy, I'll just check out here,” but…
A: … it's harder when it's inconsistent.
J: When did she get her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder?
A: Oh, that's very interesting; that happened much later. My mother was diagnosed bipolar, which bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder similar, in that there's just kind of rapid mood changes, the depression is very significant, the relationship instability is something that they both have in common. So she had been diagnosed bipolar and was being treated for that, was on medication. She was never successfully treated for any of the things. She had some substance abuse issues too. And one day, a therapist that I was seeing when I was in… after I was out of college actually gave me a book called ‘Stop Walking on Eggshells’, and it's about people who have relationships with people who have borderline personality disorder; it’s also called BPD. And my mother could check every single box, she was a textbook borderline. And so at that point, I was like, “Oh, I need to find her treatment for this specifically.” And unfortunately, it is one of the most difficult things to treat. There is a higher suicide rate among this population than any other population.
A: So it doesn't tend to… tend to go very well. But I took my mom to this program for borderline personality specifically in Rhode Island, and they told me there that they did agree that my mother had it. But the thing is, she was addicted to prescription drugs at the time and they told her, “You've got to detox,” and she was not willing to do that.
A: And the thing is you can't treat someone when they're so impacted by drugs that, who's the real person there?
A: So I didn't blame them, but that was unfortunate because that was kind of near that end and it just… it didn't happen.
J: Wow, that's crazy. You know, your story reminds me of the book ‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeannette Walls.
J: (Laughs) It’s fascinating.
A: I’ve heard that a lot, mm-hmm.
J: Yeah, it’s so, so interesting. And so tell me more about how you think you saw her behavior affecting and still affecting maybe your behavior as an adult and your brother's behavior as an adult?
A: Oh, I love this part of the story. And in fact, like you Jen are getting a little bit more of the story than previous podcasters because the story has evolved…
A: … and continues to evolve. So when I first came out with the book in 2017, some of this wasn't even a… even a factor. But to make a very story short with my brother, my parents got divorced, my dad couldn't really take it anymore. I don't necessarily fault him for that, but unfortunately for my brother who's younger, my dad left. So my brother was left alone with my mom from the time he was 15, 14, and he is unfortunately a very textbook example of the person raised in a type of environment that we were raised in. I mean, it has not been able to hold a job, does not have relationships, I mean, it's kind of a minimal level of functioning. And this is a kid who was precocious and bright and had a lot of potential. And what makes me not like that, it's just luck. I mean, yes, it's resilience, but it's luck that I got out and I just said, “I'm going to make something on my life, I'm going to do it.” And through sheer force of will, I have, but, I mean, I could have very easily been in the same situation. And with me, it's been an odyssey of starting off being very emotionally disregulated, meaning that I didn't really know how to handle emotion, it wasn't… my own emotion wasn't safe in my house, and emotion in general I saw with my mom wasn't safe. So I was kind of off the handle in college, learned pretty quickly that that didn't work. And then I kind of shut it down for about 20 years and just said, “It's better to not feel anything,” to the point where, even when my mom died…
A: … I definitely felt something, but it was relatively short-lived.
A: I mean, I still was kind of removed from my own life (Laughs), and it went on a long time. And only recently have I (as I've entered my 40s) started to come full circle with it, and realized that emotions can be healthy, they can be informative, and they can be human and natural, you just have to be able to regulate and control them. And so for people who are familiar with BPD, these are what are called BPD traits. No, I don't have BPD myself, but being raised by a BPD mom, a lot of that stuff kind of rubs off on you. And so it's been learning to have a healthy relationship with your own emotional well-being and how to take care of yourself. And I'm happy to say, I couldn't say this 2 years ago, but the emotions are back and I feel kind of like a full spectrum of things now. And it's probably the move that I should have made when I was younger, but I think I was in survival mode then and I didn't, I wasn't able to. So…
J: Hmm. So I kind of want to bring in a similar story.
J: So my husband's mom sounds like your mom and…
J: … she doesn't have a diagnosis and she is still alive. Sometimes we think she's on the autism spectrum.
J: But the similarity is the super unpredictable behavior.
J: And they all love and respect her, but also are leery of her (Laughs), you know?
A: Mm-hmm, sure.
J: But you mentioned for yourself that emotion wasn't safe and…
J: … I wonder if… you're married now, right?
J: So husband, is it a husband?
J: So I wonder if your husband and I might have something in common there, because when I would display emotion, my husband, it was really interesting, he’d put up a wall. Like, even just crying or something, emotion wasn't safe.
J: And so he's coming down from all of that because, you know, he's had therapy, he has me who does find emotion to be safe. So I…
J: … help him through that. But, you know, what has been your experience with your husband and learning to be close and in that relationship when, you know, you didn't learn that?
A: Yeah. I mean, it's been really difficult. I mean, my husband and I have had kind of an uphill battle with that, and also our relationship wasn't formed with that as a priority. Like, it was formed initially as kind of a safety boat for both of us. I mean, my husband's childhood wasn't ideal either. And, you know, it wasn't as bad as mine, but it wasn't fantastic. And so, like we have intimacy and we have closeness, but it was always sort of muted by the fact that I just wasn't fully in touch with the full spectrum of my feelings. And, you know, as I've done that over time, I mean, it's been… the marriage itself has evolved, the marriage has experience challenges because I'm learning and growing and becoming almost a different person…
A: … than I was before. I mean, it's almost a return to the original person that I was with just a little bit of better regulation and maturity. But that person is different than the one that got married, so it has been challenging.
J: Wow, interesting.
J: Well, tell us the story of you breaking free from your mom. I mean, I'm sure it involved many steps, many years.
A: Mm-hmm, yes.
A: Yes, it did, (Laughs) it did. So from the time that I moved away to go to college, like that was a big deal because we lived in Maryland and I moved to Chicago to go to school, and my mother did not want me to do that, and she resented me for doing it. And when I would come home in the summer, she would let me know that she resented me for doing it; just really didn't want me to be happy and independent and have my own life.
A: I mean, she just… she was jealous of that and wanted the attention on her. But she always was my top priority and was always in the back of my mind like, “What's my mom going to do?” Like, and she'd called me at school and she would do like the suicidal threats like…
A: … from Maryland, yeah.
J: Oh, my gosh!
A: And it's like, “What am I going to do, mom? I'm like here,” she's like, “Well, I'll come out there and do it,” it's like…
A: … “Oh, great.”
J: Oh, what a manipulator! Oh my gosh!
A: Yeah, yeah, she was. And so I kind of got used to that, it was just a part of my life that my mother was always going to pull something crazy…
A: … and I would have to either go fix it or… you know, and she would do things like she would disappear and I'd have to leave… at that time, it was on an answering machine, I'd have to leave like a dozen messages for her on an answering machine. And I'd learned that she'd be sitting like right there by the phone like listening to me like leave panicked message after panicked message. There was a time when she… when I moved into my first house, this was lived in New York for a while and then we moved to Chicago and bought a house, my mother sent all of her belongings in boxes. So when I came home one day from work, there were like 25 boxes on my front lawn because my mother was… she decided to kill herself and she sent me all her stuff. But she wanted to make a big splash, like…
A: … “Here's all my stuff on your lawn.”
J: Wait, wait, it was delivered in boxes?
A: Mm-hmm, yep.
J: And she was already gone by the time they arrived?
A: No, she didn't do anything except send me her stuff that time.
J: Oh, gotcha, gotcha, okay.
J: I was like, “That is so weird.” Okay.
A: Yeah, I know. So eventually, I was in therapy when I was, you know, in my 20s. And, you know, to every therapist, it was always clear like just my entire identity was tied around my mother and what she was going to do and how I was going to deal with her.
A: And the turning point was when I got pregnant…
A: … the first time. Because what happened was I got pregnant, I told my mom, she was freaked out, she was like… she knew that the baby would take some precedence over her and she was, you know, mean and manipulative. And then I end up having a miscarriage with that…
A: … pregnancy.
A: And when I got pregnant again, I was in therapy and I said to my therapist, “I can't be afraid anymore.”
A: “Like, I can't be like having this constant state of panic that my mother's going to die or do something crazy or get arrested or kill my brother or something, like I can't live like this,” and she's like, “Do you feel like you're ready to set some boundaries for your mother like and tell her like you're not going to talk to her unless she does XY and Z?” and I had never been able to do that before.
A: Like, I always just kind of let her do whatever, and I was just kind of a ping-pong ball. And she… so what I said to her is like, “You know, I'm not going to talk to you until…” this was after we'd gone to the program in Rhode Island and they had said, “You have to detox or we can't help you.” Like, “Mom, you're going to have to detox and go into a program. Like, until you do that, like we can write, but I'm not talking to you. I'm not going to talk to you because my first priority has to be this baby.” And when I said to my therapist, my therapist is like, “Well, you know, you have to be prepared for the worst in this situation because you've always, you know, been the one to keep your mother from dying. Like…”
A: “… you know, you have to be prepared that she may actually act.” And I was like… you know, you've been… someone's been threatening something for, you know, 20 years, like it is hard to know if it's ever really going to happen, but, you know, that is… sorry for the spoiler for people who might want the book, but I mean, that is what happened. Within 2 weeks of my mom and I having that conversation, my mom did end her life, so…
A: Yes, so that was something that I had to live with. And I don't know, people are like, “Do you feel guilty? Do you feel regrets?” and it's like I really feel like I took care of my mom for a very, very long time. And she really, at the end of the day, was not… I hesitate to say ‘willing’, I think ‘able’ is more of a better word, but she wasn't willing or able to help herself.
A: And you can't force someone… and this is my big message for people of loved ones with mental illness, it's like you can't force someone to do what they need to do. And these things are hard to get treatment for and recover from and you have to have a lot of internal fortitude, and she just didn't.
A: So it was a tragedy, but the tragedy was more her life that was more miserable than her death. Her death, I kind of look upon is when people die of cancer, like it's sad, but it's not like you blame them or it's something that you need to really, real… like, I mean, it happens. And I sort of looked at my mother's mental illness as a terminal illness, like it was just not going to end well and it didn't.
J: Yeah, yeah. Did you feel any relief when you learned she was gone or did you go straight to guilt and, you know, the negative parts?
A: Not at first. At first, it was shock…
J: Mm, yeah.
A: … because… and, I mean, I will like I guess leave this, the gory details for the people who want to read. But the way that my mother executed it (forgive the pun) was not what I expected, it was a lot more violent. So that was extremely shocking and I was…
J: Oh wow.
A: … really traumatized by that. And just the fact that she'd finally gone through with it after… I mean, it was… I was 30 so it was 22 years of her talking about it, and it was just completely crazy. And so, first, I was in shock for a while, I was pregnant so I was really worried about the baby and because I already miscarried once. And, you know, guilt was not really… I'll tell you when I felt guilt, this is… this is very interesting. So it was grief, it was shock, and there was, yes, some relief, “Wow, you know, I'm going to recover from this and then it's going to be over,” as opposed to, “You know, it just goes on and on and on.”
A: And, but you know when I felt guilt? This is very interesting. I felt guilt… so this was 11, almost 12 years ago that my mom died, and I feel guilty now a little bit because I know how hard it is to be a parent and I know a little bit about depression also.
A: And I have just so many more resources than my mother had in that, you know, my husband is like a decent guy, he's around, I have a lot, really good social network, I have a great career, and it is hard to be a functioning parent with, you know, depression. And I felt a little guilty that I didn't have more… I mean, I think I had empathy for my mom, but you can't have empathy as much if you don't really get it. And I think I get it a lot more now than I did when she was alive, and so that's been where a lot of the guilt. But the guilt is not really around that I should have done something different because to this day, I don't feel that I could have done really much that was different. I mean, really, I took care of her and I tried to get her help and I was supportive, and at the end of the day, like I had to do what I had to do.
A: So unfortunate because the guilt could theoretically like tear someone up.
J: When you were establishing that boundary, because I know a lot of women that need a similar boundary with their moms…
J: … maybe not for the exact same situation, how did you figure it out in your head like if she did go through with it? How did you balance… how did you decide to say, “That's okay even if she does this,” how do you weigh the pros and cons of that boundary?
A: Well, it's relinquishing control, I mean, it's saying that you can't control what another person does and that this is her life to live or not live.
A: But that was growing up and feeling like I had to fix her and that I actually had the power to do so. That was a hard lesson to internalize because I did feel like I had the control so, you know?
J: Yeah. And how are things playing out with your own kids? How many kids do you have?
A: I have 2.
A: My son is 11 and a half, my daughter is 8. And, you know, they… we have some of the same stuff that gets passed down. With my son, he's got some emotion regulation issues too, and we're just trying to get him help for those at a young age so that we can be mindful of the types of challenges that he's going to experience and to be helping him deal with them so that he can grow up and have healthy relationships. But he’s had some issues with my daughter, and as I mentioned, the big thing that's noticeable with her is how intuitive and empathetic she is and it kind of informs me a little bit about what I must have been like.
J: Ah, yeah.
A: And so I'm very careful with my kids not to tell them stuff.
J: Not to label. (Laughs)
A: Yeah, not to tell them too much about my… you know, I don't want them to think I’m a robot so…
J: Oh, tell them about your mom, oh, I gotcha. So you think….
A: Or just about how I am, you know, if I'm not doing well, like…
J: Oh, I see, I see.
A: … I don't want them… like, it's okay for them to think I'm a human being, but I don't want them to think too much, you know?
A: It's because I don't want to do what was done to me, that's not okay.
J: Right. By the way, I want to say I relate so much to the story. My 2 oldest struggle with mental illness issues and sometimes I just say to myself, “It's hard. It's hard to think about nature and nurture,” but I've often said to my husband, “Why on earth did we mix our genetics? Because it's a genetic freaking shitstorm!” (Laughs)
J: And I don't know the answer. And I've told friends, I have a PhD in human development family studies and technically I know all the research and how to be a good mom, but sometimes that doesn't always play out in reality because, yeah…
J: … I have struggled with depression in the past as well, but then there's the anxiety element; whatever my mother-in-law has that was passed down. And, you know, you just think sometimes quote-unquote ‘normal’ people don't get the outcomes. They think it's all some nurture problem, like a problem with our parenting. And I just want to say we have parented the exact same ways as all of you…
J: … and the outcome is so dramatically different, and I can only say it's mental illness. So how do you think about nature and nurture with your own kids, you know?
A: I think it's a mix of both, I think that, yes, there's obviously huge genetic component. I mean, there's been a suicide in every generation of my mother's family for 4 generations.
J: Wow, yeah.
A: I mean, my cousin ended his life 2 years ago, he was 24 years old; so there clearly is a lot going on there. But I do think that that parenting plays into it and that we just sometimes unknowingly, not on purpose, but just we have ways that we are based on the way that we were raised.
A: And, you know, sometimes those get passed down. And it's not necessarily to the extreme that my mom was where, you know, it was…
A: … clearly like bordering on emotional abuse, but some of the ways of relating just happen. So I… and I think also that this is a generation unfortunately, really unfortunately, for us, I mean, I don’t know how old your kids are, but…
J: Teens on down.
J: Yeah, yeah.
A: Right. So this generation, which is called Generation Z, has the highest incidence of mental illness of any generation of children that has ever existed. And what are the reasons for that? Well, you could speculate, but it probably has to do with social isolation due to technology.
A: We don't have the extended families that we once did. Kids are just… they're being identified as things a lot earlier, whereas before, it might have been like, “Oh, you're sad and no one really notices or cares,” but now, like it's being identified and so… and it's, I don't know, in a way, it's good, but in some ways, labeling a kid or identifying a kid, you're kind of focusing on it and then making it more likely in some cases. So…
A: … I think that… but that's unfortunate because that means we have the genetic component, we have the nurturing component, and then we have the societal component…
A: … too.
J: … yeah.
A: So it's kind of a perfect storm, and all we can do is just be vigilant about our children. And, you know, I do a lot of work for the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and I go into the homes of people who have had a suicide in their family or their close friend group, and the thing I hear all the time is, “There weren't any signs. Like, you know, how would we know?” And, you know, I… just based on my own personal experience, I know that that's not true. More often than not, people are just…
A: … like in denial. Yes.
A: Yes. So the best thing we can do for our kids is just not be in denial and just be on top of stuff, and, you know, that's all we can really offer.
J: And how do we know when a problem is outside of the realm of (there's that word again) quote-unquote ‘normal’ where we need to get them help, you know? I think that's the trick, when it's coming down family lines…
J: … no one really knows what normal is, they don't realize how abnormal they are. Like, when my husband would tell stories in his 20s in college, people would just stare at him and he'd be like, “What are you staring at? Why is that so weird?” (Laughs) they’re like, “You should write a book,” and I bet you heard that as well; now, you have.
A: Mm-hmm, yep.
J: But how do these families figure…? I guess you just get them into therapy, but I don't know, what do you think?
A: Yeah, I mean, it's an interesting question, Jen, that I have struggled with myself, in that my son, I feel like it's a clear case of he needs therapy…
A: … whereas my daughter, it's less… it's exactly what you're saying, it's sort of less clear.
A: I'm kind of sure what she's dealing with is pretty normal girl stuff, but I'm not positive. And so what I'm doing with her is I’m just having her evaluated and, you know, they're going to tell me if they think she needs therapy or not. And when I look at therapy, I'm not just talking about her going and… right now, what she's excited to do is go in like chit chat to someone about her friend drama, and I'm like, “Well, that's not really…” I mean, I want therapy that's going to be action-oriented and that's going to teach coping skills…
A: … which is what my son is in. So for her, I mean, I want to be there to be some kind of point, I don't want her to just… if she wants to chit chat about her friend drama, she can talk to her mother. (Laughs)
J: Yes, exactly.
A: But just, you know, having her evaluated like they… you know, maybe she'll reveal something that she hasn't told me.
J: That's smart, yes.
A: It cannot hurt and so, you know, that's what the decision that I've made. Whereas my son, it's a lot more cut-and-dry, like clearly he's got social, emotional issues. And we don't know, I mean, at his age, he's only… you know, he's not even 12. So they don't really diagnose depression per se, but like he's got some mood regulated stuff that probably it will result in some sort of diagnosis at some point.
A: But, you know, we're just… we're watching it and we're teaching him. Hopefully that'll help.
J: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about your brother. I don't know how much you can share without his permission, but as an adult, you know, he didn't get what he needed with therapy. And I ask because…
J: … sometimes I worry about my kids’ futures (Laughs)…
J: … some of… my 1 oldest.
J: You know, what's it like if you don't learn some of the tools that you're helping your son gain now? What do you hope for people like this?
A: Yeah, I mean, I think my brother is an extreme case, in that, I mean, very few people end up like completely not functional.
A: I think most people just end up having relationship problems or something like that, but like…
J: Okay, okay.
A: … and you do have to watch of course the severity of depression and… because suicidality is one of those things that definitely crosses generations. And I don't know, I mean, in my brother's case, I think my parents just kind of left him; and part of this is the generations. I mean, my brother's 40, so like back then, like you kind of left kids to their own devices a lot more.
A: I mean, it's not like we parent now where… I mean, I remember my brother just stopped going to high school, and my dad was gone by then and my mom just sort of let him and it's like…
A: … you know, I mean, he really never had to do anything he didn't want to do. And then he got on disability at a very young age, and then of course, that was the government telling him he didn't have to do anything, like, “You don't have to get up to go to work, we're going to put you on disability.”
J: Yeah, yeah.
A: So… and I think just the treatment. My brother was put on antidepressants at a very young age, I mean, that's not my top choice either. I mean, when I say a young age, I mean he was like 8, so…
J: Oh, wow.
A: And there are kids that are medicated today, but the medications are different. So, I mean, I think he just didn't have their resource, and my mother was so ill that like he just… his parenting was just really bad. And… but at the end of the day, what I've said to my brother is, “You know, you're responsible for your own life. Like, yeah, we had a bad childhood, but what are you going to do, play the vic… I mean, you can be the victim, but that's not going to make you happier.”
A: So, I mean, I would think that he's an extreme case and that… the thing about the kids (and this is what I'm trying to master for myself) is that the kids are their own people. Like, you can influence it to some extent, but like they're going to have their own journey and their own path. And some of that you're going to be able to like have a mark on, and some of it you won't. And so the kids are going to have to… you can provide the resources and you can do the best you can to support them, but at the end of the day, they have to make their own way. And that's so challenging as a parent to kind of deal with, but I mean, I guess I sort of learned it with my mom because we were in like a reverse parent-child relationship there. (Laughs)
J: Yeah, yeah.
A: And, you know, in a way, like my son is, he's tempermentally challenged and that, you know, somebody has to have the kid who gets into scrapes with other kids and, you know, that's the kid that I have. And, you know, now that he's going to be 12, like he needs to take some responsibility for that stuff.
A: Like, I can tell him what's right and wrong and guide him, but he's going to have to figure it out too. So I don’t know if that helps you at all.
J: Wow, yeah, that's great, I appreciate it. In the end, you've taught them and they have to choose. Let go of the control, exactly.
A: The whole theme of the episode, right?
J: (Laughs) Yes. Well, I appreciate your sharing your story. And if we want to get the full thing, it's called ‘The Good Soldier’, right?
A: Yeah, it's called ‘A Good Soldier’.
J: ‘A Good Soldier’.
A: And it's by Ally Golden, and you can find it in some bookstores, but I would recommend Amazon for it. And I love getting email about it because from people who have experienced similar things, I mean, I'm sorry that people are experiencing similar things, but I love that the book helps people feel like they're not as alone.
A: And that it is something that we're all in together. And awareness is really just so important when it comes to mental health issues and being able to identify something and get the resources that you can, but at the end of the day, people who are caring for someone with mental illness, are loving some with mental illness, you need to love yourself and you need to take care of yourself because this can destroy you if you let it. And hopefully, people will get a message of positivity through the book with that.
J: Yeah, fantastic. I will definitely be getting it, I can't wait. I loved ‘The Glass Castle’ so I know I'll love ‘A Good Soldier’, for sure.
A: Well, let me know what you think. And, yeah, ‘The Glass Castle’ is a little different in that she had kind of a challenging socio-economic situation too, and I can't even imagine adding that, but that's what made a compelling book. But, you know, it's just funny, people… everyone has their challenges.
J: Mm-hmm, it’s true.
A: And some people can write, like Jeannette Walls and…
J: Yeah, exactly. Well, let's talk about a few of your favorite things. What's your favorite book as an author? (Laughs)
A: So I… my favorite fiction book is called the ‘Time Traveler's Wife’.
J: Hmm, read that.
A: I love that book, set in Chicago. My favorite nonfiction book is called ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’…
A: … by Stephen Covey. Yep, so…
A: … that’s my nonfiction.
J: And your favorite easy meal.
A: Easy meal, probably spaghetti and meatballs, or just spaghetti.
J: Mm-hmm. And what's a life hack that helps you; random hack that you use?
A: Doing chores or short tasks while I'm waiting for something. So if I'm waiting for a train or waiting in the doctor's office or waiting for your interview to start with Jen, like what are like… what's like one thing that I can do… get done in that 5 minutes that I have?
J: Ah, smart. And what's your morning routine look like?
A: My morning routine is always different because I work for myself, but typically I'm getting the kids up and ready for school and then I'll have some sort of work meeting typically. And then I'll have some lunch, sometimes I'll go to the gym, sometimes I'll meet a friend, and get some more work done. Well, you didn't ask for the whole day. The morning is get the kids ready for school…
J: Oh, that’s fine. (Laughs)
A: … have a work meeting and go to the gym. (Laughs)
J: Yeah, good. And what about intuition? I like to talk about intuition. It's not a very common topic, but have there been moments when you knew intuitively that you needed to do something and it worked out?
A: Yes. I don't love listening to my intuition, but it's usually right.
A: And that's the thing that… I don't tend to have a lot of anxiety, just as I just… like I don't have an anxiety disorder or anything like that.
A: But when I tend to get anxious about something, it's because it's probably going to happen.
A: So… yeah.
J: Oh, interesting.
A: Which people are like, “Oh, that… is that it?” I'm like, “Well, it's probably going to occur, so that's why I’m anxious.” So, yeah, I believe in intuition and I believe in paranormal, you know, sensing things and being connected to people, and I think there's absolutely a lot about the world out there that we don't understand.
J: Have you ever felt your mom since she passed?
A: I have, only twice, and it was both relatively early on. The night after she died, I had a very clear dream where she was… she appeared to me and she was like, “Do not let your brother get the money. Do not let your brother get the money.”
A: And I'm like, I knew that like that was her huge thing where my brother was going to come and take all of her remaining stuff…
A: … and she was just very concerned about that. So, I mean, that was less… I mean, that might have just been a dream, but then the second time was much more, it was much weirder. I was having my son in the hospital and I had to… he arrived early and had to be in the NICU for a little bit. And I was leaving the hospital without him and I'm in the elevator and it was just flooded with my mother's scent…
J: Oh, interesting.
A: … which made no sense because I had nothing of hers…
A: … with me, and she'd been gone… I guess, when my son was born, she’d been gone about 3 months.
A: So, yeah, that was super weird. I remembering like, “Oh my god, like my mother's here.”
J: Yeah! Wow, that's really cool.
A: Yeah, that’s cool.
J: She picked the small space where the smell would be stronger. (Laughs)
A: Yeah, maybe, yeah, and never happened again after…
A: … after that.
J: Yeah, oh, cool. Well, what does it mean for you to be a vibrant and happy woman or what does a vibrant and happy life look like for you?
A: To me, a vibrant and happy life is one in which you live in the present and you make the most of every day and you do things to care for yourself, and that you look out for yourself first because an unhappy wife or mother or manager or employee is not going to be of good to anyone else. So you have to look out for your own needs and to challenge yourself, whether that means relinquishing control or gaining more control, depending on which direction you need to go in.
J: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
A: For me on my path to being vibrant and happy now is around acceptance, that there are just some things that are not ideal and, you know, you can still be okay, even if everything isn't perfect or to your liking all the time.
J: Mm-hmm, yes, for sure. And let's have a challenge to our listeners and we'll say goodbye.
A: Okay. My challenge to the listeners is to find a way to carve out some time for quiet reflection. So whether you're going through something like mental illness or a relative's mental illness or you're going through something else, because everyone's going through something, so like take a couple moments or even a half an hour to listen to a meditation prompt (there's a great app called Calm), and really take some time to be mindful every day of and being in the exact moment. I find that it's great for peace, it's great for physical and mental health.
J: Mm, thank you, that's a great tip.
A: You’re welcome.
J: I appreciate this, I appreciate your whole story. And I admire you.
A: Thanks for letting me share it, Jen.
A: Oh, thank you.
J: And I admire that you've collected the tools and did the work you needed to do to be your…
J: … the most emotionally healthy person you can be. It just… you know, some people think all is lost when you have poor or difficult upbringing, but you proved the opposite. So thank you for being one example.
A: You're welcome. I think it's all in… it's in people's control. I think that it can be ‘all is lost’ if you let it be. (Laughs)
J: Exactly, exactly.
A: But if you… you know, there's no reason it has to be.
J: Yeah, exactly; thank you so much. Everyone, get the book, ‘A Good Soldier’, and hear all the details of Ally's story. I appreciate it, thanks, Ally.
A: Thanks, Jen.
J: So touching. What a story, right? I love Ally's example of resilience and determination to be the person she wanted to be, and luckily, she was able to do that. That doesn't work for everyone, but I feel like there's one huge an important takeaway I want you all to get from this (or at least it's mine), and that is we must assume that everyone is doing their very best, we must assume that if they seem checked out, maybe there is a mental health issue that is diagnosed or not diagnosed. If we just assume everyone is doing their best and stop the judgy, judgy, judgy, we can relax and let go and just start to love and lift each other.
I recently read an article recommended by a friend where the woman wrote that, “Here's why my children turned out,” and she described all these things she had done for her kids. And she had taught them independence and she had blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, right? I remember reading this article and I felt so triggered because I had done all the same things without the same outcome, and it hurt. And another important takeaway would be, if you're a mom, please don't assume that your kids are turning out because you have made that happen. Maybe you've passed on better genetics than other people, maybe you learned healthier patterns from your own parents. And to take all of that credit for yourself is not very sensitive to others who have experienced a different way. You learned in this interview, and it's also my experience, that sometimes people don't know how to interact quote-unquote ‘normally’, don't know how to experience emotion quote-unquote ‘normally’. Emotion dysregulation issues like Ally had as a result of being parented by a mother with borderline personality disorder or my husband I believe had (and maybe still has to some extent, although he's much better) because of being parented by a mom with a mental health issue are significant, and they do affect the generations to come. And we can try our heart outs and not get the same outcome as anyone else. So I hope collectively as a culture of women, we take a step back and you make the assumption that everyone is doing their very best, that everyone is a ‘good mom’, quote-unquote, in their own way. And sometimes, we as a tribe and as a community can step in and offer more support when we need it, when others need it, instead of judging and thinking, “Oh my gosh, oh, I can't believe she’s that kind of mother.” (Laughs)
Anyway, thanks for thinking about this with me, it's really important that we assume the best. And I hope you're doing that for me because I have struggled in many ways similar to Ally's experience with children, and I have many friends who have children who are atypical or who have a mental health issue. And just love and lift and support each other, it's so much better than feeling that judgment from each other. That is my advice and my wish, but I thank you so much for listening. You are amazing and I want you to give yourself permission now to say, “Hey, you're a good mom. Hey, you're doing your best; way to go. You are trying your best to love these kids, you're trying your best to teach them a new pattern.” And the cool thing is, with each new neration, we all get a little better, and our children are hopefully going to do it a little better than us. That's the goal that we're giving every next generation a leg up. So do your best and give yourself grace, you are amazing. Love you guys, thank you for listening, and make it a vibrant and happy grace-filled week. Take care.