Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Uncertainty Curse

Undiagnosed mentally ill parents leave a sad, savage legacy.

I fear everything.

For the past few days, I've had a persistent itch on my right shoulderblade. My husband says it's a mosquito bite. As I can't reach it with either hand, I scratch it using a dull plastic fork. This should be the end of this discussion, but no. Because I once saw an Italian film whose main character lay awake nights tormented by itchy skin only to learn, too late, that he had cancer, I can't rest. Now I lay awake nights.

I never had a chance. My phobic brain links "itch" with "chemotherapy" and "death" at hyperspeed, like clicking "send." By the time the sane, reasonable part of me pulls back and says, "Mosquito bite," it's way too late and I am picturing my husband sprinkling my cremains into the sea. I tell myself: Your doctor says most cancers are survivable, but ha. He says that just to shut me up. He's in on it. Everyone is.

My phone rings. Surely it's someone with awful news. Surely it's Mom; she's fallen and can't get up and has been crawling delirious around her house all night like last time. Wait, no: Mom died in January, poor soul. I remember this keenly except every time the phone rings. The caller ID reveals that it's one of my editors. My throat spasms. Is he calling to say he found grave errors in my manuscript and that I'm fired?

He's not. He's calling to invite me to a barbecue. Hee hee. I watch my knees jerk with relief.

A rumble shakes the floor. Earthquake! No, garbage truck.

At dawn, I drop a spoon. I freeze. If that noise woke my husband, he'll be mad.

See? Cancer's not the only thing. Big thing, but not the only thing. Ah: Having said that, now I'll get cancer for sure, because God can't resist cruel irony.

I fear because my mother feared. I battle fear, wrestle daily to talk it down, outwit it, kill it. She did not. It was her default setting. It was her. She believed all her fears were justified, and that being a mother meant being a sentinel, a bivouac, that she must warn her only child of menaces. Blink and you'll miss a menace sneaking up: a speeding car, a murderer, a germ, unfaithful friends. She said Be careful as much as she said I love you, often paired: I love you so be careful.

I've come to believe she had Borderline Personality Disorder, a condition whose characteristics -- identity issues, self-loathing, negativity, black-and-white thinking, and a sense of emptiness inside -- describe her perfectly and tragically. It's arguably the most misleadingly named disorder in the DSM, because one wastes a lot of time wondering: the borderline between what and what? Originally it was neurosis and psychosis. Later that distinction was retired. This disorder needs a clear new name.

Because one key characteristic of BPD is that those who have it typically don't consider themselves ill, people with BPD are distinctively unlikely to seek treatment. I would wager that most go undiagnosed. And while this means nonstop suffering for them, it also means that we, their children, grow up never knowing why Mom or Dad says and does such agozing, terrifying things.

We grow up not knowing that our parents are ill.

It's different for the children of diagnosed mentally ill parents. Life isn't easy for them, either, but if your parent has been diagnosed with a mental illness, then at least you know something really is "wrong" with him or her, that you aren't imagining it, and that it's not your fault.

If your parent is mentally ill yet has never been diagnosed, you keep believing you can make him or her happy if you just try hard enough. Your parent's paranoia, rage, delusions, sorrow, and/or suicidal urges are your "normal."

Never diagnosed but oh, so ill, our parents taught us from our first days forward that the world was ludicrous and cruel, that that man over there thought we were fat, that when our teachers called us smart they actually meant arrogant, that God waited for us to lie so he could strike, that we might wet our beds someday although we've never wet our beds before, that someone might be waiting by the backdoor with a nail-barbed baseball bat, that singing made us idiots, that everyone was gossiping about us right this minute, as we speak.

Our parents meant no harm. They knew not why they suffered nor that their horror was ours.

They were our role models. Our idols, icons, sages, saviors, kings and queens.

And we thought they were right.

So now our every task, thought and encounter -- even every twinge of joy -- triggers fear, shame, self-loathing and that endless never-knowing that I call the Uncertainty Curse.

When I can shed the image of my own cremains (a gritty gray gust mingling with the sea spray, stop that) and force myself to think cognitive-behavioral-therapywise of anything else -- daisies, Ping Pong, a chewy sugary-skinned hot-pink marshmallow Peep -- I win. This is my victory. Until the next itch or dropped spoon, I win. Mom never won. Nor in her life of sorrow did she ever know: We never wet our beds. No one was waiting with a bat. And Mom, because I know you hear me now: That man never saw us, never so much as glanced our way, much less thought we were fat.