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Forgiving Mental Illness

Updated: Mar 30

Photograph by Sandra Seitamaa

It wasn’t until I was 27 that I forgave my parents for giving me asthma. I remember the exact moment. I was walking out of the theatre after seeing the 1999 movie The Insider about the tobacco industry and nicotine addiction starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. I’d always thought that the reason my parents hadn’t quit smoking was because they didn’t care about me and my health. But, all along, their brains were addicted to nicotine. While I was dying, my parents were mindlessly habituated to the drug and big tobacco was making a profit. With that understanding came forgiveness, and with forgiveness came acceptance.

When I was 15, our family doctor told my parents to stop smoking or my chronic bronchitis could turn into asthma. They didn’t, and it did. I left home two weeks after high school graduation. They eventually quit smoking. Ten years after that, my mom died of lung cancer. I still get mad at them when I’m having a serious asthma attack, but I forgive them.

Asthma is not the only chronic illness I inherited. Bipolar was also handed down to me. Courtesy of genetics, right? Partly, I’m sure. But my childhood home environment was stressful. Yes, my mother’s depression and brother’s alcoholism and schizophrenia contributed to the instability; but other factors aggravated the family dynamic.

The hardest part of my struggle isn’t forgiving my family of origin, but wondering if my son will forgive me for how my mental illness showed up while he was growing up.

I’ve been believing that the most important step in my healing process is to forgive myself for having a mental illness. But maybe I’d gain some perspective by forgiving my mother and brother first. None of us asked to have these diseases and society didn’t (and still doesn’t) know how to support individuals and families enough. Maybe if I forgive them first, then forgiving myself will come more easily.

Hopefully someday my son can forgive me for my illness. Hopefully he will recognize that I am continually striving to heal and be a better person. My mother and brother didn’t choose this. Neither did I. I wanted to become the awakened one—the family member whose groundedness and mental clarity ended this lineage of mental suffering. If I were the awakened one, perhaps I’d even be able to heal the familial wounds of the past.

My genetics gave me two life-threatening diseases. My asthma never went away; I take inhalers every day. But I’ve accepted it. With bipolar, however, I’m at a crossroads. I have a lot of forgiveness to do before I arrive at acceptance. Who is to blame for this mental illness that consumes much of my life? Genetics? If there is not someone to blame, then how do I forgive?

————— Marie has been writing poetry for 30 years to cultivate resilience and mental health. She has published in the Paterson Literary Review, Tiny Seed Journal, High Plains Register, The Writing Cooperative, and numerous chapbooks. Her poetry was recognized by the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards and Wyoming Writers. Pink Sunset Luminaries was published in 2018.

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