In the past 18 months since my 32 year old son, George, lost his battle with mental illness, I have heard those words more than a few times. At first, I felt so guilty hearing them even though I knew the speaker meant well for me and they knew how my life was challenged because I took care of George. No mother wants to be set free of taking care of their sick child, set free of worrying and guiding and being the constant cheerleader for their child. In the early months I felt guilt at hearing those words. The reality was that despite the overwhelming grief I found myself sifting through daily, I was in other ways having things a bit easier. I slept through the night , no longer losing sleep worrying about George. I had far fewer bills as I wasn’t supporting him any longer. I had no worries at all now about medical appointments, ECT appointments, worrying that his brain and intelligence were getting lost in treatment. No more concerns over his job search and worries for his future. The feeling of dancing around topics so as not to hurt George any more than he was hurting by the loss of his artistic ability due to the ECT treatments.
Along with all of that responsibility I always worried about my daughter and the relationship between my two children as George’s illness progressed. I felt guilt for dumping on her so much as she was the only one that truly understood and was always there for me and him.
You see, George was diagnosed with Bipolar ll disorder, severe depressive disorder and severe anxiety at the age of 19 or 20. For over a dozen years there were hospitalizations, treatments, rehabs, group homes, homelessness and the list goes on. There were also times of stability where George held down a job and had an apartment. Due to his illness, he never completed college, even though he had a full scholarship. He was extremely intelligent and talented, yet he worked at as a clerk in Circle K.
Over time, I understood what it meant to be set free. George used to say I gave him wings because I always encouraged his creative side, his art, writing and music. He and I spoke often about how I could remain hopeful and positive despite his troubles and the things life threw at us. He tried so hard to be positive and these discussions were his way of trying to find some way to look at life differently.
When George passed away I was wracked with guilt as was his sister. We always felt so responsible for him, but deep down we knew the truth, that we could only do so much. As the weeks and months went by, we sorted through his things and uncovered some amazing stories he had written. I also found his journals filled with all his heartfelt scribbles about how grateful he was for us, how much he appreciated us and how he wished his dad were still alive to talk to. Over and over I read the gratitude he had for his family. In reflection, I realized that we had conversations often in his last few months about how guilty he felt for all we did for him.
As more time passed, I realized that a part of him did wish to set me free and he spoke it aloud in different words in his last weeks, but he knew I was always there for him no matter what. I am not saying he chose to leave to save me, but I do know the guilt he felt was heavy.
Now at 18 months since he passed, when I hear that your son has set you free, I smile to myself as if it is our little secret. I still miss him terribly and know I would still be taking care of him, and he knows that too, but I take comfort knowing that he wanted my life to be peaceful and I know how much he loved us. I feel less guilt now and more acceptance of it ALL.
This story is one of many reflections regarding the loss of my son. We have good days and bad, but always smile when we think or talk of him. He will always be my son, and yes he did set me free.
It’s Ok to not be OK…