Guest: Compassion and hope for parents who abuse
Parents who hurt their children aren’t all monsters, writes guest columnist Patty Duke. She knows because she was one of them.
Special to The Times
PARENTS who hurt their children aren’t all monsters. I know. I was one of them.
The physical abuse I inflicted on my two sons, Sean and Mac, was bad enough. Rage-filled spankings. An angry backhand across the face. Smacks with a wooden spoon wherever I could land them.
But the emotional abuse was even worse. A sweet and loving mommy one minute, a snide and belittling banshee the next. My poor boys never knew if I was going to kiss them or kick them.
After each incident, I was filled with self-loathing. I swore I’d never do it again. But I did, even though I loved my children with all my heart.
But my head was another story. I was unknowingly living with undiagnosed manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder.
The fact that I’d been physically and emotionally abused as a child myself didn’t help. My father was an alcoholic. My mother suffered from chronic depression — so severe that she literally gave me away to live with my theatrical managers when I was only 8 years old. I remember wondering, “What did I do wrong?”
And my managers abused me, too. I never had a childhood. I just had acting jobs. And I was never allowed to go to friends’ houses where I might have seen what positive parenting looked like.
The chemical imbalance in my brain made it difficult to ask for help. I didn’t think I was acting crazy. I thought everyone else was. But finally, when I was in my 30s, a psychiatrist witnessed me in a manic episode and made the diagnosis that saved my life.
That diagnosis, and the medication and therapy that followed, also saved my relationship with my children. They forgave me. It took a lot longer for me to forgive myself. Eventually, I came to accept that while my mental illness was no excuse for my behavior, it was an explanation.
Because of what I put my kids through, I have compassion for other parents who do the same.
I’m not a Pollyanna. I know that there are real monsters who do unforgivable things to children. But I believe the majority of parents truly want to love and care for their kids. Mental illness, addiction or poor parenting role models stand in the way.
The foster-care system steps in to protect children. But states and communities should also step in with resources to help parents get the mental-health services or addiction treatment they need and to teach them how to be good parents.
When loving but flawed parents can safely be reunited with their children, families and society benefit. And when we go the extra mile to help parents, we break the cycle of abuse and neglect that can carry on for generations — just like it did for me.
We can all help by not only reporting abuse to authorities when we see it, but also by reaching out to struggling parents instead of judging them. Learn about parenting resources in your community and don’t hesitate to recommend them or use them yourself.
Finally, join me in being an advocate for early intervention for children who need mental-health services. I knew something was wrong with me from the time I was 5 years old. Others did, too. But no one helped.
I will never forget the bad things I’ve done, but I live in the now and am grateful that modern science can give me a normal, fulfilling life. I want other parents to know that there is hope for them, too, if they are willing to face their demons and seek out the help that’s available to them.
Academy Award-winning actress Patty Duke will speak at Childhaven’s fundraising luncheon on March 11 in Seattle. She lives in Idaho.