For the kids of abusive parents, the question of whether or not your abusive parent is (or was) mentally ill, or just plain mean, will be one you consider the rest of your life. I can’t even begin to guess the number of times I’ve wondered: Do my abusive parents do what they do because they can’t help it? Or because they like hurting my brother and me? Unfortunately, when you really don’t know, when you’re still hanging in there, trying to salvage the relationship, hoping and praying that there’s some bit of unselfish good in your abusive parent, that’s when they can still manipulate you. Whether they mean to, or not.
Even when you think you’ve finally figured it out, you’ll probably go on to second-guess yourself many, many times, and that’s okay, because it’s totally normal. You’ll wonder, because you care. It’s normal because you’ve been conditioned to worry about your abusive parent.
In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever stop asking myself how much of my parents’ abuse stems from from mental illness, and how much is can be attributed to conscious decisions they’ve made. After many years, lots of therapy, putting boundaries in place for one parent and cutting off contact with the other, I know for sure the answer to the question Are my abusive parents mentally ill or just mean? is:
Eventually, I came to understand the answer is something else, as well:
I genuinely believe most abusive, toxic parents are toxic because they are mentally ill, and the reason they’re mentally ill is probably the result of having been abused themselves. This abuse affected their physical brains, their thinking and their responses to stress. It also means the model of parenting they took in every day of their formative years is completely outside the realm of healthy. So when they had you, it may not have been their intention to be abusive toward you; it’s just that their brains are hard-wired for it, and they probably don’t have many examples of loving, effective parenting to draw from. It’s a combination of nature and nurture.