That Kind of Breaking

The guidance counselor was kind and calm. Anyone who can maintain those two qualities while in the confines of a public middle school all day has my immediate respect. I sat and listened as he began to speak.

“Your daughter tells me things have been rough at home, that your family has had some pretty big challenges.”

“Yes. That’s true. We certainly have.”

It had been about two years since my husband’s traumatic and failed fight for his life, and though he was a stepfather to my children they loved and missed him deeply. I had returned to the workforce, my son had moved to his dad’s and his sisters didn’t often see him, we had made the transition from homeschooling to public school, and my older daughter had recently been released from a five-day stay at the psych ward.

Yup, I’d say those were some pretty big challenges.

“Well, she’s been having a tough time dealing with it all, as you can imagine.”

Teenage Problems, Social Issues and Bullying

This was the coming-to-life of some of my deepest held fears at the time. In all fairness, I had quite a few fears, pretty much all of which included my kids. I knew that my older daughter’s struggles and rages were traumatizing our family. I knew that her continuing self harm and relentless thoughts of suicide were more than taking their toll.

I knew that I tried so hard to protect my younger daughter from her sister’s struggles, even as I didn’t know how to define or predict what those struggles might be. I knew how frightened I was, and I could only imagine how terrifying it must feel to a 13-year-old girl whose world had been shattered long before her sister’s mental balance had.

I knew that my youngest was getting lost in the shuffle of psychiatric appointments. I knew she felt invisible and dispensable as so much of my time was spent talking her sister ‘off the ledge’, cleaning and bandaging her self-inflicted wounds, walking on eggshells, trying to find an answer, a balance, a cure.

I knew that the older often goaded the younger, then immediately wanted her sympathy and compassion. She showed us all macabre, dark drawings she’d made, somehow expecting us to praise the depictions of death and blood she produced.

I could make no sense of it as an adult. I certainly could never expect my youngest teen to have the ability to process and make peace with all that was going on. And yet I felt powerless to guide her. How can you teach someone to do what you are unable to do yourself?

And so here we were, in the school guidance counselor’s office. I was waiting for what I didn’t want to hear, but what I needed to know.

 Worried

My daughter had ended up there after having had a particularly rough day, and she’d thankfully confided in her counselor about the unfathomable mess that was our family. She’s always been one to think she can tough her way out of anything (I have vivid memories of a three-year-old determined to swim in the deep end of the pool, working hard to hide the panic on her face) and I was so glad to see that she’d taken the chance to share her confusion and pain with a trusted adult.

The counselor continued, gently breaking the news to me that my daughter – the one here with me, not the one (hopefully) waiting in the car – had been cutting herself as a way to deal with her distress and pain.

My stomach dropped then just as quickly threatened to jump up out of my throat. I was facing my daughter, whose eyes were filled with many things, including fear. I knew she’d seen me deal with her sister and that she’d seen me be both gentle and brusque in trying to stop the ongoing and escalating self harm. Of course she had to be nervous about what my reaction to this news would be.

Outwardly I pretty much held it together, meaning I didn’t curl up in the corner in a fetal position. I fought the sudden nausea I felt.

But inwardly I was breaking, as if there was a  tire screeching, metal crushing, glass shattering  75 car pileup, the kind where you know things are so out of control you are clueless as to where or how to start administering any kind of aid. The kind where you are the lone witness and all you have are Band-Aids and the phone lines are down so try as you might you can’t call for the 50-plus ambulances that you need.

That kind of breaking.

 Car pileup

Tears sprang to my eyes.

“Oh, sweetie.”

It was all I could say.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2014
https://www.facebook.com/HelpToHope
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A Tough Task

“Yes. I’m her mother. Can I help you?”

I got the call while I was sitting in the car outside my younger daughter’s middle school. I’d left work, picked my older daughter up at her high school, and driven to the middle school to park and wait for the day’s final bell. The interaction with my daughter sitting next to me was stilted and unnatural, as it so often was at the time.

 girl in car

Source

Her behavior after release from her first hospitalization for a mental health hold had been shaky. We’d had high hopes and bundles of nerves, and we were trying hard to make right something that we weren’t even able to completely identify.

In addition to obvious depression and unmanageable rages, she’d become involved with a boy at school who shared some of her struggles. He was a nice enough kid, but the dysfunctions they shared caused them worrisome co-dependence, especially when it came to their self harm behaviors.

teen couple

 Source

And while being together could be uncomfortable for both of us, I had serious concerns about leaving her unattended. She had alluded to running away on a number of occasions,  even trying to run off on that weekend before I’d had to call the ambulance. I knew that her thought processes were off-kilter enough that she could make some dangerous decisions.

My youngest daughter’s guidance counselor had called while we waited. “I have her here in the office with me. Is there any way you can meet with us before the school day is over?”

“I’m actually parked right outside. I can be right there,” I replied. The evasive, non-committal tone of the conversation made it clear to me that no good news was waiting inside.

I did the quick mental gymnastics: If I leave her here in the car while I go inside, will she be safe? Will she run? Will she be here when I get back? Should I make her go inside with me, feeding her insistence that I never trust or understand her?

I swallowed hard as I told her that I needed to go inside and speak with someone, and that I’d see her when I was done. She sat with her earphones on, black eyeliner encircling her downcast eyes, too cool and too annoyed to acknowledge much of anything. I put my car keys in my purse and walked to the school entrance.

Photo: D Sharon Pruitt

I signed in and was directed to the counselor’s office where my younger daughter peered up at me nervously from her seat. She was dressed like a typical middle-schooler, sporting a bulging backpack, carefully styled hair, colorful braces, and inches of plastic bracelets halfway to her elbows.

I tried to smile, to remain calm, to not read into the situation anything that wasn’t specifically presented. After all we’d been through as a family in the past years, that was a tough task to handle.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2014
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Blog For Mental Health 2014 Project

Sometimes I read something that steals my breath, steels my convictions, and reminds me that there is redemption in every story, that beauty can come from the ashes of despair.

This is why I write about things I’d sometimes rather forget.

This is why I know it’s important to add my voice of support and advocacy for those who are facing what may feel hopeless, impossible, or insurmountable.

This is why I want parents of adolescents who struggle with mental illness to know that there is hope, to know that they are not alone.

Because they’re not.

 

*****

 

“No one can be prepared for having a child or youth with an emotional, behavioral or mental health disorder. It can happen to any family, to any parent, in any social circle. It cuts across all cultures and economic levels. The self-confident parent, the model family, the teacher, preacher, and doctor can have a child or youth with emotional or mental health problems. Because it can hit anyone, anytime, anywhere, it is impossible to prepare for it. The best you can do is deal with your emotions one at a time and one day at a time.”

 

Excerpted from Straight Talk: Families Speak to Families about Child and Youth Mental Health by Conni Wells

 

Source: Google Images

 

*****

 

“Chief among [the] misconceptions [about mental illness] is that mental illness is uncommon. Every year, 1 in 4 adults in the United States will experience a mental illness … One in 10 children and adolescents will have serious problems that derail their educational and social development. This means that well over 50 million adults and children in the United States fall ill each year, with similar percentages in most other countries on the globe. Few families are spared.”

 

“The impact of mental illness doesn’t stop with the person who is ill: It places great demands on families, stroking tensions and often pitting parents against each other. Sucking parents, sibling, and other family members into its maelstrom, mental illness is the visitor no one wants. But countless families find it living among them.”

 

“What’s more, 50% of mental illnesses come on by the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 24. You are right to be attentive to your young family members and friends, as these are the years when mental disorders surface. Many of these young people also discover that alcohol or drugs (especially marijuana) reduce their anxiety, at least at first, and the ongoing use of these substances typically worsens their condition and impairs treatment and recovery.”

 

“Mental illness is no one’s fault. People fall prey to mental illness because of the way their brains have become abnormal. We know this because imaging technologies now allow us to peer into the brains of those who have mental disorders. And what we usually see is this: Areas of the brains of people afflicted with mental illness look different than those of individuals who are not. The message could not be clearer: The brain – just like any other organ of the human body when it is diseased – is operating differently in people with mental illness … Just as some of us are more vulnerable to diabetes and high blood pressure, others of us are at risk for mental illness because of genetics and development.”

 

“The good news is that there is help – and hope – that can be effective, and that is available to families who are able to confront and meet the challenges that mental illness presents. I say this after many years working as a psychiatrist in both the private and public sectors … Time and again, I have seen patients go on to lead full lives when they receive proper diagnosis and effective treatment. And when their lives change for the better, so too do the lives of their families and friends.”

 

Excerpted from The Family Guide to Mental Health Care by Lloyd I Sederer, MD

 

Source: Google Images

*****

 art by Piper Macenzie

Source:  A Canvas of the Minds

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2014
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Warrior Moms

We met for coffee. Conversation came easily as we shared stories. She is a courageous woman, a mother whose only son took his own life and left her with deep heartache and a brave new quest.  She is now on the board of our state chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She volunteers. She speaks out. She encourages. She grieves. All of these things take so much courage.

She told of the time she was curious (as any mother would be) about what her son had been looking at online. Though it was years before his suicide, a brief glance told her that he’d searched for ways in which he could successfully end his life. Alarmed, she called his school counselor for help only to be chided for betraying her son’s confidentiality.

She was not lauded for seeking to save his life; she was shamed for being a snoop.

 angry_teacher

(Source)

We talked about how unpredictable finding help in the public school system can be. We found that within the same highly regarded school district, years apart, at two of the schools with very “good” reputations, we both had terrible experiences when it came to support for our teens who dealt with clinical depression.

“My daughter went into the psych ward on Monday,” I told her.”She was released on Saturday. She was back in school the next Monday. I had told them what was going on. Her accommodation was that she was given a pass to leave class if she needed to go to the nurse’s office or the school psychologist‘s office for a while. After she calmed down, she was to go back to class.

“Now I know that legally they were supposed to do more, but at the time I didn’t know there were laws to protect and help students with mental illness. I didn’t ask for more because I didn’t know there was more to be asked for. And the school certainly never told me. ”

We shared frustration at the number of students who still surely go unsupported in these schools, how their academic reputations may seem impressive, but their legal mandate to identify and assist students in need of support services was not met in our children’s situations.

We ached for the parents who are now living what we lived: being shamed for their concern, or failing to be informed of the legal requirements schools have to help look after the safety of their students.

We did our best to encourage one another in our determination to work for change, to walk alongside those in need or in grief.

Such can be the plight of a parent whose child is struggling with any number of mental health challenges. The search for support and understanding can be frustrating and disheartening. To be in a world with confusing directional signs, where no one speaks a common language, and there is either an unwillingness or inability for anyone to point you to the path of help … this is what it can feel like.

 good-luck-road-sign

(Source)

But quitting is not an option.

We may have to fight or beg for adequate intervention for our kids. I know I’m not the only parent who’s had to insist that a suicidal daughter not be sent home from the ER because she didn’t have a specific plan to end her own life, “just” the desire to do so, shouted at the top of her lungs to anyone who would listen.

Everyone has a different story, and some of those stories are beyond belief. But they are true. Some Warrior Moms I “know” are online champions who give and offer support 24/7 to parents in their own cities and around the globe. Others are friends I’ve had the honor of meeting in person.

I have the privilege of being part of a local group of parents whose kids deal or have dealt with mental illness. We are made up of mostly moms right now. There is a brave dad who joins us when he can. It’s a place where openness, anger, vulnerability, fear, laughter, tears, and hope are all in abundant supply, as are pizza and Kleenex.

Some of us have older or adult kids, some younger, and some have both. None of us ever expected to have a child with an invisible but life-altering illness.

Some have been threatened, chased with knives, or forced to protect their other children from a sibling experiencing a “break”. Some are basically held hostage in their own homes because being able to make a quick run to the grocery store has disappeared along with the mental stability of their son or daughter.

All of them realize that if their child had something besides a brain illness, say perhaps a broken arm, an infection, or – heaven forbid – childhood cancer, people would be lining up to offer meals, rides, housecleaning, and free babysitting. But they live with knowing that mental illness is a “no casserole” disease. And they still get up every day and do it all over again.

Autism Recovery – Who is a Warrior Mom?

(Source)

If you can’t love and appreciate and honor women like that, I feel sorry for you because they are fierce and beautiful and awe-inspiring and deserving of respect and every possible support.

At one meeting some time ago, one of the women very kindly expressed her appreciation for what I’d written about our story. “You should write a book,” she told me.

“That would be a dream come true,” I replied. “But apart from the obvious challenges, my greater concern is that so many books give a message that seems to say, ‘We had a problem, but we don’t anymore. Everything’s fine! Hope you’ll be okay, too; good luck!’ “

I explained to them my discomfort that so many times it seems like we tie a big red bow on a closed-up box and give the impression that there are no problems anymore. But life doesn’t really work like that, like the book is over and we close it and put it back on the shelf. It’s really more like finishing one chapter and moving on to the next.

“And some of my chapters would definitely be named OH CRAP. WHAT NOW?” I confessed.

Another mom spoke up quickly, “I’d call most of my chapters ARE YOU F#!%@$G KIDDING ME?!?

We pretty much gave her a standing ovation.

*****

If you are bravely parenting a child with mental illness or emotional development issues, please see the Resources page of this blog for some helpful links and Facebook support/informational pages. If you are on Facebook, I highly recommend the Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid page. If you have specific resources you would like to share or need help finding, leave a comment below. Alternately, you can message me via the Help To Hope Facebook page linked below, or email me at HelpToHope@msn.com.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
https://www.facebook.com/HelpToHope
https://twitter.com/HelpToHope