When my husband and I married, I was convinced that we would be awesome parents. We were committed to the same things and had the same goals. We were both from good homes and were educated. We were strong in our faith and knew it would provide the spiritual strength our kids would need.
But, while our preparation has been invaluable and our love for our children is almost tangible, something crept into our family that was, at best, unforeseen and uninvited. All of the preparation and schooling in the world would not have prevented it, and now all of the resources and support in the world cannot make it go away. We aren’t fighting cancer, which may come to mind as one of the worst fears of any parent, but we are fighting a very real disease. It is the two-fold disease of anxiety and depression.
While many may think depression should not be compared to cancer (and I would probably agree in many cases), I don’t want to undervalue the heartache, uncertainty, and emotional pain that accompanies a child struggling with mental illness. Both diseases require constant treatment, take a toll on caregiver and patient, and can result in the premature loss of a life.
The reality of anxiety and depression is that you are dealing with an invisible and illogical opponent. Anxiety in kids takes on many forms–from irrational fears, anger, and isolation to school avoidance and withdrawal. Depression can take them even further–to prolonged sleep, self-hate, cutting, and thoughts of suicide.
For a long time I thought I was just failing as a parent when it came to my daughter’s reactions to chores and disappointment. Surely it was something I should be able to discipline out of her.
I felt so isolated when I was the mom running to the car after dropping my daughter off at school, while the principal held her sobbing. Coming to class parties was not an option because that opened the door for another separation scene with tears and frustration for both of us–not to mention how it looked to her peers who looked for opportunities to ridicule.
This all culminated recently with my daughter’s talk of not wanting to live. As I listened to her tell her doctor of ways she had imagined killing herself, I felt so helpless.
In a time where people pride themselves in understanding illnesses and social issues, it amazes me just how misunderstood mental illness is. In fact, I bet for many the words “mental illness” still conjure up visions of insane asylums or serial killers. The misfortune is that no one wants to see this phrase attached to a beautiful child that they know or love, so they deny the problem, looking for ways to skirt around the disease.
I’m tired of this being a lonely battle. I know there are other moms out there who face the same situation, and I think that it is time for more understanding about the seriousness and complexity of mental illness.
I want mothers who are waging this war in their own homes to push away the regret and the guilt. I want them to understand that when you take your kids to get professional help, it is not a sign of weakness and it should never be humiliating.
No words have been more profound to me than those of my kids’ doctor last week, when I petitioned her for help in knowing how to deal with the fact that my daughter wanted to die sometimes. How do I reason with that? Where do I put it in my brain? And, most of all, how should I be treating her?
The doctor told me in no uncertain terms to treat her as though she had cancer: to lower my expectations and to just love her.
So many times I have worried what friends must think when they see her messy room–that I bug and bug and bug her to clean. I have nearly been ill when I’ve had to call the school and excuse her from another day because I just can’t get her to want to be there. And I’ve stressed so much about what her teachers must think about me letting her get away with it. So often I have been bugged by her poor performance in school, thinking she should try harder and excel more. In reality, I have spent a lot of time worrying about how it reflected on me as a mother.
In that moment with our doctor, I was validated. I realized more profoundly that I was dealing with a disease. We were all living with a disease, and we had to own that.
The best news is that there is help out there. Great help. There are doctors who understand the illness and understand what we all go through. They are accessible and have so many more tools than ever before to help you and your children live more complete and functioning lives.
The greatest tragedy, in my mind, is to hope the problem will resolve itself and do nothing. If you think your child might be struggling with a mental illness, remember you are not alone! It is not your fault. There are many others that know your desperation. Embrace the facts, love your kids enough to face the symptoms, and be proactive about seeking help.
Earlier this week, my daughter was happy and laughing. I celebrated. Today she fought going to school. I walked her through it–as I will for many days ahead. But now I will do so differently– with more understanding and with more empathy.
I will worry less about how others view her and me and focus on what she is capable of. I will hope for the chance to keep her here with us and do all that I can to make each day precious. After all, no parent wants the disease to win.
QUESTION: How do you work with emotional and mental health issues in your home?
CHALLENGE: When things aren’t ok, don’t be afraid to seek help.
Image by David Castillo Dominici/Flickr