Most of us remember our first bike—mine was red— and the feeling of cruising the neighborhood with a pack of kids, jumping curbs, racing and bombing hills. I also have fond memories of running through the neighbors’ yards, playing kick-the-can at dusk on hot summer evenings. A little bit sweaty and my skin splotched with the sticky remains of an ice cream cone and bug bites, heart racing with the thrill of the chase. I was one of the youngest and always got caught. But still, the thrill of playing pushed away any thoughts that could trouble a child-brain.
A few years ago, my husband and I were asked to join a softball team. I was not asked because I am good at softball. Truthfully, my eye-hand coordination is frequently the source of comic relief and that’s fine by me. But amongst our friends, there was a shortage of female players and the coed league has quotas. Lucky me. As it was throughout my whole athletic career, I wasn’t great, but I had a blast. We all had a blast despite losing every game. Well, maybe the more competitive and skilled players got less enjoyment than had we been a winning team, but no one will deny that the thrill of anticipation when the ball sails into the outfield (where of course I would be installed) or hurtling toward home plate is a magical, adrenaline pumping moment. I may not have been able to make a beautiful play, but the idea of it, maybe more like a fantasy, offered the rush I remembered from playing childhood games and school team sports. Heart pounding. Forgetting about all the other stuff.
And that’s just it: forgetting all the other stuff.
Elin and I talk a lot about the importance of “self-care” for parents who advocate for a child who has a serious brain disorder. Finding activities that bring joy and peace are an important piece of self-care. Finding an escape from day to day discussions of “the illness” benefits a person’s well being. These activities can be things that a parent likes to do alone or with the other parent or a friend. Or on a team. Ideally, a family can participate together in an activity like hiking, swimming, skiing, or cooking together. A father we interviewed for our Behind the Wall story collection, who has a daughter living with serious mental illness, advises doing whatever activity your child (or children) enjoy(s), whether that’s snowboarding or crocheting, but something that gets away from thinking and discussing the illness.
Basically, have some fun. Feel joy. Feel like a kid.
Recently, I rediscovered cycling. One day I took my mountain bike out of its long hibernation in our garage and started riding. I get nervous on tight, gravelly curves and steep, rocky descents. But the process of working on my fears in the physical world takes my mind temporarily away from real life issues I’m juggling. Riding on the trails offers that same thrill of freedom I felt as a kid in our neighborhood. A few weeks ago, my son joined me on a ride and showed me how to conquer the steep descents, specifically, a short set of concrete stairs. He made it look fun and compared doing the jump on our bikes to the thrill he gets skateboarding. He made it look easy too. Truthfully, with good body positioning, it is easy on a mountain bike. So, there I sat, poised at the top of the stairs while my heart knocked around my chest and he calmly talked me through each move through the descent. “You can do this Mom. We are not leaving until you do it smoothly. Without freaking out.” Roles were reversed; he was showing me how to play like a kid. No one talked about homework, financial issues, health issues, or future plans except what was right there before us. Those stairs, and the next ramp we’d tackle. One of the best afternoons of my life.
There really is nothing like the rush of adrenaline and being out in nature to cure (even if temporarily) whatever is nagging at you. It’s certainly working for me. I’ve also started riding a road bike too. I go with friends, or alone, with a loved one, and feel the positive effects for days after. It’s my thing.
For Elin, it’s riding her cruiser at the beach, swimming in the ocean, rowing on her kayak and walking her sweet dogs in the woods. Find your thing. Do your thing.
It’s what your loved ones need you to do.
As always, your thoughts are valuable to us:
In our story collection and book, Behind the Wall: The True Stories of Mental Illness, as Told by Parents, the parent-contributors offer advice and talk in-depth about the emotional journey—rife with grief— that defines their experience advocating for a child with a persistent mental illness. As heartbreaking as it is to watch their diagnosed child suffer, parents also acknowledge the pain their “well” children endure. At almost every speaking engagement for our book, we are asked, “What about the sibling(s)?”
Parents tell us that their children, who are the siblings of a chronically mentally ill person, grieve deeply. There are several sources of a sibling’s grief. Shifting dynamics within the family is a significant factor. In a typical scenario, a very ill child with immediate and all-consuming needs hijacks parental attention while other children are inadvertently ignored. Parents typically focus on the child who constantly gets into fights, has run-ins with the law or is abusing substances. Meanwhile, a sibling may be quietly suffering without acknowledgment. Kids need to know a parent is emotionally available, which is not necessarily the case when another child is in crisis.
Though one child’s emotional health may be the most grave, all children need support. In fact, the whole family unit needs support. But sadly, grieving parents, who are also in triage mode, may be temporarily incapable of recognizing and/or providing for the emotional needs of their other children. Parents admit they were even unaware of their own grief while experiencing it. Most worrisome is that a young person’s unchecked grief can develop into more serious health issues later.
Such was the case for Kerri, whose son, Tomas, is prone to rages. When he doesn’t get what he wants, she says, he threatens to break things and then does it. His behaviors ruin special times for her daughter and make it uncomfortable to have houseguests. Kerri says her younger daughter had “enjoyed the time when Tomas was away at college. She had felt free to bring friends around, not worried her brother was going to do something weird” (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 44).
Tomas’s all-consuming illness draws attention from his younger sister’s needs due to his demands, anger, and the way he often puts himself in harm’s way, creating one crisis after another. Tomas’s destructive behaviors and the resulting stress in the home, Kerri believes, have affected her daughter’s health.
I’ve always felt he’s ruined things for his younger sister. Here we are, trying to look at colleges and had planned a whole weekend… Our daughter, who’s a great kid and good student, was having health problems, and I always wonder if it was connected to the stress of her brother’s illness and all the uncertainty he has caused. She was first diagnosed with Lyme disease then later with chronic fatigue syndrome with fibromyalgia. We’ll never know her diagnosis for sure, but she became depressed from not feeling well, always feeling tired and run down, and it finally got to her. (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 47).
When Tomas is at home, Kerri says, the family often feels as if they are “walking on eggshells.” Their home is not always a place of calm and peace because of Tomas, clearly not an environment conducive to entertaining friends much less healing.
In another scenario in which parental attention is diverted to the child who is acting out, siblings may subsume their own problems for fear of causing their parents more heartbreak. But unaddressed or unresolved emotional issues can bloom into larger problems. Still, other siblings use the shift in attention to engage in risky behaviors while remaining under the diverted radar of parents who are emotionally and logistically consumed.
Grief also derives from siblings feeling that they have “lost” their bother or sister to the illness. A person with a brain disorder often suffers cognitive (and personality) changes that may be permanent. Sometimes there is memory loss. It is bewildering to all family members and siblings that their brother or sister creates so much trouble and refuses to follow basic rules they once could understand; or that behaviors that are not tolerated from any other family member are excused for the “ill child.” Children are understandably angry with a sibling who creates unnecessary drama and seems to ruin every family event—from birthday dinners to vacations.
Sadly, a young person can’t often escape the impact of their sibling’s behaviors through supports outside the home, either. The stigma of mental illness means that a loved one’s health challenges are not usually disclosed to extended family or close friends for fear of being judged or, as one parent says, because others “can’t possibly understand what I’m going through.” Parents know that because of the bad (sometimes bizarre) behaviors of their child whose illness may be undiagnosed or under-treated, their parenting is scrutinized by those who don’t understand mental illness. Other family members are scrutinized too.
Esme, a parent-contributor says that her daughter, Laura, suffered directly when attention became focused on Jennifer’s chaotic, raging behaviors caused by her mental illness. Laura, a naturally easy-going and upbeat person, was banned from the home of a long-time friend by his parents who believed she would become like her sister, Jennifer. Not only did the community conflate Jennifer’s behaviors with Laura’s, but also Laura’s emotional needs were subsumed by her sister’s volatile, demanding behaviors. Being misunderstood in one’s community is hurtful, especially for young people. About community judgment Esme says,
I was hurt, but there was no action I could take other than console Laura who had by then been affected more than once by the community because of Jennifer’s behavior. That’s what stung the most. At that time Laura was starting to experience depression, which was also crushing. We definitely never intentionally ignored her, but we did ignore her because we missed cues that could have informed us of her well-being, and we shouldn’t have. It was accidental because we were focusing 98 percent of our attention on one child. (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 37).
Growing up with a sibling or any close family member known for disruptive behaviors can lead to feeling isolated from one’s community. This isolation compounds the grief of “losing” a loved one to a brain disorder, especially when friends and community don’t acknowledge loss or recognize support is needed. A brain disorder, as many know, is not a “casserole disease.” Yet, all loved ones, including the person living with mental illness, suffer from a loss the relationships before the illness became symptomatic. As Bianca, a mother we interviewed astutely observes,
When a person has a brain disorder it’s traumatic for the family, like experiencing a death. If Miguel had been in a car accident and had brain damage, everybody would have enfolded him. The loss [his brother] Arturo felt about Miguel’s illness affected him the way I felt the loss and hurt of my divorce: if the man had died, I’d have gotten a card. Flowers at least. You are left with pain and grief that no one acknowledges. (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 226).
Still, it’s important to know that families can heal and recovery is possible for a person living with a brain disorder. The grieving process represents progress, allowing for a “new normal” to bloom. Families of a person with serious, chronic mental illness are forever changed but they don’t have to remain broken. First, parents need to take care of themselves in order to support their children. Parents like Esme also recommend spending one-on-one time with each child to strengthen the parent-child relationship. Though creating that “normal” one-on-one time with other family members requires some work at first, it doesn’t have to involve complicated plans. Says Esme,
I’ve been learning to have balance and spend more time with Laura when her social schedule allows. When she was taking driver’s education I’d spend time in the car with her. We take moments. “Let’s go have dinner, just you and me.” Or, “Let’s go driving for an hour and stop along the way and go into shops . . .” Anything to steal a moment so she feels connected. (qtd. in Widdifield and Widdifield 37-38)
Even as adolescents and young adults rebel or seem to rebuff parental attention, children do need time with their parent(s). As another parent recommends, find something, anything that your child likes to do and share that activity. “Maybe it’s crochet,” he says. Many families do find fun activities that involve every family member to help heal relationships and reach a ‘new normal.’ Activities can be simple, such as hiking, biking, playing a board game, working a puzzle together or watching a movie at home. Start with something small if that’s what it takes.
Siblings need time to heal from their own journey grappling with “losing” the sibling they knew, escaping the chaos the illness creates in the home and/or accepting their loved one’s mental illness. Siblings may escape or lose regular contact with the family for short-term or long-term. In some cases, the sibling relationship becomes (or is deemed) irreparable, even toxic for one or both persons. For others, siblings come to an understanding and may even be drawn closer. Having shared joyful, meaningful early years together can determine the long-term relationships between siblings and those who understand mental illness, usually become in awe of their loved one’s strength to manage it.* Many siblings we met became the compassionate, adult healthcare advocates, managing their own journey loving and supporting a person with a chronic brain disorder.
No matter what the scenario, the journey of the person whose sibling lives with a serious and chronic mental illness must be acknowledged.
We recommend finding support at your local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) affiliate and participating in the free twelve-week Family-to-Family course to learn evidence-based information on mental illness, how to communicate with your loved one and about healthy self-care. NAMI was a resource many parent contributors found to be helpful in their journey.
*For an example of sibling compassion and understanding, please see our March 20, 2014 guest post from Michael Ross about his sister Michele, Eulogy for Michelle: Defining the Success in My Sister’s Life”
If you would like to share your story, please connect to us privately through this website or private email at: mwiddi [at] yahoo.com. Identity of contributors remains anonymous to protect family members.
Of course, we welcome any comments:
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“If only he cared at all about his work.”
This is what parents of kids who have difficulties focusing on schoolwork hear from teachers. Or what the parents of students who have mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, hear because the noise in their child’s head is distracting.
These things are said to parents during that inevitable meeting scheduled because the student hasn’t handed in assignments, often forgets or loses required worksheets, acts out in class, and even though the student is quite capable of the work, is barely passing the class. Sometimes this kid is the class clown. In this meeting, the parent feels frustrated and guilty because she had no idea it’d gotten so bad and why is it so difficult for her child to hand in finished work? And the teacher sighs because the rules are simple. Assignments are clearly written on the board and class is structured such that students can succeed. And there are all these different times for tutoring (as if this student will remember those tutoring times, or where those times are written down, and when they go to tutoring, they think they’ve got it down only to come home and forget what they were supposed to focus on).
Then the teacher says, “You are completely capable of this work.” Because they are bright enough to master the material, and when they contribute in class, their ideas are thoughtful and articulate, which always takes the teacher by surprise because what this student says during class discussions is not reflected in submitted work.
The student slumps in his chair and says, “Yeah, I’ll try harder. Yeah. I’ll get the work done. I’ll keep my binder organized. I won’t talk in class.” And they mean it. They really do want to do well in school.
But really, they can’t help it. They try but cannot do it like the other kids. It takes him longer to settle into the work, to shut down the interior noise to focus on the lesson. These students are distracted by the waving flag outside, a girl’s tinkling bracelets and the awesome skate shoes Jason is wearing. Or maybe they are worried about being away from their home, wondering if their parents are safe, and thinking about all the bad things that could happen. Or maybe the student takes longer than others to understand what was just said while the rest of the class has moved on to another topic. It’s always something. This kind of student needs a little extra help.
Maybe you’ve been the parent in this meeting?
One mother tells a story to which many of us can relate. Most afternoons, she’d watch her bright child, who struggles to focus, open his math book only to stare blankly at the pages. For an hour. She’d prod, “C’mon, hon. Focus. One problem at a time.” But because of the way his brain works, the number of problems—two sides of a sheet or often several pages— felt overwhelming, which often made him feel anxious about getting through it, which also paralyzed him to even get started. He knew how to do the problems but is a slow worker and would lose momentum after two problems. For these kinds of students, knowing that they will be spending hours each night getting through just one subject crushes any joy of learning. It’s depressing. Anxiety provoking. Often they don’t finish. Or do it at all. Then there’s the act of actually handing in the work.
Students with these types of learning challenges need support to develop workaround strategies and accommodations to prevent the student from shutting down altogether due to feeling overwhelmed. For some, it’s too much information coming at them at once. Accommodations may be as simple (for teachers) as requiring less homework, providing copies of class notes, giving gentle class-time reminders to pay attention and a dedicated front-row seat. Others require more assistance (formal specialized curriculum known as IEP) and skill development for success. Medication prescribed by a qualified medical professional may help. Success is achievable.
Offering accommodations is not about lowering standards. It’s leveling the playing field and providing an opportunity for each student to develop learning strategies specific to his or her challenges in order to reach success. Identifying what motivates a student provides a pathway to learning that is otherwise seemingly inaccessible.
In elementary grades, teachers spend most of the school day with their students and become well acquainted with each child’s learning style. In my children’s elementary school, teachers are well trained in presenting each lesson in different ways so that each student has the ability to grasp the material and develop skills at their own pace. For example, by the end of fifth grade, all those students were writing several paragraph essays. Later, students’ challenges are exacerbated by middle school where there is less time for individual attention and work is more rigorous.
…I was the parent in the meeting being told, “If your child only cared more,” a comment that made me want to leap across those uncomfortable desks and nearly strangle that well-meaning teacher.
By middle school, I was the parent in the meeting being told, “If your child only cared more,” a comment that made me want to leap across those uncomfortable desks and nearly strangle that well-meaning teacher. Because watching my child struggle every afternoon is not what a kid does if he doesn’t care. I requested that my student be tested (standard academic/psychological test) to identify root causes so we could better develop strategies and skills. I knew we needed to find solutions and I had made that exact promise to my child. I wasn’t expecting a solution that would make schoolwork a breeze. Challenge is good, but feeling constantly overwhelmed in a school setting can lead to deeper long-term issues that impact a person’s well being, including mental health.
Public school districts are legally required to provide to struggling students the testing that can identify how a student processes information and other specific challenges and strengths. This valuable information enables teachers and parents to provide work-around tools for success in school and life. We cannot change the way our brain works, but that doesn’t mean the brain isn’t powerful. It should be incumbent upon educators to offer the appropriate learning tools and teach the skills that truly enable a student to learn, no matter his process.
But our school district didn’t honor my request at first. Instead, there was a preliminary report to determine if testing was necessary. One reason cited for not initially providing testing was that my child was well supported at home. Our school district doesn’t have a lot of money. They need to avoid unnecessary costs where possible and testing is expensive. They set up barriers for parents. But how can a district do its job, that is, educate students, if issues impeding learning are not addressed?
I respect that the testing is time-consuming to already overworked district educators. Still, what concerns me as a parent and member of a wonderfully diverse district is that not all parents are aware of the ways learning differences can manifest and may feel uncomfortable about fighting for their child’s learning needs, especially when a language barrier exists. Not all parents are as pushy as I am.
Fortunately, in the end, and after several requests, our school district provided the testing (and a thorough analysis of it) which yielded valuable insights on how best to support my child’s learning.
I am keenly aware of the prevailing belief that brain differences such as ADHD are over-diagnosed, that especially boys simply cannot sit still and that there are some students who are less motivated in a school setting. Maybe some fidgety kids don’t have a diagnosable condition and some others need time to mature. Perhaps our education system is designed for uncommonly sedate children. I believe that some people are innately more ambitious than others and don’t require a parental push. Some other students absolutely do. All of this can be true, while still acknowledging that a student who exhibits problems focusing, whatever the root cause, needs to be supported. Immediately.
Whether or not a student has a diagnosis is irrelevant to the salient fact that our public education system is required to meet the needs and learning challenges of every student. To do so is to understand the specific challenge. And, for a struggling student to find success, teachers’ efforts need parental support at home.
One mother told me how she makes a concerted effort in the beginning of each school year to explain her child’s specific learning challenges to each teacher. Her child is very bright, an avid reader and always scores exceptionally well on standardized tests. Every year, teachers assure her that they understand issues around her child’s ADHD diagnosis. But without fail, by the first quarter of every semester, her child becomes overwhelmed largely due to organizational challenges. Her child loses track of assignments, and if completed, fails to turn them in. The teachers infrequently accommodate this student’s needs by allotting extensions or any other assistance. Even after this mother explains her child’s diagnosis, the teachers insist that “requirements are very clearly outlined,” and “your child is capable of the work.” As good as our district teachers are, public schools have more workload than any person should be required to manage including providing accommodations. As a result, this mother’s student becomes depressed and experiences anxiety symptoms resulting from the stress of school, despite an obvious aptitude registered in testing, in-class discussions and in-class essays. This mother has come to realize that despite all good intentions, most teachers and the public school system don’t understand ADHD or how to help a struggling student overcome challenges the unfocused brain presents.
Let’s be clear: a person who has challenges focusing is not doomed. In fact, these types of thinkers excel in many fields, often careers requiring creativity. The mother of Olympian Michael Phelps’s put him on a swim team to address his high energy and inability to focus. Exercise calmed him and helped him focus. Other well-known successes include Olympian Simone Biles, actor Woody Harrelson and businessman billionaire Richard Branson.
Why does the education system need to improve accommodations for atypical learners? Because students who struggle to focus and stay on task often fall behind in their work. A student with slow processing speed is still thinking about the first idea a teacher presented while the class has moved on to other more complex ideas. These students begin to feel lost and incapable when in fact they simply lack support and tools. They begin to believe they are “lazy” because this is what they hear from teachers and sometimes their uninformed parents. Feeling “dumb” in the classroom of peers can lead to low self-esteem and later depression and risk-taking behavior.
Tips for parents of students with learning and focusing challenges:
- Make sure the student has a workspace that is quiet, organized and with minimal distractions. Also, work with your child to block out time for homework each night. This is the best way to support a students’ education.
- Insist on appropriate testing by your school district to determine the root of a student’s learning challenges. Or, have the testing done privately by a licensed professional if this is affordable. Seek recommendations from trusted professionals.
- Seek out the many credible resources available online that provide valuable tips for students diagnosed with ADHD (such as taking mini-breaks between tasks, for example).
- Advocate for your child by communicating with each teacher and more importantly, advise your child how to advocate for her own needs with her teachers.
- Help your child to learn what she needs to do for herself to be successful in school. This may mean to take frequent breaks while working on homework, such as after one side of a worksheet is complete.
- Consider getting a tutor who specializes in working with students who have issues focusing.
- Always bring attention to your student’s strengths. If your student is a good soccer player, make sure to support this interest. If your student excels in art, consider enrollment in after school art classes.
- Some private schools support students with learning styles that are not easily accommodated in a public school setting. If this is a financial possibility, consider this option as an investment in your child’s academic and psychological well being. However, not all private schools truly accommodate these differences.
- Encourage physical activities the student truly enjoys.
- Continue to learn about your child’s specific challenges from evidence based resources and accredited professionals.
 “Difficulties focusing” refers to diagnosed or undiagnosed learning differences or brain disorders that include symptoms similar to those experienced by those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), attention deficit disorder (ADD) and/or any other mental health that causes difficulties focusing or slow processing.
 You may find basic information about ADHD and ADD at http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/adhd/home/ovc-20196177
Proper evaluation and testing by a trained medical professional are required to confirm a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD.
There are many evidence-based resources available. We found the following resource, which contains a list of credible resources for further reading about helping a student manage challenges focusing:
Cheyette, Sarah, MD, Peter Johnson and Ben Cheyette, MD, PHD. ADHD & The Focused Mind: A Guide to Giving Your ADHD Child Focus, Discipline & Self-Confidence. Garden City, NJ: Square One Publisher, 2016.
 Names of parent and student are changed to protect privacy.
 For more information about processing speed differences as well as other learning differences: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/information-processing-issues/how-can-i-get-my-childs-teachers-to-recognize-processing-speed-as-a-real-issue
We appreciate any and all comments.
The subtext of my father’s life and what bled into the four lives he created was the untimely death of his mother from blood poisoning sixteen days after his birth on Christmas Eve, 1931. From all accounts, which are too few, our grandmother was a firm but warm matriarch who managed her brood of nine surviving children with benign militancy and efficiency, keeping a clean and orderly house during the strained years of the Depression.
My siblings and I know Ronie Woodlief King through brief moments with three of our father’s sisters, one of whom was twelve at the time of her death, and from a single brown and white wedding photograph that rested on our piano throughout our childhood. Copies of this portrait, with its jagged creases, have been distributed to the many descendants of Ronie’s ten surviving children and now reside on walls, mantles and tables—maybe shoved in drawers—mostly in North Carolina but also across the country. We always said my oldest sister, Elin, shared a remarkable resemblance to Ronie. Her husband, my grandfather, passed only seven years after her and resembles my father. They share a sweet, youthful expression that belies their later heartbreak.
Despite never meeting this biological grandmother, her legacy profoundly marks us. From as early as I could remember, I saw an ineffable sadness in my father that I assumed was the grief in which my father’s early life was founded. Perhaps my earliest witness to his well of sadness was when I was about five and he began weeping while we watched Bambi together. In one narrative about my father’s first days, he lay crying in his bassinet in a soaked and soiled diaper until his oldest sister, Doris, who, at eighteen, was managing chores and caring for the youngest children still at home, could eventually care for him. It was then that neighbors, who had just lost their own baby, took the motherless infant into their home until the family could properly care for him. Later, this family adopted him, a truly charitable act during the Depression. Because I’m the youngest, what I know of my paternal (non-biological) grandmother, who took my father in and raised him, is that she made memorable pimento cheese and kept a clean home.
There is no other relationship that defines a person’s life the same way as that between mother and child. Adopted parents not excluded here, but in my father’s case, he and his descendants were indelibly marked by the loss of their biological mother. Maternal love is fierce. It’s why I always tell my children as I drop them off downtown or at a friend’s home, to always inform me when they change locations. In an emergency, no one will fight harder to find them than their mother.
Ronie’s impact on her youngest children and grandchildren is discoverable in what was created by her absence. My sisters and I have broadly speculated about what kind of parent or grandparent she would have been and believe she watches over all her children and their children. I imagine she likely had great pride managing home and children. I wonder if she was humored by her bright and funny children. I wonder about the moment she recognized her imminent death and that she was leaving behind an infant and young ones as well as older children. Heartbreakingly, she was robbed of the luxury to be annoyed by her two youngest boys, my father and his brother Julian, when they got into trouble or talked back or didn’t come home in time for supper. She was robbed of opportunities to catch her teenagers, Rachel, Mildred and Helen sneaking out with boys at night or rolling their eyes in teenage disgust behind her back. She didn’t get the chance to yell something at them that she’d later wish she could take back. I wonder, did she, or would she, have complained about all those damn kids?
The mothers that tell their stories in Behind the Wall have been pushed to limits no parent should ever experience: seeing their child suffer without being able to help them and sometimes watching their child walk the brink of life and death.
Elin and I have interviewed many mothers who have adult children living with serious mental illness. Similarly, these mothers have, at times been robbed of the typical things – of having “normal” moments, experiencing typical behaviors. It is not surprising that, with a similar power as Ronie’s legacy, the stories from mothers we interviewed, profoundly altered my perspective on mothering.
Each one of the mothers we interviewed stressed the importance of being supportive and emotionally available to their child, even when that child showed no reciprocation or appreciation, a common feature of the parenting dynamic, and especially common for adult and teenage children living with untreated mental illness. But we found it somewhat surprising that nearly every mother expressed regrets for some action or inaction. Many admitted having believed at one time or another that they caused the onset of their child’s illness, even though intellectually, they know brain disorders are not caused by bad parenting. These mothers wonder if they could have done something different when they were pregnant; maybe they should have disciplined more. Or less. They have a hard time freeing this false guilt.
These mothers in our Behind the Wall story collection, women like Esme, Tessa, Nathalie, Bianca and Rebecca, admit mistakes but also, through an oft-times harrowing parenting journey, have come to understand how little control they really have. They understand that parenting takes them for the ride and that they have less control in where the journey will take them as much as how they respond.
The mothers that tell their stories in Behind the Wall have been pushed to limits no parent should ever experience: seeing their child suffer without being able to help them and sometimes watching their child walk the brink of life and death. And then there is the grief of losing the child you once knew to a brain illness. Having been through all that, they can finally acknowledge they are remarkable mothers. They come to know that mothering cannot be perfect but mothers do make an impact, even in absence. As more than one mother expressed it, no one will take care of my child and advocate the way I do, and will.
When a child is unwell, often it’s the mother who has the power to keep things “real,” and maintain a sense normalcy while simultaneously pushing towards recovery. Bianca tells us that even when her son was very sick, living at home with her, unable to go to school or work, she tried to “keep it real” with him. Sometimes this meant yelling at him, getting angry with him like a mother would with any typical young man. For example, after coming home from work to find her house a mess, she said to him,
“You’re not broken! Pick it up! I work too hard to come home on my days off and clean up this house!” As soon as I raised my voice, which at the time didn’t seem like a bad thing to do even though now a part of me knows I shouldn’t yell… I felt guilty about getting angry. But on the other hand, “Pick up your dirty dishes!” He’s not broken. He’s tougher than he looks. (Behind the Wall: The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents, 71).
For a mother who has spent years caring and advocating for an ill son, usually feeling as if she is screaming into the wind to get help for him, having a typical angry moment with him likely felt refreshing. But while getting angry or “losing it” isn’t ideal parenting, it happens. Tessa also admits to losing it on occasion with her son who binge drinks, gets into fights and has bouts of homelessness. But perhaps that’s the gift she is giving him – that she can show him anger yet he never doubts her fierce love or that she’ll be there for him.
Learning about the unfathomable struggles of mothers like those who have adult children living with mental illness, I’ve come to recognize that being able to treat a child like a “typical” child is a gift. The mothers in Behind the Wall parent on a whole different level than most and they are also far from typical. They are remarkable for their stamina, compassion and pragmatism. They understand a rule of life that took my grandmother’s legacy and my unfolding of it to learn: that we need to be grateful for each day given to us and particularly on those days when (especially) our children and loved ones are safe and healthy.
I will be the first to admit I don’t always feel gratitude for the parenting experience, particularly when a teen is ranting about something that pales in comparison to the struggles of, well, anything happening now in the world. Or when my child has been asked forty-six times to take out the now overflowing and reeking garbage. But underneath all of that, there is deep gratitude that I’m here. I may not be the best mother, but I am here. I’m the one that gets to advocate for my child and be on whatever that journey entails.
On this Mother’s Day, I honor mothers whose children have been unwell, in the past or currently, and who work hard to keep things “normal” or create a “new normal.” I honor my grandmother, Ronie, a woman I never knew, by keeping it real with my own kids. I honor mothers who act from a place of intention, make mistakes because nobody is perfect, and who understand the great fortune in each day we have with our children. I shall celebrate that I have been blessed with the luxury to sometimes become frustrated by my children and yet, they always know I am here for them.
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My sister, Elin, and I bid farewell to our dogs within four months of each other. Interestingly, they were both German shepherd mixes, who shared similar black and caramel coloring and reliable, painfully loyal temperaments.
In peripheral vision, one could be mistaken for the other, though my Sweetie’s build was slight and less muscled, with a soft belly that comes from motherhood.
Sweetie, the (dog) love of my adult life, my loyal and constant companion, experienced a tragic, unexpected death. One moment she was in my life; suddenly she was not. Maggie Leigh’s illness progressed slowly. Elin watched as her once athletic companion began to move deliberately, then became increasingly wobbly until she suffered a stroke. But she remained mostly mentally capable until the end, always tracking Elin. Maggie Leigh left this world gracefully.
No one will ever convince me that grieving a dog’s passing isn’t profound, no matter how the end comes. While sometimes we can sort of prepare, that first morning without the familiar greeting of unconditional love from the bond born the moment eyes connected through metal bars at the pound, delivers a gut punch. I’ve heard it said that dogs teach us lessons we need at the precise life phase we need it. Dogs make us better humans if we allow for it. That is, if we are willing to open ourselves to that same connection that inflicts the excruciating pain in their passing.
When Elin met Maggie, she was sick with pneumonia, barely able to lift her head off the cold concrete, and according to Elin, was not nearly as beautiful as her sibling. Elin’s husband couldn’t understand why she wanted that puppy when there were so many quintessentially adorable ones putting on a show in their kennels. But Elin knew. In their last moments together, Elin thanked Maggie for being exceptional, a dutiful champion of Elin as she trained for her first, then second-degree black belt—running at her side, always eager for walks, reassurance, and affection. They canoed and kayaked together. In Maggie’s early years, she swam alongside the kayak, driven by the desire to be near Elin. Later, during challenging years of my sister’s life during which she grieved deep losses, Maggie was there, watchful, forcing Elin out of the house to do the activities they both enjoyed and nosing Elin forward to engage in life. Maggie and Sweetie had a way of resting their head on paws while their pecan-colored eyes followed us around the room, waiting for acknowledgment and eager and patient for the next outing and task. One thing to love about dogs is that no matter what kind of bizarre experience one has at work or with another loved one, the dog will always be thrilled to see you and agree with you. They never talk back. They remind us, “Everything will be alright.”
I didn’t want a dog when Sweetie came into our life. I said I’d only take a dog who didn’t bark and was easy going, and I listed other criteria too unrealistic to fulfill. But then I got the call from my dear friend, a “dog-whisperer” type who said, “I got the one for you.” She was right. I fell in love. She wasn’t a beauty though, at least not objectively. When my husband and I met Sweetie, she stood and leaned over the edge of the low wall of her pen to greet us while four of her seven puppies hung from her teats, desperately sucking. Her ribs protruded and her stomach swung as she walked. Having just transcended that phase of motherhood myself, with toddlers hanging off me, I understood completely her joy and relief to take a walk with us down the country road without the babies. And I also identified with the way she checked on each one upon her return. Her first night home with us, alone, she slept through the night, gloriously sprawled on her back, in her own bed. We understood each other.
For the rest of her life, it was her preference to sleep alone in her bed, only retiring after she’d checked on each family member. Sometimes she’d nudge us to come up to bed because it was getting late.
Family life is not easy. Adding children to the mix can bring much joy, but it’s also like filling a giant, old urn with water. The cracks of the parental relationship are exposed by the leaking water; if the thing is fundamentally unstable it all comes apart. For us, children certainly added new dimensions of stress, logistical challenges, and forced closer inspection of our marriage and ourselves. Fortunately, we have been moving through it, but the process has been fraught with chaos as well as grief, frustration, sometimes pettiness and anger. But throughout these transitions, we had good intentions. And we had Sweetie, who reminded us to get out in nature and offered unwavering loyalty and affection.
Sweetie connected us to outsiders too, which is notable considering my penchant for a hermetic life. She was a perfect citizen. She was also co-parented by our next door neighbors Patricia and Richard, whose dog, Molly, trained Sweetie on the ways of the neighborhood, barking furiously when Sweetie strolled too far down the street towards a dodgy intersection. Patricia and Richard also generously hiked with Sweetie, even after Molly’s passing, and kept her when we traveled; we never had to experience the guilt of leaving her in a kennel. When Sweetie was left alone, she was devastated, but since she loved these neighbors, known for feeding her steak when she’d stroll over for a visit, she seemed to see it as a spa vacation.
We’d had Sweetie only a few weeks when we were walking downtown and I reminded her at the curb, in a soft voice, “Wait.” She stopped dutifully as if we’d always done it that way. The first time I took her leash off, she looked at me, as if to say, “Thanks for trusting me,” and never really needed one again. She’d hear my commands in my normal speaking tone of voice, and in fact, we never raised our voice to her. There was no concern for her getting into an altercation with another dog either. When she sensed trouble, she’d simply walk a wide arc around the problem and never look back. She was a good role model for me.
I took Sweetie everywhere. Though dogs are not permitted at the elementary school, I often brought her to the campus when collecting my children. Many of the kids knew her by name and she loved the attention as if she knew it was her role on earth to be kind and represent her species well, especially for those kids without dogs at home. We’d often be approached by kids on the street who knew Sweetie and would greet her affectionately.
My identity became linked to the sense of her being constantly at my side. Like a true therapy dog, which she essentially became, she kept me calm and grounded. Sweetie was also a delightful companion. I talked to her constantly. We loved going to the beach and even enjoyed the cold Pacific water. She loved creeks too. And simply being with her pack. Dog love feels pure to me. Sweetie brought so much unconditional love and joy into my life.
So, as the years passed, and I noticed the white whiskers around her face, I promised I would be with her to the end of our natural time together. I promised her I wouldn’t allow her to feel pain. It’s the least one can do for an animal so devoted and special. Yes, I would be with her until the end. I earnestly whispered this, pressing my lips into the soft fur of her upright shepherd ears. I also swore I would never get another dog because I knew I could never do better than her.
I broke these promises I made to Sweetie. I failed the one who held unconditional love and devotion for me. It’s sickening.
It’s hard to accept that you cannot go back in time to change events. As much as I know it’s fruitless and an act of self-flagellation, I continually run the tape loop of how I could have prevented the accident that killed her. I could have found her sooner, before the accident. I know I could have saved her. All this excruciating pain could have been avoided.
When my dog-whispering friend, Cate, learned of Sweetie’s passing, she reminded me of the lessons Sweetie taught me. This did not immediately assuage my grief. Instead, I grieved more deeply because she had given so much and I failed her miserably. I betrayed her. Not a day goes by I don’t think of her.
My husband and I get a lot of compliments on our new dog, Pepper, a year-old Dutch shepherd (yeah, it’s a thing) puppy we adopted from a dog rescue to fill the giant chasm Sweetie left. Her glossy brindle coat and athleticism belies the digestive problems she had for the first four months we’ve had her. She wasn’t fully house trained during some of that time either. Last week she ate my son’s candy and threw it all up at three am, wrappers and all, on one of our good rugs. She’s still shitting wrappers. She requires a minimum of two hard workouts a day. Along with plush toys and tennis balls, there are random shoes, socks, baseball caps, TV remotes, and whatever else is within her reach strewn throughout the house, as it is her habit to carry something around to get attention. Luckily and surprisingly, she chews only her toys and bones we give her. She exhausts my husband and me. And of course, all four of us have fallen in love with her. Hard.
Which may be why this dog came to us. She has forced all of us to actively engage with her. All. The. Time. And while Sweetie was in fact, the most perfect and loving dog, she was not one to cuddle, which is arguably the most critical requirements for the well-being of adolescents and teens; nothing soothes better than a pet snuggling with you in bed on those dark, cold nights after a day when your friend(s) never returned your text or ignored you at lunch. Our house is one in which we’re all struggling to grow into something better—whether it’s into a new or changing career, getting through high school or getting the hell out of middle school in one piece. Pepper is distracting us all from the banal by needing us to play, and care, and cuddle.
It’s not always possible to make sense of why things happen the way they do. Even if we could know, I’m not sure it’s useful to know why we suffer a loss, heartbreak, or a joyful moment. I know for sure that we cannot control most of the heartbreaks we experience. I also know Sweetie pulled me into my community by being perfect; loved me unconditionally during a particularly turbulent family phase. Maggie served as a steadfast companion to Elin when she most needed it too. And now, Pepper seems to be shaking up the household in a whole different way. And to think, we almost re-homed her only two weeks after we’d brought her home.
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When our extended family was seated around my grandparent’s thick, oak dining table—one given to our great-grand-father as debt payment during the Depression and that had been elongated by inserted leaves for the gathering— the discussion would inevitably escalate until one of the men slammed a fist on that table and stomped out of the room. Usually this was Pop, my mother’s father, disgusted over where the political discourse had gone. Incredulous that these people in his house were so damn backward thinking. Not infrequently, it was my own father who’d set him off. My father had a prickly relationship with Pop. On the other hand, Mama, my grandmother, loved everyone, brought out the best in all, including my father (plus he was Catholic!) and that was reciprocated. But she’d get pissed at theatrics. “Oh N.S.!” She’d hiss, always calling my grandfather by his initials. “For god’s sake!” She’d toss her napkin down and go through the swinging kitchen door to retrieve the desserts for the rest of us.
My father got into it with my uncles too. Later, my sisters, who are a decade older than me, battled it out with Pop, a white, upper class, college-educated man who’d lost his fortune in the second big market drop of the Depression in ‘34. Throughout adulthood, he’d had a rough ride with substances but finally committed to sobriety on the day his first grandchild, my sister, was born. Those drunken years deeply affected his family and were especially ugly for Mama, whose wifely duties were primarily to cover for him. My sisters, however, brazenly challenged Pop’s views on charged topics like civil rights and Middle East politics. They were living and attending nearby colleges and had fresh, compassionate, vibrant minds with perspectives my grandfather couldn’t possibly fathom. But despite fundamental differences in their belief systems, he relished their verbal sparring and witnessing his granddaughters passionately debate. He always believed that as they matured, they’d come around to see the world as he did. On that point, he was wrong about my sisters.
I was too young to get in the fray and, frankly, too interested in getting to the dessert course. Mama had a special technique for swirling cinnamon into her pumpkin pie. But the gentle, old-married- couple bickering, sometimes all-out barking, between my grandparents remains in my memory, as does the way Mama plied my father, her son-in-law, with the fig preserves he loved to eat for breakfast while patting his shoulder lovingly, even on those mornings after a blow-up with Pop. Food has always been currency in our family culture.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sitting around that big table with my uncle who knew it irked my disciplined, raised-on-nothing father when he ate an entire roast beef in one sitting, or made us hysterical with the jokes thirteen-year-olds tell that no polite person would repeat. Especially at the dinner table. Mama’s children, my mother and two uncles, often joked about the horrific events that had happened in that house with a raging alcoholic. Or when there was no money. And it was hilarious. These were flawed and scarred adults who, along with the kids, shared a love for one another despite the chaos and ancient familial grievances; we also shared in our love for Mama and her pound cake, apple pie and the chocolate sauce she taught all her granddaughters how to make (for the record, and contrary to my cousin Janet’s assertion, mine’s the best rendition). I can still hear the din from the television console and smell the sweet pipe smoke wafting from that tiny den, where my grandfather would plant himself in that squeaky leather recliner whether after storming out of a room or just because it was that time of the day. Or because Jeopardy! was on and we’d all compete to show him who was the most clever.
Of course, Mama and Pop are now gone. Many heated discussions amongst family members outlived them. Raised voices. Storming out of rooms. And likely there are more to come. At more recent family gatherings, cousins laugh about the differences; we roll our eyes, grateful we’ve even stayed connected (thank you Facebook). It goes unsaid that we share a deep love for our flawed grandparents who we are sure would love us as much today as ever, even though we casted votes for candidates they would certainly consider ghastly.
Mama had a way of cutting through it all with a sense of humor. I wish I had her talent. On this Thanksgiving, I am grateful my grandfather lived his later years sober, and that I now understand how difficult this was for him. I am grateful we have recipes. And most of all, loved ones to feed.
Here’s wishing that you too find that which surpasses the ugly discussions in life on this day of gratitude.
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The following was, in similar form, published in The Marin Independent Journal. We thought we’d also share it here.
In well-heeled Marin County, staggering homeless statistics are visibly apparent in downtown San Rafael, near where I live. And this problem exists in urban areas across the country. The 20 percent, or 263 persons who are chronically homeless, cost the public greatly in emergency room visits, interaction with law enforcement, and incarcerations. In-depth media coverage reports that providing permanent housing and supportive services significantly reduces these costs.
Not clearly articulated are effective, holistic, long-term preemptive approaches. Largely because many don’t think the solution involves us. Or does it?
We know a myriad of factors lead to homelessness: environmental, economic, cultural, and bad luck. Brain disorders—also known as mental illness and includes substance abuse—is a leading cause of chronic homelessness. I bet all Marin’s overpriced housing that the 37 percent of homeless who self-report that they live with a “disabling condition” are underrepresented. Many also have anosognosia, a feature of serious mental illness that interferes with one’s ability to have insight that they are unwell. These individuals don’t accept treatment.
Fortunately, our city’s multi-pronged, reactive approach for current homeless includes a Police Department specifically trained for crises created by a person’s delusional thinking. A myriad of effective city agencies also support the homeless and those with brain disorders to reach independence. Still, a preemptive societal paradigm can address homelessness caused by brain disorders while strengthening community wellness.
It starts with knowing facts about mental illness and fighting stigma. Brain disorders don’t discriminate along ethnic or socio-economic lines. Bad parenting doesn’t cause mental illness either. One in five across the globe is diagnosed annually and an estimated 10 to 14 million Americans live with serious mental illness. Fortunately, brain disorders are treatable. But stigma prevents many from seeking treatment, which is devastating since early treatment equals greater outcomes. Let’s address brain disorders before a person becomes a statistic.
It’s cliché, but nurturing the whole child truly is a progressive investment in the whole community. We know that those lacking education are more likely to become low-wage earners and therefore statistically more likely to live on the margins.
Fostering youth wellbeing is possible through evidence-based programs in public schools. Initiatives fostering a healthy, inclusive school community can make the difference between a student feeling safe in his environment versus one who dangerously isolates. Adequate funding ensures reasonable mental health counselor ratios and also provides paid counselor training, psychological screenings for students, and most importantly that families can receive mental health education and support when symptoms first emerge. Brain disorders are lifelong illnesses that, similar to diabetes, for example, require ongoing management; with treatment, one can live fully.
Other youth programs foster wellbeing too. Studies show sports and enrichment programs promote healthy self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. Feeling connected to one’s community, whether through sports, or clubs or other enrichment is critically important to young people. Engagement in positive activities reduces anxiety and depression disorder symptoms—possibly delaying onset for those at risk. Art, music, and performance arts provide students with beneficial life skills and tools for expression, valuable for us all, but especially for those who develop brain disorders.
Meditation positively alters brain structure, improves concentration and increases self-awareness, happiness, and acceptance. Schools with mindfulness and meditation curriculum have reported tangible long-term results.
Voters can also effect change by learning about HR 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015 and lobbying their Senator to pass it. Importantly, this bill addresses critical roadblocks parents encounter in getting mental health treatment for their child. Presidential Candidate Clinton has also outlined a comprehensive Mental Healthcare Agenda proposing changes needed to guide a loved one from serious untreated mental illness to recovery.
It is likely your city’s many agencies and faith organizations are doing incredible work. If the long-term health of your community matters to you, consider getting involved with a school, an agency, or church; financially support relevant programs serving youth enrichment and intervention. Get informed, lobby your Marin County Supervisor and US Senator and vote. Because this is a big picture and we’re all in it.
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