It’s been a rough week. Mental illness has again reared its ugly head, this time in the form of a deep, insidious depression, lurking, creeping, stealthily wrapping its tentacles around my daughter, dragging her down, dimming her spark, holding her back from the things she enjoys. It’s not really a surprise, this time of year is notoriously difficult and we’ve been trying to dodge the bullet for months. So why is something so familiar, so predictable, so incredibly draining, deflating and demoralizing?
In order to really answer this question, I’ve had to force myself to look honestly, objectively (as much as possible) at the dynamics that play out when one of my kids becomes ill. The truth is, while I may have a pretty good sense of what to say and do (or NOT say and do), and I can effortlessly share that advice with other parents, when it comes to my own family, all of that knowledge just flies out the window. Our own psychiatrist has cheerfully told me on several occasions that this is normal. “You’re not supposed to be objective, Nanci, you’re her mother”. Great. Affirmation from a professional that I’m less than adequate in the parenting department.
In reality, once I get past that little pity party that I just threw for myself, I can focus on what our very wise doctor really meant. Parenting a child with a mental illness is hard, but we have a very important and rewarding role to play. First, let’s take that honest objective look I was talking about. When my child hurts, as a mom, I want to fix it. I want to make everything all better with a hug, a kiss, lots of TLC and chicken soup. Fine for a cold, flu or broken arm. But mental illness (or any chronic condition) is different. It’s never 100% all better. And we often feel like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. We embrace the good days with a joy that most others take for granted. But there’s that little cloud lurking, and when it swoops in, so do a rollercoaster of emotions. The warrior in us prepares for battle, calling the school, the therapist, the psychiatrist, spending hours on the computer researching or talking with other parents. Is this a blip, or something more? What were the triggers leading up to this? What’s our battle plan? The nurturer embraces my child, holding her, comforting her, struggling to find the right words when often there are none.
And then it gets rough. Our daughter is inconsolable, flipping through moods like my husband flips through channels with the remote. I can’t keep up, I can’t shift gears to react to the horrible, agonizing sadness, the anger, the frustration, the hopelessness, the perceived futility of the situation and the incessant criticisms of why, why, WHY can’t I (Mom) do ANYTHING right??!!! Add in the normal teen stuff of ‘you just don’t GET IT’, ‘you’ll never understand’ and I’m sunk. My rational side tells me ‘It’s the illness talking, not my daughter’. But my emotional side is quick to take over, personalizing, piling up my defenses and unleashing (in my mind, and occasionally my mouth) a litany of ‘look at all we’ve done for you, how can you say those things??!!’ So. Not. Helpful.
My biggest problem is that I can’t stay in the moment. I can’t just be, accepting that for right now, my daughter feels awful and whether or not she misses school today, tomorrow, or all of next week is really not as important as helping her to feel even a tiny bit less alone right now. I start to worry about what other people think (Really? After 12 years I’m still hung up on THAT??). I worry about whether my daughter is going to be able to catch up on the school work she is missing. I agonize in anticipation of battles when she sits for hours watching TV, eating junk food or eating nothing at all, while homework piles up around her.
I ought to know by now that in the big scheme of things, it WILL all work out. Our family is the poster child for nontraditional education models, and therapeutic interventions. We’ve tried it all and we have a huge bag of tricks to draw from. I should remember that any activity that gives my daughter a glimmer of light, a few moments of happiness or anything that moves her away from deep, cavernous sadness is a good thing. I really should trust that when she is feeling better she will once again feel hopeful, she will have some resiliency to use the supports and the resources we’ve fought so hard to set up for her. She will be able to tackle school work, chores and responsibilities.
I need to remind myself of all of my daughter’s great qualities, and I need to remind HER of those qualities. When she is beating herself up about succumbing once again to her illness, missing school, throwing a wrench into our family routine . . . my daughter needs me to be the stabilizing force of reassurance. I don’t need to tell her that it’s going to be ‘ok’, because right now it’s NOT ok. But I do need to tell her that I love her, I’m here for her and that no matter how awful she feels, she is NOT alone. Depression is lonely and isolating enough. My physical presence, a calm, soothing demeanor, may be the best antidote that I can offer.
One way or another, my daughter WILL move ahead in life to pursue her dreams and ambitions, to tap into her talents. And the best way that I can facilitate that is to just love her for today, no matter what her mood, no matter what her words, no matter what my own frustrations may be. My dad once told me ‘children need love the most when they are the least lovable’. Simple words to remember when things feel anything but simple.
Nanci Schiman is a licensed social worker with a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has over 10 years’ professional experience in child and adolescent mental health, family support, advocacy, writing, public speaking and collaborating with local and national mental health organizations. On a personal level Nanci and her husband are parents of three daughters ages 16, 18 and 20. The oldest and youngest were diagnosed with bipolar disorder at ages 9 and 10 respectively.