“Ladies and gentleman, we’ve been cleared for takeoff”. The captain’s voice came over the loudspeaker with that familiar phrase. As the plane’s engines roared with power and I felt myself pushed back into my seat, I closed my eyes and took a slow, deep breath. Squeezing my eyes tightly, I attempted to push back the tears that were welling up in sync with my emotions. 19 years of dreams, plans, fears, heartache and triumph all culminated in this moment. My baby, ‘Caitlyn’, was starting college and I was heading home, a thousand miles away.
This was hardly the first goodbye and long distance separation between me and my precious daughter. The first time, she was 11, and had just been admitted to a residential treatment center. It had felt like my heart was being ripped out of my body, crushed under a boulder, leaving a gaping hole, an endless void. The second time Caitlyn was 16, again admitted to a treatment center, so angry with me that there were no goodbyes. Just silent tears and that same awful void. Both times I knew that, as clinicians and dear friends had reminded me, I was doing this for her, not to her. But that didn’t ease the pain, guilt, second guessing or fear that our relationship would be irrevocably broken.
This time is different. Completely, totally different. This time the choice is my daughter’s, with a small amount of guidance from me and her dad. This time she’s earned the separation as a rite of passage and a shining symbol of her hard work. Not just academic work – that’s the least of Caitlyn’s accomplishments. A significant part of her work will never show up on a resume or be celebrated with a trophy, certificate or diploma. For my daughter, and other young adults around the world who are living with a mental illness, we quietly, joyfully celebrate the accomplishment of health.
Living with a chronic illness means learning to manage the illness rather than allowing it to manage you. This involves learning about the illness, one’s own body, treatment options, medications, side effects, alternatives, warning signs of flare-ups, sleep, diet, exercise, triggers, advocacy, relationships and boundaries. Caitlyn has learned about balance, about having it all but not all at once. She’s learned how to be true to herself, to go after her dreams, to have patience, to love and to be loved. She’s gone from hating the world, hating her illness and wanting to die to loving life, finding passion in each day, and appreciating what many of us take for granted.
What have I learned as a mom? What do I need to remember each time the tears well up in my eyes or I reach for the phone to text a reminder or ask how she’s doing? I’ve learned that my daughter is a capable young woman. She is not the frightened, confused little girl whose emotions took her on an unpredictable rollercoaster with little or no warning. Caitlyn knows how to take care of herself and to weather the bumps. She knows how to ask for help and not just from me. I’ve learned that my daughter has the right to make mistakes and to figure out solutions.
My role now is still to be there for my daughter, just as I am for her sisters. But ‘being there’ has changed over the years. No longer does it mean helicoptering or hovering. No longer does it mean vigilant, 24/7 monitoring of medication compliance or safety checks. No longer does it mean advocating for treatments and school accommodations. Today, ‘being there’ means giving space while giving love. It means listening to what’s important for my daughter. It means asking questions rather than offering advice (unless she specifically asks for my opinion). It means resisting my urge to ‘fix’ everything (which might seem easier and faster than letting Caitlyn figure things out herself). ‘Being there’ means gently guiding or encouraging my daughter as she figures out what, when and how things need fixing. Sometimes that even means not answering that phone call or text. Waiting an hour often results in ‘never mind, Mom, I figured it out’. My daughter has earned the right to have those moments.
Caitlyn has a strong support network that we’ve built together and that she continues to build on her own. I’m still a part of that network but I’m not necessarily the epicenter. Nor should I be. I do still have a responsibility to stay tuned in and to be alert for warning signs. As a mother some of that is just hardwired into me and will never go away. But I have an equal responsibility to let others in the support network get in line ahead of me as they offer their own unique brand of support based on their own unique experiences and personalities.
For the past two years I’ve struggled with a love-hate view of my changing relationship. Part of me has longed to shed my caregiver cloak. Part of me has struggled with who I will be without that familiar, comfortable identity. Just as Caitlyn’s been working hard to take this next step, I too have had my work cut out for me. Caregivers in particular are vulnerable to becoming co-dependent and vice versa. I know at an intellectual and emotional level that I do NOT want to take on that role. But I have to be alert to signs that I’m hanging on, or that my daughter might also be slipping back into the comfort of the familiar. When I start hovering, looking for problems, jumping into ‘fix it’ mode I’m being co-dependent. When I welcome requests from my daughter to take on tasks that I know she can handle, when she turns to me more than to her friends, professors, counselors or others in her network, I’m at risk for encouraging her to be codependent. Either way, she and I stifle ourselves from the growth we both deserve.
Having adult children can be an absolute joy. I know this both personally and professionally. It can also be nerve wracking, frustrating and a true test of patience. I’ve long said that as my children graduate from high school I spend more and more time sitting on my hands and putting Duct Tape over my mouth! What that allows me to do is to use my sense of hearing to really listen to what my adult children want to share. I get to be reminded of just how capable my daughter has become, how each day brings new experiences and discoveries, new opportunities to face challenges, disappointments, struggles and to get through them. It may not be pretty. It may not be the way I would do things. But that okay. That’s how we all learn.
A few days before she left for college, Caitlyn and I were having a discussion about the merits (or not) of certain supports that I felt strongly needed to be in place for her. My wise and resilient daughter looked at me and said ‘Mom, I have the skills to use. That’s what I’ve been working on for the past 8 years. I know what to do if things get rough.’ She was right, she’s been working so hard for this milestone. All I could do was hug her and say ‘You’re right. Please just promise me one thing. Please just promise me that you’ll ask for help if you need it’. She smiled and nodded her head in agreement. And I smiled back.