It’s one thing to let go and trust others who are trained professionals, experienced parents, loving family members. But letting go and trusting one’s own child . . . well, that pushes this trust thing to a whole new level – particularly when mental illness is involved.
So many of my years as a mom were spent in crisis mode, managing one setback or flare up after another. At times my kids were too sick to make even the simplest of decisions on their own. When they were younger, it wasn’t such a stretch to step in and do things, that’s what mom’s do for their little ones. As they got older, when depression, anxiety or mania locked in, of course I was going to make the calls to the doctors, manage their medications, decide when to push for them to go to school and when to call them in absent. During those times of crisis I HAD to be in control most or all of the time. It was a matter of safety and survival – for all of us.
When I came to terms with letting go while my daughter was in treatment, in many ways I was simply transferring control. In hindsight I realize that even that action was an act of control. I made the decision to put others in charge. So I really didn’t work through the idea of passing control back to my daughter. In fact, the possibility barely occurred to me. Sure, I knew that my job as a parent was to slowly and consistently loosen the apron strings and allow each of my daughters chart their own course. I KNEW that I had to teach them to become advocates for themselves, to do all of the basic things that independent young adults need to do like manage a budget, shop for groceries, do laundry, and be accountable and responsible. But when mental illness derailed the natural progression of that learning process, I got stuck.
In my own defense, it’s hard to think about tasks so seemingly simple and mundane when each day is a battle of survival, literally wondering whether I will find my daughter alive or not when I walk into her room. Most days were shadowed with the debate of whether we should push for hospitalization, knowing the struggles and limitations involved because of an upside down and broken system, or white knuckle it through another day at home. So the thought of my daughter as a stable young woman, capable of deciding her future was beyond my wildest dreams, beyond what I dared to hope.
So it’s no wonder that when the topic of discharge planning came up during my daughter’s time in residential treatment, we all struggled. Tremendously. I struggled because I was still in protective mom mode, assuming that I needed to parent the way I had in the past. My daughter struggled because she was feeling stronger, more capable, more trusting of her stability, her skills and herself. She struggled because she saw me still stubbornly locked into ‘I know what’s best’ mentality and she feared going back into that environment. She desperately wanted to convince me that she’d changed. I desperately wanted to believe her but the past left me skeptical, cynical and fearful beyond words. I was exhausted emotionally and physically, unable to envision anything better because I was terrified of disappointment, or worse. It’s no wonder that the professionals struggled because they saw the potential for conflict and knew that coming home could be a recipe for failure unless something changed. And that something was my thinking.
I wish I could say that I miraculously figured this out and the homecoming was filled with butterflies and rainbows. But if that were the case, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. The reality was that I went into full blown control mode, with a sense of urgency that bordered on mania. My motives were only the best, but oh did I have blinders on, convincing everyone in my path that my way was THE way. I lined up an education consultant and frantically went to work to find the best ‘step down’ program to keep my daughter safely on the road of recovery. I’ll spare you the details but I worked myself into an exhausted, panicked mess and probably annoyed more than a few people along the way (I’ve since made my apologies and mended a few fences).
It shouldn’t have been a surprise that my heavy handed, urgent approach was not met with open arms by my daughter. What she saw and heard was ‘Mom doesn’t trust me. Mom doesn’t have any idea of how far I’ve come and how hard I’ve worked to get healthy and to manage my illness. Mom still wants/needs to manage my illness and she’s using last year’s instruction manual’! The result was sheer panic and anxiety which I of course interpreted as ‘see, I was right, she’s not ready to come home’.
What my daughter may or may not have heard, and I certainly did not at the time was ‘Mom is scared to death’! I was terrified that I couldn’t handle my child being ill again/still. I let my fears run rampant, stifling out any chance for emotions like ‘hope, faith, trust, joy’ to creep in.
Thankfully, some people who were more objective, experienced and less emotionally invested did hear all of these unspoken thoughts. And they steered us to a compromise, a Plan B, which allowed us each to transition into our new roles and develop a new relationship. I took a leap of faith that maybe, just maybe, success could be a part of our lives. My daughter took a huge leap of faith in trusting herself and in trusting that maybe, just maybe, Mom would lighten up when she saw some of the miraculous changes that have occurred.
The questions I’ve learned to ask are ‘What’s my motivation’ and ‘what are my fears’? These two simple questions generally guide me back to what’s actually driving my actions and help to get me back on course. Often I need to talk through my answers with a trusted friend or therapist. But at least I’m stopping to contemplate rather than blindly charging ahead.
We keep ‘Plan B’ on the back burner, and it sits there, joyfully gathering dust. We both hope we’ll never need it and I rarely think about it now. But it gives us peace of mind knowing that in the (unlikely) event that there is a crisis, we won’t be left scrambling, that the safety net will catch us and keep all of our hard work from crumbling.
Letting go is still a learning process for me, but there are so many miracles of positive reinforcement I am a grateful and willing student.
Nanci Schiman is a licensed social worker with a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has over 12 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 has three daughters ages 17, 19 and 21. The oldest and youngest were diagnosed with mood disorders at ages 9 and 10 respectively.