I’ve always been fascinated by people. As a child I much preferred biographies, novels about relationships, movies where emotions ran high and the characters bared their souls and spoke thoughts and feelings I never dared to own. My favorite section of the newspaper was, of course, ‘Dear Abby’. It’s no wonder that I chose a career in social work.
Lately, perhaps because there have been so many changes in the lives of people close to me, I’ve been intrigued by the concept that people can, or cannot, change. If you Google the question ‘Can people change?’ you’ll find pages and pages of articles, opinions and research arguing one side or the other. After reading through many of these viewpoints, I prefer to answer this question through my own experiences with my children. I’ve known them since before they were born, so have a pretty good vantage point about the ways in which they have, and haven’t changed.
I’m fairly certain I’m not the only parent who feels that their child’s personality traits were apparent within the first weeks and months of their life. Over the years, these traits have evolved and morphed a bit but they have held fairly true to those early signs.
Even as babies, there were distinct personality traits that shone through. I remember telling my parents that their granddaughter (at 8 months) was the only baby I knew that woke up with an agenda. 20 years later, the same comment holds true (except for the baby part). Another daughter was the entertainment committee for the family, always doing or saying something that had us in stitches with laughter. She didn’t have to work at it, humor and energy just oozed from her pores. Looking back through 12 years of school records, I was struck by how consistent our daughter’s behavior, learning style and mannerisms stayed from Kindergarten on.
So when I think of how people change, I differentiate between changes in behavior and changes in personality. There are phases of behavior, most notably the terrible twos and the teenage years during which we as parents can find it particularly hard to see our kids as lovable. How many times did I say, “I will always love you, but I don’t particularly like you / your behavior right now.”? What kept those ‘challenging’ moments manageable for me was that underneath those less than loveable behaviors I could still see my ‘real’ children, their nuances, quirks and familiarities that said ‘I’m still here’.
Far more difficult have been the times when depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder locked in and literally enveloped the person I have known so entirely and absolutely. There were days, weeks, even years during which I found myself completely unable to comprehend what had caused such a profound transformation. Worse yet, I felt powerless to stop the downward spiral and reverse the spell that had seemingly erased the slate of my child.
Mental illness is a lot of frightening things, the worst of which is the possibility that I might not get my child back. Unlike a toddler tantrum, a bipolar rage can go on for hours, unleashing words and actions that NO parenting book even hinted at. Unlike teen moodiness, depression can paint darkness everywhere, turning those sparkling, bright eyes into a vacuous hole. Unlike the nervous butterflies of stage fright before a school play, anxiety can strike like a bolt of lightning leaving a brittle silhouette ready to crumble at the slightest breeze.
Surely this must mean that people can and do change, controlled by illnesses that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to treat or cure. This was my worst fear during the height of the illness. There was so little hope, so little faith. My fight to help my daughters was undoubtedly even more intense (even desperately out of control) because of this gripping fear.
But, I was wrong. These changes didn’t go as deep as I thought; they didn’t erase or damage the traits that make each of my children so unique. Eventually, the illnesses were quieted, calmed, replaced by stability. I know they weren’t cured because there are still days when symptoms rev up and remind us that these illnesses are chronic. However, when the storms settled, I found all of those beautiful, cherished, sorely missed qualities bobbing among the waves, safely afloat in their lifejackets, refusing to drown.
No matter how frightening, fearful or painful the behaviors, driven by illness, hormones or environment, I firmly believe that they are just that – behaviors – and as such, they are temporary. Sure, they may be stubborn; we may hang onto them because they are self-serving, addictive, gratifying or enticing. But none of those can come close to touching the building blocks of our true selves.
This was proven to me this spring when my daughter returned home from residential treatment. The skeptic in me didn’t even know what to imagine or hope for. But as the days and weeks unfolded I saw that while there were significant changes between the girl who left and the girl who came home, in actuality my daughter had come full circle. Her behaviors had changed, and in very positive ways. Her behaviors now no longer masked those wonderful qualities that made her so unique and precious. Rather, now each trait could shine through. The real and miraculous change was the return of true self.