School starts on Tuesday. For the past 15 years this prospect has loomed larger than life for most of the summer, filling me with dread, anxiety and worst case scenarios. There was hope, too, but it was so guarded, locked up and protected by a thick wall of insulation that I could barely find it.
My fear and worry was well justified. Each year seemed to unravel more quickly than the previous as one or the other of my daughters’ sunk into the abyss of their illness. There was no question that as we shopped for school supplies, stood in countless lines at registration and mapped out schedules, I hoped and prayed that the year would be different. Better. Normal. That the year wouldn’t be filled with dozens of phone calls and visits to the psychiatrist; that my phone number wouldn’t the most recognized caller ID in the high school attendance office; that we wouldn’t be holding emergency IEP meetings in the first month of school . . .
So it really caught me off guard this week when I stopped to think about the upcoming school year. Oh, sure, I knew that there was a date marked on the calendar, but my thoughts have been on a very different path. Instead of lining up resources, battening down the hatches and preparing for daily battles against school refusal, we (yes, WE as in my daughter and I) have been enjoying these last days of summer vacation with no clouds over our heads. We have been talking about homecoming dresses, prom, senior pictures and . . . graduation. When asked about her classes my daughter rattles off the rather formidable list of math classes she needs to complete, with a smile on her face and calm in her voice. Once her strength, math was the first of many things to tumble when her illness ramped up and became a monster larger than life.
Why this huge change? What was the magic recipe for success? I wish I could definitively say and share it here with a lifetime guarantee. If you’ve read my blogs over the past few years, you probably know that there hasn’t been any one thing that brought strength, hope and stability. On the surface it seems that 3 months in residential treatment was the key. And it was. But I firmly believe that until we had gone through the pain, anguish, struggles and countless other interventions, that treatment could not have been so successful.
I’m not suggesting that every family has to go to hell and back in order for their child to get well, just that in our case, that’s what had to happen. In addition, there was a certain degree of maturation that also had to happen in order for our daughter to benefit from what the program had to offer. For our family, we had to hit rock bottom before we could emotionally make, and stick to, our decisions with unwavering resolve.
Mental illness is, in my belief, chronic. That means we’re not out of the woods forever. The disease is in remission, and hopefully will stay that way for a long, long time. Our psychiatrist has a goal of getting his patients to a point where they can, even briefly, feel well, so that they have something to fight for, an ‘eye on the prize’, hope. This summer has been that and more and perhaps that is why I am so calm and hopeful. I know that my daughter has had a heaping dose of ‘normal’, of enjoying life, of running into obstacles and figuring out how to go under, over or around them. So if remission fades, I am pretty darn sure that whatever it takes to get healthy again, we will waste no time in calling in the troops (her treatment team) and following whatever plan we devise.
Last night my daughter shared that her therapist had asked if she’d needed to use any of her ‘tools’ she’d learned in treatment. Her response was ‘no’, but then she hesitated.” Mom, it’s not that I haven’t used them, it’s just that I haven’t really needed to. When something stressful happens, I just remind myself to take some deep breathes, think it through, and not get freaked out.”
Hmmm, sounds to me like those ‘tools’ have become second nature. What a beautiful way to be.