My youngest daughter graduated from high school in June. A milestone? Yes, but also expected, right? Kids are SUPPOSED to graduate from high school. However, life doesn’t always follow our expectations. Just ask any parent raising a child with a chronic illness. In our case, mental illness. There is no doubt that silver linings exist, especially when I take the time to notice them. Every struggle, every crisis, every setback brings the promise of immense joy when success finally comes.
In terms of numbers, mental illness has racked up an impressive tally sheet for my pint sized, talented, smart, compassionate and independent thinking daughter. 5 hospitalizations, 2 stays in residential treatment, dozens of medication trials, 100’s of therapy sessions and months and months of missed school (almost half of middle school and more than a year of high school). So seeing our daughter walk across the stage, wearing an honor cord to boot, standing with her peers, (some of whom we’ve known since pre-school days) had me sobbing with tears of joy, my heart bursting with gratitude and pride.
But there was also a heavy weight of sadness and fear that crept in as I listened to the student speeches – a mixture of hope, vision and plans for the future, punctuated by long lists of the merits and opportunities that high school had bestowed on the class of 2015. Little of this seemed to apply to my daughter, and, I suspect, there were likely a few other graduates for whom the last 4 years had been a struggle, perhaps even an all-out war.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t bitter or jealous. I wasn’t disappointed and I had few regrets. But the reality was that my daughter (and many kids fighting mental illness) was on a different playing field. Maybe even a different planet. Rather than plowing through Honors and AP classes, writing for the school newspaper, competing at state for track, forensics, tennis or football or being voted prom king or queen, my daughter’s senior year accomplishments read something like this:
- Missed only 3 straight weeks of school during most recent bout of major depression.
- Took the initiative to research and assimilate ways to combat severe anxiety.
- Started setting alarm clock to wake up in time for school independently.
- Requested help when symptoms of eating disorder flared up and weight dropped.
- Advocated for herself at IEP meeting.
Considering that 2 years ago I wasn’t sure if my daughter would survive, let alone graduate, these accomplishments were, and still are, a big deal. But I am also reminded that we have a long way to go. And as members of the Class of 2015 head off to points near and far, following their dreams, moving towards independence, I feel a twinge of pain knowing that my daughter’s journey has detoured. Getting through that last year of high school was a marathon between completing 2 years’ worth of credits, continuing to work on physical and mental health, and re-entering the ‘real world’ after residential treatment. Adding on ACT exams, college visits, applications and decisions was a recipe for disaster. Everyone agreed that a year off between high school and whatever was next was essential.
Thankfully (perhaps) it’s become fashionable for high school graduates to take a ‘gap year’ – a chance for them to explore, learn, challenge and grow, to become better prepared for a successful college career. The American Gap Association provides accreditation to gap programs, offering legitimacy and opportunities to parents and their ‘gappers’. There is even a ‘Back-a-Gapper’ scholarship fund to help offset the cost of these gap year experiences.
Nowhere on the website did I find anything remotely like a program to meet my daughter’s needs. I’m not surprised, as we haven’t fully identified what those needs are, let alone how to create the right experiences. Maybe, somewhere down the road, someone will put together a program designed to support students like my daughter.
If we’re lucky, this year will be not so much about being a gap, but rather bridging the gaps that formed while my daughter, and our entire family, were fighting an invisible illness. These include:
- Socialization – Missing big chunks of school during the teen years meant missing out on the awkward, painful, exciting, intense drama of friends and rivals. BFF’s, boyfriends, girlfriends, gossip, trust, betrayal, dances, sports tryouts, wins, losses, awards, missed opportunities, developing interests and talents, decisions, mistakes, saying ‘yes, saying ‘no’.
- Academics – It’s not just about catching up on math in order to do well on the ACT, it’s about learning because you have to, learning because you want to, studying, cramming, procrastinating, researching, prioritizing, collaborating, competing, asking for help, favorite subjects, waste of time subjects, cheating, plagiarizing, consequences, grades, intrinsic motivation.
- Life Skills – Job interviews, resumes, cooking, shopping, bargain hunting, saving, goal setting, budgeting, bank accounts, investing, cleaning, traveling, balancing a check book, changing a flat tire, pumping gas, installing a dimmer switch, troubleshooting a wi-fi problem, laundry, planning for the future, living for today.
- Self-Esteem – Trusting yourself, surviving (and even thriving) a disappointment or failure, recognizing success, appreciating differences, respecting yourself, respecting others, forgiving, learning that your illness does not define you, being of service to others, earning praise, showing gratitude, making a difference.
How do we accomplish all of this? I wish I had the answer. However, as I read back through this lengthy list I realize that for all that my daughter has missed, she has also experienced so much. She may never have taken AP Physics or Honors World History, but she’s gained more insight than many people twice her age. She’s found opportunity and positives in a seemingly desperate situation. She’s taken risks, survived disappointment, challenged herself, developed patience, accepted help, faced her fears, trusted herself and trusted others.
The hardest part of this process is, honestly, in my head. My guilt, my sadness, my realization that just as I couldn’t ‘fix’ mental illness, I can’t magically create a condensed version of the middle school and high school experience. My daughter is healthy, strong, has a great support system in place and is perfectly capable of tackling new challenges and asking for help. The best thing that I can do is to let go. I can make suggestions, support new opportunities, encourage, listen and love my daughter. But then, I have to let go.