“Where do I go from here? Why can’t I take this suffering away from my child? I have an infinite amount of questions and not a single answer. Where do I pull the strength from to get through this?”
You are facing the possibility that your child has a mental illness. The weight that this reality carries is much heavier than the little strength you have left to keep yourself standing. "You’re doing everything you can to keep your physical and emotional self together for the sake of your child. But you’re lost. You’re drained. You’ve found very limited information to suggest that stability and happiness are even an option. Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re in the right spot."
My parents stood upon feeble legs and fought through the frustration, confusion, and sense of failure when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2001. I was seventeen. We felt like a family lost at sea and I was a hostage in a world of my own. They knew nothing about mental illness and their first experience with bipolar disorder was looking through the port hole window in my bedroom door at an inpatient psychiatric hospital. That was just the first visit.
They searched with every fiber of their being to find answers, gain insight about treatment, and take with them a glimmer of hope that the current psychotic state of their daughter would only be temporary. They hoped they could understand what living with bipolar disorder really meant, and they hoped that I would one day return to being the carefree and outgoing girl they’d always known. But hope is different from faith.
Hope means that you have a want and desire for a certain thing to happen. They had that. What they didn’t have was faith. They didn’t have complete trust or confidence that what I was going through would get better, and that there could be a life ahead for me that was bright and fulfilling. Their interaction with the "system" and articles about mental illness splashed online did not give much cause for faith in recovery. It may have taken my parents time, but faith was worth the wait. It’s what has kept my family glued together over the years.
As a parent, you deserve to have both hope and faith. You’re just as deserving of the patience, validation, encouragement and guidance as your child. Their pain and frustration does not end where you begin, and you know that more than anyone. Their suffering travels like bolts of lightening through your arms and into your chest, as if you were experiencing the highs and lows right along with them. Know that your child’s experience with mental illness does not have to define you, your family, or your child. Healing and maintaining balance throughout life is absolutely possible…for everyone.
Please be kind to yourself. Do not take fault for things that aren’t yours to own. Take comfort in knowing that it’s okay to not be okay. You’ll get this figured out, so give yourself a moment (or a million moments) to take this precious time at the beginning phases to explore and honor the multitude of emotions you’re experiencing. They are your feelings, and you are entitled to them. It’s how you manage those emotions and set the stage to support yourself and your family that’s the important part.
Here are 10 suggestions to help you navigate the next steps through your child's mental illness. My family and I were learning (and crying, and laughing, and screaming) as we went, and it's okay if you are too...
1. Your child’s mental illness is not a direct reflection of your parenting or love for them.
It does not mean that you did something to cause this. Even if mental illness runs in your family, you did not get the choice of whether it was passed down or not.
2. It’s okay to have absolutely no clue what to do or where to start.
There are many family and peer based resources and national programs to help get you started on your journey. Education is key! My #1 recommendation? Contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org and find a local chapter in your community. The NAMI family to family classes were a game changer for my parents.
3. Do not be surprised if you find that the majority of news coverage about mental illness is negative.
There are LOTS of success stories out there, so don’t allow the scary and stereotyping coverage “that sells and gets attention” to get you off track. Follow credible sources such as 988, SAMHSA, Mental Health America, NAMI, and the National Council on Mental Wellness.
4. Learn what you can about options.
What are the options for treatment? What options are available for different types of therapy? Medications? Peer to peer support? Naturopathic treatments? Family support groups? Disability resource centers? Financial resources? School based support? 211 is a great place to start. Looking for therapy? I always recommend starting your search with Psychology Today.
5. Do everything in your power to stay present.
There will be a mixture of both good and bad experiences, however staying present in the moment will help you think through your decisions more clearly. One of my favorite ways to calm my nervous systems is through box breathing. Exhale for 4 seconds, hold at the bottom for 4 seconds, inhale for 4 seconds, hold at the top for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds...REPEAT!
6. Connect with other parents.
Finding other adults with similar experiences will help you can create a network of support for yourself. If you don’t know of any other parents to connect with, you can talk to mine! Again, shout out NAMI. You can join one of their education courses or support groups with other parents and caretakers in similar situations.
7. Be patient.
Progress does not always happen on the timeline you or your child may have set forth, but it doesn’t mean that progress isn’t taking place. Small steps will always grow into big steps. Therapy take time. Attitude shifts take time. Medications take time. Keep at it.
8. Stop the stigma.
Don’t allow other peoples inaccurate definitions and assumptions paint the picture of who your child is. Be ready to sharpen your advocacy skills here, because you’ll be using them! Inspire others with your drive to keep society from labeling your child as anything less than beautifully whole.
9. Your self care is just as important as your child's.
Take time for yourself. Step outside of your role as a caregiver, and into your role as a human being deserving of peace, comfort and solace. Get a massage, see a movie, seek counseling, get creative, get outside, eat well, seek support from friends, get sufficient sleep, go to happy hour, pray or meditate, and if you can…LAUGH. And do it regularly. I promise it will help.
10. This is only temporary. The pain and struggle you and your family are feeling right now will not last forever. I am living proof of this....as are many others! You deserve to have HOPE and have FAITH. And you are not alone in finding it.
Erin Callinan, MSW
Consultant, Speaker, Author
Beneath The Brave