What to Expect When You Get the Unexpected

A mother’s notes on childhood mental illness

Words That Hurt, Words That Heal

Talking about childhood mental illness.

“I want to throw myself out the window. Or under a bus.”

The very first time my son Benjy said it, he was not talking to me. He was just four then, a preschool student in Boston. He told a young volunteer in his classroom that he wanted to do some things to himself. They were not very good things.

 The school panicked. Schools do that, I’ve noticed--and considering the awesome responsibility they shoulder, they should. It’s not common for a four year old to discuss the resourceful methods he’d like to use to end his life--even if the four year old in question is the one who curls up like an autumn leaf as soon as he enters the classroom every morning, hiding in the womb of his cubby until the other kids return to their play. So when one does, you have to pay attention.

 It was a good thing the school panicked, because Benjy really felt that way--even if he was too little, and too supervised then, to act upon it.

That was the day four lives irrevocably changed: Ben’s, my husband’s, our daughter Saskia’s, and mine. It was far from our first day of struggle. But it was the first day Lars and I finally grasped that we were parenting a child with some kind of mental illness. Then again, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was only the day of utter bewilderment, when we were socked in the face with a thousand emotions and half as many logistical complications.

 Yep, that was it--the day we weren't ready yet, so we called in Denial for some moral support.

 It took a bit of time for Denial to slink away and Truth to sink in. Because, like just about everyone else who chooses to make babies, we didn't plan for this psychiatric disorder business--and we didn't want it. It was a total game-changer, likely to impact a lot of people. And where the hell were we going to find the energy, the knowledge, and the money to deal with it, so we could help our tiny boy decide he wanted to live, not leap?

 As any disability parent will tell you--but especially those whose children have mental health disorders, which come with the added baggage of social stigma and confusion, defiant as they are of simple definition and prognostication--it can be easier to try to ignore this kind of thing in a child. We tried to, in the hopes that it was a fleeting complication and would go away. But old Freud was absolutely right: you can run but you can’t hide from affairs of the psyche. Sooner or later, whatever it is you’re repressing is going to rise up and bite you in the ass--even if all it is, is a truth you can’t bring yourself to accept.

Well. I have learned to accept our truth without flinching. I've learned to talk about it. Sometimes I talk about it too much! We were parents of a boy with some serious psychiatric issues. (To our great joy, we are still parenting that boy, now a young man--but things are so much better. Bookmark this blog if you want to read how and why!)

Once I could openly talk about our child’s mental illness, I could begin learning about it--what depression in a youngster really means. What anxiety and panic disorders look like in someone who is only seven. Could young children actually be suicidal, even when they came from “good,” loving families? They sure could. I read statistics till my brain ached, and Googled way more medical and psychiatric ailments than were good for me.

Google is not your friend, Readers. Google is, at best, your frenemy.

After I could admit what we had brewing--and I doubt it will surprise anyone to learn that “what we had,” in the way of mental illnesses, was not limited to only one person in our extended family--I could begin writing about it. And writing about it saved me, so I could embark on this long, tiring, confounding, and occasionally joyful process of trying to alleviate my child’s pain.

Knifed heart drawing by Benjy, sketched in a period of crisis

It's not been easy. There are always a slew of overdetermined factors and conditions at play when you are facing down a psychiatric disorder. You move ahead slowly, in fits and starts. Your forward steps tend to be followed by even more steps in reverse.

This blog’s purpose is to continue my own fits and starts in the general direction of healing, after more than ten years as foot soldier, therapist, doctor, communications director, and Five-Star General in a drawn-out series of battles with childhood mental illness. (We won some and we lost some, Readers.)

I also hope to use this blog as a means to convey to others in similar straits that they are not alone. I’ll share stories and resources here, and attempt to raise awareness about what mental illnesses in children and young adults truly are (as opposed to what popular culture tells us they are). What I'm referring to is the lived experience of burdens like depression, anxiety, and suicidality.These are problems that impact individuals, families, communities, and nations. We ought to find productive--and "true"--ways to talk about them. We don't need to be psychiatrists or psychologists or therapists or clinicians of any sort to do so. Personal or vicarious experience is enough. So is simply caring about the huge number of our fellow human beings who suffer from psychiatric ailments.

I view what I write and what I speak on the subject of “unquiet minds” as a matter of ethics, public health, economics, humanity, and not least, of love. I have some answers, a lot of questions, and a bunch of fairly dramatic stories to tell. I’ve been offering, asking, and narrating on these issues as publicly as I can, by way of my writing and my internet presence.

There are legions of the uninformed out there, some well-meaning, some not. Lack of information can be dangerous--but it needn't be perceived as shameful, if an under-informed person is open to learning. I've been walking this walk for more than ten years...and the amount of learning still before me is daunting. Thank goodness for all the resources--of the human kind and the digital kind--I seek out and learn from almost every day.

So: about this blog. You can expect to read here some hints as to what you can expect when you've been dealt an unexpected hand as parents--and how to carry on and keep calm. (Or at least reduce your franticness!) I have some answers, but not all--not even close--so please bring yours to the table!

You can count on new posts going up every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday--barring some crisis or other. (A lot of you recognize that one, don’t you? The hedge. The “please-don’t-hate-me-if-I-cancel-last-minute-but-we-are-chronically-unreliable” clause in our social contracts.)

There will be stories. visuals. Links. Humor. Hard truths. And some pretty sad stuff. Consider yourselves forewarned.

What you won’t find here is a linear narrative, or a step-by-step how-to manual. Unfortunately, that’s not how mental illness works--and it’s not how my brain works, either. The lives we lead are neither pedestrian nor particularly logical, so it follows that this blog will accommodate some softness of structure. But hey--sometimes softness of structure makes for good writing!

 Another thing you will not find in this blog is anyone’s real names, except my own. That’s the least I can do to respect my loved ones’ privacy. If you will kindly respect MY respect, we’ll get on famously--I just know it!

 Oh, and finally, I like making fun of my husband, so you may get some chuckles at Lars’s expense here, too. Because if I don't do it, WHO WILL? Especially with such unimpeachable fondness and love?

Readers, feel free to introduce yourselves in the comments! And come back for more on Wednesday--if you dare!

 

Deborah Vlock is a Boston-based writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. She spent many dark years fighting, with and for her young son, against the pull of suicidality.

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