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When nobody knows your sorrow: On parenting a child with mental illness

Parenting a child with mental illness stretches and twists and tears you in ways others can't begin to understand

It’s the understatement of the year to say that it’s hard being a parent. From the moment you hold your one-minute-old baby in your arms, you become a changed person. A muscle that you didn’t even know existed within you bursts to life. It’s the muscle of worry, of terror, of hopes and dreams, it’s the muscle of prayer and a gratefulness that can bring you to tears.

Through all the scrapes, bruises, broken bones, and midnight emergency room visits, we remind ourselves that it could have been much worse. It could always be worse. And we tend to them lovingly with damp cloths on their forehead, hot tea and a hot water bottle, antibiotics and creams; anything to ease their pain. And we make those visits to the physical therapists with a little lightness in our step, so grateful that their headache was not an aneurysm, that their bruises were not a sign of cancer, and that a few exercises will heal that torn ligament. That while their pain is real and difficult, it will pass. And they will be better and stronger than ever.

But when your child has a disease that cannot be seen, it sets off a whole different muscle. It’s a muscle of despondency, a muscle of such intense fear that it makes you catch your breath and double over in pain, a muscle of loneliness and the shaky feeling that you are lost never to be found. And while you do not want to be that person, you find yourself asking, “Why us? Why not someone else?”

And you ask yourself over and over again if it was something you or your spouse did, inadvertently, that might have caused it. And you’re ill-equipped to handle this fragile hurting child of yours. And you stumble and make so so many mistakes, which just increases your terror and worry. This disease has not just struck your child. It is wreaking havoc on your entire family, on your entire world.

In protecting your child’s privacy when dealing with his or her mental illness, you are set on a solitary path. Your friends begin to wonder why you’ve hibernated from life, why you’ve pulled away, why you avoid situations that might leave your child alone in the house with just their dark terrifying thoughts to keep them company. You reject social invitations and clam up when your friends demand answers to why you’ve dropped them like a hot potato.

Ironically, you learn fairly quickly who your true friends are. The ones that write you off because they’re tired of chasing after you and are angry that you didn’t show up to their party yet again are friends you realize you can do without. The ones who sense that something’s wrong but don’t push for answers and doggedly check up on you just to make sure you’re okay are the friends you know you want around you for the rest of your life.

If you’re lucky enough to have a partner who instead of pulling away into their own island of pain turns to you, and you manage to hold tightly onto each other as you navigate a whole scary new world where mental illness is your new normal, then the loneliness is manageable. But barely.

It’s the not knowing that is so so hard. Not knowing if this new medication will bring your family a miracle, or whether it will have adverse effects and make everything a thousand times worse — playing around with dosage is like playing Russian roulette. It’s not knowing whether this highly recommended psychiatrist will be the right fit or will send everyone spiraling out of control. It’s not knowing how long this nightmare will last. It’s feeling completely out of control when until this happened you were running things pretty well. And while you watch all of your child’s friends cartwheel through life with smiles on their faces, surrounded by amazing friends, graduating high school with dreams and aspirations of being a lawyer, a graphic designer, a vet, a spouse, a parent, a part of you wonders if your child will ever be that boy or girl.

And then one day – one magical day – that dark heavy rain-filled hurricane of a cloud begins to lift. Slowly. Instead of the tears drowning your child, there’s the odd smile. Or two, or three. Then you think your heart will completely break clean into two the second you hear their loud peal of laughter.

They start climbing out of the bed that they’d been drowning in for years, and they start to venture out of their dark place, a little bit more each day. A minute more, an hour more and you can literally hear yourself exhale and breathe clean air.

And then…. then they start to dream. They’re small dreams, dreams others might laugh at, but for you, it’s like they’re reaching for the stars; it’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. But there are still those days where they slide backwards and your terror climbs back up your throat because a part of you fears that that dark cloud is back for good. A part of you wonders if their healing was too good to be true and all those positive steps forward were some sort of illusion, a cruel sleight of hand to lull you into a false sense of security. But then the dark cloud ebbs, recedes and your child takes that tentative step forward once again. The dark cloud decides to visit again. Not as often, but too many times for your taste, but you start to stand taller, with more confidence, knowing that your child’s strength will win, will beat this cloud back down. And they do.

And then one day you look at this child, who has suffered in a way we couldn’t begin to imagine and you are struck with such awe and pride at how strong they were to have beaten the cloud. You’re still vigilant, you still watch them like a hawk and you look for signs of that lurking cloud and maybe you’ve become a little too overprotective and they’re begging you to back off, that yes, maybe they feel a little sad, a little off that day because you can’t possibly be super happy every minute of every day and you nod and back off, but your eyes are always watching, just to make sure.

Those around you who don’t know wonder why you’re not pushing your child to take their college entrance exams, why you’re fine with them working for minimum wage when they could be getting a university degree. They wonder why that child never comes to family social events and why you don’t push them or insist that they do. They wonder why you’re the kind of mother that lets that go. They don’t understand that that child has learned the hardest way ever what their anxiety triggers are. That insisting on stupid things like being present at a family dinner would only intensify their anxiety and is a sure-fire way of inviting that dark cloud back for a lengthy visit. They don’t understand how far your child has come and that in the scheme of things, those things are not important in the least.

Yes, you want them to come, to dive back into life completely, but you know better than anyone that when they say they can’t, it means they truly can’t. And you’ve come to respect and admire the way they’ve learned to cope with their illness. They’ve found a way out of the dark and into the light and at the end of the day, the utter beauty of the fact that they can get through an hour, a day, a week, a month without tears, without pain, and instead manage to greet every new day with a smile and a desire to climb out of bed and put one foot forward and dream about their future when there was a time – not that long ago – you feared they didn’t see one at all, is the best feeling in the world.

You’re now a parent who is completely changed. Your muscle has been stretched and twisted and torn in ways others can’t begin to understand. A part of you wishes this had never happened to your child and your family, but having come out on the other side still intact, still hopeful gives gratitude a whole new meaning.

Today, I’m greeting this new stage of my life – of my child’s life and of my family’s life – with more hope, more gratitude and more appreciation for the little miracles that are found within my four walls.

Editor’s note: The author of this post has been kept anonymous to protect the privacy of the author’s child. (Author photo for illustrative purposes via iStock.)

NOTE TO READERS: The Times of Israel has received a great deal of feedback about this post, including some that has been sent anonymously. In order to enrich and enlarge the important conversation around issues of coping with mental illness, we are adding some of the anonymous comments below. If you wish to comment anonymously on this post, please email us (blogs@timesofisrael.com) and write “ANONYMOUS COMMENT” in the subject line.

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