It’s been four intense years. It feels like an eternity longer. My face shows it.
If you have a child that struggles with clinical anxiety/depression you know of the exhaustion of which I speak. It’s not only the intense emotion that rises and falls unpredictably (and never goes with your schedule), it’s forever living in the unknown. It’s the days upon days of feeling like you’re living in trauma. Who will I get today, let alone this minute? Dr. Jekel or Mr Hyde? Hiding the knives because of a threat once again to kill himself, and us. Fear floods. Shame whispers; “It’s all you, you know. You’re the reason he’s like this”.
“How do we rebuild the ruins of a family devastated by depression?”
I’m here to say in the midst of crisis that the ruins of a family can be rebuilt, but get ready for a marathon run, not a sprint with easy answers. It will take bravery, but bravery you never realized you already have. This is going to give it a chance to show itself in all its glory and surprise you.
Four years ago I lived in tears wondering what kind of parent I was. My son was out of control, throwing massive fits of rage where he wasn’t afraid to hurt myself or him. He was particular, fussy, and had a “glass-empty” outlook on life. We decided it would be beneficial to get him assessed, so we forked up $5000 for an assessment to avoid a two year wait because we needed answers, and immediately. The assessment gave us the answers we needed. What a relief to feel we weren’t “bad parents”. Indeed we had been dealing with something that was bigger than us. As selfish as it sounds, you will never know the relief it is to a parent to discover that you aren’t crazy. Our son was diagnosed with ADHD (along with every boy in the world), Oppositional Defiance Disorder, Depression and on the slight spectrum of Asbergers. Phew. We could now move forward in working with our son in the way he needed and be done with all this drama.
We could finally breathe… or so I thought.
Turns out, I needed a PhD in order to understand the complexity of my son’s issues. Knowing what we were dealing with wasn’t going to be enough. I still found myself in despair over his uncontrollable anger and low moods. I started to read book after book. I researched all I could about O.D.D., ADHD, depression and anxiety (this hasn’t stopped). I worked with his school to get him on an I.P.P. (Individual program). Every time it seemed I found something that worked, it would be soon be shattered by the unfortunate mental state of my son who was clearly wasting away. We would go from appointment to appointment hoping that THIS ONE would give us answers, only to find we were turned away or there was uncertainty as to what to do. I was sinking under the waves of the unpredictability.
I was carrying our families mess on my shoulders and dying inside.
It all hit hard when one day we decided to take our psychiatrist’s advice to take our son to the hospital when he again threatened to hurt himself and us. I remember the ride there like it was yesterday. Kicking, screaming from the back seat, throwing all kinds of profanities at us. I remember the feeling of desperation, wondering if my son would ever be well? Wondering if our family would survive this….? He was admitted to the mental health unit where he ended up spending three weeks. It was exhausting going to the hospital for every possible visitation hour and figuring out what to do with our youngest child. Every day he would ask the same question; “Why am I here?? How could you do this to me?!” We would again explain why he was there, but nothing we said seemed to help him understand. He went from an angry, outraged boy to a scared, fearful boy whose anxiety was now through the roof.
We were hopeful again when they decided to try medication, but again let down by the zombie it turned our boy into. After being released from the hospital and seeing the medication wasn’t working, we were thankful when the psychiatrist decided to take our son off the medication, replacing it with probiotics and iron supplements. We appreciated her desire to do this naturally, but were frustrated yet again as we had tried as much natural remedy that we knew along with intentional connective parenting.
Why wasn’t anything working?? Would there ever be any relief?
The school year started and my son’s anxiety sky rocketed. Every day was a fight to get him out the door. He was slowly corroding away on the inside and didn’t know how to deal with his inner turmoil at school other than to get into trouble. I saw him quickly declining, making bad habits and choices that, if continued, could lead him down a path I’ve seen in youth at risk I’ve worked with. If there’s one thing I know about youth labeled “bad” or “troubled” is that they didn’t start that way, nor ever desired it in the first place. The same was true for my son. He was trying to attach himself to anything that would bring temporary relief to the pain he felt inside. Somehow being “bad” made him feel good.
I needed to intervene or I was going to lose him.
I made a bold decision to take him out school and start home schooling. Never in a MILLION years would I have ever considered home schooling either of my boys, but this was an emergency. For the first week he slept a lot, spent more time frustrated than making any progress, but that was ok. The goal wasn’t to finish math, it was to bring his anxiety down. His escalated fits became less intense, declined quicker, and became less frequent. I’m happy to say that something finally worked! I’m not saying all children with anxiety should be home schooled, but I will say this:
In rebuilding a home with a child dealing with depression and anxiety:
- Bring them back in. Any child struggling with anxiety or depression isn’t mentally capable of performing normal tasks like everyone else. They can’t just “suck it up” or do their homework, or focus on learning fractions when their mind is like sinking sand. You can’t focus on minuscule things like the tidiness of their room or the fact they swore. They need to be reconnected back to a safe haven where they can be nurtured and given space to breathe and belong. We would never expect someone recovering from a major illness to be up to par. And all the more, how are children to learn to cope if we keep putting pressure under them to perform and keep up? No wonder so many are struggling with little improvement without being drugged to the hilt or turning to weed to cope. Bringing our children back into us doesn’t mean homeschooling, but it does mean doing whatever it takes on the home front to start back at the beginning: creating an atmosphere of safety and refuge for them to be restored.
- In the midst of their frustration and anger draw them closer. I give my son permission to feel. I don’t try to “fix” his anger. He needs to feel it. I lean into him and tell him he’s safe. If I can, I hold him and tell him nothing will break my connection with him. One psychologist told me this; “When a child is angry, they are hurting. Don’t send those hurting away from you”. Powerful stuff there. I think the danger is if we think that bringing them closer is going to make everything better. It’s not. Now you stand there in the mess and take it for the team. It’s so much easier to send them away. However, let me clarify: this doesn’t not mean taking abuse verbally or physically. I have put my foot down many times my son has hurt me physically and verbally. I am the one to remove myself, making myself very clear of the way I will and will not be treated.
- Slow down your life. Free up your schedule as much as you possibly can. I have had to come to the place where I will not sign my son up for anything as he can change his mind rapidly. I don’t force him to go anywhere he doesn’t feel like going at this point. This isn’t forever, but until anxiety levels settle this has proven to bring security to his emotional well being. Many parents may find it hard, but whatever you can let go of during this season, do it. My and my husband’s very presence at home calms our son. I have had to sacrifice some of my work in this season, but my son’s health depends on it. Less Starbucks for me. Not a sore price for my son’s soul. I also wake up a few hours before my kids so I can pray, have a peaceful coffee, exercise, then be ready for whatever the day holds, good and bad.
- Let go of your expectations. Many times it’s been my expectations for my son to “get over” how he’s feeling that has actually caused more anxiety to arise. He softens and calms when he knows I have “no strings attached” to how he performs on the day to day. To some this may seem risky, like children would take advantage of this. Some might, but I believe what our son’s psychologist said to me before leaving the hospital: “Every child would do better if they could”. I believe that because when I give my son room, he is always looking for ways to shine – and looking to see if I notice.
Are things perfect around here? Not in the least, but I can say I’ve seen my son transform from what I described in the beginning of this post, to being more optimistic about life, having more energy and the drive to think better. It’s been a 180 degree turn around and for that I am forever thankful. I’ve changed too. I realize now that working with our son is for the long haul. I’ve stopped trying to get to the “quick fix” and surrender to each moment we get to journey with him.
We have created an atmosphere in our home that says “You are safe. You are welcome. You belong”. And that alone, consistently over the long term, has made a huge difference.
If you’re in a similar journey, I want you to know you have what it takes to make it through. You are brave. Keep going, friend. I’m cheering for you.