My son has mental health issues.  When you see him at the store having a meltdown, I see your stares. I see your head shaking. I hear your whispers.  Yes, he’s 13 and sometimes he cries over, what we may see as, very minor, trivial things. Other times he gets angry and violent, and in the next moment can be the sweetest kid in the world.  That is life with mental illness.  There are many types of mental illness, some have names and others don’t.

For my son, we are going to psychiatrist appointments, have him on meds, fish oil, CBD, the works. We’re trying to ensure he doesn’t go down the path that so many before him have –   a road filled with self-medication, homelessness, destructive relationships, and even suicide.

So, why do I feel like we are doing something wrong? 

See, there’s a man I know, whose son was just diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  His son has just finished chemo and is now undergoing radiation treatment.  Although he is doing leaps and bounds better, he’s still not out of the woods, yet.

When his son has appointments or he has to be picked up from school because he doesn’t feel well no one questions it.  The simple answer of, he has cancer, is accepted.  But, me?  My kid is having a meltdown at school and someone quips, “Sounds like he needs an ass whooping.”  Excuse me?  Do you have any idea what you are talking about?  Do you even know us?  Of course not.  You don’t want to either, because you see his poor behavior as a direct reflection of my parenting, or a lack of.

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You, sir, don’t realize we are fighting a battle similar to that of the father whose son has cancer, the diseases just have different names, different medications and different support systems.  The support system for cancer patients is huge with fundraisers, benefit dinners, auctions, and raffles.  People cut their hair off for cancer patients, donate their vacation days, take the family dinners.   

Can you imagine if I did a fundraiser for my kid because you feel he’s a pain in the backside sometimes?  My son’s meds cost over $900 a month without insurance, not to mention the $250 per visit to the psychiatrist, which there are many, and additional expenses for other supplements, not to mention the mental toll this takes.

We don’t get free Disney cruises, or free hotel stays when we have to travel for his mental health evaluations.  We don’t get people’s donations of frequent flyer miles, hotel points, or gas points.  We are on our own.  Because our kid has a disease that is often misunderstood and looked down upon.

I know some of you are going to say, “His kid has cancer and could die!  How dare you compare the two?  You’re so selfish.  Their plight is so much greater and harder than yours.”   To you I say, my kid could die too, but more likely from drugs or by his own hand.  But, no one thinks of that.  Do they?

Let me break it down.  We, the two parents, are more alike with our kids and their health issues that one might think.  When people hear about the challenges of our plight, mental health, they chock it up to I should have done something different with my parenting, with my environment, with something.  It always comes down to what we, the parents, could have done differently.   For the dad whose son has cancer, other people know there’s nothing he could have done, he just got the short end of the stick, a bad roll of the dice.  Let’s help him, let’s raise awareness, money, and love.

We both want our kids to be happy and healthy.  We want our kids to have friends, feel important, and be successful.  The health issues our families face both require doctors’ visits, medications, an ability to handle failures and successes, and also much-needed family and community support. 

Community support… that’s what we don’t have.  I’m not talking the counselors at school, or the teachers, or the doctors, ours have helped in so many ways.  I’m talking about the people at the grocery store, at Walmart, the parents in the park, or at the football game, and track practice.   Stop staring at us with contempt.  Stop shaking your head and whispering that “that kid needs some discipline.”  Stop telling me, “I couldn’t stand that kind of attitude.”  My husband and I are doing the best we can. Sometimes, we feel like failures, we want to pull our hair out, but we need understanding, not judgement.  We are not our diseases.  And by our, I mean our community.  We are in this together. 

Today, my son was admitted to the hospital.

Hospital staff tells us the average admittance is five to seven days, depending on the outcomes of the evaluations.  Mental illness evaluations.  Because, our son is sick.  It may be the meds he’s already on, it may not.  But, we need a team, we need professional help, and that’s hard to admit.

When I walked into the ER, my son jumped up, crying, and hugged me like his life depended on it.  I bet he actually thought his life really did depend on it.  I think he bruised a rib, he squeezed me so hard, for so long.

Today, I feel sick.  I don’t want to eat.  I just want to curl up in the fetal position and cry.  But, it’s not about me.  It’s also not about my husband—who spent all day with our son, through countless intakes, evaluations, and questionnaires, all while I’m at work.  It’s not even about my son.   It’s about all of us. 

How do we work through the “gift” of mental illness with all its trials and tribulations?  Gift?  Yeah, I said gift.  My son’s mental illness has given me a gift, and I hope someday he can see it, too.  What gift, you may ask?  Humility, for one.  I am humbled by the amazing kindness and caring my son bestows upon the people who he deems are also “different”- The kid with Down syndrome, the obnoxious kid, the kid in a wheel chair.  He greets and loves them all with a unique kind of compassion, beyond his years, that amazes everyone.  He tells me that he knows how it feels to be different, to be left out, and he doesn’t want other people to feel that way.  Those are his good days.

On his bad days, he gives me an understanding, an ability not to judge others when their child is freaking out in the parking lot or talking back to them while out in public.  He gives me the ability to show other parents that they aren’t alone.  They really aren’t.  I can’t count the times I have given a reassuring smile or said, jokingly, “I’ve got duct tape in the car if you need it.”  Usually, I get a snicker, a smile, or a full-on laugh at that one.  Sometimes, that’s all we need as parents to different or difficult little humans, reassurance that we aren’t alone.  Sometimes, we simply need to be rocked out of our world of frustration with our kid by understanding in the form of a knowing, snarky comment.

My son’s brain works differently than yours or mine does.  He can code and build web pages.  I worry if I attached a picture to a text message correctly and get excited when I figure that out myself.  He can take the most phenomenal photos.  The angles, the attention to detail amazes me.  He comes up with the most amazing stories, although he has a hard time putting them on paper.  But, once he invents a printer that he can hook up to his brain, he is going to be the most famous movie writer of all time. 

He’s different, and while we try to help him understand that, although his differences can be bothersome, it’s a good idea to figure out how to live your best life with them.  There are people with no arms who paint, people with no feet who drive race cars, people who can’t hear, yet make the most beautiful music. 

The world focuses on differences as bad things.  Different may be hard, different may be tumultuous, different may be excitable, angry, quiet, or boisterous.  We don’t all fit in the same box. 

Where would we be without people like Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, or Charles Darwin?  Some of the most amazing minds of our history, also most likely suffering from mental illness.  Mental illness is a gift, we just have to learn how to open the gift, wrapped with the 48 layers of paper, 342 ribbons, 4 rolls of tape, and 7 bottles of glue, without destroying the box.

How do you dress to go visit your middle school child in the psychiatric ward of the hospital?  I know that seems silly.  But, really.  Do I wear what makes me happy?  Tie dye, skinny jeans, and my funky apple shoes or does that show that obviously mental illness is hereditary?  Look somber, because obviously this is hard.  Look basic and generic?  I think that’s the look.  Run of the mill jeans and a cardigan.  Must remember a bra!  Don’t want to look like the mom who didn’t shower, with a messy bun and no bra on.  Even though, that’s exactly- exactly who I am. 

I admit, I’ve done it.  I’ve Googled.

I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know how to act.  I don’t know who to turn to.  Thankfully, the counselor at my son’s school has given me a treasure trove of information and resources.   

But, what he hasn’t given me is first hand, personal knowledge of being a mother of a son with mental illness.   So, Google to the rescue!  Or, not.  I found site after site about medications, warnings about suicide risk, more medications, and list, after list, after list.  What I haven’t found is any good success stories.  Ones that say, “I am successful with mental illness and this is how I do it.” stories.  At least not initially, I didn’t find these first-hand, oh, so important stories.  Third page in—I don’t give up easily—I found it.  An entire community of parents with difficult children, with specific needs and illnesses, those with illnesses unnamed, with psychiatric issues beyond the current understanding of people, and science, and with lives void of mental illness. 

So, the rest of the tribe now knows.

We saw my son tonight on the fifth floor of the hospital.  People know what the fifth floor is for.  We went up the elevator and walked into a room of newbies, just like us.  People who have never visited their child in the psychiatric unit before.  We all looked pretty lost, distraught, nervous, and trying to hide it.  But, seeing other people there, – I don’t know, made it seem more real, more okay.  Other people had to make the same decisions today that we had to make.  We aren’t alone in this, no matter how isolated we may feel. 

No purses, no cell phones, no hoodies with ties, no belts. 

My boy was sad, but okay.  He talked to us about the other kids there, one who went to his school.  Another who goes to school with one of his siblings.  He is starting to realize that he isn’t the only one. 

It’s not okay for a child to feel like suicide is an option, but it is okay to get help when they are feeling that way.  We are trying to put things into perspective for him, for ourselves.  I tried to make a sports analogy about how we are a team and we have to try to get the best players together to beat this.  I compared us to his Broncos, but of course the Broncos are the best team in the universe and mom got American football and soccer mixed up.  So, at that point, my husband took over, tight end, defensive this, half back that—no, wait… isn’t that ribs?  I digress—my husband and son were talking football and it made sense to them and, in that moment, that’s what mattered. 

By: Felicity A. Sjostrom for 82717

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