Mental Illness Legacy–Are My Children Doomed?

the photo on my note to my son

Do you know how it feels to leave your 7-year old in the pediatric behavioral unit at a neuropsychiatric institute? I do.

A Family in Crisis

The day had started out typical enough. We were going through yet another rough patch with our son, but it wasn’t until dinner time that things flew out of control. He has (among other diagnoses) sensory processing disorder and mealtimes are often a challenge with different tastes and textures causing him extreme stress. One thing led to another, he flew into a rage, and in an instant, I knew I couldn’t guarantee he wasn’t a threat to his own safety, or that of the rest of our family.

So, I called the crisis hotline. They recommended we go to the Emergency Department first. Not because he was physically injured, but because they thought it would be the best way. This turned out to be misinformation, but we wouldn’t know that for several hours. So, we left the other kids at home and began a journey I will never forget.

The ER visit was a mistake. It took hours to process everything. I had to repeat the events of the evening, his entire life history, my mental health history, extended family mental health history, and the details of everything we had tried up to this point to multiple different hospital providers and specialists. I asked that we be in a separate room because I didn’t want him to see me cry so many tears.  He is very sensitive to my mood and anything that causes me pain.

Eventually, it was time to just wait for the psychiatric institute to have a bed available for him. I paced the halls of the children’s hospital, trying to be grateful for the challenges we were dealing with as I walked past the cancer wing and thought of the grief those families were facing. But as I thought of what we were about to do, I felt so small and lost, it was hard to fathom a grief other than my own.

Profound Peace Amidst the Storm

At one point, I walked out to the middle of the skywalk and looked out over the lights of the busy city. As I looked at the vastness, I felt so small. I poured out my heart to God. I had been praying to know how to help my son for years and earlier that week, I had felt I was close to getting an answer. But how could this possibly be the answer?! This was going to damage him forever. How would he ever get over his mom and dad just leaving him somewhere?  But in the midst of these rushing questions and doubts, a little miracle occurred.

I felt the most profound peace I have ever felt. The Spirit spoke to my heart and assured me this was part of the plan and that my son would be okay.

“I Get to Come Home Again?”

Finally, a bed was ready. We left our house around 6:30 that night, by now it was after midnight. I sat in the front seat of the car, trying to hold back the tears that kept falling anyway. I told him how much we loved him and why I felt the people at this place could help him (I have stayed at their adult unit twice, so I really was speaking from experience).

It was when I mentioned what it would be like when we brought him back home that my already broken heart shattered into a million new pieces. He had been so stoic and calm the whole time at the ER, but now there was a slight tremor in his little voice as he asked, “You mean, I get to come home again after this?” He thought we were going to drop him off; that we were giving up on him forever. Even now, a year later this question haunts me and makes me weep.

I tried to match his stoicism as I reassured him that we were only taking him there because we didn’t know how to help him right now, that we loved him more than anything, and that I couldn’t wait to bring him home again. He cried then. I can only imagine what his little heart had been feeling for the hours leading up to this. He is incredibly bright and understands things way beyond his years. I prayed that he was understanding and believing everything I was saying.

Be His Rock

The questions at the psychiatric institute were the same. We reviewed everything all over again. They took him away to get ready for bed, but told us we would be able to say goodbye before we left. After all their questions, they explained their system to us. It works best with a lot of parent and family support, which we were eager and grateful to give. The final point the social worker made was this, “You have to be his rock. When you are here, the focus is on him coming home and how excited you are for when that can happen. You cannot break down in front of him and you cannot let him see you cry. You have to be strong.” This to the mother who had been crying off and on for about 8 hours now.

It was nearly 3 AM by the time we were done. He was sound asleep when we went into say goodbye. It was probably a good thing, because I couldn’t control those tears at this point. He looked so tiny and out of place in the sterile hospital room. His face was so peaceful, free from the rage, the fear, the trauma of the evening. Why was I leaving him here? He’s such a sensitive, tender-hearted child, how could I abandon him now?

I let myself cry as I kissed his little face, and then we walked out of his room, out of the hospital, and made the weary drive back home to get a few hours of sleep before the other kids were up in the morning.

Visiting My Son

I was in the middle of a clinical rotation as part of an intense school program. My 10 hour days left no time for me to visit him at the hospital 45 minutes away. The long, busy days were probably a blessing to distract me, but I never felt far from tears. Thankfully, my husband’s work was closer and he was able to stop by to visit our son. I printed a photo of me holding him tightly and wrote him a long note telling him all the things I wanted to be able to say to him without crying. It was much easier in writing to be strong and positive and tell him I couldn’t wait for him be ready to come home. He couldn’t see the tears that fell as I wrote it.

Finally, Thursday came. I got permission to leave my clinical early to attend a family group therapy session. The session went well. My son participated and the report from the staff regarding his behavior was positive. After the therapy session, we visited in his room. My husband took the older two kids home, but my youngest wanted to stay and spend more time with her brother. He proudly showed me his prizes and told me about his days.

I noticed the note I wrote him face down on his desk. I asked him about it. And for the first time that night, he began to crack. He tried to hold back tears as he told me that he kept it face down because when he looked at it, he felt like he would never be home with me again.

When Your Mother-Heart Breaks

What comfort do you offer in a moment like that? This was uncharted territory for the both of us. Of course, I knew he would be returning home. But I didn’t know when. The estimate we had been given was about 10 days to 3 weeks. But none of this seemed tangible to him. It took all I had to follow the instructions to stay strong.

Then it was time to say goodbye. All his attempts at stoicism failed. His tears tore my already shattered heart to bits all over again. I don’t know how I made it out of there. Walking away from my crying child destroyed me. I thought that was the worst thing I would have to endure that night.

The whole drive home, my youngest kept asking why we were leaving her brother there. And then why she couldn’t stay there with him. She has a very tender heart and couldn’t understand why I would abandon him, and if I wasn’t going to stay and comfort him, then she would like to. She also thought the hospital looked like great fun after singing songs and seeing all of his prizes. And then she began threatening to repeat his original outburst, so she could go to the hospital too.

It seems like a person should only be able to break so many times before there is nothing left to break. I don’t know, but this statement from my daughter broke everything yet again. The shame I had been trying to fight hit me with full force and I broke down completely. I don’t know how we made it home safely because my body racked with sobs and I could barely see through the tears.

Is it My Fault?

I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was all my fault, one way or another. I was depressed all during my pregnancy with him and I was put on an antidepressant the day after I gave birth to him. Depression has been my battle his entire life. I was hospitalized and away from him for days at a time, I parented poorly, I locked myself in my room–ignoring his needs because I couldn’t handle life. He’s seen me cry, break, hide, and numb myself to everything. I’ve yelled at him when he needed to be held and I’ve been angry when he needed my love. I have made so many mistakes. I know that all moms make mistakes, but he has been exposed to things because of my mental illness that are above and beyond.

So, I’m left wondering. Does he struggle because I passed something along genetically? Does he struggle because he  watched me struggle? Or does he struggle because of all my mistakes as a mom? Whether you believe it’s nature or nurture, my illness has left its ugly mark on most days of his life.

I don’t know.

Letting Go and Trusting God

On a good day, I can see that whatever the reason for his struggles, he is blessed to have me because I understand. I recognized the signs of anxiety in him when he was very young only because I knew them so well myself. When he lay crying on the floor saying that things would be better if he could just die, it broke my heart, but I knew to just hold him tightly and listen because that is the only thing that reaches me when I’m in those moments.

At other times, I let it tear me apart inside. I feel ashamed for every little thing. I wish I could be more and do more for him. Be better and do better for him. Because he deserves more and he deserves better.

But, he has me.  And that’s all there really is. The shame never makes me a better mom. It makes me pull away in a misguided attempt to protect him from my demons, but all he feels is the distance. It doesn’t protect him; it hurts him.

So, I’m trying to stay. To trust in the peace I felt that night in the hospital. To remember that I’m not doing this alone because God is his Father (and mine) and He is in this with us. I’m trying to acknowledge the feelings I have inside, to apologize for my mistakes, and most of all, to make sure he knows that I am on his team. Whether the demons are my fault or not, I am fighting them right alongside him. I am not ever going to leave him. And above all, that I love him with the fiercest love imaginable.

Author’s Note:

Even though taking my son to a psychiatric unit was one of the most painful things I’ve ever done, I need to add that I have absolutely no regrets. It helped us in a multitude of ways. They taught us better ways to parent him based on his specific and individual needs. He came home different. Not broken and distrustful, like I feared; but as he realized that we were welcoming home with love and a firm resolve to help him, he became more sure of his ability to work through things and more willing to adapt.

Sitting here over a year later, I am so grateful for the changes we’ve experienced in our family and our home. We are all happier and our home is so much more peaceful. He and I discussed this article after I wrote it. Because this is his story as much as it is mine, I didn’t feel right publishing it without his knowledge. I share it with you with his permission. In his words, “People need to know how you felt about that!” I love this courageous, resilient boy with all my heart and soul. If you are facing similar struggles with one of your children, I hope that you will have the strength and courage to seek help for both of you. It is worth it!