Friday, April 15, 2016

Navigating My Daughter's Mental Illness: The Early Signs (Part 1)

Depression. Self-harm. Anxiety. These words are very much a part of my everyday life. I have learned to handle these things overall. What I can’t handle is the stigma attached to these illnesses and addictions. These diagnoses didn’t used to be so prevalent. Or we at least didn’t hear about them as much. Back in the day, people who were mentally ill stood no chance at a productive life. They were locked away in asylums that were far worse than being in jail. In that light, I can say that we have come a long way with the options that are available for treatment and recovery. But for the adolescent population, these options are still very much limited.

I am the mother of a teenage daughter who carries these diagnoses. It is no walk in the park for either of us. Some days are easier than others, but every day brings a challenge. We have experienced a lot of death and traumatic events in our lives. I was divorced in 2007, my uncle died by suicide in 2008, I got back with my ex in 2009, we split again early 2013 and - through all of this - my stepfather battled ALS and passed away between Christmas and New Years of 2013.

For a while, I just thought I had a difficult child and she was struggling with the absence of her father. We experienced the attitude problems, the sibling fighting, and the extreme of wetting clothes while at school. When her dad and I got back together, her behavior intensified. She wouldn’t sleep. She stayed up all night and would scream. We dealt with periodic violent outbursts where she would punch and kick at her younger sister. At nine years old, she attempted to run away. It was merely an event where she packed up her entire bedroom and attempted to haul everything outside. It resulted in her pushing and hitting her little sister, and she ended up sitting outside on the picnic table while I kept an eye her from the window. I found a counselor for her shortly after this event. The counselor wasn’t a good fit,and the sessions didn’t go well, as my daughter refused to talk about anything. After a while, life seemed to settle down and mellow-out for all of us. We weren’t having the outbursts or behavior, and she was spending time with friends and being active. I thought we had outgrown whatever issues we had been experiencing.

I bought a house in 2012.  For the most part, life was good. Busy, but good. I was in my third semester of nursing school, and we had just bought our house. My daughters seemed like they were settling into the house, and they were both enjoying school. I was grateful for that. By November, my ex and I were having some issues. We were doing our best to keep it quiet and not let the girls know anything was wrong. The next few months proved to be a struggle. We made it through the holidays, but barely. I accepted a new job that financially was a great choice. The same day I accepted the job, my relationship ended. We told the girls that Dad was moving out. My oldest did not take the news well.

I will never forget the phone call I received it September 2013. I was at work and a close friend of mine called me. My daughter had been home from school with a stomach ache. My friend called me and said, “There is something wrong at your house. I am going to send you a picture, but you need to go home as soon as you can.” The picture I received was of my daughter’s arm. Cuts and blood from her wrist to the bend of elbow. I immediately left work. My heart was broken into a million pieces. I went through a series of emotions in that ten-minute drive home. I walked in my house to find my daughter wrapped in a blanket in the recliner. I pulled the blanket off her and looked at her arm. I couldn’t tell if she was scared or sad or hurt. All of these emotions flashed through her as I looked at her arm. Thankful that the cuts were just superficial and required minimal clean up, I had her come to work with me. I had to return but didn’t want her home alone.

After work that day, she and I had a pretty good conversation about what happened and what had been going on. This method of self-harm was something she had been doing for the better part of two years. I could feel my heart in my throat at this point. My baby was only twelve and she had been hurting herself for two years! How could I have missed this? As I thought more about things, I realized how much school she had truly missed related to stomachaches and headaches and such. I found another counselor for her immediately. The woman I found seemed to be a good fit for my daughter at this point.

After a few sessions, it was clear that my daughter was having difficulties in school. Her grades were still good currently, but she was experiencing a lot bullying. I went to the school and talked with the principal and counselor. The principal did not seem overly concerned about the situation. I was furious. How could someone not want to help and not be compassionate about her students? That principal got to know me very well over the next few months. I was in her office almost weekly. I was working with the counselor at school and one outside of school. I was checking in with my daughter constantly to see how she was really doing. I always kept the lines of communication open. She had good days and bad days still. The cutting had never really stopped. Slowed down for periods, but not stopped. April 2014 was a month I will never forget. My already upsidedown world had begun to take an even darker turn...

This is the first article in a series about NJ's daughter's mental health illnesses and the importance of destigmatizing these diseases so we can all do the hard work of connecting affected people with the help they need. Thank you for sharing your story, NJ.

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