Letting Go & Holding On—How a Mother Survives Raising a Child with Mental Illness
I never thought motherhood would look like this. I’m sure most moms would nod their head in agreement, but I really thought I was prepared. I read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” from cover to cover along with any other book I could get my hands on. I talked to new moms and very experienced moms. I was going into motherhood with my eyes wide open, but nothing prepared me for raising a child with mental illness.
What started as mild symptoms and strong-willed behavior turned into violent rages and thoughts of suicide—from a child who was only 7 years old. We watched our once joyful son turn inward and cry out for help because the “bad side” of his brain was taking over the “good side.” And like a horror movie, I’ve held my son as he tried to take cover from visions of monsters that terrorized him and rapid mood swings that made him feel out of control. How does a mother prepare for this?
As my son’s illness took over, we watched his life crumble. He was no longer invited to birthday parties, and the friends he did have vanished as the mothers got wind that he was seeing a psychiatrist. As one of his best friends explained, “I can no longer play with you because my mommy said you might hurt me someday!” As you can imagine, this crushed him. How does a mother’s love mend this wound?
As a family, we learned for the first time about the stigma associated with mental illness. What those mothers didn’t understand is that those with mental illness are statistically more likely to become a victim than to hurt others. We have witnessed this first-hand with the bullying our son has faced.
As a mother, I faced my own stigma. I’m the “evil mother” who medicates her child. I know that the other mothers judge me and assume that I’m a bad parent. They also assume that changing his diet, giving him fish oil or eliminating video games would heal his symptoms, but we tried all that and then some. Just as a parent chooses to medicate their child for a heart problem, we chose to medicate our son for a brain problem.
This decision has saved our son’s life. After only a short time on a bipolar medication, our son felt joy for the first time in years. Everyone who knew him could see the change. It was like a weight was lifted off him and the child we lost so many years ago returned.
Unfortunately this progress doesn’t make it any easier on us. We know that medications have side effects and we’re constantly weighing the risks versus the rewards. How does a mother do this?
In addition to judgments I also face ridicule for my son’s symptoms, which are often misunderstood as being behaviors of a bad kid. There have been many times when my son’s illness triggered impulsive behavior that to the outside world looked unruly. As a result, I get rude looks or hear whispers under the breath from those who have no idea of what we’re dealing with or how hard we’re trying to help our son. If people only knew how much their glaring eyes hurt me. It honestly feels like being kicked when I’m already down. How does a mother cope with that?
Our son’s illness is not cured. It will be a lifelong battle and maintaining his stability is a fragile balancing act. Simple events like a school dance or a family outing can result in unspeakable symptoms.
We find our lives becoming very isolated; instead of after school sports and play dates, we spend our time in regular therapy sessions. Our attempts to create fun family experiences often end with tears and regrets. These events leave my husband and me feeling overwhelmed and defeated, not to mention the impact they have on our younger children.
This is not the life we envisioned for our dear son or our family. I never imagined that there would be so much pain and that I would watch those I love suffer daily. In response, I’m learning to parent in new ways and to love even bigger. I’m learning to let go of all expectations, and as a result I’m finding joy in the small things.
Achievements that may appear insignificant to others are victories to us, such as the time our son wore blue jeans for the first time in 5 years. It was a triumph over sensory issues that made it hard for him to fit in with his peers.
Then there was the family dinner where we were surrounded by our children’s giggles and great conversations. Tears of joy rolled off my face as I clung to a moment that I never wanted to end. Those are the moments that get me through the tough times.
Just this month our youngest son was also diagnosed with a mental illness. Though it has shattered our hearts, we’re holding onto our belief that God will get us through this as well. I truly believe that God can take this bad stuff and make something good out of it.
But before I can experience the good, I have to let go of my former visions of motherhood and embrace what lies before me. As I look at my two boys, I see depression and anxiety, but I also see their amazing courage and resilience. In my third child, who is free of illness, I’ve witnessed remarkable forgiveness and compassion. In my husband, I’ve witnessed strength and dedication when many men would have left. Though heartbreak surrounds me, I see love at its finest. How could a mother not embrace that!
So I’ve chosen to let go of all expectations and hold onto hope that one day my children will thrive and we’ll look back on this time and see something remarkable, even if it’s something I never imagined.
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I’m a mother of 3 young boys, the oldest suffering from Bipolar NOS and the youngest was recently diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I write a blog to let go of my pain and to help support others by letting them know they’re not alone.