My Amazing(ly Challenging) Kid
It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week. Please welcome back Rosie for a great piece on being the parent of someone with a mental illness.
I have a daughter who will be 15 in December. We struggle with all the usual teenage shit of moms and daughters the world over. Like so many kids now-days, she has ADHD. In her case, the primary symptoms don’t include hyperactivity, but they do include difficulty focusing and paying attention. It’s been challenging to raise a kid whose mind never shuts off; it’s a constant struggle for her to make and maintain friendships, to complete her schoolwork on time and according to the directions, to find her shoes or her glasses in the morning, to live in a world that doesn’t cater to brains built like hers.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children whose ADHD manifests as inattentive (as with my kid) frequently exhibit the following symptoms:
- Be easily distracted, miss details, forget things, and frequently switch from one activity to another
- Have difficulty focusing on one thing
- Become bored with a task after only a few minutes, unless they are doing something enjoyable
- Have difficulty focusing attention on organizing and completing a task or learning something new
- Have trouble completing or turning in homework assignments, often losing things (e.g., pencils, toys, assignments) needed to complete tasks or activities
- Not seem to listen when spoken to
- Daydream, become easily confused, and move slowly
- Have difficulty processing information as quickly and accurately as others
- Struggle to follow instructions.
Wouldn’t you know, my kid presented with every single symptom listed! Once we had a diagnosis, were able to medicate her properly, and got her into regular counseling sessions, things started getting better almost immediately. She began to interact with her classmates in less destructive ways (less like a whirlwind). I learned how to gently re-focus her attentions as needed and began breaking out projects into easy to handle steps: “get ready for bed” became, “put on your pajamas,” “brush your teeth,” “take your medicines,” “pick out your clothes for tomorrow.” We got her hooked up with a 504 plan at school (if you’re not sure what that is, you can read about it here), and everything seemed good. I reached a point where I was comfortable acknowledging to myself and others that my child was mentally ill—because it was a common mental illness. A mental illness with very little stigma attached to it. Lots of kids have ADHD. I can totally handle this.
Until last fall when my then-13 year old daughter attempted suicide.
There are a number of reasons people attempt suicide, but my kid didn’t really fit into any of the classic niches. She hadn’t been abused, she didn’t use or abuse drugs or alcohol, she wasn’t exactly socially isolated and hadn’t been bullied. There were two more components though, one I wasn’t aware of (family history of suicide on her father’s side), and one I didn’t want to face—further mental illness.
Because my kid was high-risk, the hospital didn’t want to or wasn’t able to admit her, so we waited in the emergency room until a bed opened at a local mental health facility. After two nights in the emergency room, where I held her hand nearly every moment, she was moved to the other hospital and I was… let go. I had to go home without my baby. I had to leave her in a big hospital which, to be fair, did its best to look welcoming, but still had a clinical odor clinging to its edges. Within two days, we had a tentative diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The doctors were hesitant to give that diagnosis because she was so young. Our brains are still developing into our early 20s, I was told, so take all diagnoses as temporary.
I drove 45 minutes to that facility every single evening for my allotted visitation period in a cafeteria room full of other people. I was devastated to see how few parents came to their children every night. I couldn’t imagine not being by her side every moment they would let me.
And in my off-hours, anytime I wasn’t with her or asleep, I did what I do when I don’t understand. I read everything I could get my hands on, I talked to anyone who would share information with me, I absorbed every detail I could find and I soaked up all the data and stories and experiences of all the kids and parents around me. To my great relief, I found two women in my immediate circle of friends who also suffered from bipolar disorder. Their stories and input, their willingness to talk to me anytime about any details of the illness, saved my life as well.
It’s been about a year now and it hasn’t always been easy. It took a good four months to get her meds regulated and a few more months to find a good psychiatrist and counselor. About four months after the ordeal began, I lost my job and we had to start our search for psychiatric care all over again. But we’re here. We’re doing ok.
I’ve learned a lot in the last year—things I never thought I would need to know. If you walk into an ER and say, “My child has overdosed on her ADHD medication,” there is no waiting room. None. You are whisked into the ER immediately. I never want to use that trick again. I’ve also learned that the panic attacks, which I was told are frequently co-morbid with bipolar disorder, can be kept at bay if we’re conscious of over-stimulation. Not always, but it’s a good starting point. In our day to day reality, we work at finding quiet spaces. When planning events or outings, we always confirm there’s somewhere the kid can go for alone-time. Loud noises or repetitive noises are not ok, but if they’re not avoidable, we have methods for distracting her.
A new symptom we’ve had to address in the last six months or so is my daughter’s unwillingness to be touched. I remember reading an article while I was in college in the mid-80s where some doctors discovered that a loving touch can trigger the release of growth hormones (that’s a simplistic explanation, obviously, but the original work can be found here). I specifically recall thinking, “If I ever have kids, I will cuddle them so much!” My daughter and I co-slept until she was almost 9 years old and now she doesn’t want to hug me anymore. Every morning my heart breaks a little. And yet, she is thriving. Perhaps she’ll grow out of this. It’s entirely possible the “don’t touch me” reflex is related to the physical discomfort that frequently comes with ADHD. Whatever it is, I will respect her comfort zone and her needs, because that’s what you do for people you love.
It sounds ridiculous to say the last year has been a gift. I nearly lost my only child. I did lose my job. But I gained so much knowledge and I learned that my little person is so much stronger than I ever knew. We have spent a lot of time together the last year, working on a diagnosis, balancing her medications, negotiating the weird and sometimes rough waters of being a teenage girl in the 21st century. I’m learning how to put this puzzle together, day by day, and I’m learning how to parent my very special child in a way that will nurture her and help her grow into the amazing person I know she will become. Through it all, she has maintained her fantastic sense of humor. I’m grateful every day for my crazy kid!