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In this episode, Diana shares her experience mothering a 17 year old daughter with anxiety and depression.
Mentioned on this episode:
NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/
[music in background]
Voiceover: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast where mothers share their experiences of raising children with mental illness. Just Ask Mom is a mother’s on the frontline production. Today we will listen to Diana, an Iowa parent with a 17-year-old daughter with anxiety and depression.
Tammy: Tell us a little bit about yourself before or outside of mothering. What are your passions? Who are you? What do you love?
Diana: Well, I enjoy biking and taking long bike rides, not competitively or anything but just kind of peddling along. I enjoy yoga and take some time for that when I can, and I enjoy writing.
Tammy: Wonderful. Do you like creative writing, journaling, what kind of stuff do you do?
Diana: All of that. I used to write for the newspaper when I’m just column and just kind of a life in the day of life and of mom, and that was fine.
Tammy: That’s wonderful, it’s great. I want you to pretend that you’re talking to people who just haven’t had any direct experience with mental illness – whether in their own life or anyone else in their direct family or friends- they just haven’t had to deal with it. What would you like them to know about your experience?
Diana: What I would like them to know beyond just my experience and just in general but particularly with me if you see me, is that it isn’t always what you think it is and it doesn’t always look how you think it’s supposed to look. Please don’t make the assumption that we might be wrong or dramatic or overreacting, and I know it might seem like that at times, but please just put compassion first and really trust that somebody who is living a situation particularly with their own child, their own family member. They are the expert and if they say something that doesn’t really make sense to you based on what you observe of that child or that person, please just be compassionate and believe that there’s probably a lot going on under the surface or things that you don’t understand about it, and appreciate their honesty and being able to share.
Tammy: Absolutely. Can you think of examples of where people have just not seen – like they see it one way but something else is going on – so that you just wish you could just sort of scream?
Diana: Every day.
Diana: Every day. An example that comes to mind is a parent-teacher conference in which I was trying once again to gently and with a friendly face remind teachers that my daughter has a 504 plan, and that she has these accommodations and that they’re legally required to provide those to her. We were having a little difficulty and the teacher said, “Well, I just don’t think she’s anxious, I mean I don’t see it. I don’t think she has anxiety, frankly”, which is kind of a classic example. I actually appreciate the candor that that teacher showed because there are other people who are more passive about it but they certainly seem to be indicating that maybe my hyper-vigilance is causing anxiety. That’s tough to take, it’s a little insulting. There are people who sell my daughter short and kind of limit her based on, “Well if she’s really anxious then maybe she should just do this and not even try this other thing”.
Tammy: I think it’s a really good point because mental illness is portrayed a certain way in the media and movies and all this kind of thing. The assumption is you could see and know what is going on with someone, but someone could be going through a whole lot and look fine on the outside sometimes, or at least be able to do that for a small amount of time whether at school, at work or what have it. Right? It would be easy for someone to not notice because they’re not living with it day to day.
Diana: Right. I think that my daughter is very much like that. I think that girls, in general, are designed with being a people pleaser in mind more often, and so you might not see what you think you’re supposed to see if somebody has mental illness. I will see and hear all about it – let me assure you – when the wheels come off the bus later when they’re at home which is their safe space and you know which is that.
Tammy: Talk about that because that’s what I think people don’t understand for so many of us our kids. As soon as they get home to where it’s safe or to the people they’re safe with all hell breaks loose as they say, it gets really rough because finally, they can let go of what they need to from the whole day. Is that something you experienced?
Diana: Yeah, I have experienced that since she started school, honestly since she was five years old. The very first thing that she would report and it was a daily, and I never even put it together the those from school was, “I have a tummy ache”. Like I would say, “How’s school?” and look over and pickup, “How is school, it was good, I have a tummy ache”, every day. So, I went to the pediatrician. Anyway, so the point is that it’s very long-standing and it was a long road for even the medical professionals to realize that it wasn’t physical. Well, it was a physical ailment but what might be underneath it because a child of that age lacks the words or then even knowledge of what it is. But I think going back to what I said earlier about “Please don’t diagnose us or say that I might be part of the problem”, well, if she’s only doing this around you, what is only doing around me because she can. She knows that I will still love and accept her no matter what, and she is barely holding it together – and so are a ton of other people in school every day or at work even. They’re just waiting to be able to come undone because they perceive that to be successful and functional in our society that they have to assimilate. They have to be like the other people around them and so they’re exhausted by the time they get home because not only they had to face several stressors throughout the day, they’ve also had to pretend to feel like other people who aren’t experiencing it.
Tammy: They’re exerting a tremendous amount of energy. They’re not only in pain internally, they’re exerting so much amount of energy all day long. They get home, they’re exhausted. So what does mom get? Mom gets the exhausted – so you get the full meltdown? So, us moms, we get all that, so we’re stressed and tired because we have that sometimes full time.
Diana: Right, and then we are the crazy person because we then get on the email at 10 o’clock at night. “The following is what my daughter perceives happened today.” I realized because sometimes I would get emails where they were assuring me that wasn’t the case, I know that’s not the case. I’m relaying to you that that’s what she thinks happened and so please have some compassion tomorrow when you see her again, love up on her, and those kinds of things. You really do come across as the crazy parent because A, they don’t see that and B, as we exhibited, they get late-night seemingly insane emails from a parent.
Tammy: Right, and they’re not seeing what you’re going with your child. I just think there are so many levels of what you just said that’s so important – that it’s invisible, and we do sound hysterical a lot of the times. But ultimately this is the life of our kid on the line. So, of course, we feel that way, right?
Diana: Yes, and I think that every– well, I want to say teacher but it probably goes beyond that and society, but people who are part of a system should be forced to watch like a documentary or receive some basic level of training on some of these things that they might not know. Because I think if you saw it you wouldn’t question me anymore. You’d be like, “Holy God, that was awful”.
Tammy: It’s not like what it looks like on TV right. I always joke I wish my son had TV autism or TV bipolar, or TV something because it’s done in a half hour and wrapped up then nicely, everything’s solved, right?
Tammy: In real life, it doesn’t feel that.
Diana: Or it goes in one direction on TV. That’s another thing that I would say to people who don’t live this journey, something that I can share is, “Please don’t assume that there is a trajectory and we’re moving across like in one direction. How are things going is a minute-to-minute if not day by day conversation, and so please forgive me when I seem frustrated”. If you say to me, “Well, she seemed like she was so much better. She seemed like she was feeling better”. She did. That was two days ago.
Tammy: I think that’s so important too because as a caregiver isn’t that disruptive and hard to plan and all that because you never know what the day’s going to bring. It’s not like you can say, “We passed this phase, now we’re here”. It’s constantly coming from different directions.
Diana: I have said is like chasing a chicken around a barnyard. That is the movement, it is every single way. Her dad texted me because he was out of state and he had been gone a few days. He said, “How is she doing?”, and I said, “Lots of different ways. You missed four whole days, she has had 18 different plateaus”
Tammy: “In the last two seconds or, yeah.” No, I think that’s really important because it does change constantly. So, as you think about the journey going on with your child, what has really been a barrier to getting the help your child needed or something you tried that just didn’t work in your case that might be helpful for people to know that this was a barrier?
Diana: There have been a lot of barriers and since it did start when she was very young and progressed through these years, and became more discernible to the untrained eye, so I would say some of the barriers along the way were her dad and I. Like our lack of understanding what was really going on and always well-intentioned but sometimes probably detrimental plans that we did. I have a background in behavioral health, so we did a lot of like charts and if-then and first-then and I’ll know you’re ready when this. We have always wanted to be helpful but haven’t always known what the hell we were doing.
Then at the point where we were getting– she had a physical and her blood pressure, she was a little girl, off the charts. They said, “She does seem to have an amazing amount of anxiety. We were given an eye test and she seems to be having like a panic attack. We better bring her back in a week because that’s really not healthy for her to have that high of blood pressures”, so when she came back in a week and they just did a blood pressure and they were taking more of a mental health approach, they referred us for psychiatry at that time because of the high level of anxiety that they saw just at the physical. It was something that did not work. It was a bad fit. It was a psychiatrist with no bedside manner, it was awful.
I have some background in this area and I will say it was awful. So, that was really limiting – medical appointments that are a trigger for her.
Tammy: That’s not easy in this situation.
Diana: Yes, and you get the person to the appointment and then it blows up also, it was not good. So, that kept us from getting medical intervention for a whole another a year because that went so poorly, and her dad felt like, “this is– you know what I’m talking about, which is that she doesn’t have a mental health issue. So let’s stop coming at her with it and stop projecting things onto her.” That was something– school is something that hasn’t worked and it hasn’t worked for a long time but we’ve thrown a lot of things at it. Seventh grade was where it really hit the fan, and we realized she could not handle it and she’s breaking down every single day.
We dual-enrolled her and then after winter break had to just pull out entirely and home-school, but during that time we also were able to get her therapy and medication because it was becoming so abundantly clear that she needed more intervention, and that was seventh grade. Then in ninth grade again she went to school in eighth grade and it did work. She was on medication things seemed to be going pretty well and she had learned the building in the system which was doing well in the seventh grade. But then in ninth grade when she’d make another transition and another change just the school anxiety just really ramped up and to the point where now she is home-schooled and she’s not in the public school system because they just don’t have what she needs there, and she cannot deal with the many levels of stress.
Tammy: Can you talk a little bit about that because when it comes to children’s mental health as opposed to adults and I’m sure this is true for adults but not at the same level, kids are going through a lot of changes. You mentioned like structural changes, huge changes from elementary to junior to high school, and what your days like and what your life’s like, and your social world is like. But physically, our kids are changing immensely between childhood, adolescence puberty so their bodies are changing. So, sounded like your daughter was doing well with medication and then she wasn’t, and that seems typical for a lot of families I know. Something works and then all the sudden it doesn’t. I know that happens to adults but I think for children when you’re going through so many physical changes, social changes at such a phenomenal level it just feels like you’re constantly starting over again. Is that sound right or?
Diana: Yes. That’s actually been an added layer to this struggle. Starting in ninth grade she became med non-compliant, which was a very big hurdle. We had allowed her to go off her medication. She was doing really well in eighth grade and felt that she didn’t need it and so that was done with our blessing but then in the 9th grade when she was really struggling, my mantra has always been, “I’m not saying you have to go to school. I’m saying that everybody who is mentally and physically healthy is at school today. If you’re not we need to be looking at what’s underneath, and that’s what we need to be doing. I don’t need you to go to school just to have geography of being in that building. I need us to look at why you can’t feel like you’re successful there and why it is putting you past a point to be there”, and so these are the things that we can do.
She just felt like nothing ever works. It doesn’t help anyway and so she was on– we got her to do a medication that, of course, this is I’ve heard so many people share this journey and frustration, that medication did not work, and so for her, it was fueling the, “I told you nothing works”. We had our four to six weeks, went off of it and then the next medication that was prescribed she just was never compliant enough for us to realize if it was working or not. That was a huge struggle and then in a meantime, I think what am I going to do and she’s missing school, and again we’re going back to our behavioral things which were not the point. It was not the point in her ninth through a tenth-grade year.
Another thing that we didn’t identify was depression was starting to take over anxiety and we were still considering it to be anxiety, though the medication often is the same. But the way I might approach things with her, recognizing that it’s depression, not laziness or avoidance, that kind of thing. We’ve been our own worst enemy a few times and–
Tammy: Well you have to be gentle with yourself about that. First of all, everything you said about that, what I love about this podcast is I have parents who don’t have children’s mental illness go, that’s true for all parents too. Every parent messes up and tries a bit. We all learn as we go but here it’s really hard because as you’re saying you don’t know what’s working.
Diana: You feel like you’ve got to be …
Tammy: You don’t have a control, right?
Tammy: You can’t take control of your kid and say what’s working or what’s not.
Diana: Particularly with the medication, I just feel like I am putting pellets into a cage and hoping for the best. We’re on another new medication right now that we’re in the four to six weeks range, and that doesn’t appear to be helping either and then you have to decide if you want to up the dose or try something different and go another. In the meantime, it is very painful to be inside their skin and you feel rather helpless.
Tammy: It’s just hard to watch them suffer.
Diana: Yeah, and not everybody going back to the people who don’t live this day in and day out, and everybody sees that they are suffering. Most of our kids are amazing actors and actresses, and they want to be accepted and be part of a group and be normal.
Tammy: I would add to that that most of our kids that have mental illness are incredibly strong. The strength it takes for them to do what they do is immense. If I’m hearing about your daughter and she must be an incredibly strong person to be able to make people think she’s just fine when she’s dealing with all that, it has to be really hard to get through.
Diana: Yeah, and she actually at a point last fall where she did sort of have a full breakdown, and that is nothing that I had seen before, and it was like someone broke a toy almost. Like she became monosyllabic and she is somebody who never left the house not looking on point, she shuffled around. When I would need to take her to appointments she would still wear her pajama bottoms and I’d have to hand her her shoes and the light behind her eyes had gone out and so I do think in that time. Also, she was incredibly strong because just staying here like was my main goal and because I could see that the weight of the pain was almost unbearable, and so at that time she couldn’t. She tried a couple times to leave the house and she had some friends who really hung- and like for being teenagers -they really hung in there and didn’t give up on her over the months. She did try to go out and see them a couple times and didn’t make it, but I was so proud of her for one time we got all the way to the door, all she had her hand on the door.
Diana: Yeah, and now she’s able to leave the house and go see her friends and things and–
Tammy: That’s great.
Diana: Yeah, so I think that there are little wins and you just have a different life, you celebrate different things.
Tammy: Absolutely, but it’s so important to celebrate them and recognize.
Tammy: Yeah, absolutely. So, what has worked well what in trying to get help for her things that have worked, that you’re like, “Thank goodness that that worked that way”?
Diana: I think having some background in this area was extremely helpful. Not that it helped me deal with her necessarily better but I knew people and I knew therapists, and I already had therapists that I had worked with that I knew had done an amazing job or did good work and put some really challenging kiddos. I felt like I’m very lucky that I was able to handpick because finding a fit is a huge part and you can have a talented therapist and a person who’s willing to do therapy and have that not been a fit. I feel like that’s been a blessing and that has really worked well like being able to find providers, and I feel like one of the things that was working well and I’ve changed my tack duck on it, but I first was thinking when she had that I want to say break down that I would share that with people because I have felt strongly I have to be part of reducing stigma. Now I am completely backtracking from that because in order to reduce stigma you sometimes need a community or a society that’s more educated and more well informed, which is why when you ask to what I talk to him what would I say because this is not mine to tell necessarily. It’s my daughter’s and she doesn’t want it shared and now I can kind of see why because people don’t understand, and they sell her short or sell us short or feel like, “We might be wrong in some way”.
Diana: It’s- it’s very challenging, and so that is something that has worked well too is my daughter. My daughter is a fighter and so having her has worked well.
Tammy: Sounds like she’s awesome?
Diana: She is.
Tammy: I think that sometimes really hard is when the world doesn’t get to see how awesome our kids are because maybe they can’t get out the door, or maybe you’re seeing a different side. You’re not seeing the true person, you’re seeing the illness or you’re not seeing anything. I think that’s the one thing we can say is, “Our kids are awesome – we get to yell that”.
Diana: And I recorded her too, often with me having fun, and she will tell me to stop or tease me, but I say “No”, I’m like, “This is you” and later she’ll ask for my phone and she’ll look at those videos and I want her to remember.” This is you too – on the couch having a bad day, that’s not all you are – you are everybody you’ve ever been”.
Tammy: I like that. I like that one. So, right now because as we said it changes moment to moment to moment, in this moment do you feel like you’re swimming, drowning, treading water, how are you right now in this journey?
Diana: Right now I would say I’m treading water at best but that’s really me. I don’t know that my daughter has changed that much. I think that a couple of things maybe for me and my ability to just be copacetic has changed and maybe that’s just the ability to have long-standing care. It’s a lot different – my energy level now, than it was a couple of years ago. My daughter might be exactly the same but I might worry incessantly one day and be completely okay the next. I feel like I can’t leave her one day and feel like she’ll be fine the next.
Tammy: Let’s talk about that because I feel like we don’t honor enough that we too are human beings with emotional lives. Sometimes when you’re so busy taking care of a child who has emotional struggles, we’re so busy trying to help them with their emotions that we don’t allow us, ourselves, you know what I mean? Like we’re just, “Okay, I’ll take care of myself later. I’m just taking care of your emotions”. It’s some days I can deal with my son’s issues on some days they really get to me, and he might be exactly the same both days.
Diana: Yeah, one hundred percent, I think that one thing that’s important is getting some sort of therapy and care for your own self and self-care, and I have neglected that a little bit. I have done it and not done it over the years but–
Tammy: You’re not alone there.
Diana: But that is definitely something that I would recommend because you heal some, just being able to share things that it would not be productive to share with your family because it escalates some situations.
Tammy: Absolutely. You also said something that worked well for you that our listeners who may not have the benefit of being in a profession where they feel like they have that network, they can still network. Like through support groups, through the advocacy networks that you can create a network where you know people in the field. That’s very helpful to have that, and so that’s something to think about because I know if you don’t have that you’re like, “well where do I go?” but you can start trying to build that network of other families who’ve been through it, talk to their providers and get to know who’s out there, and who’s doing what. I don’t know if you agree with that or not? It just seems like you’re right knowing lots of people in this realm to be really helpful.
Diana: Yes, and I think that even if you don’t know anybody in most areas, there is NAMI or something along those lines that has a support group for family members and those can be so beneficial on so many levels. Not only are you feeling less isolated because you have somebody who shares your experiences and that can just feel affirming, but then you also have people who have tried 14 therapists and found one who is good, and that is a huge resource. So, I would strongly encourage that and have done that myself and it is something that I think we all need and deserve is to not feel alone.
Tammy: Absolutely because no one in this situation is alone.
Diana: But you can feel very much like that.
Tammy: It feels like it but when you look at the numbers it’s so common, which is so sad that we’re feeling alone when we’re surrounded by others who are feeling alone in the same reality. So, what is your self-care routine or more appropriate survival technique? What do you do to take care of you when things are getting rough. You mentioned some things that like yoga I can imagine really helps, like what do you do?
Diana: Yes. Well, I try to keep a good balance of things in my life and I actually was doing some volunteering things in the community. I’ve had to back away from that and again, those are things that can ebb and flow. Right now where my daughter is I’m not able to do that, but when you help you heal and you’re not so directed inwardly on my own issues and my own thing, and if you’re being of service to others, I think that it’s therapeutic. In my experience, it has been hugely therapeutic. It gets you outside of your own head and you’re doing something productive and you can feel good about that. So, that that has been and I’m sure it will be again and I enjoy doing that. Yoga, yes absolutely. I can tell sometimes if I started my day with yoga because when things come at me I react a little more even keeled.
Sometimes it is just indulging a little. I was in a ridiculously complex and challenging life space in right around between Thanksgiving and winter break, and the therapist that I was chatting with said, “What are you doing for your own self?” I said, “Well, this morning I had a fudge brownie and layered peanut butter on it, and I just enjoyed every morsel of that brownie. I just took that moment and really picking up on some of the things that are shared as part of strategies and coping strategies, and those kinds of supports, for people with mental health is also really good for us as well. Mindfulness is something that I would encourage everybody to look into because you can pull yourself out of a vortex that you might be slipping into because of your situation which is very real, but it doesn’t benefit anybody to just kind of lean into it or wallow.
Tammy: Absolutely, and that fudge brownie was real too?
Tammy: So, it was okay to be with the fudge brownie for a while.
Diana: I was happy – maybe bad for the hips but good for the soul.
Tammy: Absolutely, I love that. So, what’s your most laughable moment. Sometimes if we didn’t have laughter it’d be a lot harder to get through this. What makes you laugh about when you think of this journey?
Diana: I think one thing that was a laughable moment that is not necessarily laughable now, actually I guess it is. I didn’t realize that my daughter had started to self-medicate and that was tough because I felt like maybe there’s one thing we didn’t have going wrong. Surprise! So, when I first experienced that and she was under the influence and it actually led to a discourse that wouldn’t have probably otherwise have happened. I remember at one point things were very escalated on her end and she was yelling at me, and she said, “Why aren’t you yelling back? Why aren’t you fighting? You almost look like you’re smiling. What’s wrong with you?” and I said, “I’m just happy we’re finally talking”.
Tammy: [laughter] I love it. I bet that annoyed her though.
Diana: Well, right then, to be fair, that wasn’t out of the ordinary. It was actually that better out than in. Sometimes I think parents protect our children, and keep in mind that our children try to protect us, and they did. They perceive things as being good and bad even when we try and direct them not to, they don’t want us to necessarily see dark ugly things, and you need to, like I need to know that’s there because we can’t address it or fix it or get to the root, and pull it if I don’t ever even know.
Tammy: Thanks for saying that. I don’t think that’s something we’ve discussed yet and any of these podcasts but is so important, our kids do try to protect us. They don’t want us to know all the horrible things that are happening inside their heads and that they struggling what.
Diana: And that’s dangerous.
Tammy: It’s very dangerous.
Diana: And I can see not wanting people to know, and I’m sure it’s very vulnerable but you have to be able to let that out and give that some space too.
Tammy: Thank you so much for talking to us. I really appreciate it – you sharing your story with us.
Diana: Thank you.
Tammy: You have been listening to the Just Ask Mom series, part of the mothers on the frontline podcast. Copyrighted in 2018. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English” written, performed and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health go to mothersonthefrontline.com or subscribe to Mothers On The Frontline on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher or Spotify. Mothers On The Frontline is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that uses storytelling for caregiver healing and children’s mental health advocacy. We strive to reduce stigma, educate the public and influence positive policy change through our podcast series and storytelling workshops. We are currently working with Grinnell College to document and archive stories of lived experience with a school the Prison Pipeline, an issue importantly connected to children’s mental health and well-being. If you would like to support our work please visit our website and make a tax-deductible donation at mothersonthefrontline.com.