Enjoy this guest post by my friend FaithMcDonald. Faith is a teacher, a writer, and a parent of a son with mental illness. I hope you’ll be encouraged by her experience.
“How was your holiday?” a friend recently asked.
“I experienced a holiday miracle,” I
I shared my experience, and she agreed. Holiday miracle.
Her perspective might be tinged, for she, too, parents an adult child who struggles with an anxiety disorder and leans to depression.
She empathizes with me when I tell
my story: about a decade ago, on Christmas Day, my then young-adult son
declined to get out of bed. Family members invited, coaxed, pleaded with him:
Come. Join the celebration.
In his dim room—he’d pulled the shades—still in bed, he tugged the covers up over his head, retreated deeper into his blanket cave, and murmured, “Leave me alone.”
We tried to carry on, but I just
couldn’t celebrate with joy. The food tasted flat. The presents seemed
trifling. The conversation and carols irksome.
Thoughts repeated in my head like they were on a ticker-tape: my son is so sad and lackluster. He can’t get out of bed on Christmas Day.
I was distracted and moping.
My husband, Steve, Matt’s dad, felt angry and commanded, “Get out of bed and join us.”
His gruff command sent Matt deeper
under his covers. The interaction’s aftermath squelched all our remnant inclinations
to celebrate. The conflict between Steve and me heated up.
Had I known that holiday season what I know now, we could’ve circumvented cycles rife with agony and strife. Instead, for years we stood on the sidelines of our son’s stalled, sorry life. He spent many dark days entrenched in bed with the covers over his head. When he got up, he smoked, drank too much alcohol—alone—and abused drugs. He enrolled in and dropped out of college three times. He was fired from job after job because he didn’t arrive on time and if he did arrive, he didn’t perform. He was arrested repeatedly for alcohol-related misdemeanors.
We felt perplexed, frustrated, helpless, and full of fear. Hadn’t we raised him for more than this?
A long time after that first
wretched holiday season—maybe a few months, maybe a few years—I noticed a
magazine that featured an article on depression. I can remember—clearly—the
exact spot in the room where I stood when the story’s title caught my eye.
I could go stand there right now, if
After I picked up the magazine, I
paged to the article on depression. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the
artwork. The page featured a gray, indistinct outline of a person slumped in
I scanned the text and read: Major
depression is a disease. Many people are genetically predisposed to depression.
Medical treatment helps.
I read the symptoms: persistent
feelings of sadness; loss of energy; loss of interests; fatigue; slowing of
physical processes, including thought processes; substance abuse and
Call me master detective Sherlock
Holmes. I began to suspect that Matt suffered from an extended, severe case of
Eventually I learned that expecting severely depressed Matt to get out of bed to celebrate holidays was like asking a person with two broken legs and extreme fear of water to run a 5K race that culminated in a polar bear plunge.
We counted on Matt to perform a physical impossibility. I loudly cheered him on, not realizing I was urging again and again, “Do the impossible.” When he didn’t, I silently blamed myself, blamed Steve, and blamed Matt.
He needed a medical intervention.
The information in that magazine
article helped us begin to round the turn to health. We eventually found the
help we needed. In the years since, I have learned a lot about living with an
adult who faces mental illness like major depression or anxiety disorder. Here
are four important ideas:
1. Insist on medical intervention. Mental illness is a disease. Medication and other interventions implemented by professionals can help an affected person get better. Eventually, our son’s suicidal inclinations led to a long stay in the mental health unit of a hospital where, after trial and error, a medication was found to help him.
Finding the right help can take many
tries. The first counselor available isn’t always an apt one. After Matt’s
hospital stay, we searched for a counselor. I asked two credible sources to
list the best local counselors. If a name appeared on both lists, I called. Most
counselors were so booked, there were long waits for appointments. We chose the
professional with the shortest wait and, fortunately, she was a good fit.
Keep looking for apt help.
2. Learn to navigate the tension of allowing the person the freedom to be independent and stepping in when he/she isn’t acting in his/her own best interests. While Matt was in the hospital, I asked a psychiatric nurse for input on how forcefully I should intervene to require Matt to take his medication. She said, “His brain is broken. That means the part of him that makes good decisions is broken. Use that as your guideline.”
Since, I have worked to astutely
support him. I step in when depression or anxiety starts to cripple him. I step
back when he’s functioning in a healthy manner. It’s not easy. After his
hospital stay, he lived with us for a few years. A few months ago, he decided
to move to an apartment. When he told me, I wondered: who will make sure you’re
taking your medication? Who will be there to coax you out of bed on a bad day?
But I said, “Do it!”
3. Find a way to have a life. You’ve heard the saying: a mother is only as happy as her saddest child? For years that was my life. Matt stayed in bed all day: I felt glum. Matt smoked or got drunk: I felt frantic. Matt got fired from a job: it was my failure. He was arrested: I felt shackled by sorrow.
Then one day, I realized clearly and
vividly: I get one life. I can spend my days being as sad as my saddest child
or I can spend a few minutes each day being grateful and pursuing an activity
and attitude I enjoy.
I still felt sorrow for my son’s
circumstances, but I didn’t let that sorrow rule my life anymore.
4. People with mental illness can get better. Ours was a long journey. But once Matt got on the right medication, he began to learn strategies for developing a healthy life. Currently, he lives on his own, holds down a job, and shares his story regularly as a youth leader in our church.
This holiday season, our extended
family gathered to celebrate and after everyone had eaten, Matt said, “Let’s
play a game.”
The initiative he demonstrated in
issuing that invitation set me smiling.
However, his suggestion was greeted with apathy, a few groans, and a couple of lame “I will if everyone else will.”
I resisted the inclination to
intervene by whispering that the very least they could do is try and herding
everyone to the family room.
I watched to see what would happen.
Matt invited again and then coaxed 18 people away from the table and television and into the family room. He explained the game. Marshaled participants onto two teams. He explained the game again and patiently responded to the questions of those who were confused.
We started to play, and after a few short minutes, participants warmed to the game. Laughter filled the room as people participated wholeheartedly.
As I played, I thought about my son’s holiday journey from cowering under the covers to spearheading an engaging activity for reluctant participants, and my mother’s heart throbbed: miracle.
Faith Tibbetts McDonald blogs at acertainsignal.com. For information on how to obtain her book: On the Loving End of Crazy: A Mom’s Story of Hope and Help, email Faith at email@example.com (don’t forget the “t”).
© 2018 Amy Simpson.