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My sibling journey, my parent journey

WelcomeHomeGrowing up with siblings was an important piece of my life. I remember knowing how to get my older brother in trouble, how to make sure that my grandmother would comfort me when I pretended the others were mean. I also remember those responsibilities as the middle child– help the little ones, get their shoes, help them get their lunch and make sure they get to school safe. Having siblings or being an only child, being oldest, youngest or in the middle influences us. Our childhood journey affects us as we grow.

I often think of this as a parent now. I see how my own children have their individual journeys as they grow up. Each one is different — the oldest, the middle and the baby. It feels a bit more complicated when you enter the world with some special needs in your life, maybe even more when you are the one that is right in the middle. I remember the dynamics for me as a child, as a teen and then as an adult with my relationships with my four siblings. You start seeing the “role” you played, you understand who they see you as and notice which ones you are close to. And you also notice the one that you are not close to. We call this the family journey in the world but we can also see it as the sibling journey or the parent journey. Or even the “identified young person’s” path.

It hit home for me when my oldest was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital. My other son looked at me and said, “Mom, I hate the windows that they have on the doors, and I really hate the sound of those keys locking the door when we say goodbye.” He also would look at me when we went into the supermarket, or local pharmacy and would say, “Mom, remember the code word is Ocean- if my siblings are acting out and I want to take space I will use it in a sentence. Okay?”. Other people call these our coping strategies. For my family it was the survival and reality of our journey.

My sister and I did the same thing growing up. We had a code if she needed me to be by her side. She knew that she could call anytime and in my early college years, I would come home and pick her up. It was the “message” to get that break from your own sibling journey. I remember using something similar with my grandparents when I needed that one-on-one time. The give and take and the family relationships were as important and often just as crucial as food.

Barry López explains that, “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” In Crow and Weasel, he writes:

The stories people tell
have a way of taking care of them.
If stories come to you, care for them.
And learn to give them away
where they are needed.
Sometimes a person needs a story
more than food to stay alive.
That is why we put stories
in each other’s memory.
This is how people care for themselves.

Barry López, Crow and Weasel

He understands that listening to others’ stories is crucial for survival. Sometimes I tell my story to others, and sometimes they hear it just by knowing me and my children. As an adult, I have often needed certain things in my life as a parent: a parent network that understands the chapters of my life, the local pharmacist that gets the cue that we need to get out soon, the grocery store clerk who would open up an extra lane so we can pass through, or even the gas station that would allow me to use the bench for time out. As a child and sibling I loved to make sure that I could have time just getting away, being a leader at the bus stop to make sure we all got along, and knowing that on Friday mom would make that Italian homemade pizza.

All these things are part of my story and part of my journey. We all have our journey. To listen is the most important part and to understand feels really good.

Meri Viano is our guest blogger.  She is the parent of two sons and a daughter who continue to inspire her blog posts.

Herbal remedies, psychiatric medication and what works

file9041272379125My son told me the other day that he’s trying Melatonin again. This time it seems to be helping. When he first tried it, he was about 12, had raging insomnia which often led to rapid-fire talking and pretty wild and risky behavior. Lack of sleep stressed his brain and pushed him into what he called a “hippy happy” mood and everyone else called mania. When he was like that, I had to keep both eyes on him and do other tasks with just part of my attention. We gave Melatonin a shot and it really didn’t work. Neither did St. John’s Wort, fish oil or a variety of other herbal remedies. I really wanted them to work, but none did.

What ended up working was a combination of two psychiatric medications plus lots of therapy. We tried more than 30 medications during his childhood and teen years and many came with side effects. There was dry mouth, shaking hands, drowsiness, weight gain and the dreaded acne. Medication trials were frustrating, discouraging and it was hard to keep believing there was a magic combination out there. We soldiered through, talking, hoping and sometimes arguing about it.

We looked for something kinder, gentler and more “natural.” It seemed somehow healthier to go into the supplements aisle or vitamin store and purchase something there instead of a prescription at CVS or Walgreens. At those times I felt as if I was investing in his health rather than treating his illness and I liked that. Sometimes we use the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably. But there is a difference between mental health and mental illness and how we engage with each one. I tried to increase his mental health through alternative approaches, but he also needed treatment for the illness.

Most parents of children and teens with mental health issues try alternative treatments at one point. For some, they seem to help. For many, they have mixed results. We all receive the same messages from the media, from our families and from other parents. Putting your children on psychiatric medications is risky business, they say. It’s dangerous and there can be long term side effects. Parents like you are cavalier and move too quickly to use medication. Some of these messages are mixed up with a strong dose of parent blaming and a good dash of stigma toward mental illness.

The negative messages about children and teens and psychiatric medication are often unchallenged. For my son, medication kept him alive. He made his first suicide attempt at age eight and there were many more over the years. When he was manic, he was unpredictable. There was the time he climbed on the roof and told us he would float down. There were other times when he would fly into rages and threaten to seriously hurt his brother. There were the weeks he cried and hid and refused to go to school. For some children and teens, medication keeps them in school and at home. It lets them sleep (and lets their parents sleep), focus and function.

When my son was in middle school his therapist wisely said, “Medication is a tool. It helps him be able to participate in therapy. It creates a space between his thinking of something and doing it. It gives us all a tool to help him manage his behavior.” A light bulb went on for me. I realized that medication was not a standalone treatment and I should stop thinking and talking about it that way. It had a context and was part of an larger strategy. My son needed more than one treatment. Without them all, he didn’t do as well. We added and subtracted until we came up with the right set of things: a school program, after school programs, lots of therapy and yes, medication. I wanted herbal remedies to be part of that set of things but it just didn’t add much.

There is always that tension between investing in mental health and treating mental illness. Maybe for some people they are one and the same. It’s certainly essential to do both. But don’t confuse the two. From the time our children are small, we do many things to increase their health, whether it’s emotional, mental or physical. We make sure they get nutritious food, a quiet place to sleep, time to play and lots of love. We find play activities for them when they are small and then shuttle them around to classes and sports when they get older. We bring them to family gatherings, religious services, community events or whatever our family does. We know these things make their bodies, minds and lives stronger.

When there are signs of illness, we notice and we act. We seek care and choose treatment. That is our role as parents. We don’t stop doing healthy things but the emphasis shifts. If it’s a medical illness, we don’t feel guilty about accepting treatment for our child. We also might add alternative remedies into the mix and don’t expect them to replace the treatment. Nobody questions or criticizes us. If the illness is psychiatric, we doubt ourselves. Other people often do the same, echoing what we are already thinking.

My son is trying wellness. He bought some Melatonin when he had a few days without sleep and it helped. We talk a lot about mindfulness and meditation these days. He might try other options soon, too. But these things work best when you are consistent, take them daily or have a daily practice. His medication lets him construct and hang on to that routine. He’s not stopping his medication because it works, he says. And it gives him the calm and quiet space to consider what else could work too.