Pain that frays the ties between us

“I can’t feel it, I can’t feel it,” my son wailed.  He was nine and just coming out of a meltdown.  He had cried and screamed, knocked over furniture and hurt himself, but that was the least of it.  His eyes had changed and when I looked at him, the boy I knew had disappeared.  He could hear me, he could talk but he was overwhelmed with his psychic pain.  It was like he was lost somewhere inside himself.

As the meltdown came to an end, I held him as I always did.  Touch worked far better than words but I spoke anyway.  I told him I was there and loved him.  He cried as he often did, “But I can’t feel it.”  My mother’s heart was breaking. At times like this all I could do was love him through it.  If the medications and therapy and all the rest weren’t working, I hoped that would be enough get us through it.  But, would it, if he couldn’t feel it?

Some mental health problems in children (adults too) fill them up so completely with pain that it overwhelms them.  I understood that.  But that inner pain could also sever him from me and everyone else at times.  You could see his eyes change so that even the visual connection was broken. His everyday self simply disappeared. Without that emotional connection, no matter how frayed it feels, you feel helpless and I felt helpless then and many other times. In those moments, I worried that I would lose him completely.

It’s common to say that someone is “suffering from mental illness” but we don’t use the word suffering in our family.  We do talk about pain, however We also talk about what we should do next or how much we love each other.  We recast psychological pain as a temporary thing (even if temporary lasts for months) that will respond to new approaches and cannot erode our constant connection to one another.   When he was nine, I knew that children and teens change often, outgrowing and leaving behind yesterday’s mood, whim or obsession and I hoped that time and change would be on my side

Physical pain gets far more sympathy than psychological pain. We wince or gasp when we see terrible wounds or injuries yet often look away from someone’s emotional suffering. Doctors are more comfortable when you come in with a medical problem, asking you to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10.  There is no such scale for psychological pain.

The McGill Pain Questionnaire, created in the 1970s to help people talk about their pain to doctors, provides lists of adjectives. Pain can be described as throbbing, tingling, suffocating, agonizing or flickering, to list just a few options.  Many people use this language of physical pain to describe the pain of psychiatric illness. It’s helpful, I think, once your child is older and their vocabulary grows.

My son’s pain during these childhood meltdowns was like a tsunami, overwhelming him and separating him from friends and family.  He would feel a constant, lower level ache or sadness or even despair, then an earthquake would come along creating jagged rifts in his life.  Afterward, he would often be limp and exhausted as he slowly came back to himself. He always did come back, almost as an act of will since I couldn’t tug him back through feelings he couldn’t feel.  I would watch him closely, worried he would remain separated and adrift. Worried that I would lose him.

He had bruises afterward though.  Bruises I couldn’t see, even though I could see them slowly healing.  The meltdowns, outbursts and emotional storms leave wounds and after effects just as real as a car accident or an awful medical illness.

Psychological pain still doesn’t get the serious acknowledgement that physical pain does.  David Biro writes in his article, “Is There Such a Thing as Psychological Pain? and Why It Matters” that science often relegates “psychological sufferers to second-class status” largely because scientists and doctors who study and treat pain “consider the experience a strictly physical phenomenon, in the sense that it can only be caused by injury to the body.” Yet people who have experienced both physical and psychological pain frequently say emotional pain can be far worse.

Some studies show that the same part of the brain lights up when we feel psychological pain as when we feel physical pain and something as simple as taking a Tylenol can lessen mental hurt.  I’m not too sure that would have been the answer for the kind of pain my son experienced, but it’s good to know.

Children and teens (who are we kidding? adults, too) express their feelings through behavior more often than through words.  They rage, withdraw, weep softly, sob hard, lash out, hurt themselves or put up walls to deal with psychological pain.  As my son’s mother, I felt his pain keenly and constantly.  It hurt, but it was part of our connection.  Those times when it overwhelmed him and separated us were the hardest times. Pain can isolate but, if we are lucky, love and support builds bridges and keeps those bridges strong.

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4 Responses to Pain that frays the ties between us

  1. JENNIFER RAMBRIDGE says:

    I so wish that we had better language for the psychological pain our children suffer. At least having some language around it would give it more validity in the larger culture. Those hidden hurts build up, and if not dealt with and healed, can lead to trauma that is unrealized until it is severe. When my son was younger, he exhibited all the symptoms of traumatic injury, but by medical definitions had not suffered any trauma. And being uninformed at the time I also said he had suffered no trauma. After some research, I did find a medical article that said that long term mental illness can cause trauma – Bingo – there was his trauma. Knowing that did help us help him grow.

  2. Dede Ketover says:

    Powerful, painful piece.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Liz says:

    There have been many days when I felt I was losing my son. His struggle became my fight for him. He needed all the love I could give and show. I’m not sure anyone can fully understand what it’s like unless you have a child struggling. It’s during the hardest times (meltdowns, tantrums, screaming) that I needed to show him I loved him and was doing my best to help him in anyway possible. As stated, at nine years old with a mental illness it wasn’t something easily felt by my son either. It’s nice to read I’m not alone.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Yes.

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