All posts by Lisa Lambert

Parent support is a basic need

When my son was 9 and his brother was 6, we moved back to Massachusetts.  They were both born and raised in southern California (up to then) and we liked it there. The weather was great and we had friends (though the number had dwindled because of my son’s mental health problems). But I was going through a contentious divorce, getting care for my son was a full time job and frankly, the most important thing in the world right then was support for me.  My own family was in Massachusetts and they offered support with open arms.

I was lucky, having a supportive family.  At times they were bewildered by my son’s behaviors and sometimes disagreed with how I picked what to ignore and what to stand firm about.  But they believed in me, believed I was a good parent and that a family’s job is to accept you. It made a world of difference.

Support is a small word that means a constellation of things.  It can look like education and information.  It can be advocacy and walking shoulder to shoulder.  It can be acceptance and non-judgement.  It can come from groups or be given one on one.  It can come from family and friends, formal parent peer support and sometimes, professionals with skills and compassion.

In children’s mental health, we talk about the needs and strengths of families.  Many families have basic needs as well. When we list basic needs, we usually talk about things that can be measured or delivered such as housing, food, utilities, transportation and clothing. Sometimes personal safety makes the list and sometimes legal help does as well.  Most of what is listed under basic needs is about survival or accessing things necessary to survival.

I think parent support, for those of us raising a child with behavioral health issues, is a basic need too.

I have talked to lots of parents who feel as if they cannot take another step.  They find it hard to get out bed, or feel profound sadness, or feel like they are one step away from emotional collapse.  I’ve known lots of parents who need therapy or treatment themselves and say they would have been okay without this emotionally exhausting experience.  I have even visited one or two parents in an inpatient unit.  I’ve met parents who go before the court and say,”Just take him, I can’t do it anymore.”  Please don’t say to them, ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  It sure doesn’t seem that way to them.

Parent support doesn’t fix things when you get to that point.  But it sure helps. Often, it helps a lot.

When things are dire, or seem like it, parent support from someone who has been there is pretty wonderful.  Even though you intellectually know you aren’t the first to be in this position, you still feel pretty alone.  You’re not sure there is a route to a better situation and you have no idea how to break it down into small, doable steps.  You doubt yourself. Just like someone without shelter, you are out in the cold. Someone who has been through it has credibility, skills and compassion, all in one package.

Even though formal parent support can be superb, informal parent support can come from many places large and small.  It can be a reassuring story from someone who is a friend of a friend.  It can be a generous gesture.  Before I moved back to Massachusetts, I had a smaller move at a time when my son was having epic meltdowns 3 or more times a day.  Some people from my church took control of the details of my move and even ordered in pizza.  One of them said, “Your son needs you more than he needs you to pack or lift boxes.  So we will do that.”  I felt supported, cared for and able to keep dealing with my impossible day-to-day life.

When parents have support, their kids do better.  Mine sure did.  Pick up a book on self-care and you’ll read something along the lines of “put on your oxygen mask first.”  There should be an equal emphasis on “Let someone get you coffee” or “Let someone show you the ropes” or “Allow someone to tell you how lucky your child is to have you.”  The last one is the one I needed to hear most, because I rarely said it to myself.  It’s one of the things I make sure to say to other parents regularly.  They need to hear it just as much as I did.

When a parent raising a child with behavioral health issues doesn’t get her basic need for support met, she can’t parent the way she wants to.  If you are emotionally depleted, you can’t give any child what he needs, let alone your own child who needs megatons more.  You can’t do that do-si-do where you step in to nurture and step out again.  You’re not replenished and you simply just can’t. “You can’t give what you don’t have,” the adage goes.

Parent support is not a luxury or optional, it’s a basic need.  Systems need to build it in and parents should ask for it often.  We wouldn’t be shy about other basic needs, would we?

thumb

I Refuse to Sink

thumbMental illness has been something I’ve struggled with for the majority of my adulthood and more prominently during my childhood. However, I feel as though I’ve improved immensely regarding my self esteem, relationships with loved ones (and even not-so-loved ones), overall temperament and outlook on life. The way that I began to see myself as worthy and whole, and was able to conquer the majority of my depression and insecurities is when I stopped looking to others for validation and approval.

I realized slowly, and after years of intensive therapy, that only I am capable of making myself happy. The key to happiness and high self esteem (in my opinion) is introspection, self-reflection, and the ability to develop a sense of autonomy. It comes with patience and practice. It comes with listening to your conscience. Lastly, it comes with knowing and truly believing that eventually, everything will work out in your favor.

My initial diagnosis for several years was bipolar disorder with psychotic features. I was treated and medicated for said diagnosis aggressively, only to be disappointed by the continuous regression of my emotional stability. After being hospitalized several times for impulsive and self-injurious behaviors, I was connected to a new psychiatrist who presented the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, which seemed to fit my array of symptoms a lot more accurately than bipolar disorder. After being weaned off of a significant amount of medication I was taking for bipolar and being put on a low dose of an antidepressant, I began to feel relief from much of my symptoms and was finally in a place to be able to practice coping skills and self esteem exercises that my therapist had suggested.

I am now planning on attending college in the fall and have a part time job. I keep myself mentally healthy and stable by going to therapy every week and being an active participant during every session, writing and journaling, exercising several times a week, practicing distress tolerance and mindfulness, and most importantly, realizing I am human and no human being on this planet is perfect. There will be times where I need to reach out for help, and that is completely okay.

Nina is a working college student who hopes someday to work in the mental health field. She lives with her amazing, supportive mom and loves taking trips to the beach.

Googling parents like us

Have you ever googled yourself?  After you weed through the other yous, the ones you never knew were out there, you might find of things you had forgotten about.  Maybe you have an old My Space page still up.  It could be there are pictures online you had all but forgotten.

If you self-google, you might also find the other people who share your name.  In my case, the “other Lisa Lamberts” include a murderer, a dog trainer, a composer, a small business owner, a tarot card reader, a bartender, a banker and someone with my name who parties a lot.  Some of those are scary.  Some of those are intriguing, like the Tarot card reader.  Do you think I could I get a free session based on our shared name?

There is actually a name for this online activity.  It’s called egosurfing.  Some people do it for entertainment, some to find others who share your name (guilty) and some to see what information is out there that’s all about you.   Mostly, this kind of information is easy to find and can be part of how people form impressions about us, whether we are aware of it or not.

Have you ever googled something like “parenting a child with mental health needs”?  I have, because that describes me too, maybe more than my name does.

Most people are familiar – a lot or a little – with the facts about children with mental health needs.  They might have heard that 1 in 5 children has a mental health condition.  They might have read somewhere that 50% of all lifetime instances of mental illness begin before age 14. They might have seen in the news that suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for children and young adults. Those are sobering and worrisome facts.

Not a lot of people stop to think that children live in families.  And that having a child with mental health problems has a huge impact on families.  They are the ones seeking help, dealing with the symptoms (behaviors) and worry, begging, advocating and persisting. The statistics about families are pretty compelling too.

Unlike when you egosurf, the facts and information about parents of children with mental health needs can be tough to find.  It’s not a subject that receives a lot of study and researchers aren’t elbowing each other out of the way to gather information and data.  But there are still some pretty compelling things to know.

Parents of children with emotional and mental health needs have the highest divorce rate of parents whose children have special needs.  Not really surprising is it?  We argue about whether to okay medication and what parenting strategies to try.  We spend so much time and energy just dealing with crises, schools, treatment and meltdowns that there’s not much left over at the end of the day.  We experience those stages of grief, anger, loss and denial at different rates and never in the same sequence as our partner.

The national survey of children with special health care needs reports that we are more likely to lose our jobs or live in poverty than other parents.  For many years, I used all my sick and vacation time to go to school and treatment meetings, visit my son when he was hospitalized and take him to the one pottery class that was willing to have him there.  I tried not to listen to other parents telling me about vacations that we wouldn’t be taking or how relaxing a three day weekend was. I remember one dad telling me they got an unexpected small inheritance from a great aunt. They had intended to set it aside for college, but ended up spending it on all the things insurance wouldn’t pay for.  Others give up promotions or stay in jobs they’ve outgrown because they need the flexibility and understanding their present job offers.

What does this mean?  A lot of us are single parenting and many don’t have the economic power we hoped would be ours.  It also means that parents are throwing most of the resources their family has – time, money, energy, other relationships – into the mix to see if it will make a difference for their child.

Googling doesn’t capture this at all. Search engines are wonderful for finding people, facts, images and so on, but not these particular facts or this specific information.  If you could google “parenting a child with mental health needs” and get a result saying, this is what your life probably looks like, it would probably surprise people.  Especially those other Lisa Lamberts next time they self-google.

Lockers

Lockers: A Flashback to School

LockersWhen I see a set of lockers, all I can think about is my short, but traumatic stay at a public school. It was fifth grade, and I had just left a private school that I had attended for three years. I thought that bullying at the private school was awful, but once I started public school things got much worse. It was an absolute nightmare.

The students and teachers at this public school had no clue how much anxiety and depression I was withholding. During my time there, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The teachers, despite my diagnoses, seemed to think I was simply a “trouble child.” They obviously had no experience in dealing with a student with my level of mental health needs.

As bad as the teachers were, the youth seemed to be even less accepting. I would get multiple phone calls a day from my so called “friends” harassing me because of the behaviors I couldn’t control. I reported them to the school, but nothing came of it. The teachers brushed it off as “kids being kids.” With the anxiety I was feeling, the constant teasing and bullying was detrimental to my mental health. 

I barely left my house when this was occurring, let alone going to school. No one seemed to have any compassion towards me. They ignored my feeling, and left me alone on several occasions. When I was by myself my depression was almost unbearable. I didn’t know how to manage my anxiety, so I ended up keeping it inside until I would yell, scream and kick.

I ended up exiting that school in October 2007, and started at a therapeutic school in January of 2008. There I was able to stay until I graduated high school with highest honors. My journey can be seen as a reminder: even through struggles, you can make strides. Despite me cringing when I see lockers, I can also see the progress I’ve made in my life, even though I had many challenges.

Rachel is a young adult who has aspired to be a writer her whole life. She lives at home with her mother, father, and 6 wonderful animals.

3 questions for the ‘program kid’

Why don’t you like doing the things you once loved? Why do you shut down over seemingly basic things? Why does the GPS say 30 minutes but it takes you 45? These are questions I sometimes hear people ask me. The answers lay deep rooted in the long history of my life.

My name is Tom and I am a “program kid”. Over the past 11 years of my life I have been in over 20 residential settings, and over 15 schools. Some of them were good, some of them I can’t even begin to explain the trauma that has come from them. I won’t get into details, names, or locations. Though I hope to answer 3 questions I am often asked.

Question 1: “Why don’t you like doing the things you once loved?” When you arrive at a placement, they will try and get to know you and the things you enjoy. The first few times that was an easy question to answer. By the 7th or 8th program I didn’t want them to know me, and I didn’t want to know them. I’d had enough times doing the things I enjoyed and either being punished for it or judged. Unfortunately this only made me feel worse. I do enjoy the same things I once loved, but for much different reasons. I still love going fishing, for example. Not because I can be with my dad, but because I can be alone, in a quiet and peaceful environment. I still like wind in my hair because the white noise created by it rushing past my ears distracts me from the countless triggers around me.

Question 2:  “Why do you shut down over seemingly basic things?” You see, hear, and experience many things in program life. Most of it can be scary for a 7+ year old. So, when I hear glass breaking in the distance, “suddenly” my face goes ghost white and I can’t answer any questions. And when I hear someone scream or yelp in pain yet I’m the one in shock.

The best way to explain these happenings is with what I call a “time machine day dream” or better known as a “flashback.” It is as if I am picked up right out of my seat and placed in a program where glass shattered all over you and blood is everywhere. Screaming at night when a strange man walks in your room, but to no avail. I am barely able to write this, let alone experience it daily. This is why these seemingly basic things set me off.

Last, Question 3: “Why does the GPS say 30 minutes but it takes you 45”? The roads you take, I have been down. I will not, and cannot drive past that broken home one more time. The railroad tracks that are a simple non-occurance for you, remind me of a time I wish would be wiped from my memory. That pond over there? I almost drowned in it. This, and my photographic memory, consequentially make me extremely good with directions. I may be late, but I show up in a good space and ready to achieve the purpose of my visit.

I hope that these questions, one day, I will not be asked, and if so, my answer will be a simple, I do, I don’t, and I took 28 minutes, not 30. Until that day slowly comes, I hope that this gives some insight into how I live, and why.

Thomas Stewart is a member of Youth MOVE Massachusetts who enjoys creative arts and helping others.