Living at the Bottom of the Rollercoaster: A Family Narrative

The early years of our son’s struggles, pre-diagnosis, blur in my memory. My husband and I knew that he was flailing, but we were thinking along the lines of older international adoptee issues and substance use. A mental health diagnosis was not on our radar. Then, when he came home one day speaking incoherently, we brought him to the local emergency department – they said it was THC toxicity and to get him into a 30-day residential rehab program. Within 24 hours of entering said program, he was transferred to an acute psychiatric facility, in a full-blown catatonic state.

When the crisis came and he was hospitalized, one defining moment that stands out for me. I was totally unprepared for the shock of hearing the attending psychiatrist tell a judge that our son’s prognosis was “grave” and warranted a possible six-month involuntary commitment. That’s when it became real. When we first heard the words “bipolar disorder,” I turned to my husband and said, “My step-dad was bipolar; our lives are forever changed.”  I was right, and I was wrong.

Life does change when you have a child that may or may not ever be fully independent. When you reach a point where you lean back a bit and say, “I’ve done my job.” It’s a life waiting for the next shoe to drop; but, I have also learned that I can choose to live fully in the spaces in-between.

The time your child spends at Spring Lake Ranch can be one of those spaces in-between. Time to breathe a bit more deeply, and sleep a bit more soundly. Time to relearn how to parent. Time to ponder a future of uncertainty and rein in the hours of worry.

At one of the workshops at SLR during a Family Weekend (don’t miss them!), the presenter described the choice we all have to either sit in the “car” with our children on the rollercoaster that is their lives, or to hang out on the platform below, watching the highs and lows. If they crash, it is not helpful to crash with them. This imagery has kept me from repeating old mistakes on more than one occasion.

Since our son’s time at SLR, my husband and I still worry, and we still wait for the next shoe to drop, but we live and work in the spaces in-between. We celebrate our son’s victories. He is working. He is living in a room he rents. He adopted a kitten. We turned his bedroom into a COVID-isolation workout space, knowing he might have to move home at any time and we will have to change the space once again (and figure out how to introduce a cat into a dog household). We revisited our estate planning to afford him some protection when we’re gone. We resist the urge to hover – he lives two hours away and, apart with some assistance with his rent, he is managing. He has recently informed us that he has stopped his meds and he asks us not to worry. How little he understands.  We are waiting for the rollercoaster to crash; in the meantime, we hang out on the platform, doing our best to live our lives. And we try to convey our unconditional love – without appearing to hover.

CARF Accredited: Spring Lake Ranch programs are CARF accredited. The CARF accreditation signals our commitment to continually improving services, encouraging feedback, and serving the community.

Spring Lake Ranch is a member of the American Residential Treatment Association (ARTA). ARTA members are dedicated to providing extraordinary care to adults with mental illness.