Our Path Towards Healing: A Family Narrative

What do you mean, “I can’t fix this?”

My therapist’s words cut right through me. My son had been struggling with his mental health and SHE was telling ME that I wasn’t able to make this better? I am a mom! I have to be “the fixer!”

In retrospect, she was right. My son has had nineteen hospitalizations and his diagnosis has changed five different times. He has been homeless and has had conflicts with the law. We almost lost him—a few times. As much as I tried, I couldn’t keep him safe. A tough lesson, for sure.

Here is the good news…things are better. Spring Lake Ranch has been a place of healing for my son. There, he works side by side with therapists who challenge him. He has gained confidence because he knows that his contributions to life at the Ranch allow others to move forward, too.

I have been asked to share some lessons from my journey as a parent whose son is living with a chronic mental illness. I will do so with humility as I continue to practice these, too:

Quit the shame-game. Mental illness is a medical condition that relates to how my son thinks and feels and has nothing to do with his upbringing or any perceived “lack of character.”

It’s their story to tell. Be respectful of your child with health challenges and share with care. This being said, there are times when my son knows that he is not an accurate historian of his own health and might not be able to speak for himself. In these times, he allows my husband or I to step in.

Get educated. I find the National Association of Mental Ilness (NAMI) to be a great resource. Their “Family to Family” class is an evidence-based program that provides problem solving techniques and strategies for families whose loved ones are coping with a mental health condition. NAMI also offers support groups in many geographic areas.

Be honest. In my experience, it is unfair to ask a loved one to share their experiences in a vulnerable way if you can’t also allow yourself to feel and then share with others. I was that person who thought I was always open and truthful. One day, a friend asked me, “Why do you say that you are okay when I know that you cannot be okay?” Hmmmn. Turns out, I wasn’t being honest.

Present a united front. If you are a co-parent of a child with mental illness, make decisions together. My husband and I screwed this up (a few times) in the early part of our journey. When we don’t agree on a plan it not only creates stress in our marriage, but it also is detrimental to the success of our son’s treatment. Now we approach our son together, keeping his team of trusted providers “in the loop”. This way we are all confident that there is a solid plan moving forward.

Create a practice of self care. Make this a priority! Chronic illness is a marathon, not a sprint. I need to take care of me so that I can be my best for him. My son and I now share ideas of how we create space for joy in our lives—we learn from each other.

Recently my son said to me, “Mom, life isn’t perfect, but most days are pretty damn good.” Wow. I guess it is true that children are our best teachers. I savor the days that the sun shines brightly for him on his journey toward recovery. Meanwhile, I know that I need to continue on my own path toward healing.