Resilient – A Parent Co. Story

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Many young adults across the US face homelessness, addiction, and struggles with mental health.  However, these challenges do not define who they truly are.  Meet a group of young adults in Vermont and see their stories of resilience.
This video is a part of Parent Co. Stories, a new video series sharing authentic stories for curious parents.  Subscribe to our channel to see the latest stories!

Special Thanks to Spectrum Youth and Family, whose work in Burlington, Vermont  is empowering teenagers, young adults, and their families to make and sustain positive changes through prevention, intervention, and life skills services.  Learn more at http://www.spectrumvt.org
 

Why You Should Offer Your Kids a Mental Health Day

When do you start talking to kids about mental health? Likely, the earlier, the better.

For one day each term, I let my kids stay home from school, without a stomach-ache, headache, sore throat, or broken bone. We call it a Mental Health Day.

Because our weekends, like yours, are no quieter than the average school day, it’s an opportunity for some much needed space, some rest.

Clearly it’s something we should all be thinking about. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of 14- to 18-year-olds in the U.S. live with a mental health condition. Suicide is the second most common reason for the death of 15- to 24-year-olds.

In the UK, the picture is no brighter: According to Young Minds, a UK mental health charity, 26 percent of young people experience suicidal thoughts.

Even for a non-scientist like me, epidemic is surely the word.

My younger son’s turn was yesterday, and on the way home from dropping his brother at school, he told everyone he met. “I’m on a mental health day!”

The grown-ups were, without exception, horrified, yet quietly so – this is an affluent, tactful community. But horrified nonetheless.

“I shouldn’t let him call it that, should I?” I joked, trying to reflect normality to yet another shocked-but-trying-not-to-look-shocked parent. As we walked home to a day of special snacks and (sorry, son) food shopping, I said to my boy:

“Let’s just keep Mental Health Day to ourselves, okay? Maybe don’t call it that at school.”

I tend towards an anxious-parent, and regularly overthink things. Why I was doing this? Why I hadn’t told the school Tim was having a mental health day? Would it actually be better to get Tim to own it? What’s so wrong with a mental health day anyway?

But it’s teenagers who suffer, I hear you say. Your kids are what, six and eight? Yes, now they are six and eight. One day soon, they’ll be teenagers.

I’m not waiting until after they tell me their suicidal thoughts before I teach them how to look after their mental health, any more than I’ll wait until after they’ve had sex before I teach them about contraception.

Admittedly, this parenting, my parenting – like everyone else’s – comes from my experience. At 18, I was convinced that there were hidden cameras in the hospital I had been admitted to for my own safety.

After a diagnosis of “temporary psychosis” (times two), a very understanding employer and a supportive family allowed me to re-enter society gradually and completely. But as I stepped out of the hospital for the second time, I swore to myself that I would be an “ambassador for mental health awareness,” not unlike the main character in my first novel.

So I talk about it, not to everyone I meet, but to most of them. I look after myself. The peaks, as well as the troughs, are monitored.

I can look at my calendar and know that I have too much to do this week. When this happens, I will set about cancelling, minimizing my commitments.

I live a curtailed life, a tiny life. I wouldn’t voluntarily emigrate. I need the support network I have meticulously built around myself and my family. I also have meds I can take on a day that I think may become challenging.

My children are more likely than average to suffer from emotional difficulties in their lives – and remember the average is already one in five. The shared gene pool is not great. After asking for a brief family history, a doctor informed me airily that I “probably” had bipolar spectrum disorder, something I can presumably pass on to my precious babies.

At some point, children become teenagers. When do you start talking to them about mental health?

As a parent, I will do everything I can to protect my boys. This includes telling them about my history, when the time is right, in the right amount of detail.

It includes encouraging them to talk about their feelings, not despite their gender, but because of it. Other people are unlikely to encourage them to open up as they go through life. What’s that lyric? Big boys don’t cry?

And yes, dammit, it includes offering them both the concept, and the reality of a mental health day. Maybe when they grow up, one or the other of them will give themselves permission to take one.

And maybe it will save their life.

Why Is Suicide on the Rise Among Middle Schoolers?

Adolescence is a tumultuous time, with many changes happening at once. Between 2007 and 2014, the suicide rate among U.S. middle school students doubled.

The pressure on kids today is unfathomable. Between extracurricular activities and academic achievement, organized athletics and outward appearance, the burden to be the best weighs heavy on most young minds.

That’s to say nothing of the pressure to both have and maintain an active social media presence. The associated expectations create a culture of cattiness and cruelty. Insecure kids with overactive imaginations operate under the belief that their peers must have perfect lives. They live in a state of fear about what others must think of them. They believe they must project a certain image at all costs because, at the heart of this generation’s culture, individuality is admonished and childhood must be discarded as soon as possible.    

These ruminations, a form of maladaptive coping itself, perpetuates negative feelings and creates an environment wherein more destructive behavior may occur. Depression, anxiety, self-harming, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and suicide are just some of the maladaptive coping mechanisms young adults may turn to in response to external pressures. 

Adolescence is a naturally tumultuous time, with many changes happening at once. Highly volatile emotions combined with physical, psychological, and social changes can make even a minor social slight feel like life and death to an individual – so much so that they may choose to end their lives by suicide. 

According to a recent CDC report, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24. Each year, almost 5,000 teens and young adults die by suicide.

It gets more dire for middle schoolers, specifically: between 2007 and 2014, the suicide rate among U.S. middle school students doubled, exceeding for the first time the frequency of kids (aged 10 to 14) who died in car accidents.

In 2014, about 1.7 per 100,000 girls in this age group died by suicide. That’s increased from one out of every 200,000 in 1999. 

American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of suicides, but the largest change in female adolescent suicides was for non-Hispanic white females (aged 10-14 years).  That figure more than tripled from 0.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.5 in 2014.

On average, the number of adolescent suicide attempts amounts to around 575,000 each year.  Why are so many children trying to take their lives and succeeding?

Some causative theories are as follows:

Social media

Some studies suggest we should look at internet usage rates to assess which children are most at risk. The advent of Smartphones, filters, and “followers” easily perpetuate a “clique-mentality.” Exclusivity is prized above all else. Kids are inevitably left out and thus filled with a deep sense of rejection. The superficiality of the internet spills over into real life, and adolescents have trouble distinguishing their online presence from reality, remaining in a state of subconscious despair.    

Cyberbullying

With the anonymity of the internet, kids are becoming more brazen with their bullying. They can hurl insults or start rumors instantly, easily, and with little or no repercussions to their own reputation. They can literally abuse another student 24/7 as opposed to being limited to the hours in a school day.

If a person being bullied happens to be predisposed to depression, anxiety, or any other psychological stressor, the emotional fallout could be exponentially worse, and thus, be a causative factor in suicide.         

The normalization of self-harm and suicide

In one study, about 60 percent of adolescents said that they had researched suicide online. Almost three-quarters of those who engaged in self-harm also said they had researched it online.

Internet “support forums” that discuss self-harm may actually hurt more than they help. Experts say that they may make self-harm (i.e. cutting, burning) seem like normal, acceptable, even glamorous, behavior. It’s been reported that approximately 10 percent of forum posts addressed methods to complete self-harm and even how to hide the evidence of it. While self-harm is not intended to be lethal, in severe cases it may lead to true suicide attempts by lowering inhibitions to actual suicidal thoughts and behaviors. 

Furthermore, researchers have found “clusters” of adolescent suicides to possibly be related to the media exposure and social discussion of other suicides.

Early-onset puberty

Another contributing factor to the higher suicide rate is an earlier age for the start of puberty.  For any individual, going through puberty is an emotional roller coaster. Adding in other factors, such as social or academic pressure, could create a high-stress, emotionally-charged environment.

It’s important to note, however, that psychiatric disorders like anxiety or depression usually begin around the onset of puberty. Therefore, earlier puberty could mean an earlier onset of psychiatric illness for those individuals predisposed, leading to a higher risk for suicide at a younger age.

Untreated depression or other mental illness

Individuals with an untreated psychiatric illness have an increased risk for suicide. A person may become triggered by an instigating event in their lives, feeling as though their current situation or problem, although temporary, is a permanent one. This may prompt suicidal thoughts and behavior. 

In particular, individuals with borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder have an increased risk for suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Other factors

Other variables, such as family history, substance abuse, medical conditions, and home environment are all considered factors of influence. The presence of firearms in the home has also been associated with increased risk.

The fact is, such malleable minds are looking for direction. The time to talk to students in crisis is now. Ten to 14 years old is a pivotal age. Online bullying is at an all-time high. People have never felt more isolated, alone, or inferior. Poor body image, self-esteem, and lack of personal sense of identity can and should be addressed. 

Words are powerful. They don’t always have to cause pain. They can provide guidance and help. 

Warning signs of suicide

They include, but are not limited to:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Talking about feeling trapped
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Behaving recklessly
  • Changes in mood, diet, or sleeping patterns
  • Becoming socially isolated
  • Decline in school performance
  • Giving away belongings
  • Poems, essays, and drawings that refer to death
  • Dramatic change in appearance
  • Sense of guilt, shame, or rejection
  • Talking about feeling unbearable pain, or feeling like a burden to others

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

OR Text “START” to 741-741

How to help

Ask and listen

Ask at-risk individuals if they are considering suicide. If they have a plan, remove the lethal means. Listen and be available to them.

Trust your gut

If a situation is serious, call for help.

Get them help

Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Follow-up and stay in touch

Follow-up with individuals after the crisis or after being discharged.

Tough Topics: Does My Child Need Therapy?

These emotional and behavioral signals given by our children, may indicate they would likely benefit from the outside support of a counselor.

“My child has been struggling lately, and I’m wondering if seeing someone may help.”

Overwhelmed and hesitant parents have left this message on my voicemail dozens of times. Knowing when your child is struggling with an emotional or behavioral concern is not as black and white as placing a thermometer under their tongue. Children and families have their own norms and developmental trajectories, and certainly some struggle is a normal part of growing up (and being grown).

Our gut often tells us when something is off, even if we can’t quite pinpoint what it is exactly. Children (especially young ones) do not commonly have the intrapersonal resources to identify their struggles and request appropriate supports. But they will tell us something is off through their behavior.

This is why we need to have our antennas up to emotional and behavioral signals given by our children, which may indicate they would likely benefit from the outside support of a counselor.

  • Language that references causing harm to themselves or others
  • Disruptive behaviors that impact daily life in a variety of settings
  • Changes in eating, sleeping, or behavior
  • Major life changes or transitions
  • Loss of interest in typically enjoyed activities
  • Social withdrawal
  • Excessive anger or irritability
  • Extreme moods or sensitivities
  • Experiencing a traumatic event
  • Drop in grades or struggling in school

I should note that this list is not exhaustive, and your child can benefit from seeing a therapist even if the concern isn’t listed here.

Get over yourself

Let’s be real. No family has ever come skipping into my office whistling tunes from “The Sound of Music”. Unfortunately, there is still way too much stigma and embarrassment around the utilization of mental health services. It’s utterly stupid and ridiculous, but it’s the reality we live in. Even I have experienced these feelings in reaching out on my own family’s behalf, and I’m a therapist.

Having these feelings is normal, but don’t let them hold you back from acting in your child’s best interest. Acknowledge these thoughts as having zero validity, and move forward with the conviction that you are responsible for caring for and supporting your child’s health needs.

There may be other mental barriers causing you or your partner to hesitate before reaching out to a mental health professional, whether they be money, time, or “maybe they’ll grow out of it.” Maybe they will, but is that a chance on which you’re willing bet your child’s well-being? Many therapists have a sliding scale to accommodate for those without insurance or with financial stressors.

In the world we live in, it has somehow become acceptable to put off counseling for club baseball practice. But if we look at neuroscience and the way our brains work, your child will not be able to perform academically or athletically to their full capacity if they have stress hormones surging through their body, or emotional needs that are going unmet.

Therapy is one of the best things you can do for your child

After the first visit to my office, the vast majority of both parents and kids feel relieved and positive about the idea of coming back for further sessions.
Once you find a licensed therapist with expertise in treating children, who is also a good fit personality-wise, your child will likely experience a whole slew of positive skills and outcomes, in addition to the usual improvement in behavioral symptoms:

Emotional intelligence

Learning about emotions, both simple and complex, is a skill that will benefit your child throughout their life. Learning how to acknowledge and express their emotions will reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Healthy outlets for challenging emotions

Your child will learn healthy coping mechanisms for life stressors they will carry with them into future development.

Increased self esteem

Therapy is all about learning how to be the best version of ourselves, and learning to harness and nurture our strengths while confronting our challenges. Therapy helps your children learn and appreciate who they are, which increases a strong sense of self.

Relationship skills

The skills your child acquires in therapy are built on a foundation of a trusting relationship based on mutual respect and positive communication – concepts that will translate out of session as well.

Resourcefulness and problem solving skills

Therapy aims to partner with the child in strategizing to find beneficial strategies and solutions to problems.

Where to go from here

The vast majority of pediatricians and family doctors have their own go-to trusted referrals for child therapists. You can also access qualified therapists through school counselors, insurance or work resources, mental health associations, or national organizations of professional therapists.

It doesn’t take long to realize our mental health system is not streamlined (don’t get me started on that), but don’t let that stop you from being the awesome advocate and parent you are for your child.

One of my favorite things to hear from parents is this: “I wanted to get a handle on it now, before it became too much of a problem.” The earlier children receive support, the better the prognosis.

After all, what harm can come from spending an hour consulting with a professional who’s invested their career in supporting children and families just like yours? I promise, therapists are not the weirdos we’re made out to be in the media (not the vast majority, at least).

The goal is that both you and your child will leave your therapist’s office breathing a little easier.

10 Books to Help Children Understand Mental Illness

While we want to shield our kids from concern, health professionals recommend educating kids and teens about mental illness. These books can help.

Each year, about 43.6 million American adults (or 18.1 percent of the total adult population in the United States) suffer from some type of mental illness, enduring conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. Just over 20 percent (or 1 in 5) of children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder. 

As much as we want to shield our kids from confusion or concern, health professionals recommend educating children and teenagers about mental illness. When they receive the correct information, it helps dispel common misconceptions and stigma, and provides them with the knowledge and resources they need to understand a particular illness and why they – or someone they know – might struggle.

Curious how to tackle the topic with your own kids? Start with reading. Here are 10 books to help children understand mental illness:

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sad book Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

by Michael Rosen

Sadness is part of the human condition that should never be dismissed. The “Sad Book” is a wonderfully illustrated book that explains sadness and depression to children. It also touches upon grief and loss and ways to cope. For children going through a difficult time or watching someone who is, the “Sad Book” helps put feelings into thoughts and thoughts into words.

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up and down the worry

Up and Down the Worry Hill

by Aureen Pinto Wagner, Ph.D.

“Up and Down the Worry Hill” tackles the tough topics of childhood anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Written for a younger audience, the book is easy to read and comprehend. The author is a clinical child psychologist, an anxiety treatment expert, and an international speaker who is recognized for her unique Worry Hill® treatment approach. 

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helicopter man

Helicopter Man

by Elizabeth Fensham

Pete’s dad suffers from schizophrenia and paranoia, but that doesn’t stop Pete from having a loving and fulfilling relationship with him. The delusions become shared adventures until, one day, they spiral out of control. Pete’s dad goes into the hospital and Pete is sent to foster care. It’s a new beginning for Pete where normal seems strange at first, but eventually allows him to better understand his father’s mental illness. Using journal entries and short stories, “Helicopter Man” is one part novel, one part tremendous educational resource.

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the princess and the fog

The Princess and the Fog

by Lloyd Jones

A Bronze Medal Winner for Picture Books in the Early Reader category of the 2015 Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards, “The Princess and the Fog” tells the story of a little princess who had everything… until the fog came. Using telling illustrations and metaphors to create an engaging, relatable story, the book helps young children learn about depression and cope with their difficult feelings.

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why is dad so mad

Why is Dad So Mad?

by Seth Kastle

Although “Why is Dad So Mad?” is specifically meant for military families, with special emphasis on post-combat related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the book can help all children and families better understand this debilitating illness. Written in a narrative style, “Why is Dad So Mad?” explains PTSD in easy-to-understand terms and how it effects the people we love.

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the bipolar bear

The Bipolar Bear Family

by Angela Holloway

“The Bipolar Bear Family” is a story about a young cub who struggles to understand his mother’s behavior and her subsequent diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The author is a licensed marriage and family therapist and an expert in the treatment of chronic mental illness in the family system.

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finding audrey

Finding Audrey

by Sophie Kinsella

Meant for middle school-aged children, “Finding Audrey” details the story of a 14-year-old bullying victim and the extreme anxiety disorder it triggers. Kirkus Reviews calls it: “An outstanding tragicomedy that gently explores mental illness, the lasting effects of bullying, and the power of friends and loving family to help in the healing.”

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every last word

Every Last Word

by Tamara Ireland Stone

Samantha McAllister has Pure Obsessional OCD and is consumed by a stream of dark thoughts and worries that she can’t turn off. Ideal for teens and young adults, “Every Last Word” is a tough-issue contemporary novel that explores the underlying symptoms of OCD and takes us on a fictional, yet all too familiar, journey of self-healing.

Readers join Samantha as she grows from being a girl who is terrified of others knowing about her condition, to a girl who learns to own it, surrounding herself with people who accept and support her.

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under rose tainted skies

Under Rose-Tainted Skies” 

by Louise Gornall

Norah has agoraphobia, OCD, and anxiety, and hasn’t left the structured environment of her home in over four years. Will her cute new neighbor help her fight a debilitating illness and explore the world beyond? “Through Norah’s poetic internal monologue, Gornall, whose own experience with mental illness helped inform Norah’s story, provides an intimate glimpse into the mind of a young woman battling some very real demons,” says Publishers Weekly. Another contemporary novel meant for teens and young adult readers.

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I would but my damn mind

I would, but my DAMN MIND won’t let me!

By Jacqui Letran

A new book that focuses on how the mind works and how teens can change their thoughts, “I would, but my DAMN MIND won’t let me!” presents simple steps to overcome obstacles and struggles. Teen confidence expert Jacqui Letran gives real-world advice that can be applied immediately to any situation. Ideal for teens struggling with body issues, self-doubt, and worry – challenges that can lead to anxiety and depression.

There are so many wonderful books that cover the topic of mental illness. Which one would you recommend? Share in the comments!

When Life Is Water and I Wake up Drowning

This is anxiety. To give it a name I take away some of its power.

It’s a conscious decision, that first attempt at a deep breath, the one that helps me understand before my feet even hit the floor what the day will bring. Inhaling, I close my eyes and pray for the extended intake, filling my lungs and allowing the rest of my body to relax.

Many days I instead receive the jolt of a sudden stop, my body not able to receive actual life-giving air, fighting what sustains me.

Those latter days, they don’t usually go well.

***

“I feel like I’m drowning,” I tell my husband repeatedly before seeing the trend.  Other declarations come in the form of:

“I can’t breathe.”

“It just feels like I’m going under.”

“I’m sinking.”

But instead of being surrounded by water, I am surrounded by my life, a first-world charmed one at that: supportive husband, four healthy children, work-at-home mom who writes in between raising children. Sinking into this life should not feel like dying, like suffocating. 

Some days it still does.

***

Perusing my past medical records, I doubt the word anxiety would ever be found. That’s why I search everywhere else in my subconscious for a problem I haven’t dealt with, a source for the feeling of impending doom hanging over me. 

Empty handed, I finally look back and see the path. People described me as a nervous child. My irrational fears were like any child’s, but I had nightmares about them that made me wake up screaming. 

In my 20s, I walked the parking lot of my apartment at two in the morning, a building where gunshots, fires, and other lawless mischief occurred frequently. My fear was not that something would happen to me out there, but that if I stayed in my apartment one second longer, I would literally die of a cause unknown, my skin crawling, heart racing, body ready for fight or flight, yet not able to name the actual threat. 

When my first child was born, I passed the postpartum assessment with flying colors because the questions were a variation of do you want to hurt yourself or hurt your child. What they did not ask me was whether I was so afraid something else might hurt my child that I stayed up all night holding her, forgoing sleep for weeks.

They didn’t ask about the first day I dropped her off at daycare, when I cried so hard I made myself vomit then stared at pictures of her until I finally picked her up four hours early. They didn’t ask if I spent most of my time wondering how in the world I thought myself capable of protecting her. Postpartum anxiety was not on the radar back then.

Now I don’t know what I fear, what brings the anxiety on. Maybe hormones, maybe the responsibility of four children I fear not being able to protect. It’s possible the demands of these same four individuals steal my breath as I already know that, even on a good day, I won’t make everyone happy. 

Whatever it is, it creeps in and surrounds me, and I spend many days just trying to crawl back to the surface.

***

“Can you explain it?”  he asks, and I look into my husband’s eyes knowing I have to say the word.

“I think, I’m not sure, but I think I’m having anxiety.” I rush on to explain. “But I don’t want to, and it sounds ungrateful, and it’s not every day.”

“The kids, they’re great, but they are a handful. I can understand feeling anxious,” he offers.

“I’m scared to actually say it, to give it a name.”

“Why?”

It takes some time to explain that the water of my life, the very things that sustain me – kids, schedules, people needing me – also threaten to take me under, bring on the whirlpool that makes the good suddenly bad and a simple day a trap.

There is no way to take one small sip in this phase of life; being a mom means being in the water at all times. With two school-aged kids, who are homeschooled, and two toddlers, treading water in the deep end is what I do with the majority of my time. The anxiety comes when I give out and go under.

How do you explain that it’s possible to drown in the things you love?

***

When I wake up, my intake of breath stops short. My heart rate is elevated. I hear someone already awake and asking for breakfast. I try again.

Still working on my breathing, I walk down the hall determined not to speak anything but cordial greetings until I can talk myself down. The temptation to snap at nothing is too strong when I’m anxious.

The coffee is brewing, and I have a second while the kids start doing art at the table. I name it.

Anxiety. That’s all this is. It’s as awful and real as I always knew, but it’s not going to stay in control. I can fight back, and I finally know what I’m fighting. To give it a name I take away some of its power. 

It’s not a magic incantation, but naming the enemy is like pushing off the bottom of the pool, my body blasting through the water, arms and legs pumping. Sunlight shimmers right above me on the surface, and though I’m not sure when I’ll finally reach it, I know with every second I try, I’m moving closer to the next deep breath. 

Starving for Two: When Pregnancy and Eating Disorders Collide

Anorexia doesn’t take a break simply because creeping numbers on the scale mean sustaining a life besides your own.

Maybe this isn’t a good time to try for another baby, I thought as I stepped off the scales for the fifth time that day.
It was a comforting part of my routine: use the toilet, wash hands, weigh myself. If the number dropped, even by a single digit, I felt a thrill of satisfaction. If it rose, I resolved to do better. Skip the next meal, exercise until I feel dizzy.
It’s fine, I told myself. If I get pregnant, I’ll stop all this, because it won’t just be MY body I’m putting at risk.

It was an argument I’d made dozens of times. I never allowed myself to doubt it, or to acknowledge all the other times I’d said I would stop. I’ll stop when I reach X kilograms. I’ll stop when I’m back at my lowest ever weight. I’ll stop when I’m 5kg under it. To acknowledge that I might not stop would mean acknowledging that I might not be in control.

Weeks later, when a digital test showed the word “pregnant,” I was as thrilled as I had been with my first two children. But behind the excitement there was also fear. I knew I wasn’t well. When I showed my husband the positive test, he laughed and hugged me, then warned, “You know you have to eat properly now, right?”

I avoided eye contact as I said, “I know.”

For a few days, the thought of the developing fetus motivated me to try to eat whenever I felt hungry. Then I looked at the scale. The digit after the decimal point grew, and so did my insecurities.

You’re going to regain it all. I couldn’t shake the thought that I needed that number to shrink, so I returned to keeping my behavior secret.

As I continued to lose weight, the physical toll became more than a thinning body and the occasional dizzy spell. I had heart palpitations after the slightest exertion. Even when I’d just woken up and was still lying down, I felt like I might faint. My eyes became dark and sunken. My hands shook uncontrollably.

I noticed these symptoms with growing trepidation, but still I kept restricting my food. As time wore on, the hunger evolved to a gnawing emptiness rather than pain, but it was ever-present. If I wasn’t hungry, I felt sick from bingeing. I associated feeling full with failure and shame, and was comforted by an empty stomach – a reminder that I had “achieved” more hours without food.

I knew things were bad, but I was afraid to confess how bad. Central to my eating disorder was an illusion of control. I believed I was choosing to do this to myself, and it seemed like a choice everybody would judge. What kind of mother would prioritize her weight over her baby’s health?

One day, I met with my pastor and told him about the physical symptoms. I mentioned a fact I had come across: anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, with the heart at particular risk.

“I mean, I don’t think I’m going to die,” I rushed to clarify.

“–but that’s where this ends,” he said. The bluntness of the comment threw me.

“I’m not that bad yet.”

“But if something doesn’t change, that’s the inevitable end point,” he reiterated. “Do you think you need to go to hospital?”

In the end, it wasn’t the eating disorder that put me in hospital. It was depression, an illness experienced by more than half of those with an eating disorder. One in five deaths among those with anorexia is the result of suicide.

At first, the pregnancy was a protective factor. Killing myself would mean killing a baby, too. I didn’t think I could go through with that. But then my suicidal ideation reached a crisis point. My husband stayed with our older children and our pastor’s wife drove me from one hospital to another as the mental health team explained that, yes, I should be admitted, but unfortunately there were no beds.

After three nights in a locked ward, I was released to round-the-clock supervision by family and friends, and placed on the waiting list for a private hospital’s mental health ward. I arrived there when I was 15 weeks pregnant.

In the hospital, I saw a psychiatrist three times a week, a dietician weekly, and had nurses checking on me every meal. I set goals, starting with “eat at least once a day.” The only scales I had access to were with the nurses, where I was weighed once per week only – a drastic change from life on “the outside.”

At my psychiatrist’s advice, I began a self-help program. “A goal of weight loss is incompatible with recovery” the opening page warned. But for me, it was worse than that. Recovery didn’t just mean letting go of weight loss, it meant accepting inevitable weight gain. And while I did want to recover, I also didn’t feel like I had a choice.

There was a baby at stake.

After my time in the hospital, I had periods of relapse and mornings where I wanted to cry while I scrutinized my reflection. In addition to my swelling belly, my breasts increased two bra sizes, my collarbone became less defined and it grew harder to see my ribs. But with support, I managed to eat well for the majority of my pregnancy.

My daughter was born a few weeks premature, but a good size.

Within days of the birth, I began staring in the mirror again. I searched for the scales my husband had hidden, desperate to know how much I had to lose to return to “pre-baby weight.” At one week old, we took our daughter to church to introduce her to friends.

“Is she adopted?” joked one. “Because you look like you were never pregnant!”

I bit down words I’d been suppressing all pregnancy: my body is not up for public discussion! I didn’t want to know who was looking at the size and shape of a body over which I had no control. Of course, he was trying to compliment me, so I forced a laugh and offered my newborn up for a cuddle.

The average duration of an eating disorder is seven years. Only 46 percent of patients fully recover. Right now, I need to eat well to produce breast milk. But even when the physical dependence ends, my children will need me to be mentally healthy.

As I look at my baby girl, I hope she won’t live a life marked by my illness. When she’s hungry, she cries and feeds without hesitation, worry, or guilt. I hope that instead of her learning from me, I can be the one to learn from her.

I’m not there yet. But I will be.

How Being Depressed Made Me a Good Mother

Depression taught me that feeling love is the most important thing. And that alone makes mothering through it all just a little easier.

I’ve been on Prozac for about three months now. It took me a while to get through the initial side effects but I can honestly say that many things have gotten easier.

I’ve stopped freaking out at the small stuff. I don’t constantly feel like no-one likes me. Hell, I’ve even had a couple of days of genuine happiness. I still worry it’s not real and that when I stop the medication my mood will go into free-fall, but for now I can’t deny that my depression has lessened.

Happy mom = happy child. Right?

Wrong.

I’d assumed feeling better would result in better parenting. The reality is a lot more complicated.

Depression can crush you – it suffocates your energy and desire to do things. With a lively toddler around I couldn’t get away with not doing anything, so instead I made do with doing nothing for myself.

As a baby and, more recently, a toddler, my son is pretty vocal about his needs – whether it’s hourly night-time breastfeeding or 23 books read before breakfast. Early on in my single parenting journey when I was struggling to get things done – still trying to manage like before – I had a moment of clarity: I’m only here for my son – that’s all I need to do.

So that’s all I did. In reality, doing more was impossible. Shutting down was my coping mechanism. The cloak of depression told me mothering was my only role. This wasn’t bad for him though, he was the center of my world and his needs came first. It just so happened that no-one came after him, not even me.

Now, I have wants and desires of my own. Now, I’m sitting here on the park bench ignoring my son’s requests to be pushed on the swing as I try to snatch ten minutes for myself to type this out on my phone. Sometimes these selfish wants of mine include my son, too. When we returned from the park I gave him options for our afternoon fun together – games, cookie making, or arts and crafts. He chose the television.

I can’t lie and say that it didn’t hurt. If I had engaged him more in the past, would he have chosen the games? When I was slumped on the sofa he knew how to handle me. Now, I’m just becoming some clingy mom. 

For almost three years, I believed there was no alternative. Now, I’ve reached a point where I’m fed up of parenting alone day-in and day-out. I want to have a break from parenting, and from work. A couple of months ago, I probably would have said it’s impossible to get a break from, it’s too much to ask. Now, I’d tell you it’s absolutely necessary, I need an alternative to stop me from losing my mind. 

Pre-baby, patience was never my strong point. In the first three years of parenting, I shocked myself at how patient I’d become. I was the extreme of relaxed parenting, taking an hour to walk home from the park – where were we rushing to, anyway? Time felt like a never-ending continuum, days stretching out like eternity.

These last few weeks I couldn’t tell you what exactly I’ve done differently with my time – not much, probably. Perhaps I’ve scrubbed the toilet a couple more times. Put on a few more washes than normal. Seen more friends. No huge change, but somehow I’ve run out of time. I have no space to even reply to a text message. I’m struggling to keep on top of things and, like all busy parents, my child is bearing the brunt of this.

Over the last few years, my capacity for empathy has been high. When my son had tantrums about his toast being cut up the wrong way, I understood. While the life events that have caused my depression may have been more life-changing than the shape of bread, I watched my son’s face scrunch up, his tears fall, and his feet push against each other in anger. I could recognize the emotions. I only had to think back to the other day – sometimes the other minute – to remember how overwhelming and debilitating it is to have no control over your life. When my son had a tantrum I knew how to comfort him.

It was simple, really. The outward symptoms of an adult breakdown are not so different in outward symptoms to a toddler meltdown, so I gave him what I so badly craved: love, patience, and understanding. I avoided at all costs what we so often seem to shove down the throats of distraught adults and children alike: distraction, shushing, and placating. This is rarely what any of us need.

Maybe I’m misremembering. There were times when I was so frustrated with him I screamed – loud, guttural screams. There were other times I took myself away from his screams when I couldn’t cope anymore. But it was somehow different – under the cloud of depression, I was more accepting of my son and his needs. I didn’t try to mold and push him into doing things. It’s not the style of parenting I would choose, but when you have things to do and places to be, it’s a mode of parenting that’s hard to avoid.

I thought this journey to recovery, wherever it ends, would be about improving as a parent – about becoming more patient, more understanding, more engaged. I expected a one-way trajectory of onwards and upwards. I was wrong.

I want to hold on to the lessons depression has taught me. I want to remember how it feels to be so distraught you cannot breathe. To remember that feeling loved is the most important thing. I’m not a better or worse mother whether I’m depressed or happy, just a different one. 

To the Extremes: Parenting With Major Depressive Disorder

On a good day, the ups of major depressive disorder make me feel like supermom. But it doesn’t last forever.

I have been a mother for eight years and I can’t count how many times people, including my own children, have called me Super Mom. I’m not trying to brag, but man does it feel good to hear compliments – especially about the tough task of parenting.

If only those complimenting me knew that when I’m on my A game – I’m probably hypomanic.

Don’t get me wrong, even when I’m at my “normal” baseline behavior, I’m pretty awesome. I throw super fun birthday parties, like the Mythbusters party we just had. I’m one of those moms who actually makes those cute things you see shared on Facebook. For example, I recently cut out 18 pieces of bread in one evening so that all of  my kids would have star-shaped sandwiches in their lunch boxes. Let me not forget the heart-shaped cheese hidden inside the sandwiches.

Oh, those little details, how they plague me. Something as little as a rude comment from a stranger, a stain on a shirt, or forgetting my child’s letter “C” object for show-and-tell can send me into a tailspin.

For me, this perfectionism leads to a great sense of pride or a heavy disappointment in myself, which leads to never-ending rumination and ultimately life-stalling depression. I constantly hold myself to a very high standard and feel shame when I am unable to live up to the nearly impossible expectations I set for myself.

My husband and I, together since we were teens, knew that there was a problem, but not until two years ago when I stopped being a Super Mom and was left in a great void of self-hate, desperation, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation. Even though I had an awareness of these problems, it  was a shock to my system nearly two years ago when I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety order.

Hiding my depression is easy – at least outside of my home. The apathy and dark circles under my eyes from fits of crying are actually easy to explain away. “Oh, I’m not feeling well,” “Work is really stressful right now,” or, “I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”

These always seem to appease people’s curiosity because, how many people really want to hear the truth anyway?

It’s different when I’m hypomanic – which just means a low level of mania. Sometimes I don’t even recognize it. Sometimes hypomania feels so good. It means that all the dishes are done, the clothes are all clean, the house is decorated for the appropriate season. This is when I shine.

If you look at the shine closely, you’ll see that it’s actually a fire and with one big explosion the confidence and energy will be gone. Last fall, I was feeling especially confident and volunteered to be the PTO President. You can imagine how that ended (or maybe not.)

I slowly drifted away from feeling like I deserved the title of Super Mom and landed in a pit of depression. I became suicidal and hopeless. Instead of playing the role of  PTO President and Super Mom, I ended up a patient in the mental health unit of a local hospital – spending an agonizing 10 days away from my children.

My diagnosis and hospitalization made something click inside my brain. I wasn’t imagining the moments of grandiose thoughts and unachievable plans, or the times when I was nearly paralyzed by hopelessness, sadness, and anxiety. I have an illness that put me on the extremes of motherhood. I was either the perfect, highly-involved, creative, fun mom or I was the apathetic, constantly exhausted, self-pitying mom.

My children, along with six psychiatric medications, therapy, meditation, and exercise, have been my saving grace.With them and for them, I’ve found the middle ground.

All three of my children, under nine years old, are amazingly compassionate, mature, and resilient. They can spot the signs of my distress, both the anxiety associated with my hypomania or the sadness that comes with depression. My children love me and think I’m a wonderful mommy, bumpy spots included. When they hear me upset they will tell each other “Mommy Alert! Mommy Alert!” and come running to me and give me hugs and kisses.

I wonder how I got so lucky. I wonder some days if I’m enough. I wonder if I’m the mom they need. I wonder if my illness will plague me forever. I wonder if my children will experience the same tragedies in their lifetime due to genetics. I even sometimes wonder if I will make it.

So maybe I’m a wonder mom, not a super mom.

Does My Teen Need Therapy? 7 Signs From a Psychotherapist

It can be difficult to know when your teen is working through issues in a healthy way or when they might need the help of an expert.

“What’s the difference between normal teenage stress vs. a real mental health problem?”

“Is my daughter just overly dramatic, or is she really this sad?”

“Aren’t teenagers supposed to be moody and irritable”?

These are all great questions. And the answer, when it comes to any teenager-related question, is always complicated. Teens face day to day struggles with stress, grief, bullying, sadness, guilt, shame, feeling overwhelmed about their future, dating drama, gender identity issues, etc. It can be difficult to know when your teen is working though some of these issues in a healthy way or when they might need the help of an expert.

When is the right time to call?

As a psychotherapist who has worked with teens and their families for over 20 years, I’ve been asked this question many times. Parents will call me while experiencing a low point in parenting a teenager and wonder if they’re jumping too fast, or not giving their kid and themselves enough credit to ride the ups and downs together. Parents will second guess themselves, torn between wanting help and support and wanting to give their kid room to grow and manage life on their own.

You are the expert on your own teenager! Even though some days they seem like scary, moody, foreign creatures, this is your child and you know them best. Trust your instincts.

Here are some signs that it might be time to seek the advice of a professional:

1 | Home, school, or community struggles

  • Has their behavior in one or more of these areas changed dramatically?
  • Has their school performance changed?
  • Are they under more stress than usual?
  • Are they getting grades that are out of the norm?
  • Are they moody and miserable at home?
  • Are they getting in trouble at school or in the community?
  • Are they avoiding school or community?

2 | Change of friends

  • Is your teen no longer hanging out with friends or have they changed friend groups completely?
  • Are they avoiding all social functions recently?
  • Are they angry at all of their friends?
  • Hanging with new friends?
  • No friends? 

3 | Angry and irritable

  • Is your teen more irritable and quicker to anger than they used to be?
  • Is anger or irritability starting to affect their life?
  • Is the anger preventing them from functioning?
  • Could they be at risk of hurting themselves or someone else because of the anger or moodiness?

4 | Excessive worry

  • Is worry stopping them from doing things?
  • Is worrying about school and grades so overwhelming they are in tears?
  • Is worry affecting his/her sleep or mood?

5 | Dramatic changes in sleep habits

  • Are they sleeping much more, much less?
  • Always tired?
  • Choosing to sleep in the middle of the day or always needs a nap? 
  • Sleeping instead of doing something they once found fun?

6 | Self-destructive behavior

  • Cutting?
  • Drinking?
  • Drugs?
  • Excessive risk taking?
  • Do they not seem to feel pain?

7 | Talking about death or thinking about it often

  • Is your teen obsessed with death?
  • Is he/she talking about or thinking about hurting himself or someone else? If so, call for help immediately.

If the decision is still not clear, the best way to determine if your teen could benefit from counseling is to ask them. Ask if they think it would be helpful to talk to someone. You don’t have to go into a lot of details or even have a clear idea about what he wants to talk to a therapist about. Try questions like: “Are you overwhelmed?” “Would it be helpful to talk to a counselor?” “Would you be willing to give therapy a try?”

Your child may know that it’s time. Or maybe they just needed to know it’s an option. By asking if they’d like see a therapist, you’re showing your teen that there’s no stigma or shame in trying counseling.