Teaching My Daughter To Rise Above The Stigma Of Mental Illness

My daughter has seen me. She has seen me throughout her eleven years of life.  She has seen me lose touch with reality several times, seen me cry uncontrollably many times, seen me at a handful of Psychiatric and Therapy appointments.  She has even seen me become hospitalized.  Throughout all of this, she has stood by my side supporting me any way a preteen can.  She will get me my medication and water when I have an anxiety attack.  She will tell me she doesn’t want any other Mommy when I say she deserves better.  She fights the stigma behind Mental Illness for me to “infinity and beyond” (A Toy Story line that defines how much we love each other).

 

But, even with all that she does to help me, she falls victim to the stigma when it comes to herself.

 

My daughter was diagnosed at age 6 with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a diagnosis that she deserved even at age 4. She feared doctors or, honestly, anything medical.  She catastrophized thoughts in her mind constantly thinking that she could catch diseases such as Ebola and Rabies just by breathing it in.  While these medically induced anxieties faded through the years she still tends to get overwhelmed and will have minor Panic Attacks over things that she can’t control.  She is easily frustrated.  She cries. She’s a worrier, and a huge Empath like myself.

 

There have been several occasions where school was a trigger. When she started elementary school, they placed my daughter in the Special Friends program at my request.  It was a program dedicated to giving young children a place to relax for an hour and talk about their feelings.  I loved this program.  She aged out after 2nd Grade .  At this point we started therapy for her to learn coping skills for when anxiety attacks hit.  This helped for a while and she was able to stop therapy for a year or two.  Enter a few major life events, moving and entering Middle School, and her anxieties came back full force.  Insomnia set in.  Panic Attacks over homework became present and therapy sessions returned.

 

Through all of this, I have been her advocate. I do not want to see her suffer the way I have.  There was a brief discussion last year with the school nurse about possibly getting her further help, such as a 509 report, within the school system.  She had been sent home because she threw up.  The nurse knew right away after seeing my daughter through the years that this was related to her GAD, but due to the rules, I had to pick my daughter up and keep her home for 24 hours.  The nurse said that if this was in her file, she could return to school the next day bypassing the required 24 hours.  I thought heavily on this and suggested to my daughter that we get the school more involved.  Her response:

 

“I don’t want special treatment. There are kids that need it more.”

 

I respected that answer since the school year was almost over and we were switching school systems. She started Middle School and things were okay for a short period of time.  Then I noticed her getting heavily overwhelmed, crying and panicking.  I brought the subject of getting more help from the school with her again.  She hesitated and replied:

 

“I don’t want special treatment.”

 

I explained to her that it wasn’t special treatment. Her diagnosis, which is in her medical file at the school, would be more known so that if she did have further issues, she could receive the help she needed, whether it be visits to the school Psychologist or extra time on a test.  Then she started to tear up a bit and said, “No, I don’t want it.  The kids will make fun of me and my friends won’t like me anymore.”

 

Oh boy. Enter the Mental Health stigma.  Because I have been fighting it so long, the huge advocate in me came out and I may have reacted a tad too intimidating for an 11-year-old.  I was angry.  I thought the world has become slightly better with Mental Illness, but I was wrong.  I spoke, with a seething rage inside my head, sternly to my daughter:

 

“Do not feel that way at all. Do not, for one second, be ashamed of your diagnosis.  So, you have an Anxiety Disorder.  You have no idea what other kids at your school may have.  Most likely a few of your friends have one too.  All that, all that you just said, that is the stigma talking.  You do not have to hide like I did.”

 

She began to cry a little. She knew I was right especially after being such a support and advocate for me.  She nodded her head, apologized, and went upstairs.  I didn’t know if it really sunk in, the words I said until one afternoon she came home from school and was excited to show me a video she was working on in school in one of her classes.  I sat and watched the video and was so enamored and proud of this child.  Here she stood, in the crowded hallways of her school talking about her Anxiety Disorder.  She didn’t care if anyone heard her.  She spoke confidently about coping skills and therapy.  My daughter isn’t hiding anymore.  She’s kicking the stigma to the curb just like her mom.

When You Need To Discuss Sexual Harassment With Your Pre-teen Child

“Mom, I need to tell you something,” my daughter spoke as I started the car after picking her up from the YMCA yesterday, “but I don’t think you are going to like it.”

 

I love sentences that start this way. I had no idea what was going to come out of her mouth next.  Let’s just say I never ran the following as a possible scenario in my head.

 

She proceeded to tell me that a 7th Grade boy on her afternoon bus was going around talking about his two favorite words, thick and moist.  I knew instantly what was coming next as I am my father’s daughter and have always had a dirty mind.  She continued by saying that this boy then proceeded to ask all the girls on the bus if he made them moist.

 

Uh, what?! Did I really just hear that correctly?!

 

My daughter, a wise soul (after all her name means Wise Fairy), was disgusted. Somehow, she knew what he meant at her tender age of eleven.  She scrunched up her face and replied with a huge “No!” when he asked her.  But that response wasn’t enough for this kid.  He then wanted to confirm her answer by asking if he could look to make sure.

 

I was worried what her response would be to this. I have always been straight with her, not sheltering her from the realities of this world.  I was very proud when she said that she told him, “Heck no!”  I am raising her right.

 

I had to digest all this. I knew I would feel disgusted if someone asked me this and I am in my late 30s.  When we got home I was curious to see what her father’s response to this situation would be, hoping that some reaction would be given.  Knowing my husband, I knew I was asking for a bit too much.  He said that this is the age boys get disgusting and that our daughter responded correctly.

 

As the discussion progressed during dinner, more questions arose in me.

 

“Did the bus driver do anything?” My daughter responded with, “No.”

 

Excuse me?!

 

“She didn’t say anything at all?!” My daughter responded, “Nope.  Well, at one point she tried to change the subject, but that didn’t work.”

 

Okay, bus driver, I know this is not really in your job description, but please say something even if just to the school.

 

Did I mention that this bus aside from having the Middle School kids, also has 4th and 5th Graders?

 

I was torn with how to react. So obviously, I posted it on Facebook leaving it to the internet gods to come up with a solid solution.  Waiting for reactions to start pouring in, I pondered this event more and more and became more saddened by it.  Of course, the kids in Middle School are learning about their bodies and how their bodies react hormonally, I can’t prevent that, nor do I want to.  But this, this wording… While he thought he was being cool, it was just feeding the Sexual Harassment frenzy that has snowballed into an avalanche in the United States recently.  It isn’t right, this wording isn’t right.  What this boy did, as many on Facebook agreed, was Sexual Harassment.  These girls aren’t going to know yet to tell him to shut up.  Most are going to shy away from it and pretend it didn’t happen.  Worse yet, is a 4th Grader going to know to tell him no when he wanted to check if they were or weren’t “moist”?

 

I woke up and checked Facebook this morning. I was met with generally the same reaction… this is Sexual Harassment, call the school and the bus company.  While I want to jump at the phone and dial the school’s number, I am undecided what to say.  I feel awkward using the word “moist” (God, what a horrible word) when discussing this with the school authority.  I also have no idea what the child’s name is.  What am I going to say, “Some 7th Grade boy is asking the girls on bus 20 if he makes them moist”?  But, I do not want this to die away.  This is extremely relevant especially at this prepubescent age.  This is the age where girls and boys are learning about what their body can actually do.  They are learning about sex.  They are learning about their body’s reaction to sex.  They are feeling awkward about it.  I mean my daughter still plugs her ears and sings “La, la, la” when I even try to discuss what a menstrual cycle is.  I also know that they are coming upon an age where some of their friends will sadly begin to engage in sex.  All this, all this means, they are coming upon the age of being sexually harassed.

 

It is sad, sad to think that I need to discuss in further detail what Sexual Harassment is to my newly eleven-year-old daughter. It is sad that this boy feels he can talk this way and get away with it, especially with all the recent events (Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, etc.).  It is sad that now somewhere in my town a parent might have to discuss this with their nine-year-old 4th Grader.  How does one delicately explain it to a mere child?  How do you teach your child this is not right?  There is no required training in this like there is at work.

 

So here I sit, angry, disgusted, saddened and a bit confused wanting to hold on to the little girl that still resides in my daughter, but knowing that in this day and age, she needs to grow up at a younger age than I did.

When You’re More Nervous Than Your Child On The 1st Day Of School

Crowds of kids gathered with their parents at the bus stop snapping photos of their elated children.  Some even took video.  I stood with my daughter giving a hug and kiss on her cheek.  I did this as support, support she didn’t ask for. Why? Because today was the 1st Day of School, the first day in a new school district for her and I was worried.

I was very nervous, bordering on anxious… wondering if she had everything.  I think I was more nervous this year than she was because I can actually remember Junior High (New York’s version of Middle School) and I remember starting Junior High not knowing anyone.  I remembered the fear, the anxiety, the pure terror.  You see, I didn’t go to my zoned Junior High where I would have had friends from my elementary school, I went to a ‘Gifted & Talented’ Junior High for my creative writing abilities.  And although my daughter was starting a new school system as we moved in late spring to give her a better education, unlike myself, she already knew a few people.

I worried about my daughter.  With every new thing she would panic over… What if I can’t open my locker? What if the kids make fun of me? What if I am late to class?… my worry grew.  I only want her to be happy and to succeed.

As the days passed and the 1st Day approached, I repeatedly asked her questions:

“Do you remember how to open your locker?  Tell me.”

“What bus do you take from school to the YMCA in the afternoon?”

And then I started to make blatant statements:

“Don’t forget you will need lunch.”

“You only need a pen or pencil the first day. Why are you bringing so much other stuff?!”

I think I was beginning to drive my daughter batty as she began to roll her eyes at me and sigh.

I just wanted her to be prepared.  Middle School is not Elementary School.  You are given more responsibilities in Middle School.  You have to go to more than one classroom.  You have a set time to get to each class.  You have reports and projects.

And most important… you must figure out who you are sitting with at lunch!

This last item was what was making my daughter more anxious the last few days.  She doesn’t want to hurt anyone.  She was debating between her oldest and dearest friend (they have been friends since they were babies), our neighbor across the way and a friend from her former camp in the city we used to live in that relocated too.  She questioned me repeatedly about this.  I suggested her old camp friend as she would see her bestie on the bus and well, our neighbor lives right across the way from us.

A mass chaos of questions, things to purchase, items on a To-Do list and my brain was foggy (it has been for the last couple of months already).  I couldn’t concentrate to get everything organized, I just couldn’t think.  With that I became irritable.  With the irritability, I grew more anxious and had several anxiety attacks.  It felt like my brain was playing a hyper speed game of Atari’s Pong in my head. But I tried to keep my anxieties from my daughter. We didn’t need her GAD to start.

It was official. I was more nervous than my daughter.

As I stood at the bus stop this morning with her and the gaggle of other kids and parents, I internally told myself this is it.  She is ready and if she forgot something, there is always tomorrow.  Tell your Anxiety that she is fine.  She will make friends. She will open her locker.  She will find her classes. You know she is ready for this and so are you.

Then the bus showed up. I waved to my friend, the bus driver.  I watched her get on and smiled. I walked away feeling calm and content and whispered, “Good luck my love.”

A Letter To My Former Foster Son As You Turn 5

 

My Sweet Little Boy,

I can hardly believe it has been a little over two years since you left our home. I can still remember your toddler-self walking in circles around the house. I can still hear your voice so vividly as I would come down the stairs in the morning, you pointing at me, saying, “Look, it’s a Mommy!”. I can still feel the soft skin of your cheeks as I would hold your face in my hands right by your dimples and then place my lips on them.

And then I remember what happened next. I never wanted you to be a trigger for me. Countless hours as I would hear you talk yourself to sleep or cough made daggers pierce my heart. It was as if I was falling down, out of an airplane with no parachute, into another episode of Postpartum Depression. First, the severe anxiety that left me emaciated and riddled with shaking and hyperventilating. Many days towards the end, as you sat in the living room watching TV with Sophia, you remained oblivious of the delusions my mind and body played on me. Once you left, Depression set in… Badly.

Oh, my sweet boy, it was never you. You were never the problem. I was. Every day since you left, I wake up with you on my mind. You are also one of my last visions when I go to bed at night. Please know, I never stopped loving you since the moment I met you in August of 2014. I still love you that much now.

And now you are turning 5. I am completely in awe of this. In my eyes you are still this toddler discovering the world. I remember seeing you learn how to eat real food, how to interact with children your age, learning the true meaning of love. You made friends, you experienced holidays, you finally had a family who truly loved you and in return, you learned how to love back. I can only imagine the little boy you’ve turned into, with your tousled dark brown hair and deep sienna eyes.  This big boy who will be starting Kindergarten in the fall.  I wonder how much taller you’ve grown, if your reading, what you are into.

Everyday my heart yearns to see you, to know you are okay, cared for, loved for certain.  And other moments, just when I think I would be okay seeing your face, my heart reminds me of my longing for you, the pain, the ache, the realization that you will never come back to me.

My Tyler, on your 5th birthday, I want you to know how loved you are. I don’t want you to ever feel abandoned. You are still adored by us. You are cherished by your forever family. You are cared for and loved deeply.  You will always be special, especially to me.  I did not birth you, but in those few months I had the pleasure of interacting with you, you gave me a new view on life and compassion.

Today, we will light 6 candles on a cake for you… five for your age and one more for good luck because Tyler, you deserve all the luck in the world and so much more.

Happy 5th Birthday my boy!

Love eternally,

Your Former Foster Mommy

What I Want My Daughter To Know On Her 10th Birthday 

My Baby Girl,

Today you turn 10, a decade old.  As I look at you, I see the baby face that I gave birth to and admire the preteen beauty you are now.  I am not sure when it actually happened, when you got to this point that toys were no longer an “in” thing for you, that make-up tutorials and Minecraft tutorials were now cool.  I am not sure when you decided to stop playing with My Little Pony, Barbie, and American Girl Dolls.  Ten years, they just flew by.  As I reflect on these stages of infancy and young childhood that I will never experience with you again, I want you to know a few things and keep them in your mind as you get older:
Stay Kind – Kindness is everything.  You really do need to treat people how you would like to be treated.  As you make fun of someone for the outfit they are wearing (and you will), remember that they are owning their style just like you own yours.  Remember they are human too and no one deserves to be made fun of.  Being kind opens up doors to future opportunities.  No one wants to hire a rude person.
Be Your Unique Self – You will fall into peer pressure.  I have not noticed anyone who hasn’t at one point in time.  Please remember that you are the only you there will ever be.  Exploit that.  Show your style and your personality.  Your friends like you because of who you are.  If they are asking you to change or to do something you don’t want to do and threaten your friendship because of it, then they were never your friends to begin with.  
Hold On To Your Imagination – Tether this one to your heart.  As we age and become adults, our imaginations tend to dwindle.  When I was younger, I was an avid story and poetry writer.  Then adulthood kicked in… work, bills, getting married, having a child… I lost a piece of me.  I lost my imagination.  It took falling into a black abyss of depression and anxiety to get that back and at this age, it isn’t nearly as strong as it was.  Crazy glue your creativeness to yourself.  Don’t ever lose that.  It is what makes life interesting.
Keep Dreaming – Always aim to achieve your dreams and goals.  It may not be a quick process but never decide to let go.  You have seen me achieve my dream of becoming a published writer with being a contributor to two published collections.  You see me currently writing my own book… a book that has been in the process for years but I am not giving up.  Do not let others tell you to quit dreaming.  They are not living within you.  You are capable of anything you put your mind to.
Challenge Yourself – Do not take the easy way out on everything you do.  Strive to be as good as you can be.  Try to read those novels in high school and bypass the Cliff Notes, you will be surprised at all that is in the actual novel.  You do not need to strive to be valedictorian, just try to be the best YOU can be.  Challenge yourself by drawing more, writing more, reading just one more page.  You won’t regret it.
Loyalty Is A Blessing And A Curse – Always try to remain loyal to your friends and family, the ones that have your back, the ones that love you “to infinity and beyond”.  Loyalty is a tremendous gift but, it can backfire on you.  Just be aware.  You may put out way more than you will receive in certain relationships. 

 
Remember Empathy – Empaths are rare.  To truly be empathetic to a person is to “walk in their shoes”.  Everyone is going through something.  It could be a physical illness such as cancer, a mental illness  such as depression, neglect, prejudice, etc.  No one, I mean, no one’s life is easy even if it seems like it.  I am glad that I passed on this gift of empathy to you.  Keep using it in all situations, but try hard to not let it stick with you for long periods of time.  Once you feel empathy for a person or a group of people, acknowledge it, digest it, and then do not dwell on it.  It can take over your mind and cause you depression and grief.

Not All Friendships Last – Friendships can end due to many reasons.  Sometimes you may have said or done something and sometimes a friend may have offended you.  Honestly, most friendships that end is just from the simple fact that friends can grow apart.  Schedules get busy. Common things get sparse.  It happens, and baby, it hurts.  There will be a grieving process to mourn the end of a friendship.  You’ll go through the stages of denial, disbelief, depression… and eventually, acceptance.  What’s important is to realize that they were in your life for a reason.  It may have been the extra shoulder you needed, or the ear you lent them.  Understand that although you feel like it ended because of you, it most likely didn’t. With these friendship deaths, there are strengths.  Friends you’ve had for years, decades, who are there for you. Friends you may not see or speak to often but when you do, it’s like you were never apart. Hold on to them.
Common Sense Is Just As Important As Book Smarts – Always aim to be the best student you can be but that is in two fields in life, school, and common sense.  Listen to your instincts.  Sometimes common sense matters more than what you may have learned in class.
Love Unconditionally – Always let love in.  It can be in the form of your father and I loving you, you loving your friends and them loving you back, finding your future spouse, love for your future children and love for a pet.  If you have every really processed movies, you will realize love conquers all and it does.  Love is what saved Harry from Voldemort.  Love is what let Anna and Elsa take back their kingdom.  Love is what brings Darth Vader back from the Dark Side to the Jedis.  Love is what makes us live and want to live.  There is always someone out there that loves you.
I know I have told you most of these things before, but I want you to understand all of them.  You are getting to a point in your life where you will not listen to me anymore (or at least for a few years).  You will think you know everything and Mommy and Daddy know nothing.  I have been there.  Your father has been there too.  But you know what?  After those years of being “above all” you will come to treasure everything your parents told you.  You will read this letter and know exactly where Mommy was coming from.  Please process these now and keep them with you.  Know that I see you, I see the strong, silly, sassy, smart girl you are.  I see your beauty, inside and out.  I can see what you are capable of.
You are a beautiful and unique young lady.  You are you.
Love, Mommy