My husband and I initially didn’t have any idea anything was wrong with our son. He seemed to have a great military career but he traveled a lot so we saw very little of him, and so we were unaware as to the extent of his struggles. It feels like mental illness isn’t anything we discuss in “polite company” and it is something a person can hide (at least to some extent) during the short visits we were able to make. Looking back, there were some clues, but not having much knowledge of mental illness, we missed all of it.
Then came the life changing phone call that opened our eyes to the world of mental illness. Our daughter-in-law called and told us our son had tried to commit suicide and was in the hospital on a ventilator, and could we come down. The stigma of this was so strong that it took her until the second day to call us, even though we were her first contacts. She bore the brunt of the situation on her own rather than being willing to admit what was going on.
It was a long drive down to the hospital. Still in shock, we discussed the happy-go-lucky laid-back son we once knew and the stranger we were going to meet. It was scary and confusing, and it was easy to find ways to blame ourselves – what did we miss when we raised him? We were concerned about his physical state, but also about his emotional and spiritual wellbeing. I don’t think we realized that this would be a lifetime of questions and changes for him, well beyond the current tragedy. One of my husband’s big challenges was the knowledge that what he had communicated to our son about successful living (through example and what he said) was something our son struggled to feel like he met, especially during his slow spiral down into depression. This created a barrier to sharing his struggles with his dad.
Interestingly, I remembered some information I had been given when he was in middle school. 8th grade students in TAG programs were invited to take the ACT test to see how they would score compared to high school students taking the test. He scored well, and all students who scored over 30 on the ACT as an 8th grader were invited to a reception with the governor. At that gathering, a lot of information was handed out about these gifted children. Though most of it was positive info, there was one handout that said that the percentage of these students who would drop out of college – or try to commit suicide – was much higher than the average population. That seemed strange to me so I forgot all about it until all those years later when that statistic became our family.
Once the initial crisis was passed, our son was moved to another hospital where he received treatments and therapy. Though I’m sure it was for safety reasons, no one prepared me for the handcuffs that were put on to transfer a patient with self-harm tendencies. I still would argue that there is a better, kinder, and more respectful way of going about that, but it was a strong visual reminder of the shame that so often accompanies mental illness in our society.
He was in the hospital a couple months. He was diagnosed with several things, but mainly a result of PTSD and a sleep disorder. His therapy was alongside drug addicts and others with behavioral disorders, again a reminder of the shame of having a mental illness today. However, he did have good doctors and therapy and medication, and he felt much better by the time he left the hospital.
He moved his family back “home” to our hometown, and started working part time. The structure of work was actually good for him, and he was later able to go back to full time work. Because of the trauma to his brain after the suicide attempt, he will never have the sharp, quick brain he once had. Those changes can create anger, both for him and for those of us who can feel like he wrecked the best gift God gave to him. It can also bring a deep sadness, mourning actually. It can bring confusion as to why it happened. But also, there is an ongoing, daily battle with slight changes in diagnoses, changes in medications, and all the paperwork required. Every person and every story is different so it’s not just a matter of a diagnosis and simple remedy. It is also not a short–term prescription, but a lifetime lifestyle change.
Once he was through his main rounds of counseling, it was also important for his wife and daughter to receive care. It is not easy to live with a person who has mental anxiety and depression, and the other family members can get pulled down themselves. That is another whole complex side to this difficult issue. It’s easy for those of us who haven’t experience mental illness personally to feel like if they just ate better, got more exercise, got more involved in church, (or whatever our pet “cure” is) that they would feel better. The reality is that mental illness is a disease and it is not at all as simple as that. They may want to do those things, but the heaviness of their mental state gets in the way of doing any of it. And unfortunately, many of the medications they need to be on cause weight gain which can cycle into more self–discouragement.
Our son and his wife had hopes of adopting a second child. When those doors closed due to the mental illness diagnosis, they also pursued foster care, but that also does not seem to be an option. Though there are strong reasons to agree with these decisions, it is another ongoing reminder to those dealing with depression and anxiety to not feel as “good” as the rest of us and this can bring them down further still.
Our story could have had a great ending. He was doing so well, he and his family were receiving the counseling and treatment they needed, they purchased a lovely home, and his job was going well. From the outside everything looked great. It was easy for us to make believe everything was normal again, the way society preferred to see it. However, COVID-19 has reopened the door to his struggles. It triggered memories of isolation during treatment, and his nightmares came back more strongly. It is a reminder that what these people live with is always with them, and there isn’t an easy cure. Even small things can become big things in their lives, so big things look like mountains.
During the pandemic, he has been going through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy which has been exhausting, but effective. I am so thankful for the study and progress made toward treating mental illness, especially PTSD. As more awareness is given to our society, the more we can understand and react appropriately. We can empathize instead of criticize. Awareness can bring some normalcy to those who carry the burden of mental illness in our society. And especially in those moments when his “old self” is shining through, we are so thankful for the blessing he is in our lives.
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