I am thinking of giving my son this letter on his 21st birthday, which is a couple months away. As ever, I am grateful for this space, where I can process my thoughts and let them simmer, while I mull things over.....
To my son, my first-born child,
When we first met at your birth nearly 21 years ago, I dreamed of a special new life; you, your dad and I, all happy and rosy together. I never imagined the kind of journey we would travel together as a family. We have come a really long way.
I had experienced several problematic health situations within my family, such as a brother with severe depression that emerged in his college years, a grandmother with OCD and hording behavior, a brother-in-law who lived with paranoid schizophrenia. But even though these situations were very large in their lives, they never touched me the way your medical and mental health challenges would.
You were born bright and beautiful, a miracle after a very challenging and precarious pregnancy where I nearly lost you at week 21. Your health at birth was an amazing blessing.
When things began to get rough in your early school years, I made the decision to quit my job and work at home so I could watch more closely the ways in which you needed help. Ever the independent and resourceful child, with a quick, bright mind, I watched as situations at school whittled away at your self-esteem, and soon escapism and protection became your daily goal. Feeling helpless to know how to navigate the systems in place that were meant to guide you successfully towards adulthood, I stood by watching my beautiful child fall apart in front of my very eyes. I felt I was powerless to change how you felt, powerless to make those who interacted with you on a daily basis understand the complex yet magical child you were.
When addiction and severe depression with suicidal ideation made its way into our lives in your 15th year, we realized your challenges were more than we knew how to navigate. You seemed to be at your lowest low, yet placement in an RTC setting, while helpful in reestablishing you to a place of health, still couldn’t help you manage the need to self-medicate. A frighteningly near-successful suicide attempt was your way of speaking out, but it left us feeling as helpless as ever. Nothing we did ever seemed to bring you out of the roller-coaster of frustration, depression, and self-loathing you seemed to wear daily. We tried our best as a family to love, support, and encourage you, which always seemed to work in the moment, but sooner or later you would always return to self-defeating behaviors. We tried our best to make you aware of how much brighter our lives were with you in it, as we stood by helplessly not knowing what we could possibly do to help you feel better.
Finally, we learned the basis of your illness was caused by a partial complex seizure disorder, where two areas of your brain suffer from microscopic seizure activity. Medication allowed you to process learning in a new way and your brain to function more normally. Therapeutic sessions helped you learn to process your actions over the past several years. Even though you still struggled with a major drug addiction, we could finally see the depression lifting, and finishing high school was finally a possibility for you.
Today is a brighter day. It has been more than a year since we brought you back into our home, and with proper support, you are dealing with your anxiety and addiction in a more healthy, controlled way. Even though I am sure some days are quite a struggle for you, as a family, we have realized the best way to support you is to have you at home with us so you can continue to mature and grow at a pace that is right for you.
21 years ago, I was a girl who thought I knew what it took to become a mom. I was not ready, nor was I equipped to handle mental illness or a co-occurring disorder. I was not able to handle the backlash of community stigma towards behaviors society deems objectionable. I was unsure how to negotiate with a child who exhibited dangerous or self-destructive behavior. I didn’t know how to stand up to an entire school district or a national insurance company to make sure my child’s health needs were met.
Today, I am a woman, I am your mother, and I have learned how to stand up and fight for your rights and needs, especially when you could not fight for yourself.
When you were born, I knew you were different. I was right. Because despite the battle you have walked through personally, you still manage to be the magical person I’ve always known you to be. Despite your medical and mental health challenges which our family has walked through together, you have taught us all how to navigate walking an uphill battle with grace and fortitude, sometimes with great effort, and always with strength.
For you, I am so grateful.