Karen Copeland was one of my first blogging buddies. As the founder of Champions for Community Wellness and mother of two, she knows a ton about navigating the child and youth mental health system. I’ll never forget the valuable insight she gave me about what it means to be a parent, and opened my eyes to how my mental illness was actually impacting my entire family. After a long day at a training session, we sat in the hotel lobby with a drink in hand and shared our experience with mental health through very different lenses and learned from one another’s battle with a broken system. Thank you, Karen, for sharing your knowledge for being such a passionate advocate, and of course, for being a Champion of Community Wellness.
Ameera and I had the opportunity to meet at a training session in Vancouver two years ago. It doesn’t seem that long ago, really! It was an honour when she reached out to me recently to write an article for her IMPACT project, and of course I said “yes!” right away. Her ask to me was to write about how having a child who experiences mental health challenges impacted or influenced me as a parent. To be honest, this has been a hard article to start. At first, I wondered if what I had to say would be important. I then started to wonder how deep I would go into sharing my vulnerabilities. Last, but certainly not the least, I started to really think about and consider my son. It is important to me that I hold him and his privacy in the highest regard in this article.
There is a fine line I need to walk as a parent when I am sharing my experiences with my kids. I have a desire to share the difficult realities I experience, however I need to ensure I am careful not to create the perception that my child or his diagnosis are the reason for these challenges. I must be mindful to not forget to share the good stuff too! I have been writing about my parenting journey for the past couple of years, and I have had to work hard at honouring this. I don’t always get it right, either, but I am always reflecting and evaluating (which is probably why it has taken so long for me to write this article!).
In October 2016 I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Ian Brown, author of The Boy in the Moon and writer for the Globe and Mail. In his talk, he reflected on the years of interactions with systems of care and how no one within those systems had ever asked him what he loved about his son. This was a powerful statement and it has stayed with me. And so, this is how I would like to start our story. I would like to share with you a few of the things that I love about my son.
I love the way his mind can capture and hold so much information on an area of interest, and the way he can ramble off random facts about said topic with ease. I love his laugh, which is like a giggle, its sweet melody wraps around me like a warm hug. I love his gentleness with animals, birds in particular. He will rescue the ones who fly into our windows, giving them comfort through their shock until they are ready to fly again. I love his resourcefulness. If he wants to know about something, he will do whatever he can to learn about it. I love when I see him doing what he loves. I see his perseverance, his drive to complete the task and his pride when his work is done. I love the colour of his hair, the way it will curl at the ends when it gets too long. I savour those moments when he takes my hand and says “I love you mom.”
If you are a parent, then you know that life often does not turn out how you expect it will when you start having kids. And this is okay. Our kids challenge us to think bigger, to learn about them, to reflect on our own perspectives and ideas. Sometimes this happens when our children are younger, and sometimes it doesn’t happen until they are older youth. But it definitely happens! And it should. Our kids’ life should not be what WE think it will be, but what THEY want and make it to be. And when that realization hits us as parents, then our responsibility becomes doing what we can to guide and support them on their path.
In our family, in my parenting, I was challenged early. I had grown up with a particular parenting style and of course, this is the method I employed with my own children. When I reflect back now, I am surprised that I stayed entrenched in that method for as long as I did before I recognized it wasn’t working. I think there were a number of factors that influenced this. In the short space of two years, I was married, moved a province away from my family, I had my first and then my second child. My husband worked away from home 8 months out of those two years. I was a little very overwhelmed.
The word “anxiety” was first introduced to our family when our son was almost six. By this time I had been actively trying to seek out assistance to help me address some of the challenges we were experiencing for a while. To be honest, I was a bit perplexed by this word and how it related to what we were experiencing. I had always considered anxiety to be avoidance or fear. So this was something new for me. I started to read more and research, and as I did it started to fit.
We sought out services through our local mental health program, attending groups and individual sessions. I discovered a very important thing. I needed to learn how to recognize my own anxiety and how this contributed to some of the challenges we were experiencing. I needed to learn how to look critically at my expectations and determine whether they were for MY benefit or my child’s.
It was also important I learn how to start really listening to my son and what he was trying to tell me. I had to look beyond the way he was saying it for the message he was communicating. So often, we respond to the way things are said without considering the need that is being communicated. Sometimes it was really hard to explore the message that was being communicated by the behavior. I discovered that when I started acknowledging and addressing the need that my son was trying to share with me, the WAY he would say things started to change too.
I learned that change isn’t easy and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight just because we want it to. Change takes work and requires ownership.
In one of the first posts on my blog, I wrote:
When I had a setback, I owned it. I apologized to my children, to my husband and I promised to do better. I tried to remember to gentle with myself, and not beat myself up so much for not being perfect at this. I reflected on what was happening for me that I felt I couldn’t do things the new way. I learned my triggers. Slowly but surely I became more confident in my approach.” Change is Never Easy…and it Shouldn’t Be
I am still working on this. I expect I always will be!
I started to reflect on my own anxious tendencies when I was growing up. These patterns that had stayed with me, ingrained for years, and I actually finally started dealing with them. Now, decades later, there are situations I can walk into that would have been extremely uncomfortable for me previously.
I went through a period of time where I didn’t make sure to take care of my own mental health. I buried my own needs, thinking that if I just took care of everyone else’s, everything would be okay. Let’s just say this was not a good strategy!
It was a hard lesson for me. I needed to learn how to reach out and ask for help sooner. I learned how to accept help when it was offered. I started to evaluate my priorities, set boundaries and then honour those boundaries. I began to understand that I cannot be everything, and I went to work creating a village of supportive adults around our family.
We’ve had many challenges thrown our way over the years. I had to learn how to navigate disjointed systems of care, often to be met with brick walls and inadequate supports. I don’t think there can be anything worse than seeing your child struggling in a very big way, and feeling dismissed or set aside by the services that are designed to support.
This is not our only story. We have had many family members, friends, educators and providers who have been involved with our lives that have made a tremendous impact. Who have come alongside of our family, believed in us and guided us. These are the people who keep us moving forward. They help us know that we will get through any unexpected detours that are thrown in our path.
I have learned how to listen to and respect the voices of the people who have similarities to my son. I learn from people like Ameera, who candidly and courageously share their experiences so that I can better understand what might be happening for my own children. These stories and messages help me consider what may be helpful, and avoid the interventions or language that might end up causing harm. I know my child will not be young forever. He will grow up to be an adult, and so it is incredibly important to me that I hear and learn from adults who live this, and allow their stories to guide me and challenge my biases and perspectives.
I connect with other parents, learning about different resources that might be available to our family. Sharing what has worked for us, but also acknowledging that each family is on their own path and will find their way in their own time.
I seek out the stories and perspectives of service providers and educators, because their stories matter too. I want to understand the ways I can come alongside of them and support the work they are doing. When I know this, I can be a better partner in my son’s care.
This is definitely not what I expected my parenting journey to look like. However, it is the one I got, and I am thankful.