I want to say stuff about how it’s going with Chickadee, because I am so happy, every minute, and still whispering to Otto, “Is this real?” and surreptitiously pinching myself because it’s so much better than I’d dared to hope for, having her back home.
I don’t want to say anything about how it’s going with Chickadee, because if I’ve learned anything over the last 18 months or so, it’s that the things you think you can control or anticipate as a parent can change in an instant, in terrible ways, in ways you never considered, in ways that make people judge your family for things which truly fall under the “there but for the grace of God go I” umbrella (though no one wants to believe it could happen to them), and I am afraid if I shout “IT’S AWESOME!” from the rooftops, the good will end.
But mostly I want to say stuff because it gets better. It got better. And for a long time, I didn’t know if it would. I don’t want to not celebrate out of fear of the unknown. This isn’t the end of the story, but it’s a damn fine middle and worthy of celebration.
You want to know how it’s going? IT IS FUCKING FANTASTIC. I assured my girl over and over that even while she was living at her dad’s, we would talk all the time—phone, texting, messaging, email—and we did. We really did. But it’s not the same. It’s not the same as threatening to step outside in my polka-dotted bathrobe when the bus rolls up in the morning, it’s not the same as all of us being around the kitchen table for dinner while sibling one-upmanship turns raucous, it’s not the same as that bedtime hug every night. It’s just not. And you know, she was at her dad’s for four+ months, and in the hospital for four months before that, and it has been a really long time since our family was whole. It went on for so long, I think I started to forget what I was missing. I mean, not consciously, but it was too hard, everything I missed. I tamped it down, stomped on those pangs to quell them before they could eat me from the inside out. And so now every day something ordinary happens where I do a double-take because I’m teary over the mundane because for too long, it wasn’t like this.
I’m also just so proud of my kid I could just burst. I am used to being proud of her for academic achievements or participation in stuff, of course, but this is different. I know grown-ass adults who can’t get on top of their issues. We all know people who spend their entire lives never confronting their demons, and have seen the wreckage that can be found in their wakes as a result. Chickadee is 14. Only 14. (MAH BAYBEE!) And this past year she has had to work harder than seems fair, deal with stuff a lot of adults could never handle, and it sucked, and some of it will continue to suck, and yet… she does the hard work. She pushes through.
I feel tongue-tied when faced with the “correct” language to discuss mental illness. On the one hand, it enrages me when people stigmatize this stuff, as if greater moral fortitude could prevent someone’s genetics from producing a bona fide ailment. Obviously I am all for greater acceptance of these issues being recognized as real health matters and de-stigmatized. On the other hand, just as addiction is an illness, an addict can still be expected? encouraged? to choose and FIGHT FOR sobriety. And the same thing applies for many other forms of mental illness. This is where the language gets tricky. There’s a wide swath of awkward communication between “this is an illness” and “take personal responsibility” where the language is clunky and feelings get hurt, and that goes double for a minor—how much responsibility can you expect a young teen to take when in the grips of something awful, with a brain that isn’t finished forming?
I feel like all we can do, as parents, is try to get our kid to the right places, for the best treatment, and build a supportive, encouraging home structure, and pray a lot. And even then, it might not be enough. There are plenty of amazing kids with loving and dedicated parents who don’t make it out of this kind of hell intact. It’s nobody’s fault. Sometimes the illness wins. It’s not fair.
God knows we tried to make the right choices, and I’m sure some of them were wrong. I’m sure we’ll make more mistakes, too. We’re human. And a lot of the choices you have to make when your family is in crisis are impossible. I would love to be able to wave around a medal (yes, there should be a medal) and say “Yes, this is how you save your child, let me show you the way.” But even some of the best choices WE made were ones born of dumb luck, and MOST of what worked here was Chickadee finding her way to better choices, sometimes also via dumb luck, sometimes intentionally.
We have no medals here. That’s okay. But in case you’re interested, here’s what’s different, now:
She’s on the right medications. I don’t see any reason to equivocate about that or be embarrassed about it. She has a condition which tends to respond favorably to psychotropic drug treatment; after seeing a LOT of doctors and trying a lot of different things, she is currently doing really well on a cocktail which seems to be perfect. I hope it continues to work forever or until she doesn’t need it anymore. The reality is that psychotropic drugs are bitches and sometimes your body’s chemistry changes and/or sometimes the drugs just stop working. Right now she’s doing great. The reality is that this may change and we may have to head back to the drawing board. We’ll see.
Not all therapy works and not all therapists are good fits, but we kept trying. Chickadee’s had a lot of ineffective therapy over the last couple of years, but despite her sometimes-assurances that therapy was stupid and dumb and did she mention stupid, we kept trying to get her with folks who could help her. And while we missed her like crazy while she was up north, that afforded her the opportunity to participate in a group therapy situation unlike anything we had locally here, and it’s obvious to me that she got a lot out of that. Also before she came home I called 30 different doctors, armed with all of our past failures and successes, to find her the right team to keep helping her move forward. It’s easy to get knocked down by the stuff that doesn’t work, but you have to remember to keep getting up again.
I took control and I learned to let go. For a control freak like me, having a complicated sick kid was just… the absolute worst. I want to fix it and I can’t fix it and then my brain oozes out my ears. I went and got myself an extremely pragmatic therapist who basically does two things with me: She teaches me how to accept and let go of things I cannot control, and she has taught me how to change MY behavior to better support my child. It is not an exaggeration to say that I parent very differently now than I did before all of this happened. Not that I was a terrible mom before or I’m perfect now, but the lesson of “you cannot control your child but you can change how you conduct yourself to best support and guide her towards productive choices” is a humbling one. It’s hard work and I didn’t waaaaant to, but whoa, what a difference it has made. For his part, Otto has been a unflagging cheerleader throughout this process, and even now every time I handle something the “new” way, he’ll drop a quiet, “Nice work” or “well handled” to let me know I’m on track and he’s there with me.
There is strength and gratitude in survivorship. I can’t speak for Chickie, I suppose, but I can tell you that FOR ME there is a huge undercurrent of “let’s not go back to that” coursing through my life. I suspect it’s something similar for her. The scary stuff has already happened. Knowing we got through everything that came before makes even the hard moments now seem more bearable. Oh, this? This isn’t nearly so bad as that was. We can handle this.
Life offers no guarantees. We’re (sometimes painfully) aware. But our family is working hard to stay happy and healthy, and I, for one, am grateful for every bit of it.