By Valerie Cantella
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at suicidepreventionlifeline.org to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.
When I became a mom at 27, I had dreams for a perfect life. I envisioned Hallmark-style Mother’s Days filled with cards, flowers and breakfast in bed. But over the years, that dream vanished. And one Mother’s Day, I found myself in the hospital’s psychiatric unit, praying my 17-year-old son, Nick, would live. He thought the solution to his pain was making an attempt on his life, and I was heartbroken.
Before this incident, my attention had been on my 15-year-old daughter, Katie, who has a reactive attachment disorder, autism, bipolar disorder and several other diagnoses. These issues required much of my time and energy, and her problems were multilayered. Doctors disagreed on the diagnosis, and we didn’t receive the necessary social-emotional support from the school system. Ultimately, I didn’t really care about the cause of Katie’s struggles; I just longed for a solution that would allow her to live peacefully and independently, without being placed on frequent psychiatric holds.
With Nick, I never saw it coming. I was barely keeping my head above water in dealing with Katie’s issues. When he was withdrawn and irritable, I chalked it up to teenage angst and never considered my handsome surfer son, with all the potential in the world, needed help. Nothing could describe my brokenness as I realized that not just one, but both children were struggling with their mental health.
As a perfectionist, I beat myself up for not knowing. The signs of depression and anxiety didn’t appear in “What to Expect When Your Expecting” or the other parenting books I read in my attempt to raise my children. No one in my family suffered from mental health issues, and I didn’t hear any conversation about it in the parenting or school community.
In the months before Nick’s suicide attempt, our relationship had deteriorated. He’d said I was a bad mother; evidently, I had never loved and cared for him. I was selfish and self-centered. I lived in a world of white picket fences where everything had to be perfect. So, on that Mother’s Day, while I sat by my son’s hospital bed, I wished I could resign. The position of mother had become a badge of shame.
I came to realize something painful. Over the years, I had done an excellent job of maintaining a perfect façade. On the outside, things looked good. I was professionally accomplished. My house was clean and organized. My kids were bathed and fed. And I didn’t look like a mess. But I was a complete disaster on the inside. My marriage had deteriorated, my daughter had severe issues and my son had just attempted suicide. The façade shattered — but ultimately, that was a blessing. In the rebuilding of my life, I learned a few lessons:
Over the years, I sought therapy, which provided some relief. But I never knew where to turn for peer support. Few people understood what I was going through with my daughter because she was so unique, as she navigated her emotions surrounding her diagnoses and her adoption. She didn’t fit neatly into most support group categories, and few people, even medical professionals, understood reactive attachment disorder.
Eventually, I found a weekly support group for parents of teens through our mental wellness center. It was a lifesaver to share my unpredictable and imperfect life in a safe place without judgment. Years later, I learned about NAMI’s Family-to-Family course and the amazing resources available to parents and loved ones.
One thing I was surprised to learn was that managing mental illness is like dealing with any other medical condition: it is part art and part science. Having been a type 1 diabetic since the age of 10, I am intimately familiar with the need to constantly monitor multiple factors for a successful day. I can do everything perfectly and my body can decide not to cooperate — causing my blood sugars to skyrocket or plummet — both of which are dangerous.
When mental illness first showed up in our family, I thought that by taking a pill, everything would go back to “normal.” But I was wrong. While medication has its place — working for one person but not another — there are so many other factors that contribute to having a good day.
For example, both my children do better when they eat well, exercise, don’t isolate and get enough sleep (but not too much). My daughter does better with medication, and my son does not. But there isn’t a perfect formula for either of their well-being, just like there isn’t for my diabetes. And this was something I had to experience to understand.
Recognizing that I couldn’t resign from motherhood, I opened myself up to taking a different approach. I learned to be nicer to myself and to stop the negative self-talk. I examined my role in our family to understand how to do better in the future, and I educated myself on mental health — both mine and my kids. And I’m so grateful I did.
Through self-care, therapy, journaling, prayer, support groups and 12-step recovery meetings, I went from surviving to thriving. I grew and found healing. If I hadn’t gone through those traumatic experiences, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, which sounds so simplistic. But the message is important: If my life had gone according to my script, I wouldn’t have this wonderfully imperfect life, living with joy despite the hardships.
Valerie Cantella is passionate about helping others who have a loved one with mental health and substance abuse issues. She is the author of “Off-Script: a mom’s journey through adoption, a husband’s alcoholism, and special needs parenting,” and she serves on Santa Barbara County’s Behavioral Wellness Commission.
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