A study conducted by the NHS in 2017 shows that one in eight 5 to 19 year olds had a mental disorder in 2017. Quite a staggering number that’s likely to be even more shocking now in 2019.
If you’d have told me one year ago that my daughter would be one of those eight young people with mental illness I’d have shaken my head at you. “Not my child. Despite her disabilities and health problems, she’s strong, happy – mental illness won’t affect her.” Yet here I sit, writing this blog.
After three heart surgeries and two years spending more time in hospital than at home, my beautiful daughter began to fade away from me emotionally. The light in her eyes dimmed, that spark diminished until the light was consumed by the darkness she was battling with.
Fast-forward to today. May 2019. My young lady, at the age of 15, hasn’t eaten a damn thing for a week, spending most of her time shut behind her bedroom door. She’s been self-harming, but hasn’t for a few weeks – which, according to the psychologist, is because she’s lacking the energy to do anything but exist.
I’ve tried everything I can think of to help, but she doesn’t want me close, she’s told me and other family members to “go away” more than she accepts affection and support.
I came to a realisation – one that isn’t particularly helpful – in fact, I’d argue it made me feel a hell of a lot worse – it’s not my job at this point to fix the problem. I can’t fix the problem. This is an incredibly difficult concept for a parent to come to terms with. If our children hurt themselves, or are in pain, we patch them up, give them paracetamol, hold them tight, and eventually they’ll feel better. When your child has a mental illness you cannot take it away; all you can do is sit with them in their sadness, keep them as safe as possible, and with your actions, let them know they are not alone.
There is light within these dark moments, there are times I see her smile or hear her laugh, and I appreciate it so much more now than ever before. As parents we take those things for granted until they’re gone and all we hope to see every day is a glimmer of the child we once knew.
I wanted to write this blog to get a few things across to other parents who may need the extra support right now. It’s also hugely cathartic for me. Being a parent (who has her own mental illnesses too) of a child with a mental illness is hard, heartbreaking, and often leaves me feeling hopeless.
Things I want you to know, from one parent to another.
Children and young people are resilient.
If you’re worried you’re going to make matters worse, it’s highly unlikely you will. No matter how much my daughter makes it clear she doesn’t want me around, I know deep down that she does. She’s scared. Fuck, I’m scared. I cry with her at times and I began to wonder whether that made matters worse. But it didn’t. I explained that it’s okay to cry, that it’s okay to feel dark things, even though they are unwanted, and most importantly, it’s okay to not be okay. What I want you to know is that so long as you behave with the love, kindness, compassion, and understanding of a parent, you will not make matters worse. Love is a powerful thing, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
It’s okay to not know what the hell you are doing.
I’d be lying if I said I knew what I was doing. Sure, there are times where I think, ‘I’ve got this, things are improving’ and then things change and I think ‘I have no fucking idea what I’m doing here.’ Does this make me a bad mother? Not in the slightest. Parenting – adulting too – doesn’t come with a manual. Times change, trends change, and childhood today is nothing like when we were kids. For instance, we didn’t have social media. We evolve as parents, shift our parenting depending on the age of the child, their social and emotional abilities – there are lots of things to consider when parenting, and sometimes, we just don’t know. And that is okay. I want every human-being to remember that it’s not a sign of weakness to admit you don’t know what you’re doing and there’s huge strength in following that disclosure with a request for help and advice.
It’s okay to be frustrated and angry.
This is something I have struggled with hugely over the past few weeks. We’ve been to therapy, a psychologist, and nothing seems to make a dent in my beautiful daughters’ mood. She gets mad with me, tells me I don’t understand, when the truth is, I really do understand. Though, if you’re a parent that doesn’t, it’s okay to not understand too. (More of that in a moment.) My daughter thinks no one understands, that no one can help; she’s lost within the darkness and I’m trying to hang the stars to light her way, but it feels like every time I hang a star, she tears it down.
It’s frustrating. I feel hopeless. Angry. And that makes me feel incredibly guilty. But I realised that it’s okay to feel these powerful emotions because it’s fuelled by my love and my desire to make the sun rise in her skies again so I can watch her view the world with that innocent wonder I once witnessed with my own eyes.
If you feel this way, it’s okay.
It’s okay to not understand.
If you’ve not experienced mental illness personally, it’s likely that you won’t understand. It’s okay to not get it. There’s many things you can do to understand. Asking your child to describe how they feel if they’re able (or even adults or friends you know that are struggling) is an incredibly powerful way of understanding the individual. Mental illness, whilst similar for many, is also vastly different from person to person in terms of symptoms. Be open. Start conversations. Speak to others who have been through it. Read about it. Inform yourself. Then you will understand. It’s a guarantee.
It’s okay to need help too.
Having a child who has a mental illness will often impact the entire household unit. It’s also not uncommon for it to affect your mental health. Go to see your GP and ask for support for your own mental wellbeing. Practice good self-care, too. It’s important. Make it a habit. I’ve been victim of doing precisely the opposite and it’s had a negative impact on my own emotional health.
You are not a failure.
I feel like I’ve failed almost daily. I’ve had days where nothing I do or say is helpful – or so it feels, and I feel like I am a failure. However, someone who I love dearly once told me that you can’t be a failure if you never give up. And they’re right. Have I given up? No. That’s my child, and no matter her age, I’ll never give up. If I don’t give up, I haven’t failed. The same goes for you too. You aren’t failing. You’re doing all you can for your child, and for that, you’re an amazing parent.
Celebrate the minutiae.
As I said above, I treasure the times I see my girl smile or laugh. They may be few and far between, but I quietly celebrate them. I praise her strength and resilience. I know from experience how hard just getting out of bed can be when the black dog is by your side. Celebrate those small things. Find the positive in every day because as the quote says, “every day may not be good, but there’s something good in every day.” Hold those moments close and remember that there is light at the end of the tunnel, you’ve just got to keep on keeping on.
Finally, for those of you reading this, whether you’re a parent of a child with mental illness, or whether you yourself have mental ill health, you are not alone. I co-founded PoetsIN with Paul to help those who struggle. We have a number of services available. If you are feeling alone, however, you can join our amazing online community here, or you can check out our other services on our About Us page.
Stay strong. Speak up. We’ll listen.