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Anna discusses raising a son with childhood-onset schizophrenia on a Midwestern farm, the journey to the right diagnosis & medications, and what there is to celebrate.
SPEAKER: Welcome to the ‘Just Ask Mom’ podcast where mothers share their experiences of raising children with mental illness. ‘Just ask Mom’ is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today, we will speak with Anna, the mother of a son with early onset schizophrenia.
Anna: My name is Anna and I’m from the Midwest and … oh, gosh. I went to college for computer information systems, got my degree, worked for the railroad for a number of years in information systems and married a farmer. So it’s quite a diverse life.
Anna: Yeah, that’s a little bit about me.
Tammy: Very cool.
Anna: I always wanted to be a mom. Growing up, you know, I always imagined myself with five kids and when I got married to my husband, I mean, I just really imagined our life as a typical farm family, lots of kids and dogs and, you know, running around outside and life didn’t happen that way.
So we have one son, and he was actually adopted from Russia. He was 14 months old and at the time. We always expected when you adopt a child from an orphanage situation like that that there’s going be some catch up. There’s going to be some things that you need to do to play catch up. Matthew always stayed behind, though. He never was able to catch up and working through that as he got older, more and more issues came out and come to find out when he was 13 he was officially diagnosed with early onset schizophrenia. [He] had symptoms starting at the age of eight and that was a very hard thing to accept as a parent, especially when it’s your only– I mean, it’s always hard, but when it’s your only child and you’ve gone through so much to get this child and um– I went through a pretty major grieving process, you know–
Anna: So the thing that I want other parents to know: when you’re dealing with a child with special needs and that has such a serious illness, — it’s okay. It’s okay to grieve, it’s okay to grieve for that child that you had in your heart, that you expected, that you always pictured that you would have raised. That is a loss and you shouldn’t feel guilty about grieving for that child, but then you have to move past that. You have to get to a place where you accept that child for who they are. It’s easy to say and hard to do but once you get to that place where you have truly accepted that child for who they are and for their abilities– although they may be different than what you expected, you– you’ll find that things are easier. You’ll find that it’s not as hard to accept where they’re at and enjoy them for who they are and every day becomes easier.
Tammy: This is especially a lesson you have to learn in this particular situation but what you’re saying is true for any parent.
Anna: Sure. Absolutely. For any parent, any child. You can have a child that is neuro-typical but they don’t have the same likes as you do and they don’t have the same interests as you do and you guys are polar opposites and you still have to accept that child for who they are. You may butt heads but you have to realize they are their own individual. Absolutely. I think for my husband, I’ll kind of speak to that little bit– he’s a farmer. He’s a typical Midwestern farmer and grew up in a very sheltered environment, you know, didn’t ever really have any exposure to the big city and diversity and things like that, and it was, I mean, he had it in his mind his expectations of his child would be that they would help him farm. They would grow up learning that and doing that and that wasn’t something that Matthew could do. That was really hard for him to accept and as long as he wasn’t accepting that, as long as he was fighting that internally, he was miserable. Once he was able to accept that, he could move on with his life and he could be happy and enjoy his son again. And so it’s not just for the child, it’s for us.
Anna: You know, and I’m not saying that everything’s roses once you accept that -once you learn. Some people accept that easier than others and it’s not all peachy keen after that. You still have to fight for your child. I mean, I got involved with Mental Health Advocacy here in our State because there is so much lacking and there is so much that needs to be done yet. It’s not fair. We should not have to become mama bears at the school and fight so hard for what is rightfully deserving of them. And it is still an issue but it doesn’t become all consuming, I guess, once you can accept that I think it frees you up a little bit to stop obsessing about what they can’t do and focus on what they can and then that helps you when forming that IEP [Individualized Education Plan] and when talking to the doctors and trying to find a medication that works, then you’re not as miserable doing all of that I guess.
Tammy: Absolutely. One thing you and I talked about and I was wondering if you’d share here is (and this fits into what you’re talking about with expectations) is how your parenting changes because what your child needs is not the traditional method of parenting.
Anna: Right. Absolutely. Again, my husband is a farmer and he grew up, and myself too, I grew up in the Midwest. I was raised when I was young on a farm and then we lived in a small town and we were both very much raised by ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ – I mean with very common sense parenting and spanking was not unheard of. That was just how we were raised and that’s the example we had as parents and so when he was young and things would happen, I mean, we didn’t spank. That wasn’t really what we wanted to do, but we would use sticker charts, we would use timeout, we would use all the things that you could think of, grounding and taking rewards and punishments. We tried everything and nothing ever seemed to work. It was so very frustrating and you would get so angry and frustrated and then you find yourself raising your voice and you’re yelling and it’s constant and nothing ever works and you’re just pulling your hair out. Once we finally accepted his diagnosis and learned we simply can’t expect the same things. We cannot put as many demands on them. That’s part of that acceptance process that I was talking about as a parent – accepting your child for who they are and what they can do and once you realize that, then naturally your expectations change and so your parenting style does change.
Tammy: Thank you for that. That’s right. So, we ask everyone this. We know it changes from moment to moment. At this exact moment, do you feel like you’re swimming, treading water, sinking? Where do you feel like you’re at?
Anna: I feel like we’re swimming.
Anna: I feel like we are– it just makes me want to cry. I think [laugh] because we have come so far. I mean we came from a place where, I would say five years ago I was not sure I was ever going be able to have my son in my house again. He was violent and we had to place him in the PMIC [Pediatric Mental Institution for Children] and we just didn’t know where to go. We had no idea where to turn for help. We could not control him any longer. I just couldn’t imagine him ever coming back home, ever graduating from high school, ever having a life that was meaningful to him. Let alone something that we could call successful. Today he is getting ready to graduate from high school, he has been back home with us for almost five years and he’s getting ready to graduate high school, he’s going to prom.
Tammy: This is so wonderful.
Anna: He is just– he is excelling in so many ways and I could have never imagined that. So, I mean, we’re in love with life right now.
Tammy: A lot of hard work went into that.
Anna: A lot of hard work went into that. It was a combination of the doctors and finding the right medication, getting the right diagnosis first of all and then finding the right medications, and then finding the right school. We ended up finding this awesome therapeutic school that he went to for about three years and they were just phenomenal. So finding the right school environment and changing our parenting style and having the right support at home. We had a waiver from the State that allowed some in-home assistance, you know, with therapy and things like that and all of those things created this beautiful movement towards putting him on the path to success
Tammy: And now he’s a contributing member of society.
Tammy: He’s working.
Anna: He has a job lined up for after he graduates. He’s planning on having his own apartment. I have every reason to believe that he will be successful. Five years ago I couldn’t have imagined that.
Tammy: Right. So, all of those services made all that difference.
Anna: Everything made all the difference. It was not just one thing that I could point to, without one thing, without the others would not have had made much of an impact. I don’t believe.We had to change every aspect of his life to help set him up for success and help him learn about his illness and help him accept his illness because that’s a whole process too.
Anna: And he knows, I mean, I have probably the biggest reason that I feel like he will be successful is because he knows he has an illness. He accepts he has an illness. He knows the medication helps him and he is absolutely adamant about taking that medication because he knows that helps him. So many times with schizophrenia people start to believe that the medication is making them sick –I’m not saying that that might not happen in the future. This is just where we’re at today, but he knows [the medication] helps him and he wants to take it and if that continues that is what will help him be successful and help him work.
Tammy: I just want to sort of have you bring out one other piece because I think this is so important for parents that are in the middle of the journey, like where you were five years ago. You had mentioned he was eight when he started having symptoms but he got his diagnosis of early onset schizophrenia at 14.
Anna: At 13.
Tammy: Oh, at 13. So, there were many years of changing diagnoses and not knowing.
Anna: For five years, it went from PDD NOS to, well, first, it started out at age six, that was ADHD, and then at age eight it was Tourette Syndrome and PDD NOS, which is Pervasive Development Disorder [Not Otherwise Specified], and he was having hallucinations at that time and the psychiatrist told us then that some people that are diagnosed with PDD NOS go on to officially be diagnosed with schizophrenia. So, it was thrown out at that time but he was way too young to have that diagnosis. It was just going to be time would tell and then it went on. We went on to add generalized anxiety disorder and OCD and then bipolar mood disorder and all of these diagnosis brought on other medications. And every medication specifically to treat the mood disorder or to treat the anxiety or to treat the ADHD– they all did different things to his system. We just never knew what was doing what, and so it was really hard to suss out what was him or was the medication. And so it was a constant changing of medication and trying to find a combination that worked and this whole time he’s getting worse. He is getting sicker and no one was really addressing the psychosis, which was really the elephant in the room. He was so bad by the time he went into residential that he was completely incontinent both urinary and bowel. He couldn’t get through an hour without a meltdown of some sort and getting angry. He wasn’t sleeping at night at all.He would be up all night. There were times before he went into residential, we were taking turns sleeping in his room. He had trundle bed in his room. We would shut his door, push the trundle bed back up against the door and sleep in his room with him. He wouldn’t sleep but at least we knew he was safe, Then we could sleep. Before that he was up all night and he was doing things that were not appropriate like taking apart light sockets, painting the wall, taking apart his closet doors and at one point he got a hold of some candles and matches and was playing with those, burning spot on the floor. Luckily he didn’t catch the whole house on fire but, he was hiding knives in his room. There were a lot of things he was doing that were dangerous – so that was one piece of it but then he was trying to put his head through windows. [There was a lot of self-harm and there was a lot of hospitalizations in there too. He was having a lot of hallucinations – seeing knives coming out of the walls and Mario was chasing him around the house with the battle ax. When we first realized he was having hallucinations, I’ll never forget. He came up to me, he was eight years old and he came up to me and he was crying and he said, mommy, I don’t want to kill myself, and I said, well ,what do you mean you don’t– of course, you don’t want to kill yourself. Well, I don’t want to stab myself but they keep telling me to stab myself and I’m like who? – trying to figure out who they are. Is it somebody at school bullying him? This was on a Saturday I think and so I– no, a Friday – kept him home from school, called the psychiatrist. Long story short, we ended up going in to the hospital to be evaluated. They didn’t– because he was so young– and he didn’t really have a plan. He didn’t want to die. So they didn’t admit him but that was our first realization. Then in the ER, when they were talking to him, they were asking him, does he ever see odd things and he’s talking about these people he sees hanging from nooses, [it was] very gory. I was just completely shocked. Not long after that we were in the grocery store and he just looked at me with this forlorn long look on his face and he said, mommy, why– why does God make me see all these people that aren’t here, which was really interesting when he said that they aren’t here.
Tammy: He knew?
Anna: He knew they weren’t real and I said what do you mean, do you see them right now? We were in the grocery store in an aisle with no other customers and I said do you see them right now and he said, yeah, and I said, well, how many people do you see and he just sighed rather heavily and he said too many to count. It freaked me out in the beginning–
Tammy: Yeah, of course.
Anna: Of course. I wasn’t ready to accept the diagnosis of schizophrenia even at the age 13, even after five years of going through all those changes and all those med changes and all those different diagnoses. I kept thinking it’s not possible for one child to have so many things wrong with them. It’s not possible for one child to have all these different diagnoses and you know and then they added schizophrenia on top of this I just I couldn’t believe it. There had to be another explanation. So we went to doctors all over, we went to Mayo Clinic, we saw a lot of specialists, thinking well, maybe it’s something genetic, maybe there’s another explanation – another diagnosis that encompasses all of these and to no avail. Nothing else was ever found. I really think– I believe and I don’t know if the doctors would agree but I believe that schizophrenia is the main diagnosis. Schizophrenia is his diagnosis. It’s just that when you’re six and you have developing schizophrenia – and I should say schizophrenia and mood disorder combined. He definitely has a mood disorder, but when you have these things and you’re six, it looks like ADHD. And then when you’re eight, because the movements and things go along with the schizophrenia – it still is technically, clinically Tourette syndrome but um–
Tammy: But that’s pretty generally defined, right? Like, over a year you have a vocal and a motor tic.
Anna: Absolutely. But if you look at people with schizophrenia a lot of them do have movement disorders. And so does he fit the diagnosis in all these? Absolutely, if you look at it from a clinical standpoint. But you have to look at the bigger picture and say guess what. He has schizophrenia and because he has schizophrenia it causes him to have a lot of anxiety. I mean, schizophrenia is like granddaddy of anxiety disorders! So, of course, it’s going looks like he has generalized anxiety disorder and OCD and he is going be inattentive. So it’s kind of looks like he has ADHD because he can’t focus on anything because all he has is this internal stimulation. And he’s going to have movement disorders because that’s just part of what goes along with it and so, does he have all these diagnoses? No. He has schizophrenia.
Tammy: But that was a really long journey to get to it.
Tammy: I’m really glad that you’re sharing this because there are so many moms who might be hearing this, who are in the middle of it and it just seems like they’re never going to get to a point where things are okay. And you share that they can.
Anna: You can. Absolutely you can. You will get there and it won’t seem like it at the time. Some days it will absolutely tear you apart, but keep pushing, keep persevering, keep being an advocate for your child. Be that mama bear that you need to be and you’ll get there. You know I told my husband we’re going to have this graduation party for my son and I said you know, I’m pulling out all the stops for this graduation party. I said because this is just as much my retirement party as his graduation party because I’ve made a complete career out of his education and getting him to where he is now. Now I can kind of sit back — not that my job’s completely over –but I can relax a little bit and let him kind of begin his life and I feel confident that he can do that right now.
Tammy: Okay, this is about as heavy as life can get, right? So, we ask everyone the same last question. What’s your most laughable moment and I’m sure there have been many but what comes to mind as something that makes you smile through all this?
Anna: Oh gosh. I don’t know if I have that one laughable moment. I know there’s a lot of moments I look back on and think, God, why the heck did I do that? and kind of beat myself up over it. I think back and it’s kind of funny now– but it’s not really but I don’t know maybe you guys can relate. So, this one time Matthew was five, I want to say and looking back now I know he has some developing psychosis but of course at that time I had no clue.
Tammy: Five year old’s have big imaginations so it’s not easy to know.
Anna: Absolutely, and like I said, we did not like to spank Matthew.
Anna: I mean, I was at my wits end. Nothing was working as far as punishments and rewards and timeouts and I mean I put him in time out and he would just laugh at me. So I decided I just had enough and we went to the mall. I had to go in real quick. He didn’t handle the stores very well at all at that time but I had to go in there and pick up one item for a baby shower, something real quick, and I told him,“ if you can just bear with me and we’re going run in here, I’m going get one thing and we’re going to go back out and then we’ll go to McDonald’s.” You know, his favorite place to eat and we will get some chicken nuggets and you know, I said, “just please,” you know, I’m begging with him. I’m bartering with him at the time, and of course, we go in the mall and he starts. He is just being an obstinate little kid hollering about, “I wanna go, I wanna leave”. Looking back I think he was fearful. Yeah. I think he was afraid.
Tammy: I see.
Anna: And I think he was probably seeing things and hearing things that I didn’t know anything about.
Anna: He just kept hollering at the top of his lungs how he wanted to leave wanted to go. I told him, I said, “Matthew if you don’t stop right now then I’m going to spank you.” He just looked at me. I’m telling myself, it’s come to this. I have to do this. He kept on, he kept on. I said, okay, every time that you holler out that’s one more spanking. So we never did make it to the store. I ended up turning around and going back to the car and no McDonald’s. We were going home and we lived about 30 minutes from this mall. So, all the way home he is laughing at me and giving me this shitty little grin. He says, “your spankings don’t hurt. You can’t hurt me!”, you know just being this little shit. And so I kept adding one to it every time he would back talk me. I would add one to it, by the time I got home I was up to like 36 you know, and I had to follow through.
Anna: I had to spank him 36 times.
Anna: And it was horrible but I did it and it didn’t help. You know, he laughed, he– and it was that manic crazy laugh the whole time through it and looking back now I know that he was dealing with psychosis. I had no clue what psychosis was. I had no clue what mental illness was at that time.
And, you know, that’s another thing through this whole process – I have learned so much about mental illness. I used to be one of those that I looked at homeless people and thought, “if I can get a job, if I can pull myself up by my bootstraps then you can too.” I didn’t understand what severe mental illness was. I really didn’t and I didn’t have a lot of compassion for those people. I feel like that’s part of why God put Matt in my life because he wanted me to learn that lesson. He wanted me to understand and have more compassion. Not that that moment at the mall was funny but looking back, you know, I mean we have to kind of laugh at ourselves and at the judgement calls we make and not beat ourselves up about it too much because we’re going to make those mistakes. We don’t know. It’s a learning process.
Anna: And we have to continue learning.
Tammy: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate this. I know many people will benefit from your story.
Anna: Thank you.
Speaker: You have been listening to ‘Just Ask Mom’ recorded and copyrighted in March 2017 by Mother’s on the Frontline. Today’s Podcast host is Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English”, written, performed and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcasts on this and other series relating to Children’s Mental Health, go to Mothers on the Frontline.com.