Raising a young son with Tourette’s Syndrome, Just Ask Mom Podcast Series, episode 3

In this episode, Emily talks about her journey raising a young son with Tourette’s Syndrome. She talks about the importance of community building on many levels, including strengthening relationships within the family and marriage, her church, her son’s school, and the larger community. By educating those in their lives about Tourette’s Syndrome, her son can be himself and feel part of a supportive and understanding community. She also discusses the importance of intentional planning of self-care and ways to make it happen.

Topics include: Tourette’s Syndrome, Self-Care, Family, Community, Advocating for your child at school.

Resources mentioned in this podcast:

Tourette Association of America  – (Formerly known as the Tourette Syndrome Association) focuses on awareness, research, and support.

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The book: The Fringe Hours by Jessica Turner

Transcription

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 to Emily, a mother of a son with Tourette’s Syndrome, living in Iowa.

Tammy: Well, I was wondering if you could just start by telling us a little about yourself?

Emily: Sure, my name is Emily and I’m a wife and a mom of two kids. I have a daughter who’s seven and I have a son who’s nine, and my nine-year-old son has Tourette’s syndrome. Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological condition that causes a variety of motor and vocal tics. So, in my son’s case he has a coughing tic, blinks his eyes, will have shoulder raises and that kind of thing. So, we have just had the diagnosis for a couple of years, so we’re sort of new to all of this but he is a joy in our family and we’re just really learning how to best care and best parent him.

Tammy: Awesome. So, before we get started I’m just going to ask you to step back for a moment and tell us a little bit about you either before mothering or outside of mothering, a little bit about you.

Emily: Yeah, I have a lot of different interests. My faith is a really important interest of mine, I just really enjoy being a part of a church and that’s just a really important piece of who I am. I also really just love creating things so I love to sew, I love to bake, I love to make cards. They do have to have a finite ending to them.

Tammy: (laughs)

Emily: I’m not the scrap booker that can keep on going forever but I do love those short creative projects. I also love the Olympics and I’m a big Disney fan, it truly is my happy place. So, those are some of my passions and interests.

Tammy: Wonderful, thank you for that. I want you to pretend that you’re talking to other moms, what do you want them to know?

Emily: I would say that the thing that I would want them to know is how community is so important when you’re the parent of a child with Tourette’s syndrome or any special need. That community is a place where you can get support and encouragement but it really just helps you be a super confident mom and to be the best mom that you can be to your child. So, I thought I’d share a few places that have helped me in building community. One of them is just within the family itself. I asked my son before I came here, “What’s the one thing that I do as your mom that helps you as a person living with Tourette’s Syndrome?” He said, “You just make it okay to have it.” A huge compliment from him, but just making sure that our family is a place that he feels safe and comfortable, that it’s a place he knows he can let all of his tics out when he gets home from school, or he can talk to us about how his tics are making him feel. Building community within our family means spending a lot of time together and it’s figuring out what that is. So, for us we love to play games together. We enjoy Disney together. (laughs). Traveling is a big bonding experience too. I’ve heard too that in parenting children with special needs, there’s a high divorce rate, and so, any time [spent] on our marriage is really important to us.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Emily: Our church offers a marriage conference once a year. It’s kind of like a tune up, like you think about taking in the car. We do that or we might read a book together just to have those times when we are really building our family together, so that we can be the best parents to our kids that we can. So, our family is one. Like I mentioned, my faith is really important to me and so our church community is important. Building relationships with our pastors, in particular building relationships with our children’s pastor and the Sunday school director, the Sunday school teacher has been really important just helping them understand what Tourette’s syndrome is and how they can best help him, because as important as our faith is to us and being a parent to a child with this diagnosis, it’s important to him.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Emily: So we’re building our community. We also have a small group that we get together with and ours happens to have other parents with children with special needs. And so, it’s just a great place for us to get to share about the challenges that we have but also to celebrate with each other when we do experience joys in our parenting journey. So, that’s been a really helpful place. Building community with other moms is really important to me. I have a mom’s group of girlfriends that we get together like once a month just to go out for dinner, and again they have children with special needs, some of them, and some of them don’t, but we’re all there to just encourage and support one another in our journey as moms and that’s just been a really important routine for me. I just try to really block that out on the calendar and make that time for it.

Tammy: Can you say a little bit about that, because I think that is so important, right? I’m sure there are so many things vying for your time.

Emily: Yes.

Tammy: It would be easy for that time to be taken over.

Emily: Yes.

Tammy: So, this has been something very intentional you’re doing.

Emily: Yes. I have to keep the “why” in mind. Knowing that taking the time to be with other moms to get that encouragement and support will help me be a better mom, a better wife, a better employee; all of those things if I spend time with them. And so if I know that “why”, then it really helps me to block that out on my calendar.

Tammy: I think that’s important. Especially I think moms, we can have a tendency to be like well, “I don’t want to be selfish,” Right? So, it’s not selfish it’s for all these other people that we’re taking care of ourselves.

Emily: Yes. So, that is a really big one. Another one that has been important to me is the online community. And I was part of a local Facebook group of moms for my area and there was a post one time that another mom had put on there that she had a child with Tourette’s syndrome and I was able to message her. We ended up getting together at a park, meeting in real life. Her son was just a couple years older than mine, so I was just able to just ask her about what the challenges were, that we might experience in the future. She was able to give me some resources in our local area, medical resources, community resources that would help my child. And so, it’s just so amazing to build that online community and turn it into real life community. We also have various support organizations that are online so we have an Iowa Tourette’s support group and even though we’ve only done one thing in person with them, I just know that that’s a place that I can go if I have a question. I’m sure I can message any one of them and they would help me out. They’ve been a really big support in terms of just being there, available. Also, the Tourette’s Association of America has been incredibly resourceful. They do these webinars every month and I’ve just found as a mom, like, I can sit in my pajamas, I can watch it, and I can feel like I’m connected to people across the country, able to ask questions on their chat, or hear what other parents are asking and that’s just been a really big encouragement from the online community for me.

Tammy: That’s wonderful. Was you son able to meet other kids with Tourette’s and how was that for him?

Emily: He was. He was able to meet the son of the mom that I had met online, and that was huge for him.  I think he felt really encouraged getting to meet him. “Hey, there is someone else out there who’s like me.” There’s a huge power in that for me too.

Tammy: Yes, yes there is.

Emily: As both a mom and as a child I think. For him to hear a kid say, “I have Tourette’s too.” It was just so empowering for him to know “Hey, I can do this, you know, look at him, he’s a couple years older and he’s making it through school, and he has difficulties just like I do and we’re working on it.” And so, I think that was just really encouraging for him to meet others too. Yeah.

Tammy: Thank you. I didn’t mean to cut you off though. Did you have others?

Emily: There were others. A couple of other areas of building community that have been important. One is just at his school. Building relationships with people at school and it’s where they’re at such a big part of their day and we have been so fortunate to have a very supportive school that has been wonderful to work with. He’s had numerous teachers that have made the accommodations that he’s needed, that have listened to him, that have worked with us, that have contacted me when there’s been a difficulty, but also celebrated with me when there’s progress made in the classroom. They been great to incorporate literature in the classroom about Tourette’s syndrome, and to just allow the class to hear about it, you know, through a book; which is awesome because my son’s a big reader. And so, to have that be the medium for him was so important. I just loved how they saw that and used that for him. So just building those relationships. Also knowing who in the school, sometimes it’s not their primary teacher. But who those people are in school that are safe for him to talk to when I’m not there. I think every kid loves their kindergarten teacher. So, he loves his kindergarten teacher and just knows that she’s someone that he can go to any time of the day, and if you need support that she’s there for him. Our school secretary is amazing, our guidance counselor, we’ve really worked with her on being able to help him. Especially perfectionistic attitudes are really common with children with Tourette’s and so she has been able to help him develop strategies to handle stress during especially test taking time, is a time when there’s a lot of tics going on usually. And so, it’s been just great to build relationships with those other people in the building. To support him in his journey too. And then the last place we’ve worked on building community is just in the medical community and with counselors in the area as well. just knowing who to call because it is interesting in that you can wake up one day and it’s totally different than the day before. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen and just having those resources, know what they are ahead of time, what’s available in the community has helped me feel more confident as a mom because then I know, “Okay, if this happens then I can try to contact this person” and see what the next step might be.

Tammy: Yeah. I mean on the issue of Tourette’s, because I’m more familiar with that, the medical community is so important because when you have a young developing child sometimes it’s not clear if something’s a tic or a symptom of something else.

Emily: Yes.

Tammy: And so, a lot of sniffling tics are thought to be allergies for a while, right?

Emily: Yes!

Tammy: Things like that. So, it’s complicated. So, I think that’s really important that you have this comfortable relationship with the medical team, to understand sometimes it’s just a kid getting sick, and sometimes that’s a tic. (laughs)

Emily: Sometimes it develops into a tic, and sometimes you just gotta wait and see. But it’s hard to wait and see.

Tammy: Right.

Emily: So, just knowing what those resources are in the meantime has been just incredibly encouraging to me.

Tammy: Wonderful. Thank you so much. So, you sound like you’re doing great right now.

Emily: (laughs)

Tammy: But, I want to ask you, we ask everyone this, at this moment how do you feel – do you feel like you’re swimming, drowning, treading water, where do you feel like you’re at?

Emily: So, I do feel like we are swimming at this point. Well you know, if you do think of it like a pool, I would say I feel like we have jumped into the water, we are not looking around getting our bearings anymore, we know where we are heading. But we’re heading into the deep end of the pool because with Tourette’s Syndrome, things often get worse near the tween and teen years, before they get better. And so, we are in the shallow waters. But, I would say that by building that community that we’ve got some of those flotation devices.

Tammy: (laughs) Right?

Emily: In the water. And we’re learning some of those strokes, and how to swim. And so, we know that we’re swimming right now, but we’re heading into deeper waters. But, I think that because we’ve got the support, I feel really confident about where we’re heading.

Tammy: That’s really important. Sometimes you never know for an individual, but there are these tendencies with a certain condition, and you can try to prepare, right? And be as ready as possible for those. That’s really a good point. So, what is your self-care routine? How do you take care of yourself? Now you said some of this already, but are there other things?

Emily: What I would first say is that it is really difficult, I think any mom finds it difficult to take care of themselves.

Tammy: Yes (laughs).

Emily: I think especially when you have a child with special needs it can be extra difficult to find that time to take care of yourself, but it’s maybe even more important. So, again keeping that “why” in front of you is huge. For me, one of the changes for me in thinking about self-care, because my husband works a lot of hours and so it is difficult for him to be there and to, you know, watch the kids while I go do something. So, finding ways that I can do self-care in a way that I’m not always depending on him is important  – to be able to sort of create it myself. One of the books that I read that was really important was called The Fringe Hours by Jessica Turner. She talks about how you can redeem little pockets of time throughout the day. There’s so much time that we waste throughout the day. She talks about using waiting in the lobby for a doctor’s appointment or waiting in car line at school. Those are times when we’re sometimes just sitting there twiddling our thumbs, but they can really be redeemed for self-care. I’d highly recommend that book to others. But something that I’ve done and learned from her, is to just keep notes. I love writing, it is my love language – I love to send cards to other people. So, just keeping cards in my purse to be able to write those to other people. I just love doing that. And keeping a book I like to read so being able to have a book downloaded on my phone or one in my purse has really helped me to be prepared for those times, because I think something that helps me with self-care too, is having a plan for it. Because when I don’t have a plan I’ll waste it. Just keeping those things nearby that will help me to take care of myself are really important, and then when I do get those big pockets of times, like if my husband is able to take the kids for an afternoon – he’s taking them camping this weekend – so I have a whole weekend and that’s awesome.

Tammy: Oh, that’s wonderful! (laughs)

Emily: In all those bigger pockets of time, when they’re away, just making sure that I have a plan to really accomplish some of those bigger projects that do take more focused energy. So, yeah, I am looking to working on some craft projects later today.

Tammy: That’s wonderful, and enjoy the beautiful weather too (laughs). So, we found, as I talked to other moms, a lot of us agree, the only way to get through some of this is laughing, because if you’re not laughing, you might be crying.

Emily: Yes, yes.

Tammy: Do you have a most laughable moment you’d like to share with us?

Emily: I don’t know that I have like a super laughable moment. But, I would say that, having the freedom to express humor with Tourette’s Syndrome has been huge for us. One of the most helpful things was watching one of those webinars from the Tourette’s association, with Kathy Giordano, who is on it. She talked about how one of her sons had this hair flipping tic and I think they called it the “Farrah Fawcett tic” and it was definitely something, they were definitely laughing with their son. And so, we have tried to find those moments, when we can just incorporate those little moments of humor into his diagnosis. So, for us, and this was my son’s direction totally, but he has a humming tic and he’s a big Star Wars fan. And so, he has dubbed these his R2D2 noises.

Tammy: (laughs)

Emily: And so, anytime that, you know, we hear that humming tic come back, it’s one of his primary tics that comes around a few times a year- It’s like, “Oh, R2D2’s back.” You know, we can just talk all about it and it’s a great way to just lighten the mood with those. I think it can feel really heavy at times, and so just having humor to be able to lighten things has been really helpful.

Tammy: That’s great. Well thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Emily: Sure.

Tammy: We really appreciate it.

Emily: Glad I could.

Tammy: Thank you.

Speaker: You have been listening to Just Ask Mom, recorded and copyrighted in March 2017 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host is Tammy Nyden. The music is “Olde English” written, performed, and recorded by FlameEmoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to MothersOnTheFronline.com.

[end]

On Raising Children with Schizophrenia Decades Ago, Just Ask Mom Podcast Series, episode 2

In this episode, a mother reflects back on her experience raising children with schizophrenia decades ago. She discusses the difficulty of coming to terms with the diagnosis of schizophrenia, how the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Family-to-Family program helped her and her children through this journey and the importance of self-care.

Topics discussed include schizophrenia, agoraphobia, NAMI, self-care,

Transcription:

Female Speaker: Welcome to the “Just Ask Mom” Podcast, where mothers share their experiences of raising children with mental illness. “Just Ask Mom” is a Mother’s on the Frontline production. Today we will hear from a mother and active Mental Health Advocate. She has an adult son with early onset schizophrenia.

Tammy: So tell us about yourself?

Mother: Well I’m considered elderly now, not middle aged. [laughs] I have lived with severe mental illness in my family for close to 18 to 20 years now.  I originally grew up in a small town in Iowa and was involved in everything that you could be involved in in high school. I got a college degree. Went to work for the federal government and raised through the ranks even though I was a woman. Because when I first started they didn’t want women in supervisory positions and I eventually got into them anyway.

Tammy: That’s awesome, thank you by the way from us women who come later, we appreciate all that you did to make the path.

Mother: Mostly, it was like two dollars and 40 cents an hour, that’s what I’ve initially worked. And at that time I was unmarried and had a son. The choice actually was being on welfare or going to work and it was the same amount of money per month. So. It was interesting.

Tammy: So pretend you’re talking to other parents who might not fully understand your experience. What would you want them to know?

Mother: Well, first of all, to take it easy on kids – especially the ones that have some special needs because they’re scared out of their wits by what’s happening to them. And they are always fearful that somehow you’re going to turn them away or make fun of them or be ashamed of them. I just found that he needed me to always have a smile on my face – that you have to make a concerted effort, not ever to be mean to them because that ruins the trust. The focus of a lot of advocacy work that I do is to keep families together. And not to blame anybody, because this is an illness without blame. It’s simply a medical illness and it’s hard to adjust to it. So we have to kind of give ourselves a break there too because I can remember being in denial for a long time and not wanting to accept it, not wanting to let go of my dreams for my kids. Finally its almost like somebody goes ‘whack’ on your face. “Wake up! This is going on and you need to do something about it!” I can remember the first time I tried to tell someone that my kids had schizophrenia. I couldn’t say the word. It took at least half a dozen tries before I could get the actual word out of my mouth. And then I started getting angry. You’ll get angry because you’ll run into a lot of people who simply don’t get it and somehow think your kids have turned into ‘its’, they’ve lost their intelligence, they’ve lost their emotions, they’re some kind of an oddity and you always have to try to turn their attitude on that. So I’m just interested in making sure that kids don’t have any more trauma than absolutely necessary if they have those special needs.

Tammy: So how are you doing right now? Do you think you feel like you’re swimming? Drowning? Treading water at this moment?

Mother: Depends on which topic. I think I’m swimming as far as things are going in our family. With what’s  going on at the State Legislature and nationally and locally –  I think we’re drowning because we are under assault on so many things. So once again, depends on the topic.

Tammy: Yeah. What is your sub-care routine or if more appropriate survival technique? What do you recommend for people to do when it gets really tough?

Mother:, I steered away from anything that was really serious. Like, if you were watching TV.

Tammy: Yeah?

Mother: I would make it a point to watch Disney movies because I didn’t want anything more to really alarm me. Also because you’re so involved with your kids during the day. Once they’re asleep, you know, that’s when I felt I could kind of let my hair down and I could cry after they went to bed. Or if I really needed to get out of my life and into somebody else’s I would read a book. Thirty minutes or an hour of reading before I went to bed would help. I was divorced at the time that this all happened and so many people have turned away because they didn’t know what to say. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was really hungry for a tender touch so one of the first things that I decided to do was to go have my hair done. Because somebody else is washing my hair and it always feels good when somebody’s washing your hair and fiddling around with it. It really didn’t matter whether it turned out nice or not. It was just the fact that it felt good. I also went to full body massages. And I’m going to go back to that. That always made me feel really good too. Physically I had to have some touch that reassured me that I was — I was still here. Emotionally I had to get out of my life into something else. So that’s what I did.

Tammy: So, a lot of times if you’re not laughing, you’re crying or screaming, right? With all that you’ve been through, what is your most laughable moment that comes to mind?

Mother: Oh, the most laughable moment – I had just taken NAMI family to family and one of my kids almost agoraphobic where they didn’t want to go out because they had so many panic attacks. They were afraid that no matter where they went, people would remember them and make fun of them or all that kind of stuff. And I came home from work one day and my child was sitting in the chair and I said, “ I just do not feel like fixing anything for supper, Let’s just go out and eat.” I said “we can afford it, so let’s just go out.” My child looked at me and said, “Mom, you know that I can’t do that,” and I knew because of the Family-to-Family training that there was a certain way I should respond to that. So I said, “hold on just a minute.” I went out of the room and found my book.

[Tammy laughs]

Tammy: They say kids don’t come with manuals, they don’t know about NAMI, I love it! [laughs].

Mother: I looked it up [laughs] and I tried to be calm, As I walked back in I said, “I’m really sorry I didn’t acknowledge that you have a hard time doing that. Maybe we could just order something and have it here. And she looked, she dropped her book and she says, “Oh my God, you actually acknowledge my feelings.” And here all this time when I was going to these classes I knew she was looking at the book. She had been going to a lot of therapy and she knew just as much or more than I did about what I should be doing. I just laughed about that every time.

[Tammy laughs]

Tammy: That’s awesome, that’s so  great. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I really appreciate it.

Mother: Mm-mm.

Tammy: Thank you.

Female Speaker: In today’s discussion, NAMI was mentioned. NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness and NAMI Family-to-Family is a free education program for family, significant others, and friends of people living with mental illness. You can find out more about NAMI and its programs at nami.org

Female Speaker: You have been listening to Just Ask Mom, recorded and copyrighted in March 2017 by Mothers on the Front Line. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is Olde English, written performed, and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcasts in this another series relating to Children’s Mental Health go to mothersonthefrontline.com

[End]

 

Raising a son with Schizophrenia, Just Ask Mom Podcast Series, Episode 1

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.

 

Transcription:

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.

Tammy: Yes.

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.

[music]

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–

Tammy: Absolutely.

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.

Tammy: Absolutely.

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.

Tammy: Wonderful.

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.

Anna: Absolutely.

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.

Anna: Absolutely.

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.

Tammy: Absolutely.

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.

New Diagnosis, New Beginning

A lot has been going on behind the scenes here at Mothers on the Frontline. We have been busy doing interviews, working with our amazing team of Grinnell College Student Workers to prepare our first Podcast Series “Just Ask Mom”, learning about the creation and accessibility of websites, and so many other things completely new to us. So while we have been quiet  during March and April, we have been here, busy preparing for May: Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month (more on that in a later post).

In some ways our journey to Mothers on the Frontline is very much like the process of becoming a special needs parent. There is a steep learning curve and many different moving pieces that somehow now you have to find time and energy to navigate, while still having to steer your ship through the pathways of running a home and family, being an employee, and all the other obligations we all must meet. It is overwhelming, but at the same time exciting. For years now a vague idea and sense of unmet need has been part of our conversations – those between Dionne and I. It is not completely unlike that strange pre-diagnosis experience, when symptoms and challenges are appearing in your child and you know you need to do something, but what is so unclear and there seems to be no source of reliable guidance or sure answers. But all of sudden (or so it seems, though it was years in the making) you get a diagnosis and things change. No, not the child. The child is the same, their needs are the same. But with a diagnosis comes a ray of hope that you will be able to figure out what to do now. That you will finally find your “people”- other care givers on the same journey that can recommend service providers, school accommodations, and most importantly, help you reimagine your role as care-giver. No child comes with directions, but when your child has special needs, particularly those that involve social, mental, or intellectual development, those that involve regulation of mood or extreme anxiety, hearing voices, or wanting to die, well, it is even more confusing how to best meet your child’s needs. Interestingly, as we talk to other parents and reflect on our own experiences, the most important thing is re-conceptualizing our role as parents.  Changing our attitudes and instincts. Learning to look at behaviors through new eyes, not as things to modify, but as indicators of what our child needs and the realization that when those needs are met things start to change for the better. What use to be tantrums became meltdowns. My previous unsuccessful attempts to double-down on consequences gave way to understanding that painful sensory stimuli (or lack of it) needed to be addressed before my son could stop screaming, hitting, etc. I learned that while a time-out or lecture only intensified and lengthened the “behavior”, he quickly became calm after wrapping him tightly in a soft blanket and applying pressure, giving him fidgets to squeeze, or simply allowing him to vent all of the bad thoughts he needed to get out without consequence. It not only involves creativity, but a raw honesty about what I am uniquely situated to provide my child, and what needs he has that I am unable to meet. This is key, because we realize that to help our child we have to become part of a team, a team of providers, educators, community members, etc.

I do not mean to minimize the  journey to diagnosis by comparing it to where we are at this point in our project. I only wish to bring you into our journey, to share that we are in the process of re-conceptualizing our roles as academic-mother-advocates. We finally feel able to articulate the problem with which we were struggling – the lack of public understanding and therefore lack of political will to address the children’s mental health crisis. And with that diagnosis, we are now ready to enter into a team effort with the community, with you, to re-conceptualize so many issues in our society, from youth substance abuse, incarceration, homelessness, and school violence. Our recommended treatment: stories. Wrap our community in stories that warmly and gently increases the pressure so as to help us as a society move beyond anger to understanding and effective action. What better storytellers to begin with than the Mothering?

So we thank you for your patience. Just as parents of a newly diagnosed child learn new vocabularies, skill sets, and how to bridge communities for the wellbeing of their child, we are learning new vocabularies, skill sets and hoping to bridge communities for the wellbeing of our shared society. We hope to be a bridge between caregivers, consumers, advocates, activists, and academics. We hope to build this community around stories. We begin with personal stories of mothering, because that is where we find ourselves.

No, wrapping my son tightly in a warm blanket did not make everything better. But it was a start. Stories in themselves will not be enough. But it is a beginning of re-conceptualizing problems so that we can become more helpful, more compassionate, and in the end, more effective in making things better for us all.

Welcome and Please Excuse the Mess

Years before getting my Ph.D. I worked as an academic counselor in Student Affairs.  It was there that I learned to do what I called a “temperature check” with my students, I would ask every student during their weekly visit whether they were swimming, treading, or barely able to keep their head above water.  It was a good way to assess whether they needed my intervention and if so, what kind of service they needed.  Years later I have found that this is a good way for me to stop and assess my stress levels, check my son’s condition, and the gauge the condition of my family in general.  Well, if asked the question today, I would have to say that I am treading water and barely able to keep my head level.  I am tired and my family (particularly my son) has just come through one of many crises.  We are now trying to clean up/rebuild and recover, which means that my condition, can best be described as precarious.

My son has autism and a mood disorder, and if this weren’t enough – he is sixteen years old.  If you are or have ever parented a teen, then you already know that a sixteen-year-old is a frothy mix of toddler, child and adult.  He is brilliant and remarkably social for a kid with Autism.  He has friends, is maintaining a 3.5 in school, and is independent enough to take public transportation to and from home.  But he only has two gears, and when not on meds his days are spent moving between ecstasy and despair until finally his entire system crashes and he falls into a deep coma-like sleep.  His medication, when he takes it, keeps his moods regulated, and then he only has the sensory, balance, and social effects of his Autism to manage.  But he is sixteen, willful, and craving independence.  Right now, the area where he asserting control is his medication.  Which is perfectly normal and understandable, who doesn’t want to control what goes in and out of their bodies, right?  So, we are trying to ride this wave which places us (me, him and his dad) in this painful push and pull where we constantly struggle between his real desire for independence and his equally real need of our guidance.

At this moment, however, I feel like a fraud.  Who am I to write in the position of advocate when I can’t even convince my own son of to take his meds, and if not his meds then at least eat something decent.  Why would anybody want to hear my story?  After all, I have no happy ending tied up in a neat bow.  We are in the middle of a life long journey and I have no conclusions, only process.  As a mom, I spend most of my time coordinating appointments, negotiating with insurance companies, and conferencing with doctors, therapists, and teachers.  It is hard to think of my mom work as advocacy.  In fact, most of my knowledge of advocacy comes from studying public policy where advocates are described as activist or professionals who work (publicly) on behalf of a cause or group to affect political change.  Merriam Webster defines advocate as “a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.”  Some synonyms for advocate are “champion, supporter, backer, proponent, fighter, and crusader.”   Incidentally, Webster’s definition of mother is “a woman in relation to her child/children,” and mothering is “bringing up a child with care and affection.”  Nowhere in these vague definitions of mother/mothering are the words championing, supporting, or crusading, but this is nevertheless what we do.  If you have a child with a mental illness or disability caring, nurturing, championing, supporting and crusading is what you are almost always doing.   If you ask my son, I am his biggest supporter and worst enemy.  I did mention he is sixteen, right?

At Mother’s on The Frontline we want to enhance the notion of what it means to be an advocate.  If you are a mom and you are negotiating your child’s 504/IEP, then you are an advocate.  If you are sharing your story with and supporting other mothers of children with mental illness and disabilities, you are an advocate.  When you coordinate a plan between the psychiatrist, counselor, and coach so that your child can participate in a sport (or activity), you are an advocate.  We want to know about your process, how you survive, thrive, how you fall and get up.  Personally, I have learned as much if not more from the moms who talk candidly about their experiences raising a child with mental illness than I have from pediatric sites, cookbooks on diet/nutrition, and the pamphlets that litter doctor’s offices.  It is our goal that this site be both resource and refuge.  A place where you come to share as well as learn.  Here at Mothers on the Frontline, we recognize your mothering as advocacy and your story as valuable.  We want to hear from you.  Whether you are swimming along, treading in place, or barely able to keep your head above water, we believe your voice and your experience matters.

Where to begin…

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin. Mothering a child with special needs is overwhelming, all the more so the systemic problems preventing kids from getting needed services.

Mothers on the Frontline started with one simple idea:

Mothers have unique insights into the needs of their children.

Not an earth-shattering idea, is it?…
Or maybe it is a game-changer!

What if we created a website that would allow mothers to share their stories, their wisdom, their experiences, in such a way that they would:

  1. Be empowered to most effectively help their children
  2. Reduce the stigmas surrounding children’s mental health
  3. Give decision-makers key insights to help them better help our children

That would be game changing.

My perspective as a mother has often been downplayed or dismissed by professionals, whether they be doctors, educators, or the many therapists who have come in and out of our lives. It is not that these individuals are anything less than caring people who have dedicated their lives to helping children – it is that they have been taught to think of themselves as “experts” on whatever is ailing my child, though they have known him for less than five minutes and only see him through their narrow professional lens.

Here is where the conundrum lies: all of them have valuable knowledge and experience to potentially help my son, but taken together, the result is most often contradictory advice, services in silos, failure to address the whole child, and unnecessary trauma for both my son and family.

I wish my experience were unique. It is not.

A few years ago, I was desperate. I was unable to get the school district to set up and consistently follow an Individual Educational Plan that was appropriate to my son’s medical diagnoses and unable to access medical services he desperately needed because of a three-year waiting list for Iowa’s Children’s Mental Health Medicaid Waiver.

After trying everything, I called my state senator. He generously met me for coffee. That meeting changed my life in two ways:

  1. He helped me understand how to navigate a broken system. (For example, when the director of special education did not return my phone calls or e-mails for months at a time, he recommended that cc my next email to the board of education. I did and got a reply within a half hour.)
  2. He helped me understand that elected officials want to hear from mothers. Politicians are aware that professional associations and their lobbyists have ulterior motives; but they know mothers are focused on the wellbeing of their children.

Wow! Let’s take that in… not only do elected officials want to hear from mothers, but our voice is critical to effecting change.

My first thought was “mothers of special needs children are doing everything they can to survive the day – we are not in a position to be politically active.”  (At the time I was bringing my son to five different therapy appointments a week and working full time -absolutely necessary given the out-of-pocket expenses not covered by insurance. Not to mention my son’s condition prevented more than two hours of sleep at a time – for either of us.)

Circumstances changed that year – my son’s symptoms became much worse and we were no longer confident that he was safe to himself, and possibly to others. After his first mental health hospitalization we made the heartbreaking decision for him to live in a PMIC (Psychiatric Medical Institution for Children), where he lived for nine months.

These months were a time of healing and recovery: for a period of time I knew my son was safe and saw him flourish academically in an educational environment that met his emotional and developmental needs.

As for me, the reduced stress, regular sleep and less complicated schedule of those nine months gave me the ability to look beyond daily survival for more sustainable and systematic solutions. I became a children’s mental health advocate.

Since then my son has finally received the Children’s Mental Health Waiver. Its services have been key to his success living in the community. Our struggles are not over, but each year he becomes better at articulating his feelings and asking for help before he escalates or considers hurting himself.

Advocacy has become a regular part of both of our lives. He has become a Tourette Syndrome Ambassador and works to help others better understand the condition. This work has blended nicely with his passion for politics and he has enjoyed opportunities to talk to legislators at the state and federal level.

As for me, I have spent the last few years contributing a mother’s point of view to state-level discussions on children mental health health policy. This work motivates me to find ways to help other parents share their stories, their wisdom.

Which brings us back to idea behind this website:

Mothers have unique insights into the needs of their children.

The goal of Mothers on the Frontline is to empower mothers to share their wisdom and a platform to do it.

In doing so it can also give decision makers a deeper understanding of how children’s mental health issues intersect with family systems, educational systems, juvenile justice systems, health care systems, communities, etc. In other words, its helps professionals and elected officials have a better view of the needs of the whole child.