The difficulty of getting the right diagnosis and juggling work and care giving, Just Ask Mom Episode 14

Lotus Flower Logo: Just Ask Mom Podcast Series Produced by Mothers on the Frontline. MothersOnTheFrontline.com

In this episode, we listen to Suzette Southfox, a Southern California parent of a 19 year-old son with depression, anxiety and Autism Spectrum Disorder. She tells us about her over ten-year journey with children’s mental health. She discusses the importance of honoring the strength of our children and others with depression who fight each day to get out of bed.

Transcription

Voice Over: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast, where mother shared their experiences of raising children with mental illness. Just Ask Mom is a Mothers On The Frontline production. Today, we will listen to Suzette Southfox, a Southern California parent who lives with her 19-year-old son who has depression, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorder. She has been on the Children’s Mental Health journey for over ten years now. This interview took place at the 2017 National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health conference.

Tammy: Just tell us a bit about yourself.

Suzette : Sure. My name is Suzette. I am a tired mom. I work in the Behavioral Health Field in Southern California. I’m an artist and I’m a writer and a performer. I love to communicate and chat with folks and and create art when I can. Don’t get a lot of chance to do that these days but that’s really what brings me joy.

Tammy: Oh, that’s really great. That’s awesome. What kind of art you do?

Suzette: I do a lot of reflective art. I do a lot of spoken word poetry.

Tammy: Oh, wonderful. Yeah.

Suzette: I do spoken word but I don’t have a whole lot of time to do that. I recently did something for a friend of mine who was just ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister and I was, I was honored to be part of the ordination and I got to do this, it was fun.

Tammy: That’s exciting. That’s awesome. I want you to pretend that you’re talking to parents who are just beginning the journey. They just received the diagnosis for their child of a mental  health condition or maybe they even haven’t discovered a name for what is going on yet, they’re just trying to figure out how to help their child. What would you say to people with that experience based on what you go through?

Suzette: That’s a wonderful question and out of all the people that I would like to talk to  – and there are  many, many that I would like to speak with – the family that’s really finding themselves newly in the world of childhood mental health and behavioral health issues, I would love to talk to them and I would love to tell them that they’re not alone even though they feel like they’re alone. They’re in a very special club which is one that not a lot of people want to join, but they find themselves in.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: One of the things that I did not get early on and my son was diagnosed around nine or ten years old with ruled out pediatric bipolar disorder and things were very difficult. It wasn’t until he was 16 when the psychiatrist said, “Was he ever tested for autism?” We said, “Are you kidding me?” So, people, weren’t asking the right questions, but once we found ourselves in the world of IEP’s and special ed programs and all of this, we never met another parent. None of the programs ever had, “Here’s information for your parent,” or you would think that the psychiatrist or the psychologist would say, “Here’s your brochure. Welcome to the world of pediatric mental illness. Here is your road map.” They don’t give you one.

Tammy: Absolutely not.

Suzette: No, they don’t and if you’re lucky enough to have someone with lived experience, you may get a road map but it’s so challenging. Finding those other parents and finding what is available is so difficult when you’re dealing with just the stress and the crisis. I was shocked to learn in my area that there was a whole guide for all of the programs and services but it was for other providers. It wasn’t for families and it took me to get into working in the field to actually discover this.

Tammy: Is that what motivated to get into the field?

Suzette: Well, that was one reason. I work with the Faith community for a really long time and what I discovered was the needs and the stress of navigating my son’s challenges. They were taking a toll on my working life. Before we got the diagnosis either I would call in sick, my wife would call in sick. We would be having to leave work. We knew that one of us would probably going to lose our job. She took an early retirement to stay at home because at that time, my son couldn’t get out of the car in the morning. He missed 125 days of school because of anxiety. As we’re going through all of this, we have support of the school but we just didn’t know other families. I think it’s so important to not only tell folks that they’re not alone but there are networks. You just have to be told where to find them.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette: Yes, and that’s the biggest challenge, I think.

Tammy: I think that’s so important because I know my own experience in talking to other people sometimes the most helpful information I’ve got are from other parents, you know, that have been through it. They all checked out this program or this and without that network, without some way to start, you do feel lost so I think that’s really good advice.

Suzette: Yes. There’s a lot of despair also. At least there is and there has been with me and one of the things that I have learned is there’s a whole continuum of what you go through and it’s not linear. It’s not like, “Okay, I’ve gone through crisis and now I’m balancing and I’m moving into advocacy and when I get into advocacy, boom, I’m done.” No, it depends on the day really.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette:  You can go through that continually. I think one of the things that I would want new parents and new families to know is the despair and the concern is visceral, it’s real. It’s probably not going to go away but if you learn to kind of make some space for that and make some space for dealing with it, it gets a little bit easier.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: I think the biggest problem that I have, and this is really funny, we’re talking about self-care earlier, is when people say, “Take care of yourself.” I know that but it is so difficult to hear because it’s like, “What do you think I’m doing?”

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: I’m trying really hard.

Tammy: Exactly.

Suzette: Sometimes, just getting up in the morning is like, “Whoa, it’s a win.”

Tammy: Exactly.

Suzette: So that’s important and I know self-care is really, really the key, but I think that we need to be a little careful how we talk about that.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette: Yes, it can turn people off.

Tammy: And we don’t know of access to do the same things to care for ourselves. I think that’s another part of it is what does that mean and the context you’re in at the moment, what can that mean for you, right? I think that’s really important.

Suzette: True.

Tammy: Absolutely. As you’re thinking about people who are navigating this early on and it is hard and is lonely and I like the message you have. I do think we can get to a point where we feel like it’s a new normal. We’ve accepted it. We’re functioning. We don’t feel torn apart all the time but then something new will happen and you go through it again. I think it’s good to know that. It’s good to know you will actually function at this level. You might not feel like it when you first hit with it, but I don’t think you’re even done and I think that’s important to hear too. That’s not a bad thing.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: But knowing it’s important because if you don’t, the first time it happens again, it feels devastating.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: But if you don’t know, you’re going to keep going and having good days and bad days and it’s okay.

Suzette: Right. It’s a learning and then when our loved ones are youngsters, you have the whole developmental issue going on so they’re constantly changing. One of the first, kind of, desperate requests that I made once we had a psychiatrist and medication and treatment plan and psychiatric nurse, God love her, I remember the first call that I made to her was, “I don’t know. I have one child. I was an older mom so I have one child. I don’t have experience. I can’t tell the different what’s developmentally appropriate and what is a mental health condition.” And she said, “Oh, if you could figure that out, you’d make a lot of money,” because I couldn’t. I just couldn’t figure that out. Now, knowing that there’s always that change. There’s always new things happening, suddenly and it’s not suddenly, but now I have a young adult and so we hear about transition, transitioning youth, how do you do that? I have a 19-year-old but I’m not prepared for what to do next because just getting through middle school, getting through high school took everything that I could do. I know they said it’s coming. You have to start when he’s 14. I didn’t get that until he was 17 and so it’s hard. It still gets hard but being able to back up a little bit and figure out, what are the new resources that I need? I have to find maybe a new set of parents. We’re the parents of really young kids. We had an affinity.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: I would look at parents of teenagers, I was scared of that.

Tammy: Oh sometimes it’s terrifying, right? When your kids are little. You just want to focus on that one thing at a time, absolutely.

Suzette: Yes, and you look at parents of teenagers and young adults and it’s like, “Oh my God, how did you do that? I don’t want to go there ever,” and you’re going to get there.

Tammy: Right. Absolutely. As you’re thinking about your journey in helping your child, can you think of one particular thing that’s been really challenging, was really difficult, that just didn’t work and you wish could be different?

Suzette: This is going to sound really weird, but listening to him. What I mean by that is, sometimes, and this has been forever, he will tell me what he needs but I’m not hearing it and I’m not hearing it because, oh I don’t know, I’m focused on one thing or another. When I stopped and really listened to what he’s saying, we do better.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: When he listens to what I’m saying, so it’s like communications piece there.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette: Here’s the hardest part, I’m not very good at it. I communicate professionally but with my own family, I was like, “Wow.” I really have to take it down to basics and give myself permission to make mistakes. That’s the big one.

Tammy: That’s a good point. I think that’s true for any parent, right?

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: Communicating especially with the teenage kids is hard. It’s challenging, I think, for all of us.

Suzette: Yes and you have to learn how to reset boundaries and you have conversations, and when and if they get a driver’s license, it’s a whole different world. It’s really exhausting.

Tammy: My stressor have just opened up when you said that because that’s what’s in the next couple of years for us, the whole driver’s licensing, yes.

Suzette: It has been an amazing journey and I’m just watching the young people that I know develop and grow, it’s just so exciting.

Tammy: In thinking about getting your child help, what’s worked well? What has been one thing that you’re just so glad things were aligned and worked out well?

Suzette: Well, we had an experience and it was a school related experience as a senior, a high school senior. His depression was so acute. He spent the last two or three months in bed and was not able to even shower or to mention anything and he failed. He wasn’t able to graduate and having that conversation with the school around that, I was empowered.  One of the vice principals basically said, “You know, you’re lazy.” I just took a breath and I said, “We need to talk,” because there’s something called lived experience and I have never used that word before but I heard it and  all of a sudden, “Oh my God, I have lived experience and I have a thing too,” so I’m coming and I have something. I was able to really put the context. We’re talking about behavioral health diagnosis. We’re talking about mental illness, brain chemistry. This is not being lazy. If you had any idea what he does to just survive, I don’t know that any of us could do that so it’s not lazy.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: That was very, very helpful to me. Really clear in my own mind that we all need to be on the same page, so that was super helpful.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: So good for your son to hear that, “No, you’re not lazy and I know you’re not lazy,” I think it’s important. That’s great. We ask this of everyone because we recognize, as we were just saying, as you pointed out, this is different from moment to moment for all of us, but at this moment, are you swimming? Are you treading water? Are you drowning? Where do you feel at this moment?

Suzette: That’s really good question; all three of those, yeah, yeah.

Tammy: That’s a good answer.

Suzette: All three of those. All three at the same time and it’s so hard to manage that, but really I have kind of like a low grade. It’s not a panic but it’s a low grade like, “Help,” because it’s all really hard.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: I feel like I have good resources and good support so I’m going along okay. I guess I’ve been doing this for so long that my new normal is not what anybody else’s normal is.

Tammy: Exactly and I think that’s what’s really important is you get to a point where this, I can function at this level, even though the average person would be falling apart and maybe we fell apart when that was first our experience. That’s why I love what you said about your child, because I think we often see someone who’s struggling to get out of bed or struggling to go to school and people will say things like they’re lazy or say that someone is anxious so they’re just scared all the time or what have you. The truth is with their condition, they are like super-power to do what they do every day. There are more courage than most people just to do what they’re doing or more strength on going, fortitude to go get something done. I think we just need to give people credit for what they’re doing and I’m in that for them. I love that you said that earlier too.

Suzette: I think it’s struggle that we constantly revisit. I don’t know if anybody else’s have this come out of their mouth, but I’ve done it on number of occasions; “What’s wrong with you?” I don’t mean to say it. Oh my God. I said it once and he turned to me, he says, “Do you really need to know? Would it be easier if I was on a wheelchair?” I thought, “Oh my God. I’ve even said this to other people and I myself am saying this now?”

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: So it’s constantly guarding and learning and checking and remembering.

Tammy: I think that’s a really good point because most of the people we’re interviewing here, they have a child with a life-long condition, right? If you have a child in a wheelchair with a life-long condition we don’t say, “Well, why is it we don’t get up today?” After ten years of being in a wheelchair, right? But we do that.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: We do that all the time and I know I’ve done it and actually, when my child’s teachers or family members have to say, “Why is he doing this now?” I’m like, “You know this has been a condition all this time.”

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: I think that when we’re asking that, what we have to do is sit back and go, “What is it about this moment that I can’t handle?” Because this is our normal, this is our situation.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: I’ve imagined that if you do have a  child in a wheelchair for ten years, there might be some days you can’t take it, but you would recognize, “My child’s circumstance hasn’t changed. I’m just having hard time handling it today.” We need to be able to do with mental health and say, “My child’s has the same condition but today it’s really hard for me to deal with.” Did that make sense?

Suzette: Absolutely.

Tammy: I love the comparison that you make there. I think it’s important.

Suzette: Absolutely, it is. You’re absolutely right. Then to give our kids the language to know that, and when he checked me on that as he often does with words that have come out of my mouth, he responds and like and I’m learning constantly from him especially when it’s difficult. He has a sleeping disorder and he goes nocturnal. He also has separation anxiety so when I’m away from him as I am now, he gets very tense.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: He called me at 7 o’clock this morning which was four and I just checked him 15 minutes before we started and he hasn’t slept yet. I’m very concerned about that and what the household is like and what the stress is like, but you know, it’s just a day.

Tammy: It’s just a day.

Suzette: It’s just a day.

Tammy: Yes, absolutely. What is your self-care routine or as we say with more appropriate, survival technique, because sometime that’s what it comes down to too, right? How do you take care of you when you’re in the middle of all of this because as we’re saying, it’s not always possible to do what we’d like to do so what do you do?

Suzette: You know what? My go-to place is the bathroom.

Tammy: Yes.

Suzette: Sometimes it’s not real safe if there’s pounding or screaming on the other side of the door but if I can get to a place where I can just be isolated and I usually turn the lights off and I just breathe. Just for a minute.

Tammy: Right.

Suzette: Just for a minute and then go back out and I can do that at work. I can do that at church. I can do that at lunch[?], so you can do it anywhere. That’s one thing if it’s a crisis and I just need to step back. I swim and when I’m lucky, I swim in the ocean. I do that regularly.

Tammy: Oh, I’m jealous.

Suzette: I swim with mom.

Tammy: That’s sounds wonderful.

Suzette: She’s a good swimmer. She’s been swimming for years. When I have a chance I get in the water and it’s really wonderful.

Tammy: That is wonderful. That is great. Another question I’d like to ask, because any parents has some of this, right? Kids keep us laughing. What’s your most laughable moment? What makes you laugh or smile when you think back to your experience with your child?

Suzette: Oh my gosh. My son is a professional magician and when I watch him engaged with other people, I mean it’s amazing when you see grown adults going, “What happened? How did that happen? Oh, my God.” It’s just makes me chuckle because he has such a gift to be able to do that, but he does it because he likes to bring joy to people, right?

Tammy: That’s wonderful.

Suzette: So he’s a champion. He’s a knight in shining armor and he loves to bring joy to people and that makes me smile.

Tammy: That has to be fun. You get to enjoy the magic but you also get to be proud of this amazing kid.

Suzette: Yes.

Tammy: Or adult now but always a kid, right?

Suzette: Yes, always a kid. Yes, definitely.

Tammy: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Suzette: You’re welcome. Thank you for asking.

Voice Over: You have been listening to Just Ask Mom. Copyrighted in 2018 by Mothers On The Frontline. Today’s podcast host is Tammy Nyden. The music is Old English, written, performed, and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcast in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to mothersonthefrontline.com or subscribe to Mothers On The Frontline on iTunes, Android, Google Play or Stitcher.

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Fidelia’s Journey to Advocacy: From Incarceration to Family Advocate, Ask the Advocate Series, episode 1

In this episode, we listen to Fidelia from Northern California. Fidelia has three children: two sons with behavioral challenges and a 11 year old daughter with anxiety. She shares her journey of mental illness, motherhood, incarceration, and advocacy.

Transcription

[music]

Women’s voice: Mothers On The Front Line is a non-profit organization founded by mothers of children with mental illness. We are dedicated to storytelling as a method of both children’s mental health advocacy and caregiver healing. Our podcasts consist of interviews of caregivers by caregivers out in the community. This results in less polished production quality, but more intimate conversations rarely available to the public. Caregivers determine how they are introduced and the stories they share. We bring these personal experiences to you with the aim of reducing stigma, increasing understanding, and helping policymakers recognize and solve the real unmet needs of families dealing with America’s current children’s mental health crisis.

[music]

Tammy: Today, we start a new format for Mothers On The Front Line called Ask the Advocate. In this series, we hear from mental health advocates about their journeys to advocacy, and what it is meant for their lives. I am pleased to be speaking to Fidelia from Northern California today. Fidelia has 3 children, 2 sons with behavioral challenges and an 11-year-old daughter with anxiety. She also experiences mental health challenges herself.

[music]

Tammy: Hello. Tell us a bit about yourself and the kind of advocacy work that you do.

Fidelia: Um, well, I’m a mother of 3 children, 2 grown sons, and 11-year-old daughter. I’m a mental health advocate for Alameda County in Northern California.

Tammy: So, how did you become an advocate? What got you involved?

Fidelia: I had to advocate for myself and before I could learn to advocate for my children, I’ve been undiagnosed for most of my adult life. I got diagnosed at the age of 35 that I was bipolar, I had PTSD, and I suffered from severe depression. Prior to that, I didn’t believe anything was wrong with me. But so many challenges that I had on the day-to-day basis, making good decisions, healthy decisions, became overwhelmingly just non-existent. I kept ending up with really bad results no matter what I chose to do, and I didn’t understand why, and it was continuous. And so, I started to self-medicate, pretty much just, you know, didn’t know what to do, I just knew that there was nothing wrong with me. My daughter was taken from me twice. Finally, I was just like, you know, there’s got to be something wrong here because it doesn’t matter what I do, nothing’s working out well. I keep ending up in these terrible, you know, situations with, you know, not very good results. And so, there’s got to be something, I need to talk somebody. And so, they came to me and told me, “You know, we’re going to adopt your daughter out,

Tammy: Oh, gosh!

Fidelia: We’re not going to give you services.” I was in jail as a result of poor choices again. I was like, “You know what? If foster care’s going to be the best thing for my daughter right now, I think that’s the best thing going because, right now, I need help. I can’t be a good parent if I’m falling apart, and I need somebody to help me learn how to help myself.” That’s where advocating came in because I had to advocate to get my mind right, to get my life right. And in order to be a good parent, I needed to be straight. So, I was given an evaluation, a psychiatric evaluation, because I requested that. And then, I requested a therapist. They gave me a therapist. And then, I started seeing a psychiatrist, then they prescribed me medication. And once I started taking medication and talking to my therapist on a regular basis, things completely changed. I caught up with myself. I caught up with my mind. I was able to process feelings without acting out impulsively, compulsively, and it was a game-changer because it was like, “Oh, wow. I’m mad right now, but I’m not putting my fist in a wall.” You know? I’m not slashing tires [chuckles] or being ridiculous. That’s where it began for me. And so, I could recognize behaviors in my children, and then I’m like, “Hey. That’s little mini-me right now, undiagnosed.” And then, I was able to start advocating for my sons. My daughter had a speech delay, so I got her assessed, and had I not known anything and got a little education on mental health, she wouldn’t have been assessed. And so, she had a 40% speech delay. I was able to put her in speech therapy. Now, she talks all the time.

Tammy: That’s great though.

Fidelia: But, I’m happy for that. You know what I mean? Without that extra help, you know. Who knows how that would’ve turned out. Also, she suffers from anxiety. She is diagnosed with anxiety at the age of 2 because she was taken from me twice. She stayed with her grandmother, and then when I got her back, it was separation anxiety. So, I couldn’t get her to sleep in her own room for about a year, and I had to use the tools that I had, which was parenting magazines. I had no advocate. I had no family partner. I had none of those things that are in place nowadays. I had to do it for myself, so I spent a lot of time just trying to ask questions and getting help. And, you know, how most people don’t appreciate having CPS and an attorney, and a child’s attorney, and the district attorney, and the judge. Well, I used all these people as my support. You know what I mean? I needed somebody to keep the fire lit underneath me, so I would never have to go through this again. And so, I began advocating for myself. I began completing case plans. When they wanted to close my case, I advocated, “I need you to keep it open another year. I need to make sure that I am solid in my sobriety, in my mental health, and everything else, so I don’t ever have to see any of you people ever again.” That’s where it began for me, I started advocating, and then I just stayed advocating, and I still advocate and now, I help other parents whose children come into the clinic, where they’re seeing for behavioral –  mental health challenges. I help the families, the mothers, the grandmothers, the fathers, the caregivers, the foster parents, and it’s like, “So, what challenges are you facing?” Because not only is the child challenged right now, you’re challenged. You’re the one sitting up at night. You’re the one having to call the police. You’re the one not sleeping because your child’s not sleeping. You know, you need self-care or, you need help with SSI, how can I support you? That’s what I do today, you know. I have had clients say, you know, how parents, who have mental health challenges as well, then we know they’re like, “I’m supposed to be taking anti-depressants.” And I’m like, “Well, why aren’t you taking them?” And they’re like, “I don’t need that. Do you take medication?” And I dig in my pocket, and pull out my pills and say,

 

Tammy:

 

Fidelia: “Yes. Every day. Chill pills at 5 o’clock. I need to act right ’till I can get through the day so I can model for my children how to act right. And then, so the next thing I know I have a client come back in with later saying, “I’ve been taking my pills for about a week and I feel good!” I’m like, “That’s what’s up!”

Tammy: [laughs]

 

Fidelia: “I need you to feel good so you can get through this ’cause this whole process is challenging.” And so, that’s what I do every day and I love it but it’s from lived experience, my own lived experience, not just my child’s lived experience, but mine.

 

Tammy: That must make you just a great advocate. Can you talk a bit about how in your work, experiences that you’ve had? With you having lived experience, it was a game-changer at being able to help someone, so you give this great example. What about with working with parents helping their youth– Is that, can you give other examples? Because I think that’s so powerful.

 

Fidelia: The what? My lived experiences?

 

Tammy: To be able to share that with others.

 

Fidelia: Well, I share it with them all in time. I have no shame in what I’ve been through. I’ve been through exactly what I was meant to go through, so I could help other people get through it. So, whether it be, you know, going to IEPs, I’m there to support them. I tell them, “Well, what are your concerns? I need you to write that down, so you can voice that because your voice needs to be heard at these IEP meetings. They’re not experts on your child, you are. You need to tell them what it is that you believe your child needs to get through a productive school day, not being called to come pick up your child.” So, helping them was like changing in front of my 504-planet school, and making the school district accountable for the education and special resource teachers that are supposed to be in play when their child has an episode. You know, so they can say call up and say, “Hey. You know what? Where’s the resource teacher? You know, you can’t keep sending my child home. He’s not getting the education.” And I helped them through that process. I helped them through the process of personal relationships. I’m a survivor of domestic violence. “Are you in an abusive relationship? Well, what is it that you need to do so you can feel safe, so your child isn’t walking around on edge, who’s suffering from PTSD from witnessing this, and you have PTSD.” We talk about all kinds of personal things because I’ve been through all those personal things; substance abuse, incarceration, I’ve been there, you know. So, we can run the gauntlet of what you want to talk about, but I get them to open up because I’ve already done it. You know, not once, not twice, but probably six or seven times, and still, didn’t get the message that I was supposed to get. So, that’s how I help in any area just about. And if I don’t know about it, then we go and find about it together. That I’m coming to your house, we’re going to meet for coffee, I’m going to meet you at this school, whatever, come to my office. I’m there to support them. They’re my client, you know. So, that’s how I do other advocating.

 

Tammy: You said you went so many years without a diagnosis. Right?

 

Fidelia: Mm-hmm. Yes.

 

Tammy: What kind of things are you saying that have changed, that might make it more likely someone in that situation gets a diagnosis and gets help? Or, this could be the case too, what are you seeing in her, like, “Darn, nothing’s changed here on this issue.” You know what I’m saying?

 

Fidelia: You know, the thing that I noticed and has changed is just on approach, and, you know, to culturally– different cultures and how they approach, and how they deal with mental health, a multi-cultural. And so, the family I grew up in, it was just, you didn’t do psychiatrists, he didn’t take medication. You prayed, and you asked God to fix your mind, you asked Jesus to heal and touch your mind and cure you of whatever mental illness that you had. That didn’t happen. So, I see, now, that there are clinics for children, and when I was growing up. If there were some, we never heard about them. I think, if I were on medication as a child, if I was diagnosed as a child, instead of told that I needed Jesus and that I had demons in –  I probably did with the little help along with the mental health aspect, it contributed,

 

[laughter]

 

Fidelia: –but I think, now, that if I would’ve had that growing up, and how things would probably, more than likely, would’ve been so different for me. A lot of different choices would’ve made because of my mind. Would’ve been in a mindset, my medication would’ve had me thinking differently. And, that’s what I see differently now is that there’s clinics, and clinics and clinics for our behavioral mental health challenges for children. And, when I was in school, you didn’t have a school psychologist, you had a school nurse. That was it. And that was it. So, that’s–

 

Tammy: So, that’s a big positive change?

 

Fidelia: That’s an absolutely amazing change! I think if you can nip it in the bud or get– not so much as nip it in the bud but kind of get a handle on it, you know, while they’re young. It makes for a different future for them that could be more positive than just letting it go, and being like, “Oh, that’s just Charlie. That’s just how he is.” I mean, there’s more to it. It turns into something really serious as an adult. Your decisions, and your choices, and your boundaries, there are none, because everything you’re doing is your normal, and it’s just– it’s not healthy.

 

Tammy: I guess my next question is, what keeps you doing the advocacy work? Because quite frankly, I’m sure it gets hard sometimes, especially when you see things be voted down in terms of funding for programs or all the kinds of things that the disappointments that can go with the advocacy work. What keeps you going through it?

 

Fedilia: Because I’m good at it.

 

Tammy: [chuckles]

 

Fedilia: I’m good at it.

 

Tammy: I can tell. [laughs]

 

Fedilia: I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. I just refuse to hear it. You could tell me ‘no.’

 

Tammy: [chuckles]

 

Fedilia: But, I’m going to still keep coming at you, and then I’m gonna rephrase the question in a different way, and hopefully you didn’t get it, but eventually, I’m going to get a ‘yeah.’ Whether you’re telling me “Yeah,” just to get me out of your office. That’s all– I got to ‘yeah.’ I’m good for it.

 

Tammy: That’s right.

 

Fedilia: So, I keep going. And all parents should once you figured out, “Okay. This is what it is, and this is my child? This is my child! Not taking ‘no’ for an answer. No no no.

 

Tammy: That’s right. That’s right. I just want to thank you for all that you’re doing, for all the people that you’re helping. It’s a huge thing. And also, again, as a parent, I love to see success stories, they give us so much hope and to get people hope for the middle going throughout this themselves right now. So, just thank you so much for all that you’re doing. You’re such a light.

 

Fedilia: Thank you for your time and your consideration.

 

Tammy: Thank you.

 

[music]

 

Tammy: You have been listening to Ask the Advocate. Copyrighted in 2018 by Mothers On The Front Line. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is written, performed, and recorded by FlameEmoji. For more podcasts in this and other 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.