Just Ask Mom, episode 17: “It doesn’t have to be this way”

logo: purple lotus flower with white figure inside holding arms up on black background

In this episode, we listen to Melissa, a mother from rural Iowa, share her story about raising a son with severe depression. Please be advised that this interview discusses suicide and may be triggering for some of our audience. (See below for transcription.)

Suicide Resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255

The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

Trans Lifeline – Trans Lifeline is a national trans-led organization dedicated to improving the quality of trans lives by responding to the critical needs of our community with direct service, material support, advocacy, and education. Our vision is to fight the epidemic of trans suicide and improve overall life-outcomes of trans people by facilitating justice-oriented, collective community aid.

The Trevor Project – The leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.

You Matter -This is a safe space for youth to discuss and share stories about mental health and wellness, created and administered by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You Matter blog posts are written by a rotating Blogger Council of individuals between the ages of 13-24 that are passionate about suicide prevention and mental health.

 

Transcription of Just Ask Mom, episode 17

(0:00)

(music fades in)

Woman Speaker: Welcome to the Just Ask Mom podcast where mother share their experiences of raising children with mental illness. Just Ask Mom is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today, we will listen to Melissa. A mother from rural Iowa, share her story about raising a son with severe depression. Please be advised that this interview discusses suicide and maybe triggering to some of our audience.

(music fades out)

Tammy: Hello. Can you tell us a little about yourself before or outside of parenting, what do you love? Who are you?

Melissa: My name is Melissa and I’m a mom here in rural Iowa. I farm with my husband in a small community. I love the environment. I love watching our children grow. Just being outdoors, reading, that kind of thing.

Tammy: You like watching lots of things grow, it sounds like.

Melissa: Yeah.

Tammy: That’s awesome. I want you to pretend that you’re talking to peers of kids that are going through mental health difficulties and their parents. What would you like them to know about your family’s experiences?

Melissa: I would say that our experience as parents with a child with debilitating mental illness – would be to just maybe ask, be inquisitive. Try and find out, not in a nosy type of a way but just– so maybe you can learn a little bit more about the situation and not just shut the doors essentially because it’s very challenging on a daily basis. When you’re feeling the doors slammed by parents or peers that don’t necessarily know the story, it just makes life that much harder.  (2:00) My child has a lot to give to this world. He’s beautiful and he’s kind but he just struggles with certain things. But I think his life as a youth could have been much easier if some closed doors would have remained open.

Tammy: You bring up a really good point because a lot of times, if our children are sick, let’s say if they have a physical illness or the measles or what have you, people would naturally say, “Oh, how is your son doing?” Right?

Melissa: Right.

Tammy: They would naturally ask. Maybe people are afraid to ask us or talk to us. They shut down or shut us out sometimes. Is that right?

Melissa: Yeah. I would say that. I know it is not the exact same thing but I spend a lot of time thinking about it. I kind of wonder if on some level, it’s how people who are diagnosed with AIDS in the 80’s feel.

Tammy: Yeah.

Melissa: So instead of feeling that love and that warmth when they were diagnosed with something. They were judged and I feel that very much in the mental health space here. In a lot of ways, it’s how the kids and the patients are treated. How many cardiac patients or cancer patients do you know that need to go from one doctor to another? And they’re transported in the back of a sheriff’s car in handcuffs.

Tammy: Exactly.

Melissa: That’s how they’re transported.

Tammy: When they’re most vulnerable and in the most pain.

Melissa: Right.

Tammy: Right.

Melissa: They’re actually taking– yeah. They’re handcuffed. I know my son had a really hard time one time because he didn’t even have a seat belt on so that gave him anxiety. The person was driving and on his phone. I think you just feel very out of (4:00) control, anyway; when you have something like this.

Tammy: That’s a really good point. Even when you think about all the years, all the trying to help your child, what has been a barrier to getting the help your child needed? Something that– it’s a barrier or just didn’t work.

Melissa: His situation is very severe. I think some of the barriers that exist are constant therapists that are a good quality. When you’re living in a small space, people come and go. There’s a high burnout rate.

Tammy: So consistency–

Melissa : Consistency

Tammy : — really no consistency.

Melissa: There’s a very little consistency but I would say the same thing even with psychiatrists and getting meds. Because currently, the situation is now he’s an adult, and in the acute care setting you go into the hospital and– he has severe depression. We’ve been in and out of the hospital in an acute care setting maybe thirteen times in the last eight years and in the last six months probably five or six times.

Tammy: Wow.

Melissa: The problem is that continuity of care because you go into an acute care setting and his is suicide; just not wanting to live. You’ll see a whole new team of medical professionals and they’ll have an idea of what’s happening. He’ll go into another space and then they have their own idea and their own med recommendations. Unfortunately, for the patient you’re really not getting the (6:00) highest quality of care. I will say that our experience in the last six months has been even more challenging because he went to a hospital in Central Iowa. When I got there, they had actually prescribed him a medication that he had overdosed with.

Tammy: Already before they prescribed it?

Melissa: Right.

Tammy: Oh.

Melissa: But now that he’s an adult, I’m not given all of the information and so he was discharged with 90 pills that he had already OD’ed on as a youth. Two weeks later, he OD’ed on them and ended up in that same ICU. When I talked to the behavioral health staff, I said, “Did you look at his history?” She said, “We’re not required to do that. That’s not something that we automatically do.”

Tammy: That’s shocking when you think about.

Melissa: Well , And my reply to this person was, “Well, okay. So, if I came in here with a cardiac problem–”

Tammy: Yes.

Melissa: “–or you know some other chronic issue, would you not look at maybe some of my past history; even meds, anything? Just to make a better and more informed choice.” She said, “Well, on this floor, we just don’t do that. It’s not our policy.”

Tammy : Oh–

Melissa : In Iowa, we’re facing a really challenging time getting access to care maybe more so that other states. But — I just looked at the woman and I just said– no things have changed and we are seeing less and less help. I can see the acute care institutions are overwhelmed.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Melissa:  They are completely overwhelmed – but I looked at her and I just said– I think what I’m hearing is now these people don’t have access to chronic care –  which they don’t as an adult. (8:00) Currently the situation is that these people who are the most vulnerable are now going to you for an acute care setting, which is also very limited. We’re not even giving them that quality of care.

Tammy: But then even afterwards there’s no sub-acute to keep them well. They just send them up right back into acute again.

Melissa: Right. Right. Or discharge them and refer them again to outpatient services.

Tammy: You mentioned something that’s really important and you’re at that key point, you could speak to it. You dealt with it when your child was a minor and now he’s no longer a minor and your role shift whether you want it to or not, right?

Melissa: Right.

Tammy: Can you speak a little bit to that? When your child, well this differs too because sometimes it’s even 12 when they say now the kid gets to have more input but —

Melissa : Yeah. Yeah.

Tammy : – at least when you’re the mother of a minor child, you can tell the doctor, “Make sure to remember this. Remember this.” But you don’t get to do that anymore, do you? How does that work?

Melissa: You don’t get to do that. In fact, at this facility that I was just talking about, once this discharge happened. I wanted to talk to the psychiatrist. I said, “Okay. This is the second admittance. This is what’s happened and it doesn’t sound like you have all of the information.” And I’m like, “I would love to– just like a five-minute conversation to make sure that you have the entire picture to give you history.” He wouldn’t even talk to me. When you’re dealing with a young adult, I personally didn’t want to take away all of his choices and make all of those choices for him, but I did feel I could at least make sure that the physician heard the story and had all the pieces to make a more informed decision. Now, moving into adulthood, (10:00) I would say it’s much harder because you’re hoping that your mentally ill child is now providing them with all of that information.

Tammy: But how can they do that when they’re in crisis themselves? It’s an expectation that seem so unfair that the system places on that person.

Melissa: Right. Right. Because of laws and things, common sense doesn’t often times trump some of those things. My kid is smart. He’s been in a PMIC twice. He’s been in an acute care setting at least a dozen times and so he knows what a psychiatrist wants to hear.

Tammy: Right.

Melissa: And he doesn’t always want to be there. He can use those words to just get discharged.

Tammy: Right. For those who don’t know in Iowa a PMIC is a Psychiatric Mental Institution for Children  – because in different states it goes by different names, like  residential long-term care.  – So he knows what would to say, he knows how to play the game.

Melissa: Right.

Tammy: Yeah.

Melissa: Yeah.

Tammy: What has worked in getting help for your child over the years? Is there something that was helpful, that would be good if there’s more of that? Is there something along the way that you thought was positive?

Melissa: I wish I had a lot of positive things to say today, I don’t.

Tammy: Yeah. That’s a reality sometimes.

Melissa: I just don’t.

Tammy: Yeah.

Melissa: I think — I think I’ve actually seen a decline in the quality of care in our state over the last ten years.

Tammy: It’s so discouraging.

Melissa: Yeah.  I think — When we had our first experience with the PMIC, that residential care for youth, the average stay was 10 to 15 months. Because of insurance and privatization of insurance and things like that, his (12:00) second stay was limited to I think six months. Even in month like two or three, they were trying to push your child out the door. A lot of kids could really use a higher quality of care, just a little longer period of time. In my son’s experience,  he was discharged quickly enough that he didn’t have time to test some of the medications, like an anti-psychotic that is pretty severe, and so they did that after discharge, because insurance tried to get him out the door. It just so happened that he had one of the life threatening reactions to the medication

Tammy: How frightening

Melissa: Yeah, he went into a cardiac arrest type of a deal. But that does not have to happen.

Tammy: No it doesn’t.

Melissa: That does not have to happen. He doesn’t have to have the means to commit suicide because they choose not to look at his health history.

Tammy: Right

Melissa: Right.

Tammy: And just to have the safe  place to do those med changes for this kind of severe case is imperative.

Melissa: Yeah,  I mean we are not talking about Tylenol here. These are some really, really serious medications.

Tammy: So we like to ask this because in our experience, in my experience, it changes moment to moment. In this moment, where are you – are you swimming, are your drowning, are you treading water? How are you feeling in this particular moment?

Melissa: I love that this is a question on here because I often times refer to this as like you are drowning. You know not all of the times you get to breath, but that is really kind of what it’s like. People are saying why (14:00) are you not advocating a little more, why aren’t you taking more time to do this or time to do that, and most people don’t know what is going on behind the scenes.

Tammy: Right, that it takes all that strength just to get that gasp of air before you go under again.

Melissa: Right, yeah, I can barely get up, put on my clothes, and I have two other younger children that I am trying to get out the door and smile for – just, you know – yay – it looks like Pollyanna – but I think that is a really good way of looking at it. There are a lot of parents out there – and this is really, really challenging –  and when we look at Public Schools, there are  a lot of things that could very easily be changed to help parents that feel this way. Yeah, that is why I would really like this episode to go out to all of you who do not have children with mental health issues to just give it a second thought on how it might feel to be in our shoes.

Tammy: Exactly. So what do you do to take care of you? What is your self-care routine? Because what I am hearing is  – and I can relate too – is that that it takes everything just to keep everything running, just to keep going. Is there something you can do to take care of you, or, and it may be more appropriate what is your survival technique – how do you keep breathing (laughter) because that is a big accomplishment?

Melissa: Yes it is! It totally is. We have dance parties some nights – we crank up the music – that’s exciting – with our younger kids. I like being outside, we do things like that. But the reality (16:00) of the situation is that there is not a lot of time for self-care, which I know that is the worst answer of all

Tammy: But it is a real one.

Melissa: Yeah.

Tammy: Yeah. As hard as all of this is, I bet there is at least one funny story that you have that makes you laugh a little bit. It is hard to think of one, but is there something that makes you smile when you think about “oh my gosh that was ridiculous!” – even if it is not funny but it is so ridiculous that it is s so surreal  – like “yes that happened”?

Melissa: Tammy, I am in such a bad place, I cannot think of anything funny.

Tammy: That’s ok. You don’t have to.

Melissa: Huh.

Tammy: If you can’t that’s ok too, because I think we need to hear that. We need to hear that it is not always ok – because when we are in that place – I know it’s hard  for me to turn on the radio or the TV and only hear stories about “Oh, they overcame this problem and it’s so great and they’re doing this” and that is all you hear. So when we are in that low spot, it feels like we are not allowed to be there. But so many of us are there, so often and we just keep it quiet. It is ok if you don’t have something to laugh at right now, that’s ok too.

Melissa: yeah

Tammy:  I don’t think you are going to be the only at this moment who is like, “I can’t think of anything.”

Melissa: Yeah, I don’t know. The last few weeks have been incredibly challenging for our family. If we had this interview a month and a half ago, maybe I could find something wonderful. But, the mental health crisis in this particular state – it’s bad. Like I said, in six months he has been admitted to an acute setting six times. (18:00) This last time was because he took one of our vehicles Facebook Live to suicide attempt by trying to go off the road, and had he not unbuckled his seat belt, he would have died. We did a committal and advocated for him to be in this acute care setting longer. They discharged him with another out-patient referral after six days – which has been what has happened for the last six months. That is a lot and it is very heavy. So I am not feeling overly hopeful.

Tammy: What gets me when I hear this story and so many others like it –  no matter what this would be horrendous to live through – but it just seems to make it so much worse when we know it doesn’t have to be this way in terms of help. There is a way to help this, to help people stay safe when they are in this place. No we don’t have a cure for severe depression that we can just wave a wand and make it go away, but we could as a society keep people safe and loved, and families loved and supported – instead of stigmatized – we could do that

Melissa: We could that.

Tammy: We could as a community put our arms around people going through this and hold them up

Melissa: Right

Tammy: I think that is what makes this more painful. Is it doesn’t have to be this way.

Melissa: It does not have to be this hard. No.

Tammy: It would be hard no matter what, but it doesn’t have to be this lonely, it does not have to be this much of a struggle (20:00) to just get people to listen.

Melissa: Right.

Tammy: I want to thank you for your courage for speaking today so people can listen and can hear about what it is really like, because I think we don’t’s say it publicly enough so people can hear. Because it is awful, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Melissa: No, it does not. No. My only happiness would be, I guess if I can find a laughable moment, is if you can find a group of moms and get together once a month and tell your stories to each other because I think you need that – and you will come up with some doozies. That has been helpful.

Tammy: Support is so important. Just to have someone to be there with you, that, I think,  is so important.

Melissa: It is, but I have even seen in our small community where I know a couple of moms facing things similar to me and they don’t have anybody. Like you said we just need to put our arms around each other and it can get better.

Tammy: Thank you for being here today. I really appreciate you sharing your story with us. I really wish you and your child and your family all the warm, healthy wishes to make it through this difficult time so we can laugh together next time.

Melissa: We will laugh. Thank you.

Tammy: Thank you so much.

(music fades in)

Women Speaker: You have been listening to “Just Ask Mom”, copyrighted in 2018 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was 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 MothersOnTheFrontline.com or subscribe to “Mothers on the Frontline” on Itunes, Adroid, Google Play, or (22:00) Stitcher.

(music fades out)

[End]

 

Raising Children with Both Visible and Invisible Disabilities, Ask the Advocate Episode 3

In this episode, we listen to an advocate with MomBiz Boss and a mother of children who experience developmental and mental health challenges. She speaks about being a mother of color and the experiences of raising children with both visible and invisible disabilities.

Advocacy organizations discussed in the Podcast:

National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health – A national family-run organization linking more than 120 chapters and state organizations focused on the issues of children and youth with emotional, behavioral, or mental health needs and their families. It was conceived in Arlington, Virginia in February, 1989 by a group of 18 people determined to make a difference in the way the system works. https://www.ffcmh.org/

Younger Years and Beyond – A local chapter of National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health that focuses on mental health and behavioral health challenges for children starting at pre-school through beyond. https://www.facebook.com/theyoungeryearsandbeyond/

Zaria’s Song – We Provide Support & Resources to Parents and Caregivers with Children Experiencing Physical, Cognitive, Behavioral and Mental Health Challenge http://ateducational.wixsite.com/zariassong

 

Transcription

[music background]

Women’s Voice: Welcome to “Ask the Advocate” where mental health advocates share their journeys to advocacy and what it has meant for their lives. “Ask the Advocate” is a Mothers on the Frontline production. Today, we will hear from Shanta, a mother of three, a clinician, and an advocate. This interview was recorded at the 2017 National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Conference in Orlando, Florida. During this recording, you can hear noise in the background from another event in the hotel. Please don’t let these noises distract you from Shanta’s story.

Dionne: Hello. Thank you very much for agreeing to do this. Would you like to introduce yourself?

Teresa: Sure. Thank you very much for having me. I’m Teresa Wright Johnson, and I will say that I’m a mother first and then an advocate. I believe motherhood is very challenging as a business, so I’m kind of known as an advocate and a MOMBiz Boss, and we’ll talk about that later. But I’m a mom of children that were born with developmental challenges as well as physical challenges and children that have mental health challenges, learning disabilities, and more. And I advocate for them.

Dionne: And you advocate for them. So Teresa, tell us a little bit about your advocacy journey.

Teresa: So my journey began– I’m the mother of four children. I bore four children. Unfortunately– but still, fortunately, have one living child. So I had several children that died very early on when they were born. And then my other two children were also preemies. In coming– you know this is November. This is National Pre-maturity Birth Month– Awareness Month. A lot of people don’t know that. And with premature children, sometimes you have greater risk factors. And some of the risk factors that happened and that were indicated with my first child who was Zaria– and I have do so much for Zaria in her name. She was born with various disabilities, more physical and cognitive. She had cerebral palsy as well as metabolic disorders like mitochondrial syndrome. She also had seizures, low-birth weight, feeding issues, mobility issues, just so many different issues. But guess what? That did not sway me. I wanted to be a mother. And once I found out I was going to be a mother to Zaria, I started to getting training at the hospital–

Dionne: Oh, wow,

Teresa: — so that I could be the best advocate for her. So over the years with Zaria, I started my own support group for mothers of color called Special Treasures, because I feel that our children are not just special-needs children. They are special treasures. They are treasures that open us up, expand us, push us way beyond our comfort zones, and stuff. And so I did that with Zaria. Zaria, unfortunately, passed away.

Dionne: I’m sorry.

Teresa: She had a seizure at school and passed away some years ago. However, the journey of her from birth to seven years old has got me to help hundreds of thousands of women and families to different organizations: speaking, training, coaching, learning, and advocating. And I would have never done that without that journey of Zaria. So, Zaria had all those special needs. And she also opened me up to stuff that I never knew of. I knew about special needs a little bit because my Mom when I was little worked in group homes. And I didn’t even know that was a group home I was going to because back in the day, I ended up having a single-Mom that was divorced. You could go about with your Mom. But that compassion that was instilled to me as a child, it really helped me with my child with special needs. Then the special needs group and different organizations– I’ve worked with Mocha Moms, which is a national organization for women of color that put their children and their families first with children with special needs. That was my goal when I was doing things for there. But then, Zaria had a little sister named Jade that was born. And Jade was a few years younger. But when Jade was born, again, she was another premature birth. So, I have to be on bed rest, all these different things to have children. And when Jade was born, she was typical. She was just a low-weight, birth-weight baby. But then, as she started getting older, she wasn’t crawling. She took a long time to walk. I learned about a lot of different things with Zaria that helped me with Jade. And so Jade ended up being very physically functioning. But emotionally, she was the baby that never stopped crying that I took to the hospital, and she didn’t have colic. She was the baby when I would leave with people – her godmother or whatever – they would say, “Um, call me. She’s still crying.” “Ah, okay.” She was the baby banging her crib up against the wall. Not just crying to get out. She was banging it. So, this led me from the journey with Zaria ended up getting all these certifications for special needs– being a Special Needs Trainor for the Department of Development and Disabilities or Babies Can’t Wait, The Early Intervention for Georgia for Zaria. But then, transitioning to Jade was solely different, because she didn’t have developmental disabilities. I wasn’t working with IEPs anymore. That’s when I learned about the 504 Plans and all that stuff. So, me getting educated to help my children, starting off with Zaria, helped me to educate other people, but they helped me even more for Jade. And so now I have Jade, and she doesn’t mind. Jade says– you know what I can always say is that Jade experiences ADHD and some behavioral challenges but highly functioning. Has been placed in AP classes, a very smart girl. But if I wouldn’t never had the experience of Zaria and all these training and support that we get from other mothers and organizations we just don’t know, I would never know how to function or help Jade. And that’s why I’m here today at the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Yearly Conference is because of Jade. She’s my ‘why’ for this. And so I’ve been able to advocate now for parents that have children with dual-diagnosis whether it’s developmentally or mental health. I definitely don’t want to be a therapist or anything of that nature. But I have so much training that I know that God, and whomever you want to call it, gave it to me to help my children and other people. And I just can’t imagine not sharing that. And I can’t imagine parents not understanding, once they learned how to advocate for their children, they are their child’s number one advocate, because nobody’s going to advocate for your baby – that part of you, like you.

Dionne: Yes. So as a Mom advocate, what would you say if you had to talk to– and you can fill in this blank with whoever you were addressing one group– and I know you’ve addressed a lot of groups. What would you want them to know about your experience as a mother of children with mental health challenges?

Teresa: Wow, so many things you want them to know. The one is that Mom– that guilt you might have, the, “So why is my child like this?” Or, “How are people going to look at my child,” and all those things. I want them to know that find the treasure in your child, because those hard days when– maybe you have a child that experiences some behaviors or disabilities and is a little bit slower, if you can have that treasure kind of in your head, those days when they don’t seem like a treasure [laughter], when they don’t seem like a treasure, you have something to refer back to because even though it may be hard the way that you have to deal with them, how they deal with you, as society looks at them, they’re your gift. And you have to find the gift that they are for you and the treasure in them.

Dionne: You talked about this because– and the days that they seem like that you are just questioning the universe. Can you tell us about one of those days? And then–

Teresa: Oh, I definitely can.

Dionne: — what and how you worked through?

Teresa: I definitely can. One, I worked through it because I have a great support system. I engaged with other mothers that may experience some of the same things, so that I have someone to vent to one that understands me. Learned that very early on with Zaria. When my friends with typical two-year-olds would talk to me about their two-year old but my two-year old Zaria was really still at three, four months, they couldn’t understand. So, go seek out those supports that are particularly going to be able to support you. So, even with Mocha Moms, it was not a special needs thing. But it was for a stay-at-home moms at that time, at one point for Black mothers. That is who I am. So, I’m going to go seek them out. So with the child that is especially– in a particular experience, one of my children is very– the emotional part is very hard. Sometimes, she has so many things going on that it is overwhelming for me. I was just sitting in a train and then I was sounding– though I’m trained to be– a Mental Health instructor, a Certified Panic Peer Specialist, a Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper, all that, when it’s my baby, it’s a total different thing. I remember those formats. I remember those structures. I remember those systems. But it’s not the same. So, you got to make sure you have support because there are days when I have to walk away sometimes crying from my child. I mean she hadn’t anything to me physically. But my heart is hurt because you see what they’re going through. And they might not even be able to see it. And you know the treasure you have. But right now, it looks more like the garbage truck. And I would say the amount of support you have is very important. And just being real. And remembering where is that sacred space, that treasure, where you have to think back about it, because sometimes you want to just throw in the towel, because we don’t show motherhood being difficult. We show motherhood with this pretty baby and the little kids outside playing. And when you have a child with a need, you have fewer days of that and more days of questioning, “Why me? Why my child?”

So I think to have that support system, to be able to vent with other women that understand or can listen to you, groups that understand you, and the same for your child is important. So my number one piece would be have a support system. Have somewhere you can go. And then of course remembering that treasure because even though it’s H-E Double Hockey Sticks or whatever you call it [laughter], we have to figure out a way to go back to the gift in it, because it’s so very hard especially with the mental health versus the developmental disability. Especially in certain cultures, being a mother of color myself when I had my daughter with cerebral palsy, it was easier for people to see, because she could walk sometimes. She can do stuff. But when they see my child over here having a meltdown, “You better get that baby get a beating. Get her shit. Got no manners,” or whatever. That invisible disability is so hard. So everything– I know all women can do it. But when you have a child with a need, sometimes you got to put on a tough skin, because people say things. So that support, that treasure, and that tough skin altogether.

Dionne: That brings up a good and important point because especially as mothers of color, so many of us, we are experiencing not just our own internal, what I call your internal voice. But then, you literally have the external voice telling you what you should be doing, what you should know. How do you advocate for yourself as a mother because you’re Fearless Mom advocate. I know you’re a fearless mom. How do you advocate for yourself?

Teresa: For taking care of myself?

Dionne: Yes, taking care– it could be taking care of yourself or standing up for you.

Teresa: Again, one, you have to make– write down your own rules. Who and what do you stand for? What’s important for you because I’m Teresa. I might not look like the other Teresa down the road that’s an African-American woman. What are my values? What’s important to me? And what’s important to me is that I live up to who I authentically am and who my family is. That’s one. And then, two, being able to really sit and think about what really is important, what’s not. You know the picture? Because we’re women. I don’t care what color you are. A lot of us fall into this picture thing. And guess what? How much do I really care about that picture or what it– I care more about reality and being happy. So that’s one. But as a fearless advocate, I really try to think about major– I don’t really care what anybody else thinks, because I know what’s going on inside of my house and inside of my mind and what I have to take care of. Like being here at the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Event. A lot of people– they don’t understand that. But I don’t care. It’s about my need. So have put on that tough skin again the way that I, the Fearless advocate, that takes care of me as I think of myself. I put on a tough skin. I do take care of myself, self-care. One of the presentations I speak about sometimes is life beyond advocacy, because at some point you can’t just advocate for your child and do everything for your child as you want to sit over here, and you’re going to have a breakdown or something, too. So that tough skin and not worrying about what others think. And taking care of you and your family. But remembering yourself, too, because so many mothers forget about themselves.

Dionne: What’s your self-care pleasure?

Teresa: My self-care pleasure is– oh, I have so many [laughter] because I love that stuff. But my self-care pleasure really is just quiet space because I’m talker. And I’m always with people. So if I can go on a trip and be away or if I can go– I just recently started doing yoga and meditation. And that has been great, wonderful a way to do it. You might not have funds or something to do things or time– a quick hot shower with some music. And I think really music is one of my main things and ways of self-care, because you can get whatever mode you want. Dancing. I think we think about self-care as if it has to be the spa all the time. And it doesn’t. Or it has to be all these extra things. Just little things to take care of our self because to be able follow these advocacy and these children that experience various needs, they experience those. That’s not who they are. And that’s why I say remember that treasure. Remember who it is. As a matter of fact, my daughter’s name is Jade for a reason, because she’s a treasure. Let me remember. She’s a treasure [laughter]. So–

Dionne: I like that.

Teresa: So you have to figure it out.

Dionne: So I have two last questions. And then I want you to tell us a little bit about your organization and the shout out for your organization, where we can reach you, and everything. What’s your most laughable moment? Because a lot of these, for me, one of my self-care pleasures is just being able to sit back. And sometimes just laugh at what’s going on. What’s your most laughable moment?

Teresa: When your child that experiences a mental health challenge or behavioral challenges calls you on stuff, that’s the most laughable moment. They have to tell you to slow down or tell you to do something. And you hear them repeat back how you talk to them or deal with them. That is the most laughable moment, because I do really want to tell them, “No.” But really guess what, they got this somebody from somebody. And it might not be that you have a mental health diagnosis. But some of the stuff that we complain about our children or concerned about they are mirroring our personalities. And so that for me is the most laughable moment. So for me, I’m always moving and shaking. And my daughter, she’s a mover and shaker. But she’s a little slower. You have to prompt her like I do this or that. But she has to tell me, “Mommy, you need to slow down.” Surprised yesterday at the conference she said, “I’m surprised you didn’t lose your cellphone yet [laughter].” So that was like, “Oh, okay.” I said, “Oh, okay. Well, you know when I’m not with you…” because this is our first conference she’s been to as an attendee where she’s engaging by herself. So I said, “Well, Mommy try this all the time. I have my phone all the time.” She said, “Well, I’m surprised [laughter].”

Dionne: She’s little part of you.

Teresa: Yes, she’s watch me, because she see me put things down and do different things. So that’s my most laughable moment.

Dionne She’s just seeing you. reflecting you back at [laughter].

Teresa: Which is really good because that not caring what people think has been a little bit better for her with dealing with some of her challenges. But she’s learned that from me.

Dionne: Oh, that’s good. That’s important. That’s important. So is there one particular organization, group that you want to do a shout out, you want to talk about right now?

Teresa: So, since I’m at the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Conference, I’m going to talk about my organization. It’s Younger Years and Beyond. We are a local chapter of the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. You will find us on Facebook right now. And just type in The Younger Years and Beyond or Younger Years and Beyond. And we are a local chapter that focuses on mental health and behavioral health challenges for children starting at pre-school through beyond. I started this chapter when Jade was four or five years old when I realized something was going on. And I wanted it to grow with her. And that’s why it’s called The Younger Years and Beyond. We offer support, free and sliding fee scale, because we’re a family-ran organization. We have a fiscal agent, so we do have a non-profit status that we’re under right now. And we provide services for IEPs, 504 Plans. But most of our training to parents as well. So I’m a former trainer for several organizations in Georgia as well as a university for parents with children with special needs as well as some of my Board Members, meaning my Board Members also are very, very strong mental health professionals and staff. So we just do very– what we can. But we mostly have a lot of events. We are a family-ran organization meaning we are family funded and take grants here and there. We’re trying to decide one, going after more. But pretty much we have three events each year. One is a Mental Health Awareness event for children. Then we have a business one like Connecting Organizations. And then this year, we’re going to have a Virtual Mental Health Awareness event for children and families. So we’re going to have a family track, and we’re going to have a children’s track. And I’ve actually been at this conference, and I have booked like two or three ladies–

Dionne: Oh, good.

Teresa: — to already speak. So we definitely are going to talk your agency about all that you do, because we know we are about the motherhood thing here. So that’s we do. You’ll find us on Facebook, The Younger Years and Beyond. And if you can’t find us there, you can always look to Zaria’s Song, and that’s Z-A-R-I-A-S-S-O-N-G like Zaria’s Song because Zaria’s Song and The Younger Years and Beyond are kind of connected because development disabilities and mental health, because the money is separated. People always separate it, but you need you have to do diagnosis.

Dionne: We call it the pathway.

Teresa: Right.

Dionne: There’s many pathways, and a lot of them go through mental health or lead to. We will be sure to provide links to both of those. Or in our sites we have a resource link, and we also– once we put up your podcast, we will provide links. So anybody who listens to this can link. One more? Go ahead. One more.

Teresa: The one other thing that I wanted to say is we also offer training for Mental Health First Aid. We are mental health– I’m a certified Mental Health National First Aid Instructor. And we are adding on. We do it for adults right now. But we are adding on the Children Mental Health First Aid. And we know where our community and our society and our world is right now. So very important that we get that information out there to communities, families, organizations, schools, etc.

Dionne: That is very true. Mental Health First Aid. We can use that training everywhere: teachers, coaches, other parents. Well, thank you very much. I mean this has been a pleasure. This has been– and I hope to continue to talk to you, and work with you in the future. So–

Teresa: I’m so excited.

Dionne: — thanks for joining us.

Teresa: Thank you for the opportunity. I’m so excited. I love your dream. You all can see what she’s dreamed out all for mental health awareness. Thank you so much.

Dionne: Thank you. Thank you.

[music]

Narrator: You have been listening to Ask the Advocate. Copyrighted in 2018 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Dionne Bensonsmith. The music is Old English, written, performed, and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcasts in this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to mothersonthefrontline.com or subscribe on iTunes, Android, Google Play, or Stitcher.

[end]

 

The importance of not taking your child’s behavior personally. Just Ask Mom Podcast Series, Episode 4

In this episode we speak to Paula, the adoptive mother of two boys from foster care. One son has PTSD, Trauma, and Autism. The other son has ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, and Anxiety. Paula talks about the importance of not taking your child’s behavior personally, the gift of adoption,  and the importance of laughter.

For a transcript of the podcast, go to https://mothersonthefrontline.com/podcast-transcripts/

Resources Mentioned in this Podcast

99 ways to To Drive Your Kids Sane by Brita St. Clair. – This little book is full of wild ideas and hysterical humor to bring the laughter back into a home with an emotionally disturbed child. Need a good laugh? This book will do it! It includes lots of “one liners” and silly, fun ways to help parents avoid anger around tough topics. Written by a very experienced and loving Therapeutic Mom with years of success helping tough kids heal.

Transcription

Female Speaker over music: 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 Paula, a mother of two adopted boys. One who has PTSD, Trauma, and is on the Autism Spectrum. The other son has ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, and Anxiety

Tammy: Well tell us a little bit about yourself.

Paula: Well, I’m a mom here in Iowa. We live in a semi little town but it’s in a metropolitan area so we have lots of great things around us. I have been married twenty-eight years.

Tammy: Congratulations. That’s wonderful.

Paula: Which is a long time. [Laughs]

Tammy: Yes it is. [Laughs]

Paula: Especially  – I mean I am not quite fifty but still, we got married when we were twenty. I mean so we were late to the family thing. We wanted to wait, we didn’t want to jump in. And for a variety of reasons being foster parents and adoption was the way that we decided to go. So we have two boys, they are now fifteen and twelve. The first one we adopted when he was three and a half and the other one was seven. So we are no longer foster parents. I did foster care training and stuff but we are no longer foster parents. Because of the level of needs that they both have, they need our full attention. So I am now a stay at home mom, but professionally I am rehab counselor and mental health therapist.

Tammy: Wonderful. So before we get started I always like to ask people about themselves before they were mothers or outside of mothering. So you told us a bit career-wise so just tell us a little bit about your passions and who you are before we get ….

Paula: Well I love lots of things – my husband and I joke that we are renaissance people so we like lots of little things. Before we had kids we were married a long time, which I highly recommend. I mean we got married young, we were twenty. But we didn’t bring kids into our universe until year thirteen or something. Before we had kids though life was moving along beautifully, you know just the way it does, but it wasn’t easy, actually my husband is a stage four colon cancer survivor.

Tammy: Oh wow.

Paula: So when we were thirty three, he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer and at that time in 2001,  less than five percent survived stage four colon cancer. So um we were one of that five percent and so that definitely informs the way that we view the universe. We’re in year what?  that’s 2001-  so somebody else do the math  –  fifteen years that he is still you know alive, healthy, we had no recurrence. We went through everything you know all the chemo, liver resection, all the worse things humanly possible. So for us every day is a gift even after fifteen years. We often joke that I should have been widowed  –  had I been widowed what would I have done? That is what we worked on. You know in therapy — how do you deal with your life and literally I would have had a farm house with a bunch of foster adopted kids.

Tammy: That’s your passion.

Paula: So that’s probably what I would have done. I grew up in foster care and my mom had serious mental illness. She was bipolar rapid cycling and so this was something that was always on our radars to be foster parents and given the biology of our bodies, adoption was the way we decide to have a family.

Tammy: Wonderful. Thank you for that. So what would you like people to know?  You have so many rich, great experiences. What would you like people to know?

Paula: When I do trainings on trauma development and the way our brains work, my favorite thing to remind parents –  and it is so hard as moms, oh my goodness,  it is so hard – is to not take it personal. One of the stories that I share in my trainings is about when my son was five. He was very big for his age, he wore size eight, nine or real close. He is a big boy. I mean he is tall now too. But he was a big boy. He would rage and when you have a child that has trauma you can’t allow them to rage alone because it’s not that they need to calm down. You need to be their container. Mentally you need to be a container – a safe place for them and so, one of my favorite ways to remind parents not to take it personal is, he was in the middle of a rage and he just, his caveman brain was just in charge he couldn’t handle what was going on and we were sitting on his bed and I had my arms around him. He was sitting, on my lap and you know he was just in that fully fledged bucking mode and he bucked back and he hit my nose so that it hit the bridge and I got a hairline fracture.

Tammy: Oh.

Paula: If you have ever had one of those, you would rather have your nose broken. The hairline fractures are unbelievably painful but where I teach people not to take things personal is in that moment when he raged and hit me, cause I wear glasses. He hit me and I felt the pain, I knew instantly – this was just the thing that was going into my head: “If I say something now this could undo all the work we have been doing to help him bond and heal. “So I just held him for a moment and I said,  “honey I love you, I need to step out” and I stepped out and went to our bedroom, put my face in the pillow and screamed [Laughs] Some very colorful words.

Tammy: I bet [Laughs]

Paula: Took off my glasses and I went back in and finished helping him calm down. And then we went and figured out what was wrong. That’s a prime example of not taking it personal. Yes, he physically assaulted me. He broke my nose. That hairline fracture  –  I wore a little lightweight plastic glasses –  I couldn’t even put those  on –  but it wasn’t personal. It had nothing to do with me. What was happening was not to me, it was to him.

And so always remembering that, so that’s my extreme moment of even now as a teenager when he does things I have to remember, he is not saying this to hurt me, it’s his coping skill. And even when he does now he will say, he will, you know, use the “B” word and so he never uses it anymore because we turned it into a joke and I am like, “you know what buddy I really am and I am really good at it so thank you for noticing.”

Tammy: [Laughs]

Paula: And he stopped. [Laughs]

Tammy: You took the fun out of it! [Laughs]

Paula: Yes, I took the fun out of it. But also I deescalated it and didn’t take it personal. And so that’s one of my biggest wishes for moms is to not take it personal because it is so hard to not do that.

Tammy: Right. And as is the case with so many of these interviews so far, you are telling us something that is especially true when you have a child with mental illness, but this is true for all parents.

Paula: You know I’m glad you said that because our best friend, I love her – she says when she talks about us to other people or she even complains about her children, one of her children is the same age as mine, fifteen years old and they have been in school several times together and she will complain about her daughter doing something and then she just looks at me and smiles and she goes, yes I know Paula, it’s that, plus. So everything that happens in quote ‘regular lives’ is what happens to all of us.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Paula: Which is stressful.

Tammy: Oh yeah.

Paula: Being a mom of a teen is stressful.

Tammy: Yeah.

Paula: But I like the way that she articulated it. She is like, you know what, you guys have all the normal stress plus. And so it’s not that these techniques that we use with our family aren’t good techniques for everyone, it’s just that we have to be more cognizant of it and more mindful of doing it and the reason we are doing it. Its not accidental, that we use certain language or that we talk about topics more in depth than your average parent. Its purposeful and so I like that because she will do the same topic with her daughter and then she is like yeah, but you guys have to do the plus. So that’s kind of how I view our life work. Like everyone else, plus.

Tammy: Plus, exactly, yeah. Well that’s, I think a really helpful lesson. Is there anything else that you would like people to know in general. I mean you have done, by the way thank you, I always think we need to say thank you when people adopt children from foster care because you are doing not only something wonderful for those children but you are doing something for our whole community.

Paula: As a mom we feel guilt a lot and we feel the weight of the universe on us. And so again our friend that says the plus, I have stopped working for the past four years, almost five now. I got my Masters Degree and then I stopped working. So we were like, oh well that was interesting and so sometimes that guilt kills me. So I like the way that she rephrased it for me and that was, because we have this special needs adoption and we had to really fight for it. Which was really interesting given they were going to put him in an institution. But that’s okay, so we fought hard to get the highest level of special needs adoption but that wasn’t until he was like ten. So, you know we had five years of the first level. The reason that I could not work was because we had two boys that get the special needs adoption and so my friend reminds that, that is my job.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Paula: So it’s not that I am not bringing income into our family. It’s not that I’m not contributing financially. If I didn’t stay at home, and do all of the things that –  school calls and “hey you know this child is not doing xyz can you come and calm him down?” -, you can’t do that with a job or you get fired. So letting go of that guilt that you have to make certain sacrifices and that’s okay.

So you know that’s one thing and then the other thing is that I always I have a hard time saying thank you when somebody says you are great for adopting, because I grew up in foster care. I know that it is good that we adopted them, you know hopefully somebody would have eventually. But from my perspective, I was an infertile woman in my late thirties who cried every time she saw all her friends having babies. So in a way, it’s kind of selfish. I mean it works out both ways I mean I wanted children, couldn’t have children, I had a special skill set that could work with kids with trauma. So it’s like I want to say thank you for saying that but a part of me is always like I needed it too. So its sort of a fifty-fifty, yes we saved them but they saved us. So it works that way, it’s not “yay we are adopted foster parents whoo –hoo”. Its not that simple.

Tammy: I think most of the time when we reach out to anyone else, it’s helping us as much as helping them.

Paula: Yeah, exactly.

Tammy: That’s always the case. That’s right.

Paula: They have definitely enriched our lives in ways that we could never have imagined and they drive us absolutely insane.

Tammy: [Laughs]

Paula: In the same breath [Laughs]  –  but that’s what most parents say.

Tammy: Absolutely, absolutely.

Paula: But ours is “plus”.[Laughs]

Tammy: That’s right! So we ask this question of everybody: right at this moment, do you feel like you are swimming, drowning, treading water ? Where do you find yourself?

Paula: I’m swimming.

Tammy: Wonderful.

Paula: I mean I have really great support. Our school is amazing. It breaks my heart when I hear of families that struggle to get basic accommodations. Shout to the Iowa City School District. They have done amazing work with our kids.

Tammy: That’s great.

Paula: They have always listened to us. They value our opinion, we value theirs. I feel that we have a good support system. I mean I feel isolated sometimes just as a mom because there are no mom groups for kids like mine. Yet sometimes I just want to be hermit so it’s a give and take  – but I am swimming. I’m blessed –  I have an amazing husband who  – we are truly a partnership. I parent a fifteen-year-old easy peasy. Twelve-year-old, not so much. He parents the twelve-year-old easy peasy, the fifteen-year-old not so much.

Tammy: That works out nicely.

Paula:  So it has worked out really well. [Laughs].

Tammy: Yes, that works really well. [Laughs] When you and I were talking earlier you said –  and this seems to be universal among all of us moms  – “ if we don’t laugh, we would be crying all the time”, so we like to ask, what’s your most laughable moment ?

Paula: So we laugh about that because I ask my family, “Like gosh what’s the most laughable moment?” and they are like “we can’t parse this out because we are goof balls.”

Tammy: [Laughs]

Paula: When we adopted the boys and when we brought them into our family, the biggest joke was, you can’t join our family unless you want to be silly and so one of the books that I always take with me when I do trainings is, the book, How To Drive Your Kids Sane. It has all these little great tips of how to just do silly stuff like singing silly in the car with a fifteen year old. Because you do that with little kids but when you do it with older kids they crack up at you being so silly but then they are silly and they lose that inhibition and so we try to be silly. Our family is full of puns, we are constantly trying to out pun each other or alliterations and so laughable moments in our life are always around the dinner table. We always eat dinner together. So I ask my husband what’s a laughable moment for me and he is like, you know after all these years the one that always pops into his head is, I was extremely exhausted, I was working the third shift at Dunkin Donuts and, you know we were what? Twenty two, twenty three years old and, the phone would ring but I’m on the different body clock than everybody else in the house and he says that I would always try to pick up the phone but I couldn’t find it cause I’m asleep. So I would always pick up the alarm clock. And so this is one those plugged in alarm clocks from you know back in the eighties and he is like you would pick up this alarm clock and you like shove it to your face and realize it’s too big and that it’s not a phone and you just saw this look and like, why isn’t anybody answering this phone but I am asleep.

Tammy:[Laughs]

Paula: And so he says that’s always the image that he has of laughable moments about me. But I think we just try to laugh a lot like you were talking about self care –  so being funny and laughing is part of our self-care, of my self care. I am an avid knitter, and that has its own laughable moments whenever I make mistakes and have to undo stuff or you know I make silly things for the kids, yeah, so I can’t come up with one cause there is like ten from just going over to Hurtz donuts this morning.

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

Paula: No thank you for doing this.

Female Voice over Music: You have been listening to “Just Ask Mom”, recorded and copyrighted in 2017 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was 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.

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.