Advocating for Foster Kids, Ask the Advocate Episode 5

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In this episode, we listen to  Andre Minett, a father of two, husband, and social worker. He discusses his experience advocating for foster children and his own experience as a father with a child with health condition.

Transcription

ATA 5 not edited

[background music]

Female Speaker: Welcome to “Ask The Advocate” where mental health advocates share their journey to advocacy and what it is meant for their lives. “Ask The Advocate” is a Mothers On The Front Line production. Today we will hear from Andre Mina, a father of two, husband, and social worker. This interview was recorded at the 2017 National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health conference in Orlando Florida. During this particular recording, you can hear music and noise in the background from another event in the hotel. Please don’t let this noises distract you from Andre’s story.

Tammy Nyden: So, I’m just going to ask you to introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit of who you are and then the kind of advocacy work that you do.

Andre: Okay. My name is Andre Minett. I’ve been a social worker since about 2002. Definitely, this is what I do because this is the only thing I’m good at.

Tammy: I doubt that, but, okay.Andre: So, I’ve been working with children especially since 2002, right from Miami, D.C., now, here in Florida. I’ve been doing this work kind of a long time. It’s funny when I look at my resume, and then I’m like “man, I’m old.”

Tammy: That happens quickly. Doesn’t it?

Andre: Yes. My oldest son is about to turn four, my youngest son just turned two. I’ve been married for seven years. That’s kind of the highlight of my career, really.

Tammy: Right, right. Those are fun ages, too.

Andre: Yes. That’s where the real work begins, you know.

Tammy: Yes.

Andre: That’s where you understand everything you have already done, you know.

Tammy: That’s right.

Tammy: Tell us about your advocacy work.

Andre: So, I’ve been advocating for children for a long time. You almost don’t even look at it as advocacy, it’s just something that you’ve been doing for a long time. I’ve been working in foster care. I began my career working in foster care and so to advocate for a lot of those kids who really didn’t have parents who were able to advocate for them. I became their parent. I’ve been training foster parents on how to raise kids, even though, I was about twenty-two years old and telling a fifty-year-old woman – and men –  how to raise their kids. It’s kind of raising their kids, raising my kids, that they have custody of. The way we kind of wanted and for them to be ready. It’s kind of hard too, because, you know, you have to set a standard of how you raise your own kids. You have the ideologies and all that stuff, but, you know, when you say that to a parent, who’ve been spanking their kids for a long time, like “don’t touch my kids”, you know? Yet I do it in the most professional way as possible. But, you know, you check on them, and you do things like that. So, I’ve been advocating for foster children. At one point I had my own mentoring agency, where I took kids in a city who were underprivileged, and kind of raising them that way because the Foster Care System, you kind of had the whole zone, what you can do and how you can do it.

Tammy: Right. Can you talk a little bit about working with the foster kids? Where are the areas were they were really needed an advocate to help them out? I’m sure there’s many. Just pick a few.

Andre: I mean, even in the court systems, where those custody battles of determining parental rights for adoptions. So, a lot of the foster parents and the parents, they have to kind of navigate through that and think, “look, what is the best thing for these kids?” Because that’s really all came down to. It’s kind of, having everyone see eye-to-eye. So the court system, you didn’t have to advocate within the system of the foster care system because I was privileged to be a part of a therapeutic foster care system with a private organization, but you also have to deal with the state. That was kind of our managing entity to work.

Tammy: So, did you do therapeutic foster care yourself at any point?Andre: No.

Tammy: I misunderstood. But you work with the agency that did it?

Andre: I just worked with the agency. Right. A lot of the times, you would want to try to transition a kid from one home to the next home because that’s right for that kid. Sometimes the state would say, “okay, look, just put him in a home,” and you have to say, “look, here’s the plan, here’s the plan that we have,” because you have been attached to that kid and you kind of know what’s best for that kid, and you see that kid maybe five to six times a month, you know.

Tammy: So talk about that of it, because I think, in the work we do, we talk a lot of times about how the parent’s the expert, but here, you have kids who their parent can’t advocate for them at that moment. So, the closest thing they have to that could be, this person who’s working on the system on their behalf who knows them as opposed to someone else who they might get passed off to as they only met them. How do you navigate that when you know, like, you know a particular child, you know them?

Andre: Well, I think, the best thing to do, and somebody told me when I first started social work. I said, “what does making you–” as she was a parent, that’s one of my fellow social workers, I said, “what makes you a great parent?” I said, “does a social worker can make you a great parent?” She said, “no, being a parent makes me a great social worker.” You see some of these kids in these situations when their biological parents are, you know, I’ve had parents who were struggline on drugs but still wanted their kids.

Tammy: Right. Well, of course. At that moment they needed to help themselves so they could help their kids, right?

Andre: Right. A lot of times they don’t know that. That’s the hard part. Because you have this six, seven-year-old kid who wants to go back to their parents who probably even sexually abuse them. You have to say, “look, there’s help.” You have to really be non judgmental when it comes to advocating between the kids and their parents. I was twenty-two when I started and a lot of these parents who were about twenty-two, twenty-three when they had their first child. You know, I couldn’t imagine them, besides professional work, my personal life is a little bit different. So you could understand how some might have a personal life and think it is okay to have their kids in the home when they’re doing drugs but they’re downstairs. It was kind of difficult just kind of having the parents come to an agreement, like, “we know you understand, we know you love your child, every parents going to love your child, and there’s a way that we expect things to happen for your child.” So, navigating between that was sometimes difficult, but you know, when you kind of come with a non-judgmental spirit with some of those parents, and say “this could be anybody.” Even myself if given the wrong situation. So, you educate the parents, that takes a while. Yes, it’s a system, that could take a while, even longer, but, at the end of the day, when everyone’s their best interest is the child, and that’s it, when you can actually really say that the best interest is my child, this child, and all the kids I have – somebody asked me, “how many kids do I have,” I’d say that I have hundreds, because it’s just, it’s hard to look at somebody’s thirteen, it’s hard to look at someone who is six, even a baby. To say, “look, we’re going to do the best thing for this kid,” and I took them as my own. I honestly felt like the only way I could actually do this child justice is to actually think that this child is my own. And that’s hard, but I’m so glad that I did it when I was twenty-two years old because I could take it home to nobody. It was difficult, but, you know, it needed to be done.

Tammy: In the work that you do, have you been doing any of this work since you’ve become a father?

Andre: I… Yes.

Tammy: Then had that change the dynamic at all of how you went to work, how you felt doing your job? Did it adjust anything for you?

Andre: Being a father is a lot, it kind of put everything in perspective. Because I really thought that I really knew—

Tammy: And first of all, you were twenty-two, what twenty-two-year-old doesn’t know everything? I mean, let’s just start off with that.

Andre: Exactly, exactly. But at twenty-two, I realized that I had a lot to learn but I’ve also realized that I had a job to do. So, it was kind of navigating between that, it was like, okay, look, I would tell these fifty-year-old parents on how to raise their kids but I got to… But you know, being a father is a lot. So,my son was diagnosed with Sickle Cell.

Tammy: Oh, so you have experienced also with a child who has health needs. So that’s helpful for you to relate. Not that you want that to be the case, but—

Andre: No, but, it put in perspective some of the things you do. Then, honestly, how some of these parents really felt. When the Cancer Center calls you when your son is two-weeks-old, and you’re only thirty-three years old, and, I don’t know if my kid is going to live or die, because you don’t know anything about the disease, or anything. So, the advocacy that came from that, saying, “look, okay, I already love my kid, he’s two-weeks’ old, I’m not giving him back.” So, thinking of kind of where that comes from or what you had to do as a family. Then it kind of puts it in perspective, some of these parents and what they’re going through. When they’re hit with certain situations at such a young age or old age, or whatever it is, what I need to now do? So that kind of helped bring some of that stuff into perspective and kind of see their point of view a little bit more. Okay, look, I’m thirty-three years old when I had my son and realized he was diagnosed with sickle cell – and we were still going in circles and I’m educated, I’ve been through social work, I’ve been to all of this stuff. Imagine —

Tammy: It still makes you spin, right?

Andre: Right. Yes, and I had a world of support around me, behind me. I had my wife, I had a community, I had the church, I had my family and friends come together. It was a natural healthy type of support system. Imagine when that’s not the case. What do you do? Where do you go? So, that kind of put the advocacy level just a little bit higher. Obviously with age comes a lot of experience through experiences comes to a lot more.

Tammy: You hit on something that, I don’t think we talk about enough on this interviews, and that is, a lot of us who are actively engaged in children’s mental health advocacy for instance, are so privileged already that is allowing us to be involved in this advocacy. Some of those privileges, like right now, I’m only here able to interview you because my mom is watching my kids. Okay? So I have this built-in amazing support system of a wonderful mom who is amazing in doing all this, not everyone has that.

Andre: No, they don’t.

Tammy: And so, as you’re talking about being non-judgmental with the people that you’re helping in your work, a lot of them don’t have any support system.

Andre: No, they don’t. That’s the scary part. Honestly, because I know how I felt when I was hit with that news. We’re still working through it, but we worked through it.

Tammy: Because there’s nothing worse than knowing your kids can suffer, and being powerless. I mean, you get them the best care, but you can’t make them not suffer.

Andre: You can’t do anything. All you could do is what you can do, but you can’t do anything with them. That’s hard. Just imagine, I’m just thinking about some of the backgrounds that some of my families came from. Now, put it in perspective, some of the things that they are going through, drug-related issues. It’s so easy, honestly, to be judgmental in these situations. I certainly did my share of judging, like, “how could you do this?”, “how could you do that?”, but, when you understand a little bit about the background even though my kids are not raised in a drug-infested background, you’ll understand when you could be hit with certain things that you can’t deal with, where do you go when I have nowhere to go?

Tammy: Right, and as you know, with a lot of drug use, sometimes you self-medicating for something that’s not diagnosed or there are really difficult situations without support. Not that it’s a good choice… It’s not. But, we can make the choices that are presented to us. If we don’t have a lot of support, we don’t have as many choices presented to us and I think we need to keep that in mind.

Andre: Yes, and then the environment, too. If you’re having drug-use, who are the people are supporting you? Probably people who are giving you drugs or the people who encourage you about “this is what I did.” I had one family, when I was in Florida, her son was diabetic but he was severely obese – he was about three to four hundred pounds. His A1C level was supposed to be like 2 or 3 I guess, it was about 15.

Tammy: How old was he? Was he a young child or a teenager?

Andre: He was about thirteen, fourteen-years-old, but the mom was also overweight, severely obese. She kind of went through some of the same things, so, her message to me was, “I’m okay, my son will be okay.” How do you kind of convince that “look, we all need to change.” Trying to come in, “I work with this family for about a year or so,” it’s trying to convince this mom on “look, your son needs help. He’s under my care.” So we created a program that kind of dealt with weight loss and also healthy eating and worked with a lot of dieticians but, unfortunately, in that case, I had to call DCF because she missed maybe a couple of health appointments. I want to let that go but she missed the third one without letting me know. I gave her a warning so I said, “look, I have to look out for this kid and if he’s going to live or if he’s going to die”. You know, it couldn’t be on my conscience, I’m trying to be nice to this mom, while this kid is suffering. You also have the other mentality, like, “I’m fine, my kids are going to be fine, I could be in drug-use, I’ve live, my mom did it and I lived, and now, it’s okay.” You had to have somebody to come in and step in and say “look, this is kind of the fine point when things are not okay. Look, I know things have been going well, I hope things continue to go well but we’re going to do things a little bit different.” You kind of have to have the trust of the family. When you come in with a judgmental attitude, you’ll never get the trust of the family. But you come in and say “it’s okay, I understand or maybe I don’t understand, but, look, we’re going to try to get you help as quickly as possible as much as possible”. When your job, especially with me, when your job is to look out for kids, and you love these kids, it’s kind of hard to not do the right thing. Even though it’s going to hurt your relationship may be with the mom like it did with that other mom there. Well, we got that kid help. He went to a camp and he lost maybe over a hundred fifty pounds and his A1C level went down, but he had to be separated from his mom for a while which kind of hurt. But, being an advocate, those are some of the risks you take but, when the end of the day and your job is to take care of these kids because I was concerned whether this kid’s going to live or die. Those are some of the hard choices that people deal with as an advocate. You want to be in a family’s life but sometimes that means that you have to be taken away just to do the right thing and that hurts. It does.

Tammy: Right, absolutely. Because of course, the child’s health is the concern but the child wants to be with his family, and that has been really position to be in. How do you keep going, like, how do you knock your burned out?

Andre: One, you had to know that this is your calling. Like I said this is probably the only thing I’m good at. And believe me, I tried to run away a couple of times.

Tammy: Just they pulled you back in, right?

Andre: When you love that type… Then you have your own life separate. I think, over the years, I’ve been doing this over the years – since I’m 22 years old –  over the years, I really learned how to separate myself just a little bit. I think a healthy attachment is important to keep advocating, but, you kind of do things that allow you. Then I have my faith, I go to church, so that kind of relieves some of those issues.

Tammy: Right. So how do you take care of yourself? So, the church helps and having some kind of separation of your life and your work. Is there something that you do to just sort of… Because there has to be a lot of pressure at the end of some days. Disappointment, frustration, every case can’t work out, right? And that has to break your heart. How do you – individually like you –  keep pushing on?

Andre: Yes.

Tammy: Faith is very important and I can see that. Is there something you do that just helps you sort of blow off some steam? Re-center?

Andre: My wife is really good. I mean, having a supportive wife.

Tammy: Yes. That’s important.

Andre: Yes. That’s really important. My wife says all the time, “I couldn’t do it.” I couldn’t see my wife doing this work I do, she’d be coming home every day crying or adopting eight thousand kids.

Tammy: That’s right. You would have a big family.

Andre: Right. I think taking my time with my friends, and my wife is really good at having me go out with some of my friends and relax, away from my family too. Because we have our own routine that we go through every day. My kid is about to be four and two. But you know, having that routine just kind of breaking up just a little bit.

Tammy: That’s really important, in fact, there are just recent studies talking about men in particular that are in society men don’t always hang out with other man and it affects their health. As a woman, I know I’m not always telling the man in my life “you need to go out and have poker night” or whatever. We don’t encourage it necessarily. But it’s important—

Andre: That’s extremely important. I didn’t realize how important it was until my wife actually forced me out of the house one time to go to a basketball game.

Tammy: Good for her.

Andre: I’m from Connecticut, so the Yukon Huskies are playing. She forced me to go out. It was just kind of like  “I have to look over the kids. I have to cater to my wife just a little bit.” So ever since then, I’ve been doing at least once a month, going out to see a movie, and I think that’s extremely important.

Tammy: I think it’s important for any man, like, everybody, to be able to get out with some friends that you don’t have obligations to, like family, even your most loved ones, right?

Andre: Yes. But you know, that’s one thing I admire about women and as far while women lived the longest, they know how to take care of themselves.

Tammy: That, well, we’re trying.

Andre: I mean, for the most part, you guys know how to take… I was just making a joke to my friend here. I said, you know, my wife and her friend just went out and they went to a spa date, massages over there. “You want to go out, let’s not call a spa date, let’s just hang out at the spa all day.”

Tammy: Yes, exactly. Exactly.

Andre: I think that’s important because they had fun and she came back so refreshed but she does stuff like that.

Tammy: I think you’re right. I think it’s easy for women to go do that whereas for men we really need a different name for it so they feel more comfortable about it. But yes.

Andre: I’m comfortable with my manhood. We could go out and have a massage, sit down and talk, watch a game, or do something and that think that is extremely important for people to take care of themselves, especially men. I think we bottle up a lot of stuff.

Tammy: I think that’s true for anyone. And then, if you’re working in this field where, or again, if it’s one of your kids and they get diagnosed, you feel helpless, but you’re watching kids. You could only have so much power in this system to help them. That has to just sometimes feel frustrating and powerless, right?

Andre: Yes.

Tammy: So, just to be able to take care of yourself so you can go into the next case the next day and help that next kid.

Andre: Because I think when you’re really passionate about what you do – there’s going to be a lot of stuff that kind of gets to you, that you can’t do. Even the other day, I think yesterday, I was looking for one of my kids on Facebook that I taught a long time ago in Baltimore. He even joked that he was my favorite kid. But, there’s a lot of them. I wondered what happened to him, what’s going on with him. Because you feel helpless that you can’t control some of the path that your kids go through. That part is hard. That part is really hard, but I’m praying for them every night. I pray for all my kids every night. I’m a faith-believer and I understand that God is actually going to take care of a lot of my kids that I’ve watched over the years. When you can’t do anything, God’s going to.

Tammy: He’ll take over, yeah.

Tammy: Well, let me thank you for the good work that you’re doing on behalf of just all of us because it’s so important for us as a society, as family members, everyone  – to know that someone’s out there watching after the kids.

Andre: Yes.

Tammy: So, thank you for all the work you’re doing.

Andre: Well it’s a whole bunch of us out here doing it. I mean, we’re at this conference full of people that are advocates, so it just feels good.

Tammy: It does feel good to be around people who care about kids and they’re dedicating their lives to helping them. It really does.

Andre: Yes. Thank you so much.

Tammy: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Andre: Appreciate it.

[background music]

Speaker: 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 Flame Emoji. For more podcasts and this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to mothersonthefrontline.com.

[END]

 

 

Getting People to Listen, Just Ask Mom Episode 15

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In this episode, we listen to Cheryl who overcame and found the new Cheryl.  This mother of three shares her powerful story of overcoming trauma and serious illness to advocate for her children with special needs. Please be advised that this episode contains discussion of sexual abuse and a suicide attempt.

Transcription

Voiceover: 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 hear from Cheryl who overcame and found the new Cheryl. Please be advised that this interview contains some content that may be disturbing or upsetting to some of our listeners. Also, this recording was done at the 2017 National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health Conference and there is background noise from another event taking place at the hotel. Please do not let the background noise distract you from Cheryl’s story.

Tammy: So hi, tell us a bit about yourself. Before outside of mothering, what are your passions your dreams?

Cheryl: I’m a mother of three and my youngest had the unique passions I should say because everybody thinks that everybody have a disability. Some of them you can see it and some of them you don’t.

Tammy: That’s right.

Cheryl: My passions are education awareness and I’m learning that I have more passions as I’m going through my journey and each journey is different. My favorite thing to do, I picked up sewing crocheting and learning how to relax.

Tammy: Yes. That is not so easy. Ironically it’s not so easy, right?

Cheryl: No, but it is and you would know why it’s not easy.

Tammy: That’s awesome. And so I want you to pretend that you’re just talking to just the general public is getting to hear what you have to say. What do you want them to know about your experience? What do you want them to understand?

Cheryl: I am a 45-year-old African American and my two kids, my two oldest are 25 and 21. So the way I raised them was totally different than when I raised my 15, soon to be 16. Each of my children they saw experience of me, but my sons saw the worst.

I was in an abusive relationship. I’m originally from Philadelphia but I went down south and I found out that all my life I was a caregiver and I didn’t know how I’m just it doesn’t mean nothing. I was taking care of me. I was taking care of my kids, I was taking care of my husband, taking care of my mom, my great aunt.

You know, anybody, its just everybody would come and say, “You know how to be a caregiver”. So in my bottom, in my journey, when I was going through my abusive situation with my husband I just said, “When I hit the bottom, time to go” I just up and I left thinking that my son will need counseling for me just up and left.

I said, “He’s going to need that because he was so young he don’t need nothing” I learned that he was– his unique gifts was coming out and I didn’t know what this is or anything and nobody wouldn’t tell me what it was.

And I have all these questions and answers and nobody. So, my mom always taught me if you don’t know do your own research. Don’t believe what other people say, do your own research.

Tammy: Right, good for her by the way. That is pretty awesome but go ahead.

Cheryl: Yes, so I started doing my own research. I didn’t know what IEP is. I didn’t know why they did all these tests and everything else. The first thing I had to do is stop blaming me, I guess. As a mother that’s the first thing we do is blame.

Tammy: Yes it is.

Cheryl: I was in a relationship. He beat on me because of that. I didn’t take all my medicine, all my vitamins and everything. As that went on I found out that it wasn’t. So I find out that I went to therapy. Don’t think I’m crazy or nothing but I start seeing my mom and my dad.

Now my mom and my dad died in 1994 and my dad died in 1981. This is now 2008 when I’m seeing and I’m actually– they are actually talking to me. People thought I was crazy and I’m like, “I’m not crazy. I’m actually seeing my mom and my dad” and I started seeing flashbacks of the things that I saw at the age of two, four at five.

I find out that my mom was abusive too and I started getting headaches so bad, it was a migraine, and I had all the signs of that. The doctors told me that it’s a brain tumor. I’m like, “I’m not claiming that. I’m not. My mom and my dad say it’s not. They did” I’m like, “But my mom and my dad say not, its not”.

And I was like, “Okay, you all don’t know nothing. I’ve got to go to another one” They said another thing. So one night I’m like, “God just give me, just give me the faith and the confidence that something is wrong”. My mom and my dad came and they was arguing. Like literally was arguing at each other.

But one on this side one isn’t and my mom said, “It’s migraine” and dad say, “It’s constant headache. Migraine … constant …” Why? I’m like, “What the hell is going on?”. And then they both turned around and said, “Go back to where you was in Philadelphia before you left to South Carolina”.

Tammy: When you were young?

Cheryl: Yes, before I left to go to– when I left Philadelphia I went to Thomas Jefferson and I came back and I was going to different high schools and everything else.

Tammy: Oh I see.

Cheryl: And they say, “Go back to where you–” you know, the doctors that you was before. They think I’m going to be crazy. I did and then I found it was like they use constant headaches now more. I’m like, “I’m telling you, check for clusters and migraine” they were like, “Well how–” I said, “Just please just do it. I don’t want to tell you how but do it”. And then I start getting flashbacks of my rape.

Tammy: Did you know, remember that or was it like the memory that resurfaced?

Cheryl: It was resurfaced and I blame my mom for it because that was the time in July that she passed and it happens I got raped twice the same day, a year apart by the same guy. And I’m always just blaming and the image and everything else.

So then I found out that I got PSTD and it’s like a certain man. I couldn’t go around and oh I smell and everything.

Tammy: So your body remembers this?

Cheryl: It was starting to remember and I was starting to read and I found out that some things are hereditary. I found out that the migraines and my dad had clusters, which I found out that men don’t have migraines, they have clusters. So I started doing my own research and stuff.

For me it was I get all the side effects of a  migraine. So, the dizziness, the passing out, and everything else. But I still didn’t understand why my dad was abusive. The rape was coming up and everything else.

Then it dawned on me, I was like, “Okay I did what I did. I did what I was supposed to, I called the cops. I did everything. Why he came back?” and I didn’t know and that was a burning question that I need. But in the process I let myself go and I have a child that don’t know nothing and I’m trying to figure out what it is.

I let myself go and my self-care, my self-worth, and everything else. And when I looked at my sisters and my other friends and family I thought, “I need help”. They said, “You strong. You don’t need no help”.

Tammy: It takes strength to ask for help.

Cheryl: And I’m slipping, I’m telling you I’m slipping, I’m slipping, I’m slipping, and its not where it is and I’m seeing every time I go to the hospital for two weeks to a month my child is not speaking and you not and I find out that when he’s at my sister’s or at whoever they were. To tell you the truth I didn’t know who. They say one thing and then I find out later on in life it was somebody else.

Tammy: I see.

Cheryl: So now you’re telling that he– you didn’t even want him. I had a doctor say, “Get your affairs in order” I’m like, “I’m not going down this way. I’m too young”. You know what I’m saying?  Then more research and then I find out they were giving me at that time, in 2010, they gave me– I was on 20 medicines.

Tammy: 20?

Cheryl: 20.

Tammy: Oh my gosh.

Cheryl: And a patch. I was on Fentanyl, I took it three days and I said, “No. I’m sleeping. How can I take care of a child?” and then I find I start doing my own research and what medicine worked with this and I got so bad that my child don’t even want to take his medicine because of the journey that he saw me with.

And I said, “I had to get better because of him” and if I can’t do it nothing else I had to do it for my three kids and it was a journey and nobody wouldn’t help. None of my family would not help. They used to say, “Oh you got it. You don’t need me. You’ve got this. You’re strong”.

I’m telling you I’m screaming. I’m telling you I need help. No one. All they wanted was money because that’s I wasn’t given. When they called me and they like, “Do you have? Do you have? I need, I need. Can you watch? Can you do?” and I came with it, but now it’s my turn to lean with you.

I’m not asking you to lean on for a minute. You know a minute, not a long time. I just need strength. He won’t do it and I lost everything in that process. I lost my house. We went into a shelter, I lost everything. My son saw me at my worst and he was mad at me.

Tammy: How old was he then?

Cheryl: At that time he was, I would say around about eight and nine when we went into a shelter.

Tammy: How heartbreaking.

Cheryl: He actually saw that my sister took it right under me and everything. Why would you do that? So me and my son went to– its called Ocean Avon Cherry. He is supposed to be going to school but state policy is from six thirty till five they come here and see if I can find a house, I mean find a place. For four days, four.

I had my bags, my ID, and him. They said they could not find nothing. I said, “I can’t do this no more. He has to go to school or they will come to me for truancy. He had to go to school. I can’t keep on figuring out if today is the day or tomorrow and you want me to wait from eight thirty till five, I can’t”.

We slept in 69th Street terminal for one night. I was like, “I can’t do this. Just give me strength”. Wherever I’m walking I’ll just walk. I went to the library, I had a pamphlet and they said they had organizations. I just start calling and nobody didn’t have no places up there.

So Salvation Armies called and said– I talked to them and they said, “Pott’s Town” I’ve never heard of it. I said, “I know about Norris Town, but Pott’s Town, I don’t know about Pott’s Town” and they say, “Well I can meet you.” So the nuns came and got me and my son and I stayed in Pott’s Town for like three months.

And they got me into disability. I was lucky that Tommy Jefferson they was calling, my doctors was calling me making sure do you need a ride? Just meet me at 69th Street and a van will come and pick you up because out of [inaudible]. They did that.

They did all the testings all over again. Now I know why I was sick, you know, saying they work on my disability. I’d be an outpatient. I said, “Now I’ve got myself together” and when they told me that I had brain tissues or whatever. Not the way I needed my fear, I said, “I’d rather just take some pills”.

Me dummy, I called a dummy move. I had Percocet and I had muscle relaxant. God forbid, God knew I had an angel on me because I took a whole bunch of muscle relaxant. So, my body would just relax and everything else. It wasn’t time for me to go. That is how I see it. It wasn’t time for me to go.

But how can you– I thought that everybody is telling me that I’m going to die anyway so I might as well do it the way I want to do it, in my sleep. No pain no nothing.

Tammy: But luckily that wasn’t that night.

Cheryl: It was not and then I looked up and I saw my eight year old like, “If you leave where am I going to go?”.

Tammy: Of course, he needs you.

Cheryl: And at that time his father was in and out of jail and I looked at him like, “I don’t have nobody don’t want you”. I sat my kid down and I was like, “I don’t know what it is but whatever you do you are all old enough and you have all got different fathers, but stay together”.

Because I said, “He’s going to go back down where his father lives at and his father’s people is going to stay with him because I already called his father people. I say, “Whatever you do if anything happens to take care of my son. Don’t let my family be around except his sisters”.

Tammy: What would you like people to understand about this experience? What is sort of the thing that you think if they knew it might make a difference?

Cheryl: I found out that when I was going with on one journey and thinking well one for my son, I had to look at the whole picture and I had to do some soul searching and I said, “I need help too” So just because one person the youth isn’t– my son is, you know, need medical attention and stuff like that.

I found out in my journey that I need it and it’s alright to say, “I need help”.

Tammy: Yes, it is.

Cheryl: And I understand since I didn’t have nobody, you know, I mean I had one person that I refused to use her because she was older, she was my grandma. She’s older and she would do anything but I was raised that you older so it’s my job to take care of you.

You know saying, “You over 70 years old. It’s my job to take care of you” that’s how I was raised. So the only thing you can give me is support. So, I had to, with my migraines, I had to learn how to decrease the stress and everything else. But I don’t have all this money.

So I had to go back to research and say, “What can I do with when that calls?”  I picked up back what did I like to do when I was little? So I picked up sewing, I picked up crocheting and that’s what relaxing.

I find out that lavender is, you know, so I had lavender. You know what I’m saying. Soap costs a dollar, just saying lavenders little thing. I burn it up. You know anything pink. Lavender flowers. So when I go into my bathroom all you see is lavender and the smell.

I found out I love water, so I made an appointment that every, you know, certain days, I take a deep bath, just relax.

Tammy: Right. So, ways to take care of yourself.

Cheryl: And I do and I get up a little earlier, you know if I had to meditate. I don’t know what other peoples religion or faith is but I just take time for Cheryl and get to know who Cheryl is all over again because you don’t know. You in a different stage and you know, and each stage you form, you are like a butterfly.

First, you are in a cocoon and you got to sit there for a little while and at the end, you are a butterfly that you are in stasis and each stasis is different.

Tammy: So, when you think about trying to get help for your child because you have this whole journey, right?

Cheryl: Mmm hmm.

Tammy: And a big part of that, and thank you for sharing, is getting yourself the help you needed so you could help your child. Once you had that and you’re trying to help your child what is the thing that was the most challenging for helping your child?

Cheryl: People listening. I’m telling them something is wrong. I don’t know what it is. I couldn’t pinpoint and they kept on asking me the same questions. All I wanted to do is … it’s something. They always want to like– they were like, “Oh he’s– something is wrong”.

They want to put him in a slow class and I said, “I know my son is not, you know, special ed. He knows how to write, he is bright. Something else is missing, I just can’t pinpoint his anger, the way he just bursts out with behavior. That is like this is not him”.

I went to the doctors, I went to anything that I can think of I went. Nobody wouldn’t do it and then– or for him to get the help. Finally, he had to be in some kind of system and one day he was mad about something, his dad didn’t call or something, and he used a pencil and he stabbed himself in the school.

So they were like I had to 302 him. What is 302? I think he need help or for him to get into the system that’s when I found out at all this other stuff. Why do I got to wait all this time? I’m telling you for five years that he need help but nobody was not listening.

Tammy: No one would listen.

Cheryl: Nobody and the school were labeling him as a problems child.

Tammy: As opposed to a child with a problem.

Cheryl: And then when I went through this journey and everything else, I found out that he was traumatized. When you first hear trauma its always the sexual abuse or neglect, but for him, like I said, for him that was trauma because I left. I just up and left. Something that he has known for seven years.

And I just said, “Come on let’s go” and we left. So for him to be a child that was trauma. I’m not even talking about what he saw, you know, I think he never saw me get beat up. But that right there was trauma to him.

Tammy: Absolutely.

Cheryl: And he held it and now he can’t see or he can’t touch, he can’t talk to his father, and they had a close relationship. That the trauma of each thing is different. So told him that it was trauma and he goes, “I know because it’s not sexual, it’s not a bruise” It is. It is trauma.

Tammy: Yes absolutely.

Cheryl: Even though it wasn’t like for a five-year-old or a six-year-old or anything that’s trauma. It wasn’t forced, he didn’t like force and I didn’t know, but that’s trauma, and you all did not listen to me when I told you there was a problem.

Tammy: So, in helping your son, I like this question because I like to hear something positive because it’s always so tough, but is there anything that went right? In getting your son help is there one thing that just like, “Well I’m so glad that happened” that helped?

Cheryl: I learnt how to communicate in a different form.

Tammy: How so?

Cheryl: I realized that every culture is different and everything else, but for me being an African American we were taught the fifties to sixties and the seventies, even in the eighties it was to say, “Yelling and screaming” and everything else.

But this generation here is totally different. You know what I’m saying? So, just because, you know what I’m saying, five people are doing the same thing, this group is not, but we trying to force the old system, I should say, to this new– the punchbag. It’s not working.

So, it’s our right to change and I guess the system is not ready to change.

Tammy: It takes some doing to get the system to move, doesn’t it?

Cheryl: And as soon as the system change we going to be already working on something. Another problem is how is the system actually looking down. But for me and my son I had to learn his language. I’m like, “Well wait a minute when I was his age my mom didn’t understand me. I was a teenager”. You know what I’m saying?

So, I’m trying to remember what she did and tweak it and put my little recipe in it and everything else. So after I doing date night. One to one. Whatever you want to do you do whatever you want to do, but the next month its what I want to do and I’ll always want to predict education is something what I do.

Because like I said education was part of it and I was a stutterer. I couldn’t, you know, talk proper and everything else. So I was like, “Alright so when he gets mad write me an essay on what happened” because he couldn’t put everything– when he gets upset or his speech wasn’t– I was missing something.

Okay, write it down in an essay form and tell me what did you do, how you do it and do you need to have a consequence because every action is, you know, bad or good, is what you’re supposed to do.

Tammy: Did that help?

Cheryl: That did and then I start changing my form. Instead of saying, “How was your day? What was the best day, you know, for the day? What was the worst day?” you know? Then I find out that he was teaching but he didn’t like the class and I was asking him why.

And he said, “Because it’s fifth, sixth and seventh graders, I’m in the seventh grade. We in the same class. Okay sometimes you got to read through the lines and everything else and I’m learning how to. I’m still learning.

Tammy: Oh sure, we all are.

Cheryl: And sometimes as a mother you just want to go in but then now when I go to the IEP meetings I say, “This is for you” you know so now we have family meetings too but I said, This meeting is for you. What do you want me to know about this? I cannot talk to you no more. I’ve been talking for you for the longest. You old enough and capable to do the work and then they need to hear it from you”.

“If you don’t want to take the medicine. You don’t want this, you want this. Let them know. Because at the end of the day I’m not going to be here all the time” and I let him do it and he learning his voice.

Tammy: So we ask this all the time when we do this. It changes from moment to moment but at this moment right now are you swimming, are you drowning, are you treading water? Where do you find yourself?

[Laughter]

Cheryl: This moment I am swimming.

Tammy: That’s wonderful.

Cheryl: Not fast.

Tammy: Sure. Not in the fast lane but-

Cheryl: I’m not in the fast lane and stuff like that and everything. As a matter of fact, I’m doggy paddling. You know what I’m saying. I’m not actually doing strokes and stuff. I am doggy paddling and I’m happy. I am happy where I’m at because if you literally saw anything in 2009 and everything else.

I couldn’t walk, I was on a walker and all this stuff, but and you’re actually even seeing my son not talking, not doing nothing. Yes he still gets his triggers but now I know if he starts being quiet I’m more alert and I want the parents to be more alert just because they don’t– if they just say fine why is this fine?

Go deeper. Ask those tough questions because you never know where you are going to go to.

Tammy: I think that is really good advise especially with teenagers. I had two teenage boys so I really appreciate the work it takes to get the stories out of them, right? So, we also like to ask this. What is your self-care routine or if more appropriate survival techniques? So, so you told us some like the crocheting and knitting, what do you do to take care of you?

Cheryl: I went back to the beginning and I always tell– you always say, “I’m never going to do what my mom do” that is the worst thing ever and everything. But with me had a speech problem my mom couldn’t buy nothing. She made me read out loud. She made me do things that I’m thinking was just like so crazy or anything like that.Those gifts started coming back to me and everything else and she made me journal because she said-

Tammy: I like your mom. I’m sorry, I just had to tell you.

Cheryl: She was very educated and everything else and she said, “If you cannot speak it you are going to spell it” because I was very like [gibberish] so she made me journal every single day.

Tammy: And that helped you?

Cheryl: So once in a while, I don’t do it every day, but when things is really like really mad, I’m really mad about something and I can’t express it to Leon or express it to none of my kids or anything, I write a letter.

Dear, you know, Doctor such and such, and I just let it out. Then after that, I read it out loud and then I burn it and rip it because now it’s out of my system. If I have ideas I start writing and now I’ve got four or five copy books of my journey of ideas that I want to do, programs that I want to start. Because if I have an idea, I always have a pen and a paper with me because I never know-

Tammy: There you go, exactly when it’s going to come, right?

Cheryl: I never know whenever it comes. So, I always have a pen and a paper and jot it down. Then I started thinking I was doing something for my son. Little quotes saying of it and I just have little quotes. Some are with Maya Angelou, just somebody just unknown. I thought I will put it in the bathroom.

Everybody has at least got to stay there for a long time and they going to have to read. I put them on the wall and its to decorate one wall is just full of quotes, piles of quotes and everything.

And now I do that daily in my office and anywhere and I change them up. I even now do vision boards. Everybody has to do a vision board and then every three months you have to take it off if you have done it and put something back on it. If you take something off you got to put something back on it.

Tammy: That is a nice idea.

Cheryl: Because I believe now with my son they more visual, a visual learner. So, if you see it and you speak it and I had a little complex because of my skin and everything. You’re not going, you ugly and you know what I’m saying and everything.

Tammy: You’re beautiful.

Cheryl: You know what I’m saying? I had bad acne and eczema and everything else. But my mom always made me and my god mom, thank god for my god mom, she always say, “You” she whispers chocolate girl and she played that every morning and every night before I go to bed and she said that you are beautiful you are smart you are kind you are humble.

And I had to say, “I love myself” 25 times in a mirror and during that process, I found out that some days you don’t love yourself, but once you keep on saying it it’s like practicing. Once you keep on saying it, you are going to start believing it. Once you start seeing it you are going to start believing it.

I had to cope with it in every little thing I did and I had to cope with it with Leon because he didn’t believe it so he didn’t do it. So, once you start a knowledge and start being aware of what you’re doing because sometimes as a parent, I know I did, I did stuff that I’m like, “I can do that”.

So, I had to check myself every now and then but like okay. But once they start seeing you being a role model, if you are, eventually it’s like everything that your mom did you know you didn’t like it but a couple of things you remember and you brought it to your– where you at with your kid.

You know what I’m saying? You didn’t understand it at the time with why she’s doing that but thinking that’s where our parent skills comes at.

Tammy: That’s right, that’s correct. That’s true. All of a sudden they get so smart our parents, right? As we get older.

Cheryl: Yes I’m like I don’t understand either.

Tammy: So, here is a question we like to end on. Through all of this whats your most laughable moment? What do you remember that makes you smile or it makes you laugh?

Cheryl: So many. Well for me or through my journey with Leon?

Tammy: For you, just what makes you laugh. Well as a mom.

Cheryl: As a mom.

Tammy: And that’s easy right because the kids make us laugh all the time.

Cheryl: We was a musical– my mom was musical so we did, my mom, you know, I learned the fifties the sixties the seventies and I learned classical. Just listened to the sounds of old and everything else and when I get a chance to have all my kids together or just one to one we will listen to old songs.

And I could say, “Well who was that?” and they will say, “You know, such and such”. So one of my daughters  we went to church and she saw Shirley Murdoch and she said, (sings) “As we let the night away” and one of the girls that was younger she said, “You were singing Catty Price” and my daughter was like, “No she’s the original”.

[Laughter]

And she started laughing. She said, “That’s right” she said, “I know” all my kids know music from different areas and everything. They can just hear just the start of it and they’ll be like, “That’s it” and they will be arguing.

We tried to get my son, he was like, “That’s the soundtrack of some movie” he said, “Well who is it?” he said, “That’s from a movie” well who it is? So he’s still learning and everything else but that’s like the best. You know what I’m saying?

That’s the best and I’m bringing back family time. No tv, no phone, and for an hour we will do family. I bring him go to the thrift store parent and get those little Life– I got Family Feud, we all have the buzzer of just go like this and that is how you start.

Sometimes we have to go back to go forward.

Tammy: That is great advice. I’d like to end on that. Sometimes we have to go back to go forward, I think that is great. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

Cheryl: No problem.

Tammy: Thank you.

Female speaker 1: You have been listening to Just Ask Mom. Copy writed in 2018 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Tammy Nyden. The music is Old English, written and performed and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcasts and this and other series relating to children’s mental health go to mothersonthefrontline.com or subscribe to Mothers of the Frontline on iTunes Android Google Play or Stitcher.

[End]

 

 

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.

[end]

Shanta, Mother, Clinician, and Advocate Shares her Story, Ask the Advocate Episode 4

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

In this episode, we listen to Shanta, a mother of three, clinician, advocate and proponent of self-care. She discusses raising a daughter who struggles mood disorder and suicidal ideation.

Transcription

[Music plays]

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

Dionne: I want to say thank you very much–

Shanta Hayes: Thank you for having me.

Dionne: — for agreeing to the interview, especially, on the spot. Would you like to introduce yourself?

Shanta: Hi. My name is Shanta Hayes. I’m a MSW, a mother of three, an advocate and proponent of self-care.

Dionne: Oh, proponent of self-care. We have to talk about that. So, Shanta, tell us a little bit about your advocacy journey. Your mom-advocate journey.

Shanta: My middle daughter is 14 years old and we started noticing some things that were just not quite right or on par with her developmental milestones. And so, we took her to the pediatrician. “Oh, everything is fine and it’s well within norms.” And it was well within norms for a while until it wasn’t. And then it started to manifest itself behaviorally. But what we found out eventually was that she has a diagnosis of ADHD and major depressive disorder. Her diagnosis have led to some challenges in school for her and that’s how we first noticed it. We noticed she was having trouble getting her homework done and she was having trouble sleeping. She was having trouble just understanding the material and we thought, “Whoa! What’s going on?” So, we’ve moved from a diagnosis of ADHD and major depressive disorder to now. We also know she has some processing issues. So, after we visit the psychologist and we’ve done all the testing, it’s like, okay, she has some working memory issues and those things aren’t necessarily solved with medication or behavior plans. So, we’re now going to the neurologist and checking with the endocrinologist to make sure it’s nothing hormonal. But the thing is my advocacy journey is always making sure my child is first in knowing, letting her know that we will put her needs first but that we’ll also take into consideration how she’s feeling. So, therapy– we go to therapy for the depression. But she’s not a fan of talk therapy. So, we’re looking at other therapies now. It’s like, okay, drama therapy, play therapy because those are modalities that she’s really interested in. Because I need her to know that even though I’m the one making– setting the appointments, she’s the one going to the appointments. And if she’s not engaging in one way, we need to find a way that works for her. So, we talk to her and we ask her, “What do you want to do? How can we make this work for you?” So, I’m letting even my 14-year old child know that her health is in her hands.

Dionne: This is the self-care advocacy.

Shanta: So, I need her to be an advocate for her health. I want her to know that she has a say I think a lot of people don’t take that into consideration. I think we try and force a lot of different therapies or medications on our children and we’re not really listening. We need to be very aware of how we allow them to engage in their own medical mental health. So, that they don’t develop a sense of “I have no choice in this process”. And that’s how we work with her.

Dionne: So, you said you have a MSW. Did it precede or did this come along with your journey with your daughter? First of all, tell me a little bit about who you were before you became mom or what you do outside of being mom.

Shanta: Let’s see, mom is my first job. That’s my first job. I was one of those young ladies who took the 50’s track and now is schooling MRS . So, for those of you that don’t understand, I’m in school and I got married, right after. I started a family. And I was fine with that. I love being a mom. I love baking. I love taking my kids to the park. I love being their first teacher. We divorced a few years ago and I said, “Well, I get one degree but can’t really do anything with it.” I like history. I don’t want to teach. What can I do? And I’m really good with people and I learned that I was really good with people because as a mom, I was a part of a group called Mocha Moms, which was a support group for stay at home mothers of color. I was a Girl Scout leader. I was on the PTA. So, I’m constantly engaging with people and connecting them to resources. That’s what social workers do. I just happen to like to solve problems as well. So, clinical social work, being a therapist was my interest. So, everything happens in time. I believe that and my going back to school and my daughter’s diagnosis escalating coincided. So, it really came to a head, as I was in my advanced year placement at a psychiatric facility and I worked on an adolescent girls’ unit and my daughter’s behaviors were spiraling and we had to hospitalize her. So, being a clinician, working with adolescent girls and going home to an adolescent girl with her own issues was very challenging. But it also gave me some tools that a lot of other parents might not have had and some insight that you definitely don’t get. Like these are things that should happen when you have to ten-thirteen your child.

Dionne: Would you tell us about that? If you want to share, I’m just–

Shanta: So, the behaviors had gotten to a point where she was a harm to herself. And a psych nurse deemed it necessary to hospitalize her. And even though I felt I was technically trained and capable of handling this responsibility, I had to consider, it’s not just what I can do. She has two siblings at home. This takes a toll on your whole family. That’s a great deal of emotional stress. So, I took her to the Children’s Hospital, had her evaluated. They deemed it necessary. They transferred her to a facility. So, at the facility, they do stabilization. They do an assessment. They evaluate. The things you don’t necessarily think about are the outside factors, like who is outside your immediate family and do they really need to know? And how will they react? Because that was what we came across. My daughter was hospitalized around her sister’s sweet 16 and we had planned her party and family members are coming but our daughter wasn’t going to be there. So, we had some backlash and that was the time where it came to be, I know you mean very well. However, my job is to look out for the best interest of my child. And she could not be here today because she needed to take care of herself or she needed to be taken care of.

Dionne: And again the self-care. That’s a wonderful way to talk about this too. Self-care.

Shanta: It is. They have to recognize that you cannot say what she would have done in the situation because it’s very challenging. Like I said I wanted to keep her home but that would not have been in the best interest of other parties because I don’t want them to be stressed. Now, yes, it’s hard to know your sister is in a hospital. But it would be harder thinking, did I put away all the knives or did I put away all the medications or jump ropes because these are the things that we had to consider. Like, okay, because her thing was hanging herself. And that was the scary part because we think, she had a plan. My child had a plan. And she had means and she had access. So, if we don’t think to ask those questions, we might brush it off as it– she didn’t feel well. She’s down. She’s depressed and we still don’t take depression very well in communities of color. So, we did have to remove all items that might be a means to her. But I’m very glad that her time in the hospital, she was like, I really don’t– she’s– I really don’t think they did anything for me. But that was because the modality they used is not one that works for her. Talk therapy does not work for her. So, in the hospital where I worked, I used to play therapy a good deal with my clients and I had clients as young as 6 years old. So, sometimes that might be the best thing you can do is to just sit and play and observe and question. But I’m also a big proponent of bibliotherapy. Using books and stories to engage a client. So, that’s why going back to earlier, we’re looking for other methods that will suit her because I need her to see like, if one thing doesn’t work, that’s fine. We can try something else. There are lots of different things we can do. But we can’t do is we can’t stop.

Dionne: That’s important.

Shanta: So, yeah, I’m all about being mindful and taking a break. Breathing, being in the moment. But you get– you take that breath and keep going.

Dionne: So, in all of these different therapies in this journey with your daughter and then also– I mean having this background which is such a rich and important background, if you could pretend that you’re talking to and you can fill in this blank with “teacher”, “family members”, “church members”, if you go to church, “community members”, doctors” –  and if you could pretend that you’re talking to them, person or a group, what would you want them to know about your experience? You. Your experience parenting a child with a mental health challenge?

Shanta: I don’t typically tell people what I do just on meeting them. But I would like for people to approach me with the compassion that they would any other person of a parent going through a trauma, because having your child committed produces trauma because the mommy guilt that most of us feel sometimes is very real. If immediately you begin to question, what did I do wrong? Oh my gosh. Did I have one drink while I was pregnant? Did I go to that restaurant where they allow smoking? Did I not go over her ABC’s enough with her? Did I not check that fever when she was six months old? It can eat away at you and you question like the very– for me, the very core of who I am, which is being a mother. That is– I tell my children, you are my first job. You are my first priority. I’m going to do my very best to make sure you are able to take care of yourselves when you leave here. However, this thing right here is causing me to question whether I did my job right in the beginning.

Dionne: Exactly.

Shanta: So, please address me as someone who’s just having a challenging day. That’s why they say, you never know what someone’s going through. So, if you just treat people the way you want to be treated, I’m sure most of us want to be treated kindly, we’ll be okay.

Dionne: Yeah, that’s so true.

Shanta: And please, treat her the same way because she’s a very lovely girl. She has a beautiful soul. She’s so kind and very loving. But she goes from zero to 100 and point 1. And it’s just like uh! But that’s because she has a mood disorder, she can’t control that. And sometimes, medication, people saying, “Oh, you’ve medicate–” please don’t judge me for medicating my child. Do not judge me for doing the thing that my child needs because not every herbal supplement is going to get the job done. Not every behavior plan is going to work for her. I’m telling her to go to sleep earlier. It does not work because she has sleep issues. You know what I’m saying? Exercise. When you have anhedonia, which is a lack of desire to do things that she used to enjoy. I’m sorry. It’s not going to happen today. We got to take baby steps. So, please don’t judge me that I have medicated my child. And if you do, keep it to yourself.

Dionne: I like that. Keep it to yourself. Keep it to yourself. So, what has been the most difficult in the past in trying to get help for your child?

Shanta: Even as a clinician, not really knowing all the resources. And I know a lot of resources but not knowing all the resources that are out there that can be helpful. But again, sometimes that mom guilt really, really gets in the way. And that keeps you from saying, “Okay, this is not about me. It’s about her. So, let me ask for this resource.” Or not recognizing what a resource actually is. So, my daughter has 504 which is great. That’s a medical impairment form. She can get coverage and services at school. Different accommodations to help her in the classroom. And IEP recognizes that my child has a disability which gives her more coverage. So, you’re thinking, “Oh, IEP–” they were like, “Oh yes, we’ll put her in special ed. and we’ll have an extra teacher.” But that protects her when she goes to college, that protects her further in high school. That does give her access to additional resources. That says, if she’s in a program and she’s having some behaviors that are challenging and causing maybe some issues per her IEP, you cannot put her out. I need you to work with her. I need you to follow this educational plan that we have in place. So, she continue to be here and receive the services because what we fail to see is people implementing the resources that they have. So, we don’t use what we have properly. And we allow our children to be circumnavigated in taking all of these different ways. This is really not beneficial to them when the tool the you had works really well, if you know how to use it.

Dionne: So, if you can name one tool, because you name the IEP and the IEP works. And I love when you said that not everything works for everybody and there’s so many different things you– so, if you had to think of one tool that you could say, this was the moment that’s like, this is working. This is good.

Shanta: So, let’s see. She does– currently, she utilizes her 504 mostly. We haven’t had to say, “Look, this is IEP level stuff.” Her 504 works for her and 504 work for a lot of youth. Her 504 has accommodations such as she can have extra time on her homework. She can get an extra day on her homework or she can get extra time on testing, regular testing and standardized testing. She can test in a small room. She can test on the computer because my child, due to her processing issues, works better on a computer then with pen and paper. Now, granted, we’re all moving away from pen and paper, but there are still some environments where they do it and it’s like, “Look, this is what has been told to me, my child is good at. I need you to look at her strengths and work there.” And I think we fail to sometimes recognize that even children with mental health and behavioral issues, they have strengths, we overlook those because sometimes the behaviors are so escalated, there’s just– I cannot take this anymore. This behavior is driving me bananas. Please, always look at your child’s strengths. Remind them who they are and how awesome they are. My daughter, I have a WiFi password and I’m like, what is this password? And she’s like– I’m like, really? Because all the pound signs and the lower case letters and the underscore, I’m like, really? But okay, you are awesome. And don’t put it on what is wrong, it’s “you are awesome. You remember that? I can’t. That’s great. You fixed the computer? Wonderful. Because I just sat it over in the corner and went and bought another one. So, if you did that, please remember that you took the time to go in and look at the system and figure out what the issue was and you work through that process. And you made it correct. You can do that.” And so, we relate to their strengths. And we relate them back to how they can manage their own care.

Dionne: That’s important. That’s so important. Speaking of self-care because I know when you said, your self-care. So, tell us right now, are you swimming? Are you drowning? Are you treading water?

Shanta: I never tread water. I’m horrible at treading water. Like in real life, I’m like just going through a crisis. I suck at treading water. I float. And that is my preferred method.

Dionne: Tell me more about floating.

Shanta: So, actually, it’s my one of my self-care methods. I go to the pool and I just float. And it is a time where I’m literally just weightless and I don’t think about what’s going on. I look at the lights in the ceiling or I close my eyes and I just lay there and let it all go. And sometimes, we really have to realize, we can’t carry all of this, anyways. We just need to sit it down somewhere and let it go for a little while. So, being in the pool for 30 minutes, that’s my self-care, really. Like on days, when I really need to work something out, then I’ll swim and I usually do a crawl. But that’s– I mean, most of us are swimmers, except my one child. [Laughs]

Dionne: And my son is not.

Shanta: She’s like, “No, I can’t do this.” But swimming is my preferred method of self-care just because I find it so relaxing. I think treading water is a lot of work and when you’re trying to get through something, you want to try and let go of as much as possible. You want to purge all the unnecessary weight. You just carry what you need. And generally, we find what we need is going to be inside of us because a plan is always in our head. We don’t need extra papers or notebooks or bags to carry a plan. Because when the plan is necessary for the foundation or the benefit of your family, you’re going to hold that in your head and in your heart. We let all the rest sort of it go.

Dionne: That’s a good point.

Shanta: But I love to swim. I love a mani pedi, too. I’m not going to lie.

[Laughter]

Shanta: I like to be pampered. But I think that we must also recognize that sel- care doesn’t really have to cost. Meditation is a great way to take care of yourself. I write notes to myself. I write notes on my mirror. I have a current message on my mirror, “You are a great partner worthy of love.” Because we need to remind ourselves sometimes. And sometimes when you’re working with other people and it seems like there’s so much going on, just a simple reminder is nice. I do aromatherapy.

Dionne: Yeah, I saw you– like perfume. [Laughs] Aromatherapy.

Shanta: That was like [makes a sound].

Dionne: [Laughs]

Shanta: So, I make my own like linen sprays. I do a nice lavender linen spray that I spray on my bed when I change my sheets. Before I get into the bed. [Laughs].

Dionne: I like it. I love aromatherapy.

Shanta: Yes. Peppermint. I did a peppermint and eucalyptus one, just for like a refresher and it helps too with memory. So, I’m like, [makes a sound] and walk into it. It uplifts and kind of invigorates so you can go off and do your thing and you smell good.

Dionne: Yes.

Shanta: [Laughs]

Dionne: On top of it you smell nice.

Shanta: Yeah. And it doesn’t cost a lot like– and I bake.

Dionne: I want to come to your house.

Shanta: Yeah, I bake a lot because baking makes me feel good and then the people I give my goodies to, they feel good, too. Cakes and brownies and cookies and stuff.

Dionne: So, I know this is part of advocacy. This is– this– we’re at the National Federation. And most of us are advocates. Is there an organization, a particular group– I see you have a thing here that you want to talk about or give a shout out to.

Shanta: Well, I work with the Younger Years and Beyond, which is a federation chapter. And I’m very excited about the work with them because I don’t work with the younger years. I work with the “beyond” part.

[Laughter]

Shanta: So, and that’s very exciting to me because while catching, intervening early in life is great. I mean we absolutely have to be a net for our adolescents. We really have to show them how to care for themselves, how to advocate for themselves, how to be mindful of what’s going on with their bodies. And adolescence is a very challenging time. So, just being an educator and helping out through Younger Years and Beyond is really just a privilege because I get to help, say, how can you identify the things that trigger you. How can you identify ways to ground yourself. How can you talk to your psychiatrist or your psychologist. How can you let them know what you need. So, helping young people advocate for themselves is really important to me. So, I’m very excited about that.

Dionne: Well, thank you so much for participating and sharing all your wisdom and focus on self-care and self-care techniques, real self-care techniques with us.

Shanta: Thank you.

Dionne: Spending some time with us while we’re here. I really appreciate it. And I know everybody who’ll be listening will appreciate it, too.

Shanta: Thank you.

Voice over: You’ve been listening to Ask the Advocate. Copyrighted in 2018 by Mothers on the Frontline. Today’s podcast host was Dionne Benson-Smith. The music is “O”, written, performed and recorded by Flame Emoji. For more podcasts and this and other series relating to children’s mental health, go to Mothers On The Frontline or subscribe on Apple podcasts, Android, Google Play or Stitcher.

[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]

 

Just Ask Mom Episode 11

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

In this episode, we listen to a mother of three children with mental health diagnoses who works as a Family Partner with North Carolina Families United. She discusses the barriers families face when trying to get their children services and her own experience of moving her family to another county in order to get mental health services for her child.

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

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

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

Transcription:

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

Tammy: So tell us about yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tammy: Yeah?

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

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

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

[Tammy laughs]

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

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

[Tammy laughs]

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

Mother: Mm-mm.

Tammy: Thank you.

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

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

[End]