My Facebook feed is full of them – images of smiling young adults ready to begin their new adventures and dorm rooms decorated with more style than I’ve ever been capable of mustering, first day photos of fresh faces off to their first day of community college, declarations of pride from parents for all that their child has accomplished and has yet to accomplish ahead of them, and the teary-eyed laments of friends who are saying farewell (for a little while) to their progeny. There’s also the sharing of articles about navigating these new milestones in a family’s life, the most frequent of which I see coming from a website called Grown and Flown. Since it kept showing up in my feed, I perused said website and it is chock full of useful articles (e.g, dorm room shopping, college care package ideas, dealing with the empty nest, community college, helping special needs students adjust to college, etc.), but doing so left me feeling all the more alone.
What’s missing from all of these posts and article shares is the situation my husband and I are facing right now, the one where the young adult is not going to college/university, community college, taking a gap year to volunteer or study or travel, or obtaining/seeking employment. As I peruse my feed I wonder where the posts are that read,”I love Jake so much and he’s staying home in bed this year because he’s too depressed to get out! No job or classes for this young man. It’s gonna be a mental health year!” It could even have a photo of Jake asleep in his bed at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Where are the website articles entitled, “When Mental Illness Prevents Your College Age Child From Doing Anything That Resembles Productivity?” I may not have dug deep enough into the websites my friends are posting from, but I could not find articles there for parents living with young adults who might otherwise be launching into some new phase, but, instead, are struggling with debilitating mental illness.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not begrudge my friends their joy, or even their bittersweet reflections, as their children begin their new journeys. I feel for the many emotions they are experiencing. Two years ago, we took our oldest son across the country, moved him into a tiny two person room, and dealt with pangs of loneliness mixed with overflowing pride. At the same time, I feel deep sadness at our own situation with our youngest son, and I’m not really sure how to talk about it with others as I watch the images and articles of what might have been scroll by.
When Things Don’t Go According to Plan
I never imagined that I would have a child who would finish high school and not be ready to attend college or begin a job. I do not think parents imagine that their child will develop a severe mental illness and not be able to do what his or her peers are doing. My guess is that most have big hopes and plan in that direction – my husband and I certainly did. With one child, that’s the way it went. With our second, it has been different.
Our younger son, Blake, has had his share of struggles. He was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) at age seven. He went through effective treatment, and has had periods where he has done very well. As a teenager, he had a relapse, and it was difficult to engage him in treatment, despite much begging and pleading on my husband’s and my part. When depression began to settle in on top of his OCD, his basic functioning suffered tremendously. He withdrew more and more from the world and lost joy for most activities. His sleep wake schedule became reversed, and the future felt dismal.
My husband and I propped Blake up. We supported him in school; we practically pushed him through his senior year. And we kept hoping for the best. It was exciting when Blake was accepted to the school of his choice, one that would lead him on a career path he had been talking about since he was seven. Yet, as senior year drew closer to the end, we had to face a painful truth. Blake was not getting better; he was getting worse. Sending him to another state to live in an apartment and enrolling him in a grueling program would spell disaster.
With guidance from our family therapist, we told Blake that we would not be sending him to school this academic year. We asked him to defer his enrollment for one year (something his school is very supportive of) so that he could focus on getting emotionally healthy. Blake was not a fan of our decision, to say the least, and, initially, he shut down even more. However, my husband and I feel secure that we made the decision that was best for our son and our family. Ultimately, our hope is that, with time and treatment, our son will be much better equipped to head out into the world.
It’s an awkward road, though. Frequently, people come up to us asking what Blake is up to this year. When I say that he is taking the year off, that answer is inevitably followed by the question, “Oh, so what is he doing with his time off?” Initially, I felt the need to fully explain the situation to people, but that was awkward for us both. Now I simply say that he is taking the year to fully prepare himself for what’s next. It works.
It’s also an incredibly isolating experience. Back to the Facebook feed. While I am watching and celebrating other young adults I know headed on to something new, I feel alone in having a son struggling so greatly. Oh, there are parents who connect to each other. We do so at conferences, in online support groups (and some in person), and through specialized groups on social media. We see our lives mirrored in articles we find on mental health websites and blogs. Rarely do we see what we are going through running through our social media feeds, or in articles that are widely shared in the mainstream. Sometimes I feel marginalized or irrelevant and wish that mental health issues, such as the ones we are facing, were just out there in full view and with widespread discussion.
What If Someone Wrote That Article?
If I were to write an article that were to reach out not just to parents of young adults struggling with mental illness, but to all parents of young adults, I would make it infinitely clear that there is no stigma in facing mental health challenges any more than there is in facing physical health challenges. I would note that, just as some young people become physically ill and must delay plans to take time to recover, so do some become mentally ill. I would point out that, by taking the time to get treatment now, a young person increases their likelihood of success in their chosen path. And I would be emphatic that we ought to celebrate the young adult who is working on their mental health, just as we celebrate the one who is moving into that dormitory this week.
Maybe, with that kind of widespread awareness, I would start to see something new in my social media feed. It might read something like this:
“It is with great pride and joy that I share that my young adult is taking this year to really take care of themself. It’s been a tough road, and the struggle has been real, but this is one brave kiddo who has the courage to get help and to heal. I love you, my child!”
Now, that’s one post I could definitely “Love.”