Invictus

This morning Blake is up early, even earlier than I am. He is eating breakfast when I come downstairs.

He’s stayed up all night again,” I automatically think. To be perfectly honest, it’s a fair assumption. After all, he didn’t get out of bed until around 9 pm last night. His dad and I went to his room several times during the day encouraging him to get out of bed. It’s a familiar pattern – one that leaves me with a sense of hopelessness that sometimes spreads within me.

“I will,” was all we got – and then he plodded downstairs about an hour before the hubby and I went to sleep.

Blake heads upstairs – to go to bed, I assume – and I offer to make him a cup of coffee. To my surprise, he answers, “Yes.”

When I enter his room he is sitting in front of the space heater. I hand him the warm mug, plant a kiss on his cheek, and shut the door.


“Mom?” I hear from behind the door. I open it back up. “I didn’t stay awake all night. I actually went to bed a little after you and Dad.” He goes on to explain to me how it is possible to go back to sleep after sleeping nearly twenty-four hours.

I’m happy,” he says – words I haven’t heard from him in some time. In fact, I can’t remember when he’s said that. “I got up two days with my alarm this week,” he notes, “and while it might not have been in a row, it’s more than I’ve gotten up on my own in this entire month.”

He goes on to show me words and symbols of motivation he’s written on a white board near his bed. On that board are the letters “INV.” He wants me to see what they stand for and motions me over to his laptop. “Invictus” is a poem written in the 1800’s by William Ernest Henley. For those who do not know the poem or the poet (I didn’t, though perhaps I should have), Henley suffered periods of extreme pain in his early years due to tuberculosis of the bone. He saw one of his legs amputated below the knee due to this. And, yet, his “maimed strength and masterfulness” inspired his friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, to create the character, Long John Silver.

Blake shares the poem with me, noting that he reads it to himself nightly. He identifies with not only the words of the poem, but with Henley, himself. After I read it, I cry and we hug. I am leaving the words to the poem below:

Invictus

by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

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Blake has been home now for just over two months. It’s been nice having him home. He’s been more self-reflective and more open to sharing. It’s also been a relief to know he’s eating and taking his medication more regularly. The hubby and I have been able to be calmer with him than before and less impatient with him in many ways. Yet, at the same time, things are still so uncertain with him and it’s tough to know what ways things will go.

He wants to be a writer and he spends his days working on a book he’d love to publish. Some days he write a lot. Other days – not so much. The topic of his book is a secret. I only know that it is a work of fiction, maybe even sci-fi. He ponders whether he should return to school at some point. And sometimes he’s very sad and lonely.

Recently, when he was feeling very sad, he shared that the only things he really looks forward to are eating and sitting in front of his space heater. I reminded him of how, a month ago, he enjoyed playing video games with his brother and a friend.

“I think that you’re actually a social guy and that it’s important for you to get out of the house and be with people on a regular basis.”

“But what would I do?” he asked.

“Maybe apply for a volunteer position where you’re required to show up at the same time every week?”

With a little more talk, he agreed to try. He reached out, with my help, to several organizations in our community and started a weekly position with our local food pantry. For the past three weekends, he’s ridden in the big truck with the driver, picking up donations from local grocery stores. It’s heavy lifting work and is probably good for his mood. He and his driver sound like an odd pair, yet Blake has taken to this young man (who is about 10 years older than him). Blake has even learned to appreciate a new music genre: Hick Hop! He actually looks forward to going each time.

In addition, Blake has started a blog. Again, it was at my urging, but he joyfully wrote his first post. It’s a humor blog and that first post was pretty hysterical to all of us. We’ll see where it goes. The hubby and I hope that, little by little, Blake will build up momentum to living in the world and taking more steps on his own.

Lost Enjoyment

“I don’t know if this is depression or not,” says Blake, “but it’s like there’s always a grayness over everything I do.”

Blake and I are preparing dinner together. The hubby and Michael are upstairs playing a video game and Blake has come down to help me with something in the kitchen. He had been upstairs with his dad and his brother and he is noticing how nice it is to have someone to play his new video game with. This causes him to recognize the stark difference between how he feels in this moment and how he feels much of the time.

“The thing is, for the longest time now, I’ve had trouble enjoying anything. Video games don’t even seem fun to me anymore.”

Video games are Blake’s long held passion. He doesn’t just play them; he dreams of them and plots and plans new ones. Many times I’ve caught him wandering around the family room, seemingly lost in a fog, a smile planted on his face. The smile broadens when he solves a problem in his video game planning process. That he’s saying now that video games don’t seem fun is significant.

“It’s why I haven’t played this game until today. My mind tells me that starting a new game will be too hard. There’s too much of a learning curve. It seems like too much to even try. The thing is, once I start and get into it, it actually starts to get fun and it doesn’t feel that way anymore.”

“Yes, that’s depression, and you’ve described it perfectly,” I tell him. “It colors everything gray. It tells us that things will be too tough, that we shouldn’t even try. And, yet, once we do the hard work of getting going, there’s momentum. You know, you’ve uncovered depression’s secret: if we can find strength to get going, it builds on itself and helps us to recover.”

Blake considers this for a moment, seeming to absorb it. I suggest to him that he may wish to tell his psychiatrist about the way he feels the next time they meet. He’s doing a nice job of communicating it to me; it would probably help his doctor to make decisions with him about his medication if he truly understood how Blake experiences his days. He nods and runs back upstairs to be with his dad and his brother.

Alone in the kitchen now, I am grateful that he is sharing with me. This is a new experience for us, his actually communicating, voluntarily, what he is going through. Perhaps it is another step in the direction of his taking care of his own mental health.

The Semester Winds Down

One of the successes: A lasagna Blake made for himself. He likes to photograph his meals.

Blake has been at college for an entire semester – or one week shy of it anyway. It began unceremoniously, with Blake declaring that this would be the shortest college experience of anyone in our family and dreading the start of classes. I flew back home fearful of the unknown and how my youngest might fare.

It’s been a semester of ups and downs. The downs include Blake not making it to class many days, him sleeping way into the evening on days when depression made bed the only option that felt viable, MANY assignments never turned in or even attempted. It included many phone calls from Blake saying he just couldn’t do this, that he needed to drop out. And there were the tears Blake cried over not feeling adequate, losing hope, and no longer knowing what his passion is.

The ups included Blake cooking for himself, grocery shopping, keeping up on haircuts – and being the only one in the apartment to actually clean the bathroom (though that may have been prompted by OCD fears – I digress). They include Blake joining clubs on campus and even attending murder mystery special events (something he rarely did while at home, and then only with much prompting). In short, my 19-year-old moved to a new city, lived in an apartment with three others, shared a room, and took care of the basic things he needed to in order to survive. I’d venture to say that joining clubs is a step beyond the basics.

Still, college itself definitely did not go well. I don’t know how well Blake performed in any class; I don’t know if he even knows. He has decided that this is just not the right time for school for him and he is coming home. He’s not happy about that. In fact, he feels like a failure and fears he’ll only continue to fail and to suffer emotionally. He hates the idea of being an adult in his parents’ home (and cannot seem to recognize that he is certainly not alone in that status).

Late next week, I will fly to meet him. We will pack up his apartment and come home. But we won’t be flying. The hubby and I felt that being back home in a matter of hours was too abrupt a shift from what we think was a growing experience for our boy. So Blake and I will take a road trip home. We have no planned route, no place we must stop – only an ending destination of home in a time span of three days. There will be a lot of open road and empty expanses on our way. My plan is to remind my boy of the successes he had and hope that he can find a way to hold onto those, even for a brief moment.

Monday Morning

It’s 8:32 in the morning and I send a text message to both of my boys about the Thanksgiving holiday, which is over a month away. I have to make airplane reservations and I want to check on their schedules. I expect I’ll hear from Michael; it’s three hours later where he is and he already had a class this morning. Blake I don’t expect to hear from until at least late afternoon or evening with his sleep issues. He has a 10 am class, but he’s missed attending nearly every week.

To my surprise, it’s Blake I hear back from first at 8:39 am. He confirms his schedule for me. 

Me: Whatcha doing?

Blake: Waking up.

Me: You heading out to class?

Blake: Yeah 

Me: Out of bed yet?

Blake: Showered.

Me: Wow. Just wow.

Blake: I appreciate your amazement at my basic levels of human functioning. 😛

Me: It’s a mom thing.

Blake: Are turnovers a breakfast pastry or dessert?

Me: They are whatever you like them to be. Love you.

Blake: Love you too!

It’s a brief moment in time, but it’s a victory nonetheless. Blake is awake. He got himself showered at a time that allows him to participate in the day. Whether he will leave his apartment and head to school or head back to bed is uncertain. It is just this – a moment.

Another Bump in the Road

Friday Evening…

8:35 pm:

Text message from Blake: Hey Mom. I slept through another disability meeting. Even with only two classes, I’m completely unable to function. As much as we’ve tried with everything and even switching programs, I feel like we might need to call it quits on college. At least for this year…

Me: Hi baby. I’m right in the middle of something. Can I call you when I’m done?

Blake: Yeah

I call Blake as I drive home for the evening. He’s down on himself for missing yet another scheduled meeting with the disability office at school. He’s unhappy with life, doesn’t know what he wants, can’t find a reason to even exist. 

I try to be a good listener, but I get caught in my old trap. I sink down into the well of despair with Blake and I try to fix the situation. I point out how much better he does with more structure. Perhaps he needs a job, I suggest. At one point I even ask if he needs to be in a hospital. He hates when I do this and I hate it even as I say it. He wants to get off the phone with me and I ask him to call me tomorrow after he wakes up to check in. He agrees.

Saturday Evening

8:25 pm:

Text from me to Blake: Hello

Blake: Hi

Me: How you doin’?

Blake: Rough

Me: Can you talk for a min?

Blake: Yeah

“I want to apologize to you,” I say. “Last night when we talked I just wanted to be a good listener – and I wasn’t. When you’re in a really bad place I sometimes get caught up in wanting to help. And that’s not what you needed last night.”

“Thanks, Mom. I kind of do need help because I don’t know what to do.”

“Maybe the first thing to do is to know that this feeling will pass and when you feel clearer that’ll be the time to decide what you’re going to do.”

Then I remind him of all the ways that he IS functioning. 

“You’ve got successes, honey. You made it to your English class both days this week. You’re grocery shopping; you’re eating; you’re going to chess club; you’re taking your medication…”

“About that, Mom,” he begins, “I’m not doing so well with the medication. I’ve been waking up too late to take it so I’ve been missing it.”

My worry starts to set in. Blake is on an SRI – a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. He’s on the highest dose a doctor might recommend and has been for quite some time. I know it’s not good to miss taking it.

“Honey, how often are you missing taking it?” I ask.

“Probably 75% of the time,” is the answer.

“Blake,” I say, “you cannot not take your medication. Even if you wake up late, it should still be taken. Maybe you should switch to taking it at night since you are awake then.When is the last time you took it?”

“Maybe…Thursday?” It’s more a question than an answer. He’s really not sure when he took it last.

Abrupt cessation of SRI’s can lead to a withdrawal or discontinuation syndrome. Two of my patients in just the past week ran out of their SRI medication and missed a day or two. The effects were swift – one had a quick return of strong intrusive thoughts of harming others; the other experienced a significant uptick in her depression symptoms and found herself unable to do even the smallest exposure practice for therapy. 

I know how Blake has reacted in the past when he’s even been a few hours late to take his medication. He starts to feel like he’s having electrical shocks in his head. He starts to feel dizzy. He claims he hasn’t felt any of that, but the problem is he hasn’t been awake. He’s been sleeping very late. He slept til almost 8 pm tonight. He’s feeling very down and depressed and not sure of his path. I give him a quick rundown of SRI withdrawal and have him take his medication right away. 

When I explain to the Hubby what I’ve learned, he is concerned. Could it be that our 19-year-old son is not able to take care of himself on his own? How could he not have realized that it was not okay to miss his medication? Why didn’t he say anything until now if it’s been going on for a while? I tell him that we need to wait and see if he makes the correction and if it sinks in.

In the meantime, Blake has now taken his medication two days in a row and I’ve been checking in with him regularly to make sure there haven’t been issues with that. Since he didn’t wake up until nearly 8 pm last night, he’s been up for over twenty-four hours. It’s a familiar cycle for him – one I’ve lectured him on many times before, but resist doing now. He’s still down today, but he’s been in better spirits, texting me funny photos and fun facts about goofy things. Another episode in this journey…

A New Definition of Success

Blake is in his fifth week of college classes. It’s been a trying time for everyone, not the least for me. I’ve realized over the last month that I’ve spent a great amount of time over the past fourteen years involved in Blake’s well-being – in helping him to be successful. Whether it was running him to neurologists to answer to his teachers’ concerns that he was having seizures (he wasn’t; he was experiencing intrusive thoughts), meeting with occupational therapists to ensure he could find his way around the school, or teaching school personnel how to manage anxiety, OCD, and depression, much of my time was running interference so that Blake could do his job of being a student.

Listening to my son’s feelings of overwhelm these past several weeks and hearing about the days he has missed school entirely and succumbed to depression has sparked that old impulse in me to jump in, to make it better, to pave the path for success. Yet, at the same time, I am learning a new way to interact with Blake and his schooling. And I am learning to define success in a different way.

In the past, helping Blake to be successful meant teaching others to understand the way he learned, and to recognize when mental health issues were interfering or needed to be attended to. It also meant pushing Blake forward when he didn’t believe in himself and helping him to find the tools he did not know he had. It sometimes meant forcing him to get out of bed and to follow a schedule for the day – or even for the hour.

But Blake is not six-years-old anymore. He’s not even seventeen. He is a young adult man – one who has had help and labels poured on him for most of his life. And those things probably continued to come even when he did not want them. In some ways, sometimes, they likely made him feel like a failure, because he struggled, at times, to even do the basic things people do to get along in this world.

My beautiful nineteen-year-old son is living in an apartment nearly 1,000 miles away with three other young men. He is struggling to get along in school, having chosen a major that, as his adviser has pointed out, plays more to his weaknesses than to his strengths. He struggles to get out of bed some days or to find what motivates him. He has dropped all but two of his classes and is teetering on dropping out of school altogether.

BUT…

He is feeding himself every day and getting to the grocery store weekly. He visits his adviser at school and is working on a plan with the disability office. He figured out how to transfer his prescription from our pharmacy at home to one near his apartment in the new state. He gets out of bed MOST days. He got his hair cut (he doesn’t know I know this) which means he figured out where there was a salon, got a ride over and back, and paid for it all himself. 

My husband and I were worry warts in college. We were scheduled; we were efficient with our time. We were not our sons. They have their own way, and Blake’s way is to pave his own path. It is not the path I would have taken or that his dad or his brother would take, but that does not make it any less valid a path. My son is brave and I believe in him. His road is his own. I am here to assist and support if he needs me, but right now what he needs is for his dad and I to believe in him. 

Blake, Dad and I believe in you and whatever your path may be. Thank you for teaching us that success comes in many different hues. When those big feelings you have seem too overwhelming to manage, we will be here to remind you that feelings pass, and that you have what it takes to hang on through them and then to forge onward.