Grown, But Not Flown

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.”

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It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just before we leave our latest therapy session, our therapist informs Blake he’s going to use a cliche’. It’s been a difficult few weeks, helping our son tiptoe toward better functioning. First there was getting up each morning at the same time. Next, it was about getting in the shower and getting dressed. Then came the difficult job of convincing Blake to choose an activity for himself – something that would get him out of the house, instead of falling back to sleep for hours upon hours.

In this session, Blake tells the therapist that he plans to apply for a job. It was his task since our last session to decide whether he wishes to take a college class or get a job. Blake names a local store that piques his interest, and then he does an amazing thing – he looks our therapist in his eye and gives him his word. I gasp silently.

“This is a big deal,” I say aloud.

“I know it is,” says our therapist. “Blake doesn’t give his word easily. I know if he does, he will stand by it.”

I admire that the therapist has picked this up about Blake. It’s a subtle thing that the casual observer would miss, but this therapist, with his many years of treating OCD has picked up that Blake’s scrupulosity, his need to tell exact truths, prevents him from promising or giving his word on nearly anything. (If that seems strange to the reader, I’ll sum it up that Blake’s OCD says he must be a good person and always tell the truth. Because there may be an unforeseen circumstance that may prevent him from keeping a promise or his word, Blake’s ritual/habit/compulsion is to not make any promises).

And then, it is quiet.

Our therapist pauses, strokes his chin, and notes that he’s now in an interesting position.

“There are fifteen minutes until our time is up,” he says, glancing at the clock. “So, you could let me know if there’s something you’d like to bring up, Blake. The alternative, which I don’t know if you’d like, is that I could ask your parents if there’s something they’d like to bring up…”

“Nope. There’s nothing I want to talk about,” Blake says, and looks in my direction.

“Oh, I do have something I’d like to bring up,” I say, somewhat too excitedly.

“What?” Blake wonders.

“You know, you have been sitting up late at night talking to me about how much despair you are in, how life seems to hold nothing for you, how awful you feel.” I look to the therapist and continue. “There are frequent nights of sobbing his heart out. And, as mom, I’m trying to listen, but there’s a limit to what I think I can do.”

The therapist nods and what ensues is a dance around whether Blake will share what he’s been going through with the therapist, whether he might trust him with his sadness, and the time constraints. In the end, Blake agrees he will meet with the therapist alone during the next scheduled session and at least answer a few questions for the therapist. But Blake is doubtful that it will be helpful.

“It’s difficult to imagine that there is any hope,” the therapist notes to Blake, and then, as we walk out the door, offers him what he promises will be a cliche’. “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” says our therapist.

Blake nods.

“See you at dawn,” says the therapist.

Don’t Say It’s Not About OCD

Blake sits in his chair looking intently at the therapist. He’s just begun coming with us to sessions and he’s questioning the therapist’s approach (because, well, Blake knows better than the therapist – or mom and dad).

“I don’t understand why my parents are rubbing a tissue on the dogs and putting it on my bedroom floor if I don’t show up for dinner,” he says. “If they wanted me to come to dinner, they just could have told me.”

Well, actually, we did tell him we wanted him to come to dinner. He just wasn’t making it on time most nights.

“But why the tissue?” he wonders.

“Well…” the therapist starts. “Your parents have noticed that there are some behaviors you have that are related to OCD. And they are concerned about them.”

“What?!” His head swivels in our direction. “You’re concerned about them?! Why didn’t you ever just tell me?! Why did you ever let me leave treatment, then?! Frankly, I see nothing wrong with what I do. Dogs are not cleanly and it’s disgusting to have anything from them in my room!”

Well, actually, we did tell him we were concerned about his behaviors and that we encouraged him to be in treatment, but he refused.

As the conversation heightens, the hubby starts to get antsy. He steps into the process.

“Look, I don’t think the primary issue is your OCD right now, Blake. I think your sleep is a huge issue, and your functioning on a day-to-day basis.”

At one point Blake leaves the room in frustration and our therapist looks at the hubby and I.

“Please don’t say it’s not about OCD,” he asks us, “because I’m not so sure it’s not. Blake has a lot of OCD behaviors that he thinks are normal. I don’t want to normalize those and have him think they aren’t a problem.”

When we leave the room, I begin wondering about what our therapist said. Other professionals have pointed to Blake’s depression in recent years, not so much to the OCD. What is he seeing? So, I observe, and I begin to notice what I’ve stopped seeing in the past four years:

  • Walk into bathroom, wash. Walk out. Walk back in. Wash again.
  • Open car back door. Seat is too dirty. Sit up front.
  • “Mom? What is that on the floor?”
  • “Mom? What is that in the box?”
  • “Mom? Is that color normal?”
  • Open car back door. Seat still too dirty. Sit up front.
  • Say prayer. Pace. Say prayer again.
  • Carry squirming cat downstairs, while holding said squirming cat as far as arms will extend away from you.
  • Open car back door. Seat still too dirty. Get a towel and clean seat before sitting.

Blake’s OCD is still very much there. It’s just been quieter. And he’s accepted it as normal (at least he seems to have). How is it connected to his deep, deep depression? That will be an answer we will have to watch unfold.

 

Well-Intended Advice

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Why did you do that? You’ve taken the only thing he had to care about.”

A friend I haven’t seen in a while is trying to convince me that the hubby and I have made an awful mistake by not allowing our son to go off to college in another state this fall. She faces me as we stand at a reception amidst hundreds of people. I feel that feeling in the pit of my stomach – the one that comes when this wasn’t the response I was expecting.

I try to gather myself back together to explain the “why,” but I can’t seem to make any sense to her. I decide to give up trying to explain to my friend the intricacies of our situation.

“Maybe we did make a mistake. I hope not. We made the best decision we could.”

I disappear into the crowd when someone else appears to talk to my friend. I shuffle around, weaving through the others, searching for my hubby. I want to go home. I feel lost and misunderstood.

Making Tough Decisions

My youngest son, Blake, has been struggling with depression for at least two years now. He’s up all night. He sleeps all day. He has little he looks forward to. He also has OCD, which I thought had become a minor issue until we began therapy as a family recently. Blake was accepted this past school year to his first choice college – a small, extremely demanding school without dorms or a meal plan, where he will have to live in an apartment with at least three others and navigate his way to school and around the city.

Although we celebrated his acceptance to the school, the hubby and I were deeply concerned how Blake would go from struggling with his mood and needing constant support to finish high school to functioning in this challenging environment. We spoke with him repeatedly about how important it was to start new habits now, long before he went away, so that he would be ready to function far away from home. He said he wanted to work on it. As a family we implemented schedules, made sure he was reinforced for positive steps, engaged his school’s and his psychiatrist’s assistance, and utilized tools to help with the whole process.

It didn’t work. Things got worse. We asked Blake to get help from a therapist. He balked at this over and over.

“What good will that do? The only person who can help me is me. It’s a self-discipline problem,” Blake told us.

Finally, we had to tell him that we just couldn’t send him to school this fall. We asked him to take a deferment. It was one of the toughest choices we could have made. We wanted him to go. He claimed it was the only thing that he cared about in life. And, yet, his behavior said it was going to be a disaster. Our new family therapist, a veteran in working with extremely tough cases, wondered why we hadn’t made that decision sooner. Why? We didn’t want to break his heart. And, indeed, when we delivered the news, Blake cried for days.

Giving Advice

When my friend wandered up to me at the event and wanted to know how Blake was, I just figured she’d understand that we’d looked at every other option before deciding to ask him to wait a year. I figured she’d know the amount of soul searching the hubby and I had to do, and how much courage it took to make the decision and stand firm – and then to stand back and watch our son’s devastation as he refused comfort from us.

Instead, she admonished me for having made that decision.

“You took away the only thing that mattered to him. You should have let him go. He might have surprised you and risen to the occasion.”

Sure. He might have. Don’t you think that the wish that kept us from making the decision sooner was that he would show us he could do it?  He’s struggling with mental illness. He can’t force himself to function. If he’d been able to, he would’ve shown us that he could do what was needed when we told him that school next year was on the line. He has work to do first. He has to get healthy.

I know my friend’s advice was well-intended. I know she has my best interests at heart, and Blake’s, too. I also know she had to make a tough decision about sending her own young adult child back to school.

Hearing this unexpected response from my friend has toughened my skin a little bit. It’s made me realize that I have to be firm in the decisions our family makes and recognize that others won’t always understand the in’s and out’s of those decisions. It’s made me recognize how important it is not to judge the decisions others make for their families. And it reminds me the importance of not offering advice unless I’m asked. I love my friend, but her reaction still stings a bit – and it’ll just take time for that to fade. In the meantime, our job is to keep working in therapy and applying what we are learning every day.

Fingers crossed that Blake will be ready to head off to school in Fall of 2018!

“You’ve Hired a Dog Trainer!”

Blake is furious. Yet, he’s remarkably composed at the same time.

“You’ve hired a dog trainer! I won’t take this anymore! What’s the therapist’s phone number?”

I give him the number and Blake calls the new therapist that the hubby and I have been seeing to help us work on getting Blake moving toward functioning. Our boy has been spending all day in bed and all night up doing who knows what. I see him for dinner and before I go to bed. He has few activities. He’s miserable.

Blake gets the therapist’s voice mail system. He leaves a message saying he doesn’t agree with what the therapist has his father and I doing. Blake suggests we all need to meet to talk this over.

Why Hasn’t He Called?

Nearly a week has passed and Blake has grown impatient. The therapist has not responded to his voice message.

“Why hasn’t he called back?” he wonders.

I have my suspicions. Blake rejected therapy when we brought him in to see this therapist. Now the hubby and I are the patient – in a manner of speaking. I imagine the therapist wants to talk to us first. We’ve been slowly implementing increasing demands on Blake. Each comes with an unpleasant consequence that targets his OCD if he does not participate. He’s gotten furious with each new step, but he’s been complying.

When the day of our appointment arrives, Blake demands to come with us.

“You’re welcome to come,” I tell him. “I’m sure the doctor will want to talk with Dad and I first. You might be invited in. You might not.”

“I’m willing to take that risk,” he says.

The Appointment

We arrive at the appointment and the therapist, the hubby, and I talk this over.

“Let’s see what he has to say,” the therapist says. “If he is willing to work with us, then we will have him stay. If he just wants to try to keep things the same, then we know he’s not ready to participate.”

He invites Blake in. Blake begins in a composed way, but he’s angry and he loses his temper. The therapist observes that our family spends a great deal of time going over what the problems are, but getting nowhere. He asks us to agree not to talk about the problems just until our next appointment. The hubby and I agree. Blake is having none of it.

“We have to talk about it! I can’t go a week without finishing this! I can’t! I won’t agree!”

And he storms out.

The hubby and I agree once more with the therapist that he and I will not talk about the problems or about what happened in the session. Blake is outside the building. He refuses to speak at all. He and I take off for home while the hubby goes back to work. Blake is silent for half the 45 minute ride home. Then, he apologizes.

“I’m sorry I exploded in there, Mom.”

“You were upset.”

“I know, but I really didn’t have a good reason to react the way I did. I agree. I’ll wait until next week to talk about things.”

“You’re coming back?”

“Yes. I’ll be there.”

So now Blake is in therapy with us. It’s not something he really wanted, but he wants more control than he’s had since the hubby and I have been going alone. That seems like a good place to start.

Lifting the Fog

My Own Depression

In my last post, a little over a month ago, I shared that I was dealing with my own major depressive episode. The reason I haven’t posted is that, frankly, I haven’t felt able to write until today. Depression is one weird state of being. I’ve been here, but haven’t felt here. I’ve been going through the motions, doing the things I’m supposed to do (well, most of them) when one is depressed. I’ve been keeping my engagements, eating as well as I can, getting out for walks, trying to get enough sleep.

The thing is, no matter where I’ve been, or who I’ve been with, I haven’t felt present. I’ve laughed, but I didn’t feel the humor; I went to dinner with friends and talked, but I slowly disappeared from the conversation as I found it more and more difficult to interact. I slept, but I constantly felt as though I could fall right back to sleep.

Therapy. I went to therapy, too. Twice. The therapist was nice enough, but I don’t think that she understood the depths of my despair. My office mate, a seasoned child psychologist, says that she believes we psychologists make difficult patients. We know how to avoid, we are critical in the consulting room of what we are experiencing, and we are thinking ahead of the therapist we are seeing. Maybe that’s all true. So I’m looking for someone who can really call me on my stuff – someone who is more experienced as a therapist and parent than I am.

A Little Light

At the same time, just yesterday I experienced a little lifting of my mood. Even the hubby noticed it. The reason, I’m pretty certain, is that I found something that’s given me just the tiniest bit of hope, and the belief that there is something we can do to begin to make changes with what’s been going on with Blake. I feel just a little bit empowered.

A few weeks ago, while I was at a professional conference on anxiety, I met a very experience therapist at dinner one night. As we got to know one another and shared about our respective children, I shared a bit about what we are experiencing with Blake – days where he doesn’t get out of bed, his despair about life, his frequent missing events that would have been important to him.

“I’m not letting you go through this alone,” she said, reaching out to me, as she shared a bit of her own personal story. “This isn’t going to continue. We are going to get him help and I’m going to stay with you through the process.”

That evening, we plotted and planned. We agreed on who I should call. And I promised to stay in touch and follow through. Within a week, the hubby and I had an appointment with Blake with a longtime expert on kids and young adults who, like Blake, have a mixture of depression on top of OCD. What’s more, he’s had lots of experience with treatment refusers. We went with hope that, this time, Blake would agree to getting help.

Blake Rejects Treatment

Blake rejected treatment – no surprise there. On the way out the door he claimed to understand how “desperate” his dad and I are. He promised he would change things, but offered no concrete example of how he would do so. And then he fell asleep at 7 pm that very evening, missing dinner and sleeping until 3 pm the next day, forgetting he had a lunch date with his grandparents who were in town. And then he did the same thing the next day, missing his beloved grandparents once again.

Meanwhile, the hubby and I haven’t given up. Yesterday, we saw that expert on our own. He is prepping us to gradually work to increase the likelihood that Blake will enter treatment willingly and ready to work. We don’t know if it will actually work, only that we have several assignments to do ourselves over this next week. We also know that this will be itty bitty steps. Yet, I left the office yesterday feeling just the tiniest bit better. I have something to do, a direction to go in.

I noted to the therapist yesterday that the saddest part of the last two years is that we’ve been repeatedly told that there is nothing to do if Blake doesn’t want treatment. He shared with us his belief that the population of depressed/anxious young adults (and teens) whose lives are spiraling rapidly downward has long been neglected. For now, the hubby and I will be the catalysts for possible change. I understand that it is going to be a difficult road – but I’d rather be moving toward something than sinking deeper into the the muck that I’ve been in.

The Fog

I’ve experienced four major depressive episodes in my life (if you don’t count the postpartum depression after I had each boy). One was when I was a teenager – maybe 15 or 16 years old. The second was when I was 30 and my aunt (a close confidante) and uncle were killed in a freak accident. The third was when I was 38 and struggling through some major life issues. The fourth is happening now.

Mental health issues are abundant in my family. My siblings and parents struggle with various forms of anxiety and depression. One of my aunts died by suicide – one of many cries for help that had a permanent outcome. Another aunt in my grandparents’ generation was hospitalized multiple times for her depression and went through several rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. I remember stories of my grandfather locking himself in his room for days. I could go on. Suffice it to say, it’s no surprise that the hubby and I have passed on anxiety, OCD, and depression to our own offspring.

My last major depressive experience was before Blake was diagnosed with OCD. I almost forgot what it feels like…but I recognized it as soon as it started settling in. There’s the thick, thick fog in my head that makes me want to lie down with its weight, and the lack of enjoyment in just about everything I do. I feel myself going through the motions, but I’m distant, falling deeper into an abyss as I see this shell of myself move through the days. And then there’s the vacillating from just not giving a crap to being seized by moments of rage – to hearing myself pop off at those I love the most.

I Know What Prompted This

I can pinpoint the catalyst for each major depression I’ve experienced, and I know what it is for this one. Yes, there’s the fact that I just lost a friend to cancer. I promised I’d go see her – and then I didn’t follow up to that last text message that she didn’t answer…and she died. And there’s Michael. Sweet, competent Michael, who is on the other side of this country so stressed out by what he’s taken on that he can barely see straight. But I can handle either of these – alone or together. I can be the rock. There’s this one thing I can’t be the rock for anymore.

Basically, I’m watching my almost-adult son fall apart – at least in my eyes. This bright, funny, sensitive young man who the hubby and I have invested so much love, time, and attention in cannot seem to manage the basic skills of living day to day. Blake’s sleep/wake cycle, which we have worked so hard with him to regulate, is more messed up than ever. He sleeps until six in the evening and is up all night. When he does wake up, he is down on himself and upset. Then, of course, the schoolwork doesn’t get done. Two months shy of graduation and I’m not sure if he will finish his coursework.

Just this past week, we were supposed to take a trip to the school that is his first choice for next year – and where he was accepted. The place where he will train in the skills that are supposed to launch into the career he’s imagined most of his life. We told him this trip was a “must” in the final decision-making process. The hubby and I woke for our plane flight. Blake had already woken, turned off his alarm and gone back to sleep. The hubby went in to wake him again and let him know he had to be downstairs by the appointed time – a time that came and went and ended in the hubby cancelling our flight, our hotel, and our rental car. Moreover, it made us recognize that our son is not ready for this next step in life. I think I’m okay with that, and yet, I still grieve.

Time to Step Back

I look back over the years and I wonder how we got here. Perhaps I’ve propped Blake up too many times. One of the things that happens when you have a child who struggles with OCD is that you become fiercely protective. You make sure that people around him understand what is going on. You make sure that accommodations are in place where necessary. You push him forward when he cannot find the strength to do it himself. But the most painful realization of late is that, perhaps, I’ve done more of the pushing than Blake has. I may have prevented him from developing the skills he needed to be ready for this next step in life. I haven’t allowed him to fail and pick himself up.

You see, while Blake has been struggling with his sleep this past year, it’s really been me who has done all the work. I’m the one who has set up all the protocols. I’ve been the cheerleader. I’ve been the one who has emphasized how important it is to learn this skill. I’ve been the one who has gotten him out of bed and prevented him from missing the really important things. And I can see the future if we keep propping him up and then send him off to college next year – in an apartment out of state, no less.

It is all but destroying me watching him go through this. It’s like watching some suspenseful series, constantly rooting for the hero, seeing him fail over and over, and not knowing where this story is going to end up. Even as I pull away, I sink more into my own depression. To make matters more stressful, Blake is watching my every move, as he always has. He is sensitive to my mood, wanting to know what is wrong. His OCD tells him he must take extra care of me. If I scream out the things I really think and feel, I will only set him off and send him spiraling.

I’m Getting Help

I tell him that I am struggling with a big episode of depression, as he’s heard me talk about having experienced in the past. I tell him that it is not anybody’s fault; it’s how my body works. I tell him I am getting help. I have an appointment with a therapist next week. I hope that I am being a role model by getting help when I am struggling. What’s more, I really need the help right now. I need a place to put all that I’m feeling somewhere besides on my hubby’s shoulders. I need a neutral party to look at this situation and guide me. And I need someone to hold me back before I say something stupid or jump in and try to “save” my boy yet again.