Update: Relapse

Hi all.

Quick update. I’m going to be taking a brief break from the blog. The premise of this blog rests upon the idea that I am recovered enough to give good insight. Recently, I tried to hurt myself. Very fortunately, I failed. There’s a long article to be written about that experience and my now hospitalization, as well as my reasoning for doing so and what I saw just before I did it, but it’s not for right now. I can’t give objective insight at the moment, my heart is still heavy. I’ve relapsed, as mentally ill folks routinely do, and will be in ongoing treatment for a while.

It’s important to me that I am as candid as this is. For people going through similar issues right now, there is an “after” that is hopeful and bright. You’ll make it through. 

In the meantime, my best friend Katie Suss and I will be collaborating on a few light things here and there, when able. If you want to help write for the blog, shoot me an email. If I don’t respond, I hope you’ll have patience. A lot’s going on.

Thanks for your continued support.


The Therapeutic School and Your Child

Every child is different.  Every school is different.  No school can help all children thrive.  Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  All of that said and understood, it is my opinion that you, as the parent of a teen suffering with mental illness, must be as picky as possible about Any special school you consider sending your child too.  Unhappily, you likely won’t be able to afford to be choosey because there are so few of these schools around, and even fewer of them with good reputations for really helping the kids in their care.  Throw in the expense associated with therapeutic schools and/or their relationships with local school systems, and you likely will have only one candidate or maybe two.  Even though you may end up having no choice at all, I guarantee you’ll still feel nothing but relief when your child is admitted.  That’s how I felt when my daughter was admitted to a therapeutic school about 40 minutes from our home in Fairfield County, CT.  By that time in this process, having been through the mental health wringer with her, getting her into the school was the end.  It would all change from there and she’d be on her way.  That was where my head was.  And though that was not true, and I’m going to say a few shocking and negative things here, I am definitely not saying that the whole therapeutic school experience was bad.  It just wasn’t good.

Helen and Olivia.

If you’re not already, get used to baring your most secret mistakes, missteps, harsh words, and weaknesses with Total strangers.  Strangers who are 23 and unmarried with no kids, likely.  That’s who is assigned to be your child’s touchstone while in the school – the Life Coach.  Straight out of college, very interested in gathering experience for themselves and their brief CVs, they are likely not terribly interested in or even capable of understanding much about your disturbed child.  My daughter had very mixed experiences with her life coaches at this school, and because they are meant to be the lynchpin or stabilizer or constant for the child and her parents, their competence really makes a huge difference.  Any issues the student has from a missed deadline to bullying will be addressed by the Life Coach.  They are therapists, generally speaking, and so will also be engaging in talk therapy with your child. They are the one person who will report to the administration on your child’s progress in school. They will sit in tearful meetings with sad kids ten times daily.  I will own that this Life Coach job is not easy and there will be mistakes made in any job.  However, I would think that the very import of this puzzle piece to the child, the parents, the faculty, and the administration would then require a very experienced group of people in those positions. That was generally not the case at my daughter’s school. A good example of this comes to mind in the events surrounding a serious bullying threat my daughter had to deal with. A fellow female student threatened to punch my daughter in the face and “F-up” her life.  This was a very serious threat from a truly scary individual, but my daughter’s Life Coach told her that the girl was unlikely to do anything and that my daughter should just go back to class.  Really?  More on bullying in a later article.

Here’s a laundry list of my least favorite things about the school: During my daughter’s two years, there was no nurse or a single person with medical training at all in the building. The school had over 40 students in the building every day, and no nurse.  This is not a hospital but it is a therapeutic school, inherent in which are highly medicated ill teenagers.  There were physical fights, lots of tears, and a fair amount of noise and profanity floating through the air.  Additionally, there was no sex-ed classes taught at the school but there sure was sex going on, in the building!  There was a health and hygiene class but at least once every month or so, feces was smeared all over surfaces in one of the bathrooms. Therapeutic groups were known among the students as vapid and beyond useless, but actually provided grades for the kids’ transcripts.  Tending to disturbed teens can be a thankless job at best, but it should be understood that administration doesn’t leave the remediation of problems to the whims of a perpetrator.  But No, that was not true at this school.  Both parties to a fight or argument had to agree to mediation and if the agreement didn’t happen, the issue just needed to be forgotten by the “victim.” Not a strong disciplinary policy for a place with emotional disturbed children around every corner.  I came to dread my daughters’ tales of the days’ shenanigans as much as she began to dread having to live through them at this school, a school that was costing our town upwards of $50,000 per year to send my daughter to.

There are a few bright lights in a school such as this for your child as long as they are at least somewhat functional.  My daughter did end up with good grades and good activities to show a college.  Some of the kids did end up graduating and beginning college courses, but almost all who did so during my daughters’ two years there ended up dropping out of college or otherwise floundering in the real world.  They had not been well-prepared for life or academics by the teachers and Life Coaches at the school, in my opinion.  The school is small, so if you want take a leadership role in a club or student government, you can.  It’s just hard to get a lot of extra-curricular buy-in from kids too ill to regularly show up to classes and groups.  

Which brings me to the worst yet least tangible problem with this sort of school.  These kids were not healthy enough to offer anything positive to any other student.  It was a bunch of mentally ill kids in a big pit with a crowd of other mentally ill kids.  No mainstream students to be examples, no normal expectations, not much hope.  These kids are too ill to be in their regular district schools but also too ill to add anything like student life, spirit, culture or even just happiness to the atmosphere of the therapeutic school.  It was likely very difficult to get much homework out of many of these kids or to measure progress in a meaningful way.  That is not the fault of faculty and staff, just a hardship they must navigate.

What was clear after a while was the pass-through mentality the administration had developed – out of necessity, I’m sure – and the real sense of hopeless darkness a group of depressed kids can put out And absorb in such an atmosphere.  The teachers try their best and then pass the kids to the next class. The faculty and staff would have to have been inhuman not to at least try to help these kids, and I know personally many examples of their hard work. One small one was something my daughter was a part of too.  She realized that there had never been a prom at this school but there were plenty of teens of the right age, stage, and inclination.  So my daughter, then student body president, lobbied administration to hold a prom, and fundraised to help make it happen!  It was lovely, in a beautiful old inn nearby and was well-attended and enjoyed by students and faculty.  I know because I took all the prom photos myself and witnessed the good spirits of all present.  There were definitely moments like that, and while I don’t regret my daughter’s attendance, I don’t think the school did much beyond housing her safely for two years as she grew and changed.  Near the end of her time there the bullying got so bad that police had to be approached, and my daughter was hospitalized for 6 weeks in that following summer due in large part to people and situations in or related to the school.  She is doing well now, having applied to and been accepted at several really prestigious universities, and the school Was a part of getting her there, I’m certain.  I think that’s in larger part due to my daughter that to the school, but the educators and staff there put in some serious time and effort for her and I thank them for that.  From that perspective, it’s something of a success story.

What’s Hardest About Being the Parent of a Mentally Ill Young Person? That’s really the wrong question.

On a really tough day last month, feeling nearly desperate about a major problem I was having at work, I wallowed for hours in helpless fear and anger.  Finally I reined myself in by briefly imagining that these feelings are what my mentally ill daughter goes through perhaps every day to some degree and some days to a much greater degree.  That was a real kick in the pants.  She is now 20 and has been suffering for nearly ten years, most keenly for the last 6 of those.  Her father’s and my greatest concern has always been her safety, basically the fear of losing her.  That remains paramount.  But our next two largest sources of fear and sadness are her potential – lost potential is what we used to really ruminate on – and her actual future.  These are similar of course, but not the same.

My daughter is beautiful, funny, incredibly talented and super intelligent.  Her father and I have always felt so fortunate that her natural gifts are the ones most people would give an arm to possess.  As she went through puberty and her emotional disregulation became more apparent, her inability to utilize her gifts began to make them moot.  At her worst moments of hopelessness when suicidality reared its ugly head, valuing her huge vocabulary or her lovely, long blonde hair and blue eyes was suddenly a foolish and trivial occupation.  Over time, knowledge of the fleeting value of these things which had always given me such pleasure forced me to reevaluate what makes her special – what makes her her.  Over many years, I’ve come to know that part of what makes her so special in general but particularly to me, actually is her emotional instability itself.  She is like an unstable atom, flitting from place to place in the atmosphere, full of energy and predictable unpredictability.

My daughter has always had a jones for social justice.  At age 6 she rushed to me to report that she had lectured another child who was being mean to her good friend and neighbor Anna.  She knew the meany well.  As Dumbledore says, it’s one thing to stand up to your enemies, but quite another to stand up to your friends.  As a pre-teen, she reckoned it might be a good path forward to be a civil rights attorney or something like that, after graduating from a top-notch university.  By her sophomore year in high school, after falling full-tilt into self-harm, self-hatred, and finally suicidal ideation, that path was clearly no longer open to her.  The timeline isn’t this straight, but she essentially lost a full school year to hospitalizations and treatments, and another full school year to a whopping athletic concussion.  Her grades and activities suffered and she suffered from the horrifying slow-dawning comprehension that she would not be going away to school with her friends, or even her friends’ younger siblings.

How much more isolated could this all make her?  Well, just a little more.  I’ll relate her experience at a therapeutic school for smart kids with health and emotional issues at another time, but that experience was even more isolating and disturbing than a hospital.  Add divorcing parents and a move out of the big family house and you’ve got a laundry list of the most disregulating things that can happen to anyone, all happening to a mentally ill teenager.  It was a real shit show for 4 years or so.  I can honestly say that I was never disappointed in her, but I can attest to feeling very disappointed for her.  I had lived a charmed life to that point and had hoped to lead my children through charmed lives of their own, but that was clearly not to be.  Being a compartmentalizer of the first order, I simply put away those feelings and moved forward with her, for her, and occasionally even past her. I knew I could not correctly fasten her “oxygen mask” on unless I first quickly put on my own.  I’ve made great strides of my own, but the greatest ones have been in my understanding of my daughter, her needs, her abilities, her fears, and her accomplishments.

I may not have emotional disregulation like my daughter’s, so I did not have as far to go or as steep a climb to get there.  But the growth I have made has come mainly in my reevaluation of what’s precious in her and what Potential actually means.  My patience has had to expand greatly, because she’s honestly been a swift pain many times in the last 8 years.  Seriously, though, my understanding of what some others go through just to get dressed in the morning has actually become real.  My grasp of how a child’s brain works has grown substantially, and my pride in my incredibly brave, beautiful, smart and persistent daughter is off the charts.  But the real point here is – it’s not about me.  She is more in charge of herself with each passing month. She is more able to look outside herself now than she could ever afford to do earlier in her life.  She is on track to go to University this coming September.  She has created this blog and written with more honesty, sincerity and pathos than celebrated writers many times her age.  She works in town at a wonderful non-profit theatre.  She has actually re-written the list of her own potential accomplishments and the timeline upon which she would reach them. Why do I call her My Brave Girl?

If you had as much fear, self loathing, anger, despair, and hopelessness on your shoulders and still accomplished what my daughter has, I’d call you brave too.