Sandra Lafferty

Writer ~ Educator ~ Mental Health Advocate


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Helping to Clear the Emotional Debris

Feelings1

Jennifer Mills-Knutsen outlines some well thought out and practical Do’s and Don’ts for helping after a Disaster on her blog, For the Someday Book. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read. Of particular interest to me was her reminder to listen – and to listen patiently without judgment.

Our culture is not good at listening. We like to finish sentences for each other and refocus the attention, whether intentionally or subconsciously, onto ourselves. The trauma of a disaster leaves people needing to talk about their experience but it’s not productive to be the listener who says “I know just how you feel. When thus-and-such happened to ME, yada yada yada. “ Listening is an activity of the ears not the mouth.

Being a good listener is important after major disasters like the recent tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, but also during times of distress from illness, failed relationships and financial hardship. These less far-reaching, more personal disasters also leave people needing to tell their story and it’s a boon to their mental health to have a caring listener who accepts whatever emotions they are currently tracking on the carpet.

Feelings just are; they are neither good nor bad, they just are. As a listener, try to let emotions flow on by without redirection, evaluation or judgment. Pain and fear can sound angry and there may be something cathartic in verbally lashing out at a perceived roadblock even if that blame is misplaced. If you pass on the opportunity to correct someone who is blaming the wrong person or agency, you allow them freedom to vent without the burden of logic. The need is to tell the story until it falls into perspective and the healing begins.

Likewise, pain and fear are repetitious. Listen like you’ve never heard it before.

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. — Margaret J. Wheatley


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5 things I learned raising mentally ill children

Image by Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons

Image by Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons

1.  Listen, listen, listen

As much as I sometimes want to stick my head in the sand it’s important to stay involved. Good advice for every parent, but vital to those of us with mentally ill children of any age. Clues are everywhere – even in their silence. If you practice listening on purpose you’ll gain insight into their thinking that you wouldn’t otherwise have because they can’t or won’t tell you. You’ll know how they handle pain; you’ll know where to start looking if they go missing; and you’ll learn to know when they’ve been quiet too long.

2.  Take every threat seriously

Don’t put threats from your children under a bushel basket of fear or denial. Whether directed inward or outward, every threat needs to be addressed. Even very young children can be dangerous to themselves and others. I’m throwing myself onto the proverbial sword here but as bad as it sounds children aren’t all fluffy puppy-like creatures and it’s unwise to stereotype them like that. I’m not saying that all children with mental health issues are dangerous and you shouldn’t read that into what I’m saying, but be willing to be honest with yourself and others if you think there is a problem. It’s an act of love. I feel compelled to add this word of forewarning: adults accusatory of the very young will themselves be viewed with mistrust and put under a microscope of suspicion. This is especially true if you don’t yet have a firm diagnosis. Don’t let that stop you.

3.  Isolation comes with the territory

Stigma isn’t just a word thrown about in discussions of mental health. It’s very real pain. There is a stigma that comes with being different, or having someone different in your family, and being different sets you apart – sometimes very far apart. You lose friends. You get shunned and uninvited. Play dates for a kid who overturns furniture without provocation or enjoys shredding paper into tiny bits to create cherished collections are hard to arrange. Even trips to the ER with an adolescent who self-harms can lead to medical professionals publically shouting “it’s the cutter again” and your wish to become momentarily invisible.

4.  Siblings can be peripheral damage

Your other kids can get lost in the shadows. Siblings are victims too. They have lost a person they loved and are faced with someone they don’t know. They fear it will happen to them. It kills them to see you hurting and they want to fix it. But like you, they are helpless.

5.  Love and Rescue are not synonyms

There is a time to stop making things right. It can be hard to define the line where helping becomes enabling. A good first step is admitting that the line exists. Don’t stop looking for resources, but stop replacing wrecked cars, covering debts, paying bail and buying the lies.

Having mentally ill children is frightening whether yours is a child carrying a lunch pail to elementary school, a defiant teenager killing emotional pain by creating physical pain, or an adult who follows voices you cannot hear.

What have you learned from your love of the mentally ill?


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Poetry, Mental Illness and Motherhood: A Challenge

This week’s writing challenge is a poem.  Not a good fit for me.  I blog about parenting challenges, childhood mental illness . . . . there’s no Roses Are Red in that.

Or maybe there is.

Here’s my take on childhood mental illness presented in as much poetic format as I could manage. I’ve developed a new respect for WordPress blogging poets who wrangle with formating features on an ongoing basis. My hat’s off to you.

Golden Child, Bronx, NY

(Photo credit: Grufnik)

          The Golden Child

Sparkling child so full of promise,
Wherever did you go?
Do you hide beneath the lily
Waiting to surprise?

     I lift the leaves prepared to start
     As you spring blithely forward.
     No hand find I to clasp in mine
     And show me toward the future.

                      ~

Radiant child once full of love
Why hidest you so long?
Hear you not the blue bird singing
As sunshine warms your face?

     Old things are left behind,
     Outgrown but not replaced;
     Leaving cobwebs in the places
     That used to give you reason.

                      ~

Reclusive child once full of questions,
Queries beyond your age.
Where is the passion of your search
For keys and magic doors?

     Hinges rust and creek
     On doors that lead to knowledge;
     Well greased are portals that devour
     And strip away the nymph.

                      ~

Street child beguiled
By legions of deceit
That lure you into secrets
And darkness in their lair

     Seek strength and wisdom from the light
     And power not your own.
     Hope and Peace are calling you.
     Turn not a deafened ear.

                      ~

Saddened child once full of joy
That cascades onto others,
Your swirling ribbons and gifts of paper
Brought smiles amid the wrinkles.

     So many blessed by little gestures
     You seem to think unnoticed
     Now sit in prisons, hands extended,
     Hoping to catch your glitter.

                      ~

Half child and half adult
Caught in tentacles of self reproach 
Flailing against yourself 
To quash your gilded hue. 

     Fear not refining fire 
     That purifies -- renews. 
     Remember, child, from whence you sparkled: 
     Your heart is solid gold.

©Sandra Lafferty 2013


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Do I need a pocket protector to go with my copy of the DSM-5?

I kept my excitement under wraps when the DSM-5 went into editorial review but now that it’s publication date has been announced I’m ready to press my nose to a bookstore window and quiver.   DSM-IV_092DSC_0791

Admittedly, that’s a little outside the norm on two levels. One, that I still prefer brick and mortar bookstores, and two, that it’s an odd book choice since I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or attorney working with the mentally ill. Truth is I’ve had some edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a guide to mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, on my bookshelf for many years.

Yep. Throw a log on the fire, pour a cup of tea, and curl up with the DSM – the perfect evening.  That officially makes me some sort of nerd I suppose. However, nerd conjures up images of tortoise shell glasses, tailored shirts, high-rise trousers and plastic pocket protectors.

Oh….

I think I’m only missing the pocket protector. Kind of an embarrassing image when you consider that I’m a middle-America soccer mom.

Nonetheless, as someone who has morphed from a psychiatric research wannabe to a special ed teacher-in-training to a stay-at-home professional parent, I have an intrinsic interest in mental and educational challenges.   From the day a psychiatrist and room full of social workers told me to choose another child because the one I’d selected had deficiencies and should be institutionalized instead of adopted, I’ve been fighting to make a difference in the lives of differently-abled and at-risk children.  It’s never been wise to tell me something can’t be done.  I have this annoying habit of replying “watch me.”

So, if you see someone in the reference isle of a bookstore snatching up editions on educational methodologies or mental health topics with all the enthusiasm of an avid yard-sale shopper, please overlook the yellow highlighter stain on my shirt.  I don’t have a pocket protector.