Sandra Lafferty

Writer ~ Educator ~ Mental Health Advocate


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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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Self-Harm Awareness Month: Someone Tear March Out Of My Calendar

The scars beneath the Love

This is self-harm awareness month. I was reminded by a Facebook post on my daughter’s wall and by a teacher friend who mentioned self-harm awareness day in a text to me on the first of the month. I was glad that I wasn’t eye to eye with either of them because I wouldn’t want them to see me flinch.

Every day used to be self-harm awareness day in my house. Cutting is an addiction that crept into our home like evil smoke oozing under a door.

I don’t see anything.

It’ll go away.

Open a window and air it out.

Turn on a fan.

Go out another door and stand in the fresh breeze.

I tried it all. But the smoke kept coming.

It made me choke. It made me cry.

It made me look foolish as I flailed against it with my hands trying to push it away only to find that I was spreading it throughout the house.

I understand, yet I will never understand. My mind comprehends the literature but my heart cannot comprehend the reason. We love our kids. They know we love them. We are good parents.   How can this happen here, in a good home, to us? How could we not know? What did we do wrong?

Pain stops pain? No. Just stop hurting yourself. What do you mean it’s not you that’s hurting you. I want to understand. I’m trying.  Relief?  In open wounds and blood? You’re finding relief?

You may not shave, you must use Nair!  I still had exacto knives in the craft cupboard? I thought I’d  . . . .

The physical pain stops emotional pain. I hear you, really I do, but you’re wrong it just masks it.  That’s good enough for you? You know it’s temporary and you still do this to your body? Why? Stop yelling. I know you’re angry. I know you’re hurting.  I’m trying.  How can I be trying too hard? Come back. I care. I care.

 Blood soaked tissues wadded into cotton balls sharp enough to cut my heart populate dark corners of the house.

Encounters with emotional pain stipe your arms, your belly, your thighs.

I hear your cries for help but cannot answer. I am mute with the very pain you are fighting.

Stop for me….please. You’re right. It’s not about me. It’s your battle. But I’m here. I’ll always be here.

There is hope  –   for us both.

It’s self-harm awareness month.

I am aware

and I love you.