The school counselor’s office is known as a safe place for teens struggling with all kinds of problems. It’s not uncommon for teachers, students or parents to swing through for a vent session, a resource or even just a moment of solitude. But being faced with my own child’s mental illness set off a storm inside me like I had never known. My daughter’s diagnosis of depression hit me like a ton of bricks.
Fear, confusion, shame, grief, frustration, anger, disappointment, helplessness.
All these emotions and more are common when you have a child struggling with mental illness. Only in my case, I was supposed to be able to help. I had always had a penchant for the helping fields, loved supporting people through tough times, but recognizing and dealing with my own daughter’s mental illness made me feel like I had no idea what I was doing. It had been a long time since I felt inept at parenting.
It starts pretty simply. I remembered being a “moody teenager” so it wasn’t too alarming when my daughter, who’d always been a little shy, began to be more reserved, distant and emotional than usual. Girls are like that I would tell my husband. She’s just hormonal. More structure, he would say, more discipline. But nothing on the outside changed what she was feeling on the inside. No external force could match the internal turmoil she was bound by.
Looking back you wonder where it started. Hindsight may be 20/20 but I’ve yet to find the magic moment when my daughter changed. Sometimes I believe there were always signs but the day the switch flipped continues to elude me. With 3 younger kids under her, I spent years desperately seeking where we went wrong in hopes of saving my younger kids from this pain. If only there was an early detection kit to tell you exactly what can be ignored and what to take directly to the doctor. But there isn’t any such kit.
However, there were signs.
When the days became more difficult, more emotional outbursts and crying spells, the snap back was not there. She was less happy and more often moderately content. The emotional valleys were deep and the highs felt superficial at best. Almost as if she was overacting the role of the happy girl in a sitcom, there was no joy. According to Diana Rodriquez for Everydayhealth.com, those subtle mood changes can be a key symptom for depression in teens.
We noticed her room was always filthy and her motivation in school dropped. I should have known when my child who was once labeled as gifted began barely passing that something was off. I know that changes in school patterns are also a sign that depression has taken hold. Not everything was bad though, so I pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind.
The anger was the worst. I would leave home and come back and the house would feel like all the energy had been sucked out. The anger was more than typical teenage angst, the rage was mostly internal acted out against her own body more so than anything else. But depressed people aren’t angry, are they? Depressed teens are. Due to the stages of development they are in, more often than not they show the emotions outwardly that they are comfortable with, and to the people they are most comfortable with. For our family, that meant that no one ever saw her as anything less than pleasant, but we felt the full force of the storm inside her.
I was fortunate, to have a strong support system, access to mental health resources and my faith. All of which go a long way to helping in what feels like an impossible situation. But watching your child go through this type of journey can leave you feeling more isolated than there are words to describe.
Although we missed some of the early signs, we did a few things right. Things like seeking outside resources, that was a big one. We spoke to her primary care doctor and used the referrals that she gave us. We joined in the process, that was hard, but worth it. Most parents are more than willing to get their teen into therapy, but for us and many families, family therapy can be essential to begin the healing process. My husband and I took time for ourselves as well. We saw therapists about our ability to interact with our daughter, which helped us get on the same page. Mental illness can be so divisive to families, but it can be murder on a marriage. When we learned to view her illness as the enemy to be treated and created a united front we both felt better supported.
There’s no easy button on depression, but with help there can be recovery.
For more information on mental health concerns in children, you can check this post as well.