I plod up the steps and open the door into the waiting room of the therapist’s office, coaxing my child in behind me. I try to smile encouragingly, but I know it doesn’t reach my eyes. A few kids play with toys on the floor in the middle of the room while tired caregivers flip through magazines and check their phones. A bored teen crosses her arms and shifts uncomfortably in her chair. She’s too old to be there but too young to be anywhere else. I try to keep my child calm enough for public. Periodically, therapists pop their heads into the room and call for the next young client.
We’re there for my child’s weekly play therapy. I don’t know if it’s helping, but I have to try. Leave no stone unturned, right? Gotta try all the things when it comes to your kids. Maybe we’ll learn a strategy to help with the rages.
The office assistant hands me a clipboard with paperwork to fill out. She tries to make small talk and chirps, “Isn’t it a great day?” The most I can manage back is a small hum of affirmation that hopefully doesn’t sound too sarcastic. I want to scream at her, “I’m HERE. In THIS office. AGAIN. How great could it BE!?!?” I hand back the clipboard, mustering a wry smile that only makes it to one half of my mouth, and grab a seat.
The door opens and a new friend walks in with her child. We only just met a couple weeks ago. I like her, but I barely know her. She just moved to the area and a mutual friend introduced us. Our eyes lock as her child runs into the room and we both feel the weight of this moment.
“Hi!” “You’re here, too!” I feel vulnerable, like I blurted out a secret in a quiet room. I can see it in her eyes, she feels exposed, too. Our relationship just went from new acquaintances to the deep end in an instant. We don’t know the details, but we both know where we are, and who we’re with. Our kids recognize each other from school.
The therapist calls my kid’s name. “Talk soon?” I ask my new friend cautiously. “Yeah,” she replies. “Good to see you.”
It’s good to see her, too. Although I wish we both didn’t have to be here.
I have a kid who struggles with mental illness. As far as I know, there’s no cure. There’s management, there are treatments, therapies, medications, and interventions, but it isn’t going away any time soon. I mean, my kid doesn’t have a broken arm. There’s no cast for mental illness, so we can’t celebrate when the cast is removed.
Parenting a child with mental illness is the most isolating thing I’ve ever experienced. I can’t talk about the specifics, because the stigma of mental illness in our society would follow that child for a lifetime. I don’t want to be the reason my child doesn’t get a job someday. And the people who see us out in the wild can’t tell that there’s a problem. They can’t tell how hard we’re all working just to get through each day. They can’t see how hard I work to keep the family together, to give my other kids some semblance of a typical childhood while so much of my energy is spent helping my kid who needs so much of me. No one can see what’s really going on, and I end up just looking like a bad mom.
The daily onslaught of … just the things we’re going through are relentless. And I can only imagine if it’s this hard for me as an adult bearing the weight and responsibility, how difficult it must be for my child struggling to fit into this world.
I’m working on my fourth book right now, in between visits to the psychiatrist, therapist, and pharmacy. It’s called Calm the H*ck Down (Simon & Schuster 2020), and it’s about how to lighten up about parenting. [Insert laugh track]
A couple weeks ago my husband challenged me, “How are you writing a book about being calm and lightening up when we are not remotely calm or light right now?” And I pushed back, “Are you kidding me? (I said calmly?) It’s because I practice exactly what I’m preaching in this book that I’m even still here, that I’m honing my sense of humor and staying present in the middle of such trauma. I absolutely am learning to calm the heck down and lighten up about parenting, in some of the most difficult of circumstances.”
Anyone can be calm when things are easy. But when things are hard on a level you didn’t know was possible? That’s where the real work is. I’m earning every word in this book.
But I can’t talk about my kid and our daily struggles. It’s not my story to tell. If you have a child with mental illness you understand. We speak in code, and it’s a gift when we pick up on each other’s signals and find someone who gets it.
You meet someone and chat for a while, and they mention therapy or trauma or the name of a drug that you know intimately. You exchange looks and throw out a few phrases to demonstrate your deeper knowledge of the subject. Pretty soon you’re talking like pharmacists or PhDs in freaking brain chemistry when really you’re moms who are earning advanced degrees in therapy and psychiatry on the fly, wielding words like dopamine and serotonin and talking about absorption rates and 504s and IEPs at school.
There’s an underground club. We love our kids radically and completely. We also swear a little more than we’d planned because this shit is hard. Maybe we can’t fake “normal” as well as we used to. We worry about going out in public with our kid. What if people think we’re bad moms? What if we are bad moms? When we try to explain, people minimize our problems and tell us to pray harder.
I didn’t want to write this and it’s horribly nebulous and I will never provide details to the internet, but I’ve felt compelled to at least say this much, because there are others out there like me, in the underground club. We can’t share at neighborhood potlucks or church, but our struggles are real.
I know you’re out there. Keep up the incredible work. Take care of yourselves, moms. It’s a marathon with no finish line in sight. What our precious kids are dealing with is brutal, it’s painful, and it’s constant. They’re so important. And we’re important too, so we have to take care of ourselves. Find the underground club, laugh hysterically for no good reason, and love yourself. Love yourself even when you aren’t feeling it from anyone else.
You’re doing a good job. Even if no one else can see it. Even if your child is drowning and you feel helpless. You’re fighting and working so hard. You’re not alone. I’m not a therapist, but if you need to share your story, my email is open.