28 January 2015

What Are You?

“What are you?” they demand to know
Soft squishy sapling next to sturdy tree
Tan against peach, one making the other
“We look different,” I say
“Yes,” she smiles back

“Who is that?” they demand to know
Born by her body, fed by her flesh, nurtured by her heart
Once united, so obvious who was who, what was what
Now confusion reigns where common sense should flourish, the story
Obvious for all to see – for all who will look past hues to hearts

“What are you?”
Now I ask, what am I?
“Mom, am I black?”
“I must be black, because if it was 200 years ago I’d be your slave. That makes me black, right?”

My mother’s son
My father’s hope
My sister’s warrior
Hoodie down even in the cold and the rain
Make eye contact and smile
“Smile? What if I’m sad that day?”
Smile anyway

“What are you? Who is that? How will we label you? Into what box should you go?”
The ‘X’ no longer marks the spot I must occupy in the world
I will fight to make my own way
Even as the rest have decided the way I must go
Tan against peach
One making the other
I can be whatever I want to be
As soon as I get THEM to see me
And not be afraid
when I’m just walking, not ‘causing trouble’
I didn’t turn when you yelled, because I was thinking about Xbox, football, homework, the science fair
Not because I was disrespecting you
My mind does that – it drifts
Doesn’t yours?

What am I? Who am I?
Am I black? Am I smart? Am I a troublemaker? Am I scary?
I am me
I am hers
My name is Luke
That is what you need to know

03 February 2014

In the Name of the Child

For some of us, the experience of enduring a stranger's opinions on childrearing starts the first time a random woman approaches us and asks to touch our pregnant belly, reminiscence and nostalgia quickly giving way to volumes of unsolicited parenting advice. If you're like me you smile, nod, make a hasty retreat, and foolishly and unknowingly congratulate yourself on surviving the encounter – as if it would be the last one. 

It seems anytime we appear in public with our child we are opening ourselves to these encounters: 'I can't believe you're breastfeeding in public, I can't believe you're bottle feeding, you shouldn't let him cry like that, if you pick him up every time he cries you'll spoil him, can't you get your child to be quiet/stop squirming/sit still?' And on it goes, encounters with strangers who feel compelled to bestow upon you the parenting wisdom you are obviously lacking, because, frankly, you're doing it wrong.

It's not to say we don't get parenting advice from our families and friends, but these are people who know us and have a vested interest in ours, and our child's, well being. That's not to say we always agree with the (sometimes) unsolicited 'wisdom,' but we presumably understand the intent, born of familiarity and love. So, for the purposes of this post please know that I am referring to the strangers I do not know, online or off, who have approached me regarding my daughter, and not my family and friends who have shared their concerns.

Those of you who've been reading recently know that my posts have been preoccupied with the mental health challenges of my six year old. According to therapists, we're in the 'it's going to get worse before it gets better phase' so the struggle continues. As a result many people have contacted me to tell me the posts are helping them, they can relate, the information I'm sharing is new and helpful – and some have contacted me to tell me you're doing it wrong. Maybe I've buried the lead, but it's those notes that have inspired this post. 

People are diverse, and have offered many different reasons I'm doing it wrong. They include:

Maybe your daughter doesn't want you to share such personal information about her. Perhaps this will bother her when she gets older. You should really be thinking of her right now. 

I am thinking of her. I'm a mom – most of my thoughts are related to my children and doing the best for them. I am also of the school that knowledge breeds understanding. This may be optimistic in the grand scheme of things, but it’s how I roll. Yes, maybe parents of my daughter’s friends will read these posts. Rather than worrying about them judging her, I am hoping these posts will help them understand her, and the torment she is going through. The reality is, those who will judge her after reading about her difficulties are judging her already. They are judging her sulking, and her moodiness, and her lack of a six-year-old-always-sunny disposition as selfishness and mean-spirited behavior. What’s more, they are happy to share their (cough) theories (cough) with me, and tell her different ways she could be nicer if she only tried. 

I also choose to focus on the many more, as in hundreds, of notes from people who find these posts helpful, and who are glad for a voice to advocate for mental illness and the perils of navigating the healthcare system. Will I sacrifice my daughter to advocate for mental illness in children? Never. Do I think the only choices are advocacy at her expense or no advocacy at all? No.

Maybe you haven't thought about how this will affect your daughter. 

I’ll admit this sends me close to the edge, and I have to work hard to pull myself back. The response I want to write is along the lines of: Oh my gosh, thank you! How could I not see it before? I waited two years to write about this, and obviously that was not enough time weighing the options – I should go back and think some more. You’re obviously very clever to read between the lines and suss out that I’m not concerned for my daughter, for our family, but I am desperately overwhelmed and seeking attention at any price, as I do. You have saved me and my family from my poor parenting skills and attention-seeking behavior. To quote Forest Gump, which seems appropriate, that’s all I have to say about that.

Finally, my all-time favorite way I’m doing it wrong – and the one I’ve read most often:

Do you think it’s wise to share this information online? Have you thought that maybe this will come back to hurt her in the future? 

Often combined with the examples above to form the you're doing it wrong trifecta, this way of thinking strikes at the core of a much larger problem – the stigma of discussing mental health. I can't help but wonder: if Spenser had a physical illness, would my posting about it illicit the same response? Would people be worried that sharing information about a physical illness would come back to hurt her? There was a time that we couldn't discuss autism without stigma, without autistic children being described as retarded and marginalized. It was only through dialogue, information-sharing, advocacy that things changed. Is this any different? I don't think so.

Do I worry this will come back to hurt her? No. If a college, employer, friend in the distant-future crawls through the internet past and discovers she suffered from anxiety-provoked rage and other issues brought on by events outside of her control, AND decides to hold it against her, then we have discovered a litmus test for assholes, something heretofore untestable and often times difficult to discover. Well done us. It's time to stop the stigma of talking about mental illness.

It's time to recognize this happens to more than a handful of people, and not just to other people. It's time to embrace each other, and hold each other up, not down. As to opinions offered to strangers on how to raise their children, conduct their lives, dress, diet, date...it's time to keep those to ourselves. 

31 January 2014

The Mobile Crisis Unit

Did you know this is a thing? I didn't, until I needed it. Anyway, it's a thing. Or it can be. I found out after much struggling at home with regular outbursts that Delaware County has a Mobile Crisis Unit. Call a number and "They," the omnipotent "They," will send a team of therapists to your house to assess the situation, intervene, recommend next steps, and – if you come to my house – eat cookies.

Okay, let's take a step back. I didn't know what to expect from this phone call. In my mind, I envisioned a paddy-wagon screeching to a stop in front of my house, blue light flashing, rolls of gauze and sterile pads trailing behind an ill-closed back door, restraints and a gurney at the ready. I had a Keystone Cops meets Hannibal Lechter video playing in my brain. In reality, a blue Kia quietly pulled up and two young women in skinny pants and puffer coats came to my front door lugging large binders and leatherette messenger bags. Both licensed therapists with Master's degrees in counseling (I asked), they were professional without being off-putting; young enough to know who Cody Simpson was on sight, yet seasoned enough that I felt at ease with their advice and procedures.

I also expected their arrival would be quick. It was not; it took at least 45 minutes from my initial call, and one follow-up call in between, before they rolled up. I made it clear that the crisis I had called about would be over by the time they got there. VERY over. They assured me the first call took the longest to dispatch, although they were coming from Media, and we are in Havertown – for those not in the know, these two towns are not around the corner from each other. I wanted them to come regardless, so they did.

Their arrival triggered a series of reactions. Luke was immediately charmed by his audience, and in return became immediately charming. He showed them his Minecraft World on the iPad, and explained how to kill creepers. He got them cookies. He told them about his sister, and the "crazy" night we'd had. He also told them there was no way she would talk to them – she was hiding and wasn't coming out, so they may as well play some indoor basketball with him. Spenser, on the other hand, was hiding. She was hiding very well and I almost didn't find her. She was NOT going to talk to them and they had to leave...now. They didn't. We sat and they asked questions, chased down some blind alleys – I can draw a road map of this conversation by now, having answered the same questions over and again – asked more questions, and on it went. After 25 minutes Spenser did come out. She asked them their names (Maria and LeeAnn), gave them glow-in-the-dark bracelets, showed them her favorite Cody Simpson video on YouTube, the right way to shake your booty, how to draw a heart, invited them for a sleepover, and gave them oranges to take with them. There was no trace of the child in crisis, but instead the sweet, charming performer smiling for strangers and inviting them into her world of make believe.

They left brochures, I signed paperwork. They told me things that robbed my hope and said some things that restored it. They left and the three of us were left to eat dinner and deal with each other until bed time. All the while, me sending up silent wishes for calm and peace, keeping an eye on the horizon for the next storm that may be brewing – or not. And on it went.

What I Learned
  • These services vary by county. Some therapy groups also provide mobile services. These are called wraparound services and can be part of your therapy program, with a view to avoiding crisis. However, ask your therapy group or local crisis center if your county offers Mobile Crisis Units for emergencies.
  • Crisis Centers are another option if you find yourself in a situation that is uncontrollable and potentially harmful. Some downsides: they are often not tailored for children, and will discharge you to a child-centered unit after the crisis subsides. Also, you will have to get the person causing the crisis into the car and transport him – or call 911. While both of these are viable options in a life-threatening emergency, in my opinion a mobile unit is the way to go if the crisis is contained an no one is in immediate danger.
  • Ask your therapist, pediatrician (if applicable), and any other professional you trust for their recommendations when it comes to crisis centers. I found out that the closest one is not necessarily the best for us, and have had another center unanimously recommended, albeit as a last resort.
  • To avoid the crisis, ask your therapy team if they offer wraparound services, and make this a part of the fabric of your home for now, until things return to a new normal. Use the healthcare lingo and ask specifically for "wraparound services" and not home care. Using their terminology puts you 'in the know' with healthcare workers, and sometimes gets you further, faster. There are often waiting lists for these services – referrals from another therapy group or crisis center will make your request more urgent and bump you up the line. 
  • When you call the mobile unit, they will ask a lot of questions. If you are like me, these questions will astound you, and potentially piss you off. Do you have insurance? If you say no, you are in for a world of bureaucracy. What's your insurance information? Have you verified that your insurance will cover this? What is the social security number of the patient? That last one almost did me in amidst the height of the crisis. I have found out that they need social security numbers if they are going to transport your child. I do not know why, and was honestly not in the mindset to ask. I will find out. Bottom line, have this info at the ready or they will not dispatch.
  • Get a number, if possible, of the center that will be sending the team. You are most likely talking to a dispatch unit with bare bones information. You will have questions – asking dispatch will likely slow the process down and not get you the info you want.
  • Write everything down in the same place. I use my 2013 Misfit Con notebook. I use this because I love it, it makes me smile, and I like having good feelings while recording some difficult information. I also know that all of the information I need is in one place. That makes it easier, and anything that makes this process easier is a #win.

29 January 2014

When Your Six Year Old Goes off the Rails

Smiley Days
This is the hardest post I've ever written. I've sat staring at my computer for days trying not to write it. That resolve has given way to tears, frustration, and an overwhelming need to write. I'm writing this because I need to; I hope your reading it brings you something in return.

I've deliberately included a photo of my daughter so I can see her smiling face while I dissect these last weeks, months – if I'm honest, years – of descent into a mini-madness that has finally ensnared us all in its net.  

For as long as I can remember, we've described her as "strong-willed," "temperamental," "moody," "head strong," and since she was one-and-a-half I've (sometimes) playfully called her Sybil. This phenomenon is best described by John as "I hate you! You're horrible! You've ruined my life! I want a bowl of Fruit Loops." We've scratched our head, laughed, yelled, thought it was 'getting better,' looked for answers, read books, went to therapy, disciplined, punished, spanked, talked, ignored, segregated, over-compensated... we just dealt with it, whatever 'it' was in that moment. 

I'd thought things were getting better. Right now, I don't know if they actually were, or I was coping by way of blinders. In the last week-and-a-half I've had little choice but to face the fact that things were not better; in fact, we'd just taken a sharp left off of a 1,000 foot cliff and were free-falling into the rocks below. We were now making this jump, without a parachute, every day.

Months ago, sitting across from my therapist I fell into describing life with the kids – the ups and downs, so many things that I'd taken for granted were just the routine bouts of parenting, and that any differences I faced stemmed from single-parenting, with little paternal involvement. This is just how it is, right? It wasn't until I paused in the narrative that I noticed her mouth had gone slack-jawed and her eyes had grown two-to-three times their usual size. No, this was not normal. This was anxiety, acute, high anxiety that needed to be assessed and treated. Me being me, I immediately found a book, talked to the school counselor, found a therapist, enrolled Luke – at the time, he was exhibiting the worse symptoms – and then enrolled Spenser for treatment. We talked about the invisible dragon in their head that fed on their worry and tried to get them to blow fire and cause chaos, and that they were Wizards who could tame him. Luke grabbed onto this notion with both hands, while his sister vehemently insisted there was NO DRAGON IN HER HEAD! Through therapy we sought different tropes, worry bears and reasoning bears, ways to tame anger and remain calm. In hindsight, all of this talking, cajoling, 'working on it' was merely kindling for the bonfire to come.

My daughter has expressed for years, and she's only six, that she does not feel happy. She worries about "EVERYTHING, mama!" When pressed she'll tell you her biggest fear is that robbers will break into the house and steal everything, then hurt me. Many of her fears are centered on me - if she leaves me, I will die, or on her – if she leaves me she will die. These are neatly juxtaposed with an unending anger, wherein I have ruined her life forever, and always have. She didn't want to have a birthday party out of fear that not all of the kids would want to play with her. She loves her brother and despises him, finding his soft underbelly and hurling sharpened word-spears at it with the rapidity of a seasoned argument-fencer. I've seen the mothers of her schoolmates charmed by her, afraid of her, and one even yelled at her in such a way, well I still won't make eye contact with this woman in the after-school pickup line, and I certainly won't put any of my 'accidentally put the car in reverse' fantasies in print. This child, this small, bright, emotional child, is a challenge. She always has been. The only difference is now I had to put her into the system – the mental health system here in the U.S. – as we graduated from the master's degree "wow this is hard, how can I help my kid?" to the doctoral program "please help my child, and the rest of us, NOW!" 

Let me tell you, the doctoral program is not a place to find yourself without resources, and if you do get resources now.  Resources can be anything. Have insurance? Know what the mental health benefits are. If your kid is in therapy, have the therapist's number programmed in your cell phone. The pediatrician, your mom, your best friend, your boyfriend's sister who's also a healthcare worker – these are all your resources. Think in advance of how and when to use them, because once you're locked in the bathroom with one kid safely locked in his room and the other in her room causing nuclear-sized destruction – did you know a 50lb. six-year-old girl can throw furniture if enraged? – once you're here and you've said "Oh, fuck!" out loud about 30 times and you're cleaning a wound and praying your child isn't harming herself but you know you can't check without getting harmed yourself, and "Holy fuck how did I get here?! Am I the worst mother EVER?!?!" – once you're in this place, you will need to KNOW who you're calling first, second, and third. Are you okay with medication? (NO). In-patient treatment? (HELL NO). Can you pay out-of-pocket if we don't take your insurance? Can you come right in? Can you wait three weeks? And on and on, all while life is exploding on the other side of three doors. 

Here's What I've Learned:
  • Programs do exist that help, but you will have to dig to find them.
  • I don't want to talk about it, I REALLY don't want to talk about it, everything is fine, everything is awful, I want to cry, I don't want to do anything, I need to write, I need to scream – these are all appropriate responses.
  • This is not because of anything *I* did, but I used to yell a lot when I first got divorced and they are sensitive kids, and I handled it poorly, and we fought in front of them, and, and, and – guilt has it's place, and it's never front-and-center. Some of this has nothing to do with me. Some of it does. No, I'm not a bad mother & oh, God I'm a horrible mother...this is all my perception. I'm just not sure it's all true.
  • Ask a lot of questions before signing forms.
  • Your parental rights trump medical advice; DO NOT let the system rule you.
  • Even when I'm exhausted my only job is to advocate for my daughter. You can never be too tired, too timid, or too *anything* to ask questions, and say no when appropriate. This is not a popularity contest.
  • Some people will never get it. Fuck 'em.
  • Some people will get it without you having to say a word. Love 'em.
  • Collateral damage is real. Pay attention to those in the periphery who may be hurting more than they can say, especially if there is a sibling or siblings.
  • "I love you. You're a good kid and I will find a way to help you." doesn't fix everything, but cannot be said enough to a child in crisis.
  • The system sucks, but it's all there is right now – find a way to make it work for you. Be a force of change when you have the energy to do more.
  • You are not alone. You are not a horrible parent. Your children love you, and they need you to love them. 
  • When you can't love yourself, don't let it show. Try again later.