I could talk about children caught in the crossfire of war. Or children trapped in a crime-ridden neighborhood. But I won’t.
Instead, I will talk about children and young adults who suffer the debilitating effects of mental health. The ones who display anti-social behavior – that is difficult to accept, much less understand. The ones who send others away, whether intentional or not.
I’m talking about children who are easily forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind – as if they don’t exist.
The most predictable thing in their lives is the isolation. Friends are few, sometimes none at all. The most predictable thing at night is the inability to sleep. Anxiety coupled with fear will do that.
I know the signs too well. For my nearly two decades, I have watched one of my sons suffer. And he has told me intimately of his pain.
In a special needs developmental pre-school, he struggled with the slightest change in routine. By first grade he constantly rocked in his chair and spoke out of turn. Some people empathized. Others judged. A few shamed – making him feel worse than he already did.
Too bad my son didn’t have a more socially accepted medical condition.
The new ADHD drug, that turned his older brother from a daily problem into the student-of-the-month, made his symptoms worse. Flipping chairs in the resource room. Pulling the lead out of pencils with his teeth.
What works for one doesn’t always work for all. (Click here for more info on psychotropic medication.)
That summer he got kicked out of a therapeutic behavior camp. A radical change in diet – no gluten, no dairy, no chemicals – helped but didn’t fix the problem. To be honest, I dreaded the start of second grade.
Each school day he was constantly redirected from multiple sources from 8am to 3pm – hearing far more often what he was doing wrong than what he was doing right. Way too much negativity for a boy who simply wanted to be like other kids.
“Please make it stop.”
Within the first month of fourth grade, his classmates watched him erupt into a rage – throwing desks and yelling obscenities. That’s when parents called the principal – demanding action. That’s when I took my son to the psychiatric hospital – hoping for change.
A new anti-psychotic medication called Ability proved to be a wonder drug. Although the next four years weren’t perfect, they were relatively calm. In trouble once a week rather than once a day.
Then the hormones of puberty threw his delicate brain chemistry into disarray again. With superhuman strength in an unstable teenage body, he tossed large pieces of furniture into walls with the greatest of ease. He tormented then attacked his brothers – thinking they didn’t like him, when just the opposite was true.
He couldn’t hear them, no matter how hard he tried.
Caught in the revolving hospital door, my son eventually felt abandoned. During one stay a fellow patient introduced cutting to reduce his emotional pain. A new, chronic problem on top of old. Two round of stitches. Dozens of scars.
A daily reminder of being different.
With a variety of psychotropic cocktails over three long years – all ineffective, I kept searching for answers. Finally a new psychiatrist suggested lithium to balance his moods. Within six short weeks, the back-and-forth swings became tolerable.
Unfortunately his attention span remained weak. And he was so far behind in school – labeled a failure, with a diploma out of reach.
Thankfully listening to music and writing lyrics became his comfort. A coping skill he would readily use. As did holding his cat. And participating in Special Olympics.
As a family we endured. We tried our best to understand my son’s daily suffering and accepted his reality – gently pushing him into compliance, never forcing the square peg into the round hole.
By doing so, six years passed without a long-term stay in a psychiatric residential treatment facility.
Then the long-term lithium use caught up with him. His kidneys could no longer tolerate the dose – any dose. Less than a month later, the symptoms-of-years-ago returned. This time paranoia took on a new meaning for my son – now a young adult, as we lived first-hand his “delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealously and exaggerated self-importance.”
Yet he was still a sensitive person at heart. Empathetic to anyone who struggles.
Increasing the doses of two current medications didn’t fill the lithium void. Neither did a new anti-psychotic medication that caused him to gain 35 pounds over five short months. Finally a new “injecting” medication called Aristada did the trick, after waiting weeks for insurance to authorize payment.
Ever mindful of the risks.
Between his impulsive ways and irrational thinking, my family knows that he could easily take his life – before realizing what he’s done. Seeking attention in the worst possible way.
As we have done for years, we will take one day at a time – one hour at a time, if necessary – like thousands of families living with mental illness.
Brain damage from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, along with an inherited mood disorder and early childhood trauma, isn’t pretty. Although all three are invisible to the untrained eye, they are very real. Just ask my son.
He’s lived them every day for 23 years.
To not lose hope, I must continue to cope. Taking care of my son while taking care of myself. (Click here for thoughts on self-care.)
Every day. For as long as it takes. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Athlete & Advocate