Alice was really down today and other than listen and encourage her, I can’t fix things for her like I used to. Alice, my first daughter, is now a 32 year old mother of her own. And she is in prison.
One of the hardest things about parenting (whether foster, adopt, step -or biological) is to see your child in pain and distress and to not be able to help. I bet you thought I was going to say that it’s the hardest thing to have a child in prison. It’s not. The story behind that is a very sad one, but, mother bias aside, Alice was caught up in a tragic night and is now taking consequences that are due someone else. We (she and I and our family and community) are not ashamed of her, nor of this part of her journey. We are just heartbroken for her and very proud of how she is handling things. I will share the story another day, but the gist of it surrounds post-partum depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
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This writing tonight is to encourage everyone to take a conscious look at how you think about mental health issues AND how you interact with them and the people that live with the issues. We, as a society, do not approach mental health illnesses the same way we address our physical health. We push the problems aside and hide them…. or lock them up. The saddest part of how we collectively address mental health is that most of us HAVE had times of depression and/or anxiety, or more, and I think we push others away who exhibit symptoms because we are afraid of ourselves, not of them. Or rather, afraid that one day, our own feelings might be too big for us and take over.
When Alice came to me, she was a little spitfire full of nonverbal rage and desperation. I think she chose me to be her mother because I needed her. As I grew up, I did not learn how to be angry. I learned how to be a good girl. I do not blame any one person or event. It was just a time and a family that did not appreciate the value of clean anger, so it was pushed aside or dealt consequences. Maybe it was the same fear that anger might get too big and cause problems, but I never learned how to be angry in a healthy, productive way. And here, I was given a daughter who had pure rage with very valid reasons to be angry. I was thrown into the refining fire and learned right along with Alice about how to handle and direct anger into a growing direction. What Alice and I have come up with is that anger is simply a message to ourselves that something is wrong. We get to be angry when something is wrong, but we also get to use our smart brains to figure out how to act on the anger. Throwing something will get you short term release (maybe), but directing the anger towards the problem can affect change. Sometimes anger is easier than understanding that there is likely another feeling alongside the anger — fear, sadness, hurt, even happy. For many kids in foster care, happy is a trick and can be taken away in the blink of an eye, so it’s easier to just be angry all the time.
The learning curve for me when Alice arrived was steep with a lot of training about PTSD, different therapies, grief, anxiety and depression and more specific learning about brain function, stress hormones, and how memory and speech is affected by trauma. I also had support groups with people who ‘got it.’ The most important thing I learned, though, was to not run from the feelings or behaviors. I had this living, breathing, sweetheart of a child in front of me and I loved her with all my heart. We were in this journey together and we could not ignore her pain.
Our journey was tedious, exhausting, mind-numbing, and yes, very scary at times. And it was cyclical, so it felt never-ending. Only with time was I able to see the growth as we re-cycled memories and terror and questions and doubts at each new developmental milestone. In time, she learned skills to manage big feelings, as did I. But her spirit remained ever fragile and subject to pitfalls of life and relationships.
I found one metaphor that I have used for many years, with Alice and with most of my other kids. The level of behaviors and emotions of many kids in foster care affect their successes at school. I have had to (and still do) advocate mightily in the school system to help my kids be successful. I finally got through to one principal when Alice was in 1st grade. I explained that this child’s reactions – anger, shut downs, oppositional behaviors were much like a child with asthma. When Alice was triggered by an expression, or a scent, or a chastising word, her brain flooded with stress hormones and she reacted in a fight or flight response. She was not choosing to scream or to destroy her things. She was merely responding as though her life were in danger because that’s what her flooded body told her. A child with asthmas is not choosing to cough or wheeze. She is merely reacting to a trigger for her asthma. You don’t punish a child in school for having an asthma attack. You get immediate treatment, use professionals to help manage the disease, learn to identify triggers and help the child to avoid the triggers. As this child grows, you teach her to know what the triggers for an asthma attack are and to advocate for herself to either avoid the triggers and/or have a clear plan for treatment at the earliest sign. It is no different for a child with PTSD. Learn what her triggers are and how to avoid them or to recognize the very first signs of distress. Provide early and consistent intervention (work with parents and professionals on what the interventions are) and encourage her to learn her own triggers and how to avoid or mediate them. When a child is in 1st grade, the adults have to be responsible for much of this for both the child with asthma and for the child with mental health issues. You don’t punish a child for getting triggered!!!! Or adults for that matter. If we, as a society would get this, my Alice would not be in prison. She would be getting further treatment.
Back to my original intent for writing tonight… every person with mental health issues, those we see on the street corners or tent city, those in hospitals, those in jails and prisons, or those who suffer privately … every single one of them is a lovely person (I truly believe that) with a journey full of pain, a human being with a heart and, often, very confusing experiences. Please, always treat them with dignity, even if you don’t understand what they are doing. NOBODY chooses to be mentally ill, just like no one chooses to have cancer … or asthma. Be compassionate.
So, my phone call with Alice tonight was a harder one. The stories she tells me about prison make me think of middle school girls. The drama! Oh, my! We can often laugh about it. But there are real bullies, offenders and guards, who think everyone is a bad person for being in prison and treating them with disrespect and disdain. Right now, there is one guard who does not seem to like Alice and gives her the silliest infractions… too many pictures on her board, putting her hot chocolate in a different container (even when she explained that the original container, a bag, had ripped). Those types of things. She was so upset tonight about why he picks on her when she knows other women there do the same things. So we talked it out… she is angry. What is the message? It’s not fair. What can she do about it? Take care of herself, because she sure isn’t going to change him. How can she do that? Express her anger in writing in her journal, or a letter, or calling me. Then? Let it go and do something fun… read, color, play some cards, go for a walk. By the end of the conversation, we were imagining him with depression, or a broken marriage, or a sick child and we almost felt sorry for him. AND, with her kind heart, she decided to write him an apology about the container thing and to wish him a good evening.
We ended our conversation with the usual, “I will love you forever, no matter what.”