In the first part of this post, I talked about World Mental Health Day and how the significance of that date was different for me this year, as my son was about to turn 13. That was yesterday. Now we’re at today, and suddenly I have a teenager living in my house – a teenager who has been living with and in treatment for anxiety and depression since he was 9 years old. While his diagnosis may influence some of who he is and what he does, it does not even come close to defining him.
As I’ve watched him begin to grow from the little boy he was, into the person he is becoming, I have often wondered at how different his story might be without the extra hurdles that accompany childhood mental illness. It would have been easier without doubt. And some things he has had to let go because the pressures far outweighed the joy or the benefit might still be part of his world. But there is no good to come from dwelling on might have been or could have been. More often than wondering who he might have been, I am marveling at who he truly is – and as backwards as it may sound, I have come to believe that the 3+ years of mental health treatment actually gave him a couple of gifts that most 13 year olds don’t receive.
The hours spent in therapy, have made him self aware in a way that is well beyond his years. He has learned to listen to his body, to his emotions, and to his heart and more often than not he is making decisions with incredible maturity and wisdom. This incredible man-child of mine knows who he is, what he likes, what he wants, and where he’s weakest. On days when he is feeling mentally and emotionally strong, he can conquer the world.
In becoming so deeply self aware, he also has developed the amazing ability to really, truly see other people for who they are – and in turn to try to give each every person the thing they most need from him. He is accepting, and understanding, and empathetic in a way that many adults are not. That is a gift beyond value.
Both of these gifts – self awareness and true empathy – are life giving. And I don’t know that he’d have been the recipient of those gifts at such a young age had he not been in therapy for anxiety and depression.
Birthdays are for wishes. I can’t wish (choose) for an alternate reality in which he did not lose so much of the last years of his childhood to the demons of mental illness. But I can wish for his happiness and continued growth as he finds his place in the world. I can choose to find the beautiful gifts and blessings he’s been given as he’s battled those demons. I do not doubt we are in for some typical teenage bumps in the next few years. And while he is more stable now than he has been in almost a year, I know there will also be days/weeks/months where the stability will vanish. But I truly believe that with self-awareness and empathy in his arsenal, he is entering his 13th year stronger and better equipped than most boys do.
I don’t know what he’ll wish for when he blows out his candles today, but I do know he has the capacity to make his own wishes come true.