Season of Survival – Thoughts From a Parent During Mental Health Month

Have you ever experienced something from the past through the fresh lens of the present? It could be a place, or a movie, or a book, or a song – something that holds a memory, but when you experience it with the perspective gained through more trips around the sun new meaning shines through.

I had one of those experiences the other day.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. For the past few days, I have been mentally writing and re-writing a piece about the world-shrinking isolation that snuck up on me as a parent to a child living with an anxiety disorder and clinical depression. I know I’m not alone in this painful reality. I know it is something we need to be talking about, but I also know it’s something most people don’t want to be talking about. So I’ve been struggling to find a way to tell this piece of my story.

The other day, a beloved old song came on the car radio that gifted me words and perspective I needed to hear. The song was Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House.

The first few chords of that song never fail to take me back to the summer I was 13 (that would be 1987 for anybody keeping track). There is not a single memory I have of that summer which does not include either FM radio playing from my pastel pink mini-boombox or videos playing on MTV. Don’t Dream It’s Over is a song that has never failed to bring a smile to my face as it transports me back to a time where I was just beginning to figure out my place in the world.

When I heard the opening chords the other day, I had an initial surge of nostalgia but then I found myself really listening to the lyrics for the first time in a long time. The nostalgia was replaced by a sense of seeing my current reality reflected in the lyrics. That reality includes being a  parent to a teenager who has been battling mental health problems since he was 9 years old. We have been relatively open about his struggles from before we even had a diagnosis as an attempt to not isolate ourselves from friends and family, but  the fact is that in recent months I have felt more isolated than ever.

Through this lens of isolation, I saw myself and heard a firm reminder in the lyrics of Don’t Dream It’s Over…

There is freedom within, there is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There’s a battle ahead, many battles are lost
But you’ll never see the end of the road
While you’re traveling with me

Hey now, hey now
Don’t dream it’s over
Hey now, hey now
When the world comes in
They come, they come
To build a wall between us
We know they won’t win

13 year old me surrounded by friends and  with a future wide open, probably heard nothing more than a hauntingly beautiful melody. 45 year old me who has lots of acquaintances yet a smaller circle of friends than ever before, hears a reminder to stand with those who need me most and to break down the walls that the world builds between people. 13 year old me seemed to already know there is beauty to be found in the broken parts of life. 45 year old me needed a reminder to pick up my own broken pieces and keep inviting others into my world.

The reality is, time and energy are finite resources for everybody. What that looks like in my current stage of life is using every ounce of my time and energy on loving and caring for my husband and kids, making sure my son is getting the care and support that he needs while also making sure my daughter doesn’t feel forgotten, giving my all in a job that is inherently people-centric, doing my best (that never quite feels like enough) to spend quality time with my parents, siblings, family and a few close friends, and attempting to make time for vital self-care. There are days when I am fully on autopilot. This is a season of survival. I have no space for small talk with casual acquaintances and most days I also don’t have the energy to pretend that “everything is okay” – and that is the lethal combo which shrunk my world and built walls around what was left.

Social norms tell us that the “correct” answer to “How are you?” is nothing more than some version of “I’m fine. Everything is good” and those answers are often little lies. I decided long ago that I should not tell that lie. and  most people do not know what to do when the answer is “It all kind of sucks right now…” instead of “Everything is good.” The truth is, trying to “catch the deluge in a paper cup” is a pretty good description of how I feel in this season of survival – and I know from talking with other parents to kids with mental health struggles that I am not alone in that feeling.

Hopefully your social media feeds have been full of reminders that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. What I hope everybody understands is that behind the slogans, and reminders, and statistics are real people. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness,

  • Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year.
  • Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. (11.2 million) experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
  • Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%

No matter how you look at the numbers, they represent a significant portion of the population. In the case of the 13% of children 8-15 who experience a severe mental disorder, there are also parents, and siblings, and other family members who are also significantly impacted. Chances are high you know a family who is living with the daily reality of a child or adolescent living with a mental disorder. The best thing you can do to help those families is to take some time to genuinely and compassionately check on them. They may tell you they’re “fine”, but I can tell you firsthand that “fine” is often not the case. It’s more likely they need an extra set of hands and some spare cups to help them catch the deluge.

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