How my son’s mental illness reminded me of my most important role as a parent.

Even in my most challenging mom-moments, I’m grateful to my son for the lessons he’s taught me about what it means to be a mom.

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It could have been any day of the week.

“I didn’t think it would be this hard. I just feel really overwhelmed.” My son stared at his computer screen, tears in his eyes.

Being a parent is challenging. Being a parent to a child with mental illness is hard. Being a parent to a child with mental illness during a global pandemic has nearly broken me.

As well as my son has adapted to things like hybrid-online learning, and being stuck at the house for months on end, I can see the wear and tear on his mind as this pandemic continues to roll on.

His confusion and frustration had him teetering on the verge of losing it.

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Spring break was over and he stared at the gluttony of emails waiting for him in his inbox. “I thought when we went back we’d be easing into things but now it seems like it’s even more intense than before break.” I could feel his energy quivering. His confusion and frustration had him teetering on the verge of losing it. He’d always been a child who’d struggled with uncertainty, a byproduct of his particular brand of anxiety. But since the pandemic had turned his life upside down, everything was amplified.

“Sweetie. Let’s just look through your emails and see if we can delete some right away. Not all emails are created equal and there may be less for you to deal with than you first thought. Remember this: there are things that are urgent and beg for your attention and get you all riled up, and then there’s things that are important, and that’s where you should focus your time and attention.”

Taking over his keyboard I talked him through how to search for senders, bulk select the messages, and delete. I pointed out the line in messages from mailing lists that said, “unsubscribe,” and told him it was okay to unsubscribe to anything but school.

Watching his eyes dart from one side of the screen to the other, I could tell that only part of what I was saying was actually going in. He was too overwhelmed to process anything.

“There. Now you’re down to three important emails out of the 53 you had in your inbox. That seems more reasonable, right?” Still no response, just a vibrating frenzied energy pulsing off his body. Three emails that were still in bold so he couldn’t move on with his day yet.

I gave him some space and asked the universe to let that be the only hiccup today, but the universe had other plans.

From the kitchen I could hear him on the running machine. It’s a tool we’ve used to get his body moving so his mind can slow down and focus on the present. Sometimes it works, other times he’s too far down the rabbit hole. I could hear the gears speeding up. His breathing was loud and labored. He’d only been on the machine for a few minutes. “What’s going on?” I yelled from the kitchen.

“I forgot about an email I need to send and I’m running out of time and I still need to do my 10 minutes on the machine.” The words tumbled out of him one on top of the other.

“What’s the email you need to send?” I asked in the most even toned voice I could. He began to explain about a message he had told someone he’d try sending a few days ago.

“I forgot I told her I’d try to send it and now it’s late.” His pace on the machine sped up. The arms of the elliptical thwaping his sides as he careened out of control.

“Honey stop.” No response. “Stop!” The speed on his machine continued to increase. “STOP!” His pupils were dilated, his chest heaved with exertion. “Honey. Take a deep breath. From what you just said about this email, it can wait.”

He stared at me, unable to compute. He was obsessing over this email for fear of forgetting again, which in his mind proved his culpability in being a failed human. The ultimate imposters syndrome.

In his mind, trying meant “if I can complete something, even if I’m dangling by one hand over a cliff, I must.”

While I waited for him to come off the cliff, I took a deep breath. It was easy enough to get caught up in his momentum, and I also needed to come down off the cliff. We both stood there staring each other in the eye without saying anything. Then my lizard brain shut off, and my prefrontal cortex kicked in.

He didn’t need me to tell him it wasn’t a big deal. He wouldn’t believe me anyway. When he’s that far down the rabbit hole, what he needs is concrete actionable steps that will lead him back out the tunnels and into the light.

To be honest, this is where I struggle. I hesitate to hold his hand too often for fear of making him dependent upon my parental scaffolding. At the same time, I don’t want to make the same mistakes my parents made, forcing me to cope with my own mental illness without any guidance or support. The “let it roll off your back,” model had not proven effective, and had caused me to pick up all kinds of unhealthy coping strategies.

Half of what I do with my son is inspired by what I wish I would have had as a child struggling with anxiety. The other half, I’ll be honest, is an experiment.

I kept eye contact with my son and waited for his feet to stop moving, for his hands to stop fidgeting, and for some clarity to return to his eyes and then I did what my parents never did for me, “Sweetie. You know what. I’m going to make this really clear for you. I’ve decided that you’re not allowed to send the email. It was presented to you as a choice, not a requirement. I’m putting my foot down and saying, you can’t. I won’t let you.”

An involuntary sigh left his body and his shoulders dropped. His feet began to move again, but this time in a smooth methodical rhythm. “Okay mom. Thanks.” I turned around and headed back into the kitchen, relaxing my own shoulders, grateful to have truncated his trip down the spiral of doom, but also exhausted and ready to go back to bed.

When he’s in that place where he gets tunnel vision and can’t see past his own anxiety, he needs something to interrupt his pattern of thinking. Like a scared animal backed into a corner, he needs to be given an out. He doesn’t need a lecture or a lesson. He doesn’t even need someone to tell him, “You’ll figure it out. I believe in you.”

He needs someone to open the door and invite him out of the rabbit hole.

There’s so little we can do to prepare ourselves for becoming a parent. It reveals parts of ourselves that hide in the darker corners of our subconscious. When challenges arise, as they inevitably will, we almost always feel like we’ve fallen short of who we wish we could be for our children.

But with every revelation that has come about because of my children; with every struggle that’s occurred due to unforeseen circumstances, I’ve healed little bits of myself so that I can turn around and give to them what I didn’t have growing up. *

My son and I will continue to have difficult mornings. New challenges will arise as he grows, but instead of letting those moments break us, we’ll barrel down that rabbit hole with a string tied to our leg so that we can always find our way back to the surface.

It’s not about doing this parenting thing the right way. It’s about holding our children’s hands and letting them know they’re not alone on this journey.

* To set the record straight, my parents were incredible parents and they did the best they could with what they knew from their own experience. There are no hard feelings about how they raised me, only an awareness of how things could have been different had they been aware of the possibilities.

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