Hello, my name is Lisa. I am a mom to five children, two of whom have severe special needs. I am a wife of almost 15 years to my college sweetheart; we met while we were both volunteering at Special Olympics. I was a special education teacher for 12 years. I have a blue belt in karate, love playing the piano and drawing. I’m a friend, a sister, an aunt. But the one part of me I want to talk to you about is mental illness.
I usually say I have mental illness and not that I suffer from it. I don’t always suffer from it. About nine years ago I was diagnosed with Major Depression. A nurse told me I would be OK and that it would probably be the only time I would have something like this happen. I don’t really want to go into the details, but I knew she was wrong and that I had had mental illness ever since I could remember at the age of seven.
Through years of therapy and even three hospital admissions, I have collected many different diagnoses. Finally, I was diagnosed correctly as having Dissociative Identity Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Parenting is difficult when you have a mental illness. Parenting a child with special needs and having mental illness can seem insurmountable at times. Depending on your particular condition, parents with mental illness have the added challenges of decreased energy, irregular sleep, trouble concentrating, sustaining attention, irritability and moodiness—all of which can contribute to a less available parent. When I’m depressed, I have to make an extra effort to interact with my children. I often set a timer and force myself to interact with them. It usually ends up really brightening my day, but I give myself permission to take breaks and I try not to engage in negative self-talk. Another thing I do when there is good weather is to try and get all of us out in the sun for at least 30 minutes.
Another challenge is stigma. I don’t tell a whole lot of people, but I often fear that my child’s doctor will be able to figure it out. I am currently waiting for my son to be approved for a kidney. When asked about my mental health, my husband was honest that I see a therapist. The social worker called and talked to me and asked for a letter from my therapist. It is my biggest fear that my son won’t be put on the list because I have a mental illness.
To acknowledge that you need help and to seek it out is a sign of strength. You don’t have to tell everybody, but you should tell someone close to you. Share with your spouse, your partner, a trusted family member or friend what it’s like when you are at your best and worst. Sometimes we don’t know exactly how we are feeling and aren’t very honest with ourselves. They can help alert you when things are getting worse.
Tips for Coping
Mental illness can be so isolating. Add to that parenting a child with a disability and you can feel really alone. Seek out groups such as NAMI. If you feel comfortable, there are even online forums just for people with your illness and you can join in conversations and see that you are not alone. Ask your therapist if there are any groups they are doing. Try to find another adult who can be there for you and your child.
Troubleshoot the ways your illness makes you think, feel and act. During a calm time, sit down with your therapist or doctor and establish a plan of action for emergencies, such as being admitted to a hospital. Consider concerns like where your kids will stay and how they’ll get to school.
Engage in treatment. Even if you don’t want to do it to feel better for yourself, do it for your family. Get a psychiatrist. Family doctors don’t have the extensive background that you need.
Most treatment for mental illness includes taking medications and involving yourself in therapy. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find the right medication immediately or if you need to change therapists. Your mental illness likely didn’t happen overnight and finding ways to feel better may not happen overnight, either. Be an advocate for yourself, just like you are for your child. If you are prescribed medications, take them and only discontinue them if your doctor tells you to.
Take care of yourself. Eat right, exercise and when you need a break, take a break. Most parents will rush their kids to the doctor if they are sick. What do you do when you are sick? Do you take care of yourself or try to pretend you are fine? Even if you are in and out of the hospital due to your child’s issues, talk to a personal trainer or research exercises you can do right there in that hospital room.
Give the best time to your kids. Vacations make me anxious, so we do a lot of stay-cations. Weekends are brighter, so I plan fun things to do with my kids then. Spring and fall are my best times, so I plan the most for these parts of the year and I take lots of pictures.
Celebrate your strengths! Write them down if you need to and read them when you are struggling. I want my children to know that I face my struggles head on and that I love them and face my illness with courage.
Last October, I had to be admitted to a women’s psych unit in order to work on my medications. I had been taking them for eight years and they had started being ineffective. When I got out after about 11 days, I got a tattoo on my wrist that says, “Hope.” There is always hope. Sometimes the room seems so dark and you have to get on the floor and peer under the door just to see some light. If you feel like you have no hope left, please ask for help.
I’m sure you can come up with many more things you can do to help yourself. There are a lot of resources at bookstores, online, and from your doctor and/or therapist. Just know that the more you can do to take care of yourself, the more you can be there as a parent, caregiver and partner—for all the parts of you.