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You're Not Alone, Except When You Are

The phrase “You’re Not Alone” is one we often use to offer comfort to families who are struggling. It’s a reminder that the journey of parenting a child with mental health and/or substance use challenges is one that many people have traveled before you and are traveling now. But on a sleepless night when you’re racked with guilt, worry, and shame and looking up mental health information on the computer with a box of tissues, it’s pretty lonely. At 2:30 am with exhausted tears in your eyes, you don’t see anyone else walking beside you on the path. The only companion you find at 2:30 in the morning while enrolling in a free, online parenting course is your fear. It’s not comforting.

Early in my career, before I was a mom, I found a calling to serve families and children who were struggling to get the support they needed. Working in schools, I met with countless families whose children weren’t meeting academic benchmarks – or worse, who couldn’t make friends, didn’t fit in, and felt like they were “bad.”  Little did I know that I too would be desperately looking for answers for my own child one day. The video on the homepage of the National Federation of Families says, “We are the National Federation. We are the voice of families. Welcome home.” Little did I know that I was already home.

The guilt. My son has had challenges in school since he was a toddler. People said, “He’s a boy. He’ll grow out of it. They develop more slowly than girls. Boys are just more active.” Maybe those are things I wanted to believe. Maybe I believed them. When you find yourself with an 8-year-old whose spirit is crushed, it doesn’t matter how you got there anymore. You just want to understand what’s wrong, to make the best decisions you can, to stop the pain – your own and your child’s. I felt so much guilt for not having done something sooner. I work in this field! How could I not have seen that there was a problem? Why wasn’t I more proactive? How much damage is done already? Will he recover? Will he feel good about himself again? Those are the voices of your trusty companion, fear, that you hear at 2:30 in the morning. Still not comforting.

The worry. I had stopped having outward emotional reactions to my phone ringing and the screen popping up the name of my son’s school. I would simply answer with a calm tone, accept whatever pleasantry would come, “Hi, how was your weekend?” or “I hope you’re having a good day” (I was having a good day) before I learned what had gone wrong this time. While I had gotten used to the calls, my internal voice (fear) would ask, “What fresh hell is this today?” My voice was calm while underneath I felt like that iceberg of emotions infographic we all know – the biggest word under the surface of the water being worried. I would agree to whatever the next step was on the behavior plan (more like behavior failure) and prepare myself to greet my son with a positive, supportive, upbeat attitude to avoid making him feel worse about his day.

The shame. I keep tissues in my car. I stopped dropping my son off in the car line because I didn’t want other parents and school staff to see my red face and puffy eyes at drop off. I was crying before school on a regular basis. Why? Because I was ashamed. Because I used to teach their kids and was beloved by them. Because I didn’t want them to ask, “What’s wrong?” Because I didn’t know the answer. Because my child wasn’t thriving like theirs were. Because we blame ourselves. And not because I think I’m a bad parent – or that anyone else is. But my job is to keep him safe – to help him feel secure and loved in the world. But he was spending 8 hours a day being told that he was wrong – doing it wrong, saying it wrong, being wrong! If you’re 8, that pretty quickly translates to “bad.” More than anything, I lost confidence as a parent. I had no idea what I was doing. All I could hear was my middle of the night companion fear. I lost my voice as a parent, as the expert. I lost MY voice.

Our journey is still unfolding, and I hope you will let me share it with you. I know I am home, I am not alone, and I am looking to others for support – those who walked this path before me and who are on it now. I trust you won’t let me feel alone again. I am unlinking my arms from fear and reaching out to you as I travel in a direction that is new to me on a path paved with support, I hope.

The anger. Following guilt, worry, and shame came anger. At the end of last quarter my son was sent to an out of school program – essentially replacing out of school suspension. Regrettably titled FBI, the program used fear and control to modify behavior. My son was told he could not turn his head when he heard a noise, was made to stand in the back of the room on display, was pulled by his shirt collar and witnessed other students being ridiculed. Welcome back, mama bear. Now I was angry! I used to teach at his school. I know the training and the philosophy. I helped train other teachers! That was enough for me. I wrote to the school stating that we would not consent for our son to attend the program again and, without the offer of an alternative, made the decision to transfer elsewhere.

Now we’re embarking on a new journey, and I hope this community will be there to remind me that I’m not alone.

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1 Comment

I struggle to understand why what we have in place makes our children worse that better. Treating fear with fear has never been known to work. I am at home at NFF where I can relate with like minds.

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