Written by Jill Youmans
April 26th, 1999, was the day I first fell in love. I fell in love deeper than I had ever known was possible. The birth of my first son Jake. Life as a Mother was full of all of the typical ups, downs, happiness, and sadness. Little did I know, the journey of a Mother was also about never giving up, fighting for answers, tough love, and little victories. Hi, my name is Jill and my son is bipolar.
My newest personal passion is learning everything I can about adolescent mental health and speaking publicly about the issue. I am sharing my personal story as often as possible and this is what I am here to say:
#1---Trust your instincts
If your child is exhibiting behavior that differs from his/her norm, pay attention! Do not be too quick or too proud to dismiss it as a phase or hormonal outburst. Mental illness is not a choice or a failure – yours or your child’s! Have those tough conversations with your child, his/her friends, your spouse/co-parent, anyone who might be witnessing the same behavioral changes in your child. You have to be bold and brave—odds are good you will break promises and violate your child’s trust. Your child might feel betrayed, but the right thing is not always the easy thing.
Jake was a very typical little boy growing up. He was academically bright and athletically talented. He excelled in many aspects in school and had a core group of friends that were just like him. He was happy, social, and successful in most anything he touched. Then, shortly after he turned 16 years old, we started noticing some changes in his behavior. There would be days he would not want to get off the couch. He would close all of the curtains and stay put, all the while his friends tried tirelessly to keep him involved. Then there were the days he would act “wild”. Driving recklessly, smoking, drinking, and talking to me disrespectfully. On one of his “down” days, Jake took an excessive amount of an over the counter medication. Explaining to me afterwards that all he wanted to do was, “sleep without his brain working non-stop”. Jake was crying for help.
As Jake entered his junior year of high school, the behaviors came and went. His grades started to slip and teachers/administrators began to take notice. They were concerned as well on the changes they were seeing in Jake and wanted to help, but just did not know what to tell us. Looking back at it, none of us really knew how to respond and what would be the next step. Jake went to several different therapists and was put on several different kinds of medications. Due to his age and us not really understanding what was going on, it took several tries to find what would work or make a difference for Jake.
There are so many moving parts to the mental health puzzle, and they all have to fit together just right. It takes time. A lot of time. Be persistent with mental health professionals, educators and each other. The journey will be long and frustrating. In addition, you are likely to experience every single emotion along the way. Without question, you will be driven to the edge. Nevertheless, you are your child’s best, and sometimes only, advocate. Persist in order to get the answers/feedback/treatment you want and need for your child. Do not give up.
Jake’s behaviors came and went and upon high school graduation, he had decided to attend Iowa State University. As you can imagine, I was thrilled beyond words and nervous at the same time. Could he handle it all? Would he take his medication properly? Well, I never got the chance to answer these questions. A few short months after graduation Jake decided he did not want to go and planned to work his job full time. From this point on, he had turned 18 years old, decided to get an apartment on his own, and work. Jake’s medication management doctor and therapist had been continuing to see him about every 6-8 weeks. During a routine visit, it was suggested that maybe Jake did not need the medications that he could have been just “going through some teenage angst”. Therefore, they decided to take him off the medication and see how he was. Since Jake was 18 years old and I am not a licensed doctor, the medications stopped.
Well, within 8 weeks, the warning signs started. His close friend at the time contacted me concerned on Jake’s behavior. I was seeing less and less of him, and when I did see him it was at 2am with him talking all sorts of nonsense. Then we got the call, the local police had found his car abandoned in a street, door open, no keys, NO JAKE! Jake was later found wandering the streets of our town, no shirt and knocking on doors trying to find someone. It was awful! What Jake needed was medical care, but instead he was arrested and sent to jail. The officer called to say he was sighted for “public intoxication”. I told the officer I felt this was a mental health issue and that he needed medication. Manic behaviors can mimic intoxication, but I was told Jake acted as if he was high or drunk and they wanted him to “sleep it off”. I told them good luck and to call me tomorrow. Sure enough, the local police called to tell me that he needed help, he had not stopped his manic behaviors and they could no longer help him. However, wait, we live in IOWA and there was NO WHERE to take my son. The county I live in has very limited resources and I quickly learned that at-risk youth/young adults have nowhere to go when experiencing a mental health episode. That is why I feel so strongly about speaking out and building awareness about this issue. Adolescent mental health issues are becoming more prevalent. There is not a cure. We simply have to do better!
I have had the good fortune of working with compassionate, understanding professionals and members of the legal system. However, I have also been in situations where the opposite was true. This is where being persistent counts. You know your child best, better than anyone does. If you are not getting answers, solutions, quality care, be prepared to fight for it. Again, you are your child’s best advocate. Our system has to be held accountable to provide adequate care for mental health.
I am so happy to say I feel like we are currently swimming. We are making progress and seeing positive change in Jake. Nevertheless, we have to be careful not to become overconfident or let Jake become overconfident. You can stop and celebrate the small victories in treating mental illness, but you are never at the finish line. Medication, monitoring, and therapy are all part of a new normal.
I take care of my own mental health by talking openly about what is happening and has happened to my family. I talk to family members, friends, and I see a professional. This is heavy stuff. The guilt you feel as a parent is a lot to bear. It can become a roadblock to your own personal health. I try to take time-outs for myself… as often as I can. When Jake lacks the strength to be his best self, he needs some from me. I have to make sure I have enough in the tank to give. That means I need to refuel.
Please know that I write this not only for myself, as part of my coping, but also for YOU. Anyone out there that feels they have NO ONE to talk to, I am here. I will listen, I will not judge, I will care, I will try to help, I understand. Remember to: Trust your instincts, Be persistent, Take care of yourself.