New Year's Resolutions

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Happy New Year! Let the making … and eventual breaking … of resolutions begin!

I recently listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts during which the commentators discussed their New Year’s resolutions.  If this podcast didn’t consistently deliver funny, enlightening and intelligent conversation during every other episode, I might have skipped this one. I find the whole discussion of resolutions stale and a waste of time. Almost as bad as end-of-year “Best of” or “Worst of” lists. But these folks are a funny bunch and often make my long commute to and from my day job much more pleasant, so I cut them some slack and gave the New Year’s Resolution episode a shot.  I wasn’t disappointed.

One of the presenters made an interesting point that has stuck with me.  She said this year she isn’t going to make resolutions.  Instead, she’s making what she calls “intentions.”  For her, resolutions are “pass/fail” challenges we set for ourselves every year.  As long as you are sticking to the resolutions, you’re doing great.  As soon as you stray, you’ve failed.  And that’s when you give up on them.  You failed.  No second chances.  No do-overs.  Game over.  In the failure, it’s like we give ourselves permission to give up on what we resolved to do…until next January 1st when the process starts all over again.  It’s a never-ending cycle of failure and disappointment for many.

Instead, according to this wise podcaster, intentions allow you to acknowledge that you might not ALWAYS succeed, but that you intend to give it your best effort.  If you stray from your intentions, you can always right the ship. There is no black/white, pass/fail, did it/didn’t do it with intentions.  Intentions are things that you mean to do, hope to do.  Things you will do your best to accomplish. 

The theory of intentions goes like this:  If you start the year thinking about what you intend to change or what you intend to do with the upcoming 365 days rather than saying with absolute certainty you resolve to do those things, it make it easier to actually see those plans through.

Who knows? It may just be a way of deluding ourselves into sticking with our resolutions a little longer than we might otherwise. 

There is something intriguing though about intending to do things differently in the coming year, rather than challenging myself to do “x” or not do “y”. So I’m going to give this a try.

  1. I intend to try my best to stick to a nutritious meal plan. Will I falter and dip into the bag of dark chocolate M&Ms my son put in my Christmas stocking.  Yep.  Most definitely. But there’s always another chance to choose an equally delicious apple over a handful of M&Ms.  I could remove the temptation altogether by taking the bag to work and letting my coworkers enjoy them.

  2. I intend to structure my days to include time at the gym.  Will I wake up one morning when the temperature dips below 20 degrees and say “heck no,” roll over and sleep another hour? Almost certainly. But the gym will be open that evening.  Or the next morning.  And nothing is lost as long as I don’t make pulling the covers over my head a daily habit.

  3. I’ll strive to have more patience with other drivers on the road during my morning commute down Interstate 270.  I guarantee I’ll struggle with this one at about 7:15 a.m. on January 2nd.  I’ll just be sure to have all my favorite podcasts queued up and ready to listen to for the afternoon drive home. A perfectly acceptable form of distraction. No harm done.  And there’s always the chance to do better next time.

If I own and accept going into the New Year that, occasionally, I will fall short of meeting any or all of those intentions (quite likely all on the same day!), then I can more easily forgive myself for straying from my them and just try to do better the next day (notice I didn’t say “resolve” to do better the next day). There’s always tomorrow for me to practice how I intended to live my life but I won’t need to beat myself up for failing to live up to what I resolved to do.

Clearly resolutions are important to us.If they weren’t, we wouldn’t return to them year after year, pledging to renew our resolve to accomplishing whatever goals we have. Is the concept of intentions vs resolutions just semantics then?Mind tricks? A different way of saying the same thing that just makes us feel better when we don’t live up to our own expectations?Maybe.But that’s okay because at least we continue to try new approaches to the same old problem of not sticking to our New Year’s resolutions. We only truly fail when we stop trying to pursue things that are important to us or when we stop trying to be our best selves.

The Ultimate Test of Endurance


I ask myself the same question every holiday season – when did the holidays become a test of endurance?  When I was a child, I never wanted the holiday season to end.  Now, our family advent calendar not only tells me how many days until Christmas but also how many days until I can pack away the decorations.  I’m not a Grinch.  I enjoy baking, wrapping presents, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and picking the perfect gifts for the people I care about.  I even host a holiday gathering at my house each year.  I look forward to these holidays – until they start. 

A lot of this has to do with my tendency to overextend myself, so having to incorporate holiday events and obligations into my already packed schedule exacerbates my stress level.  But it also has to do with how I choose to think about the holidays.  Instead of enjoying the holiday parties, I’m making a mental list of what still needs to be done to pull off my own.  Instead of deciding ahead of time about what a perfect gift would be for a friend or colleague, I wander aimlessly around the shopping mall hoping the perfect gift will jump out at me.  This same tendency also means I’m likely to spend more on gifts because by the time I find the right one, I’m also tired and frustrated and willing to pay whatever it costs if it means I get to go home. Cue the stress about blowing the holiday budget!

The answer may just be that we need to give ourselves permission to pick and choose what we do during the holidays.  For example, shortly after I graduated from college, my mother decided to stop putting up a Christmas tree.  I was horrified that she didn’t want to put up a tree.  I mean, it’s Christmas!  You have to have a tree!  But I get it now.  I really do.  It’s a lot of work to put up a Christmas tree (and when you have kids and pets who want to “help” – well that’s just a holiday recipe no one is asking for).  My mother opted to spend her time and energy doing other things.  She was an amazingly talented crafter and she chose to use her time at the holidays to make thoughtful, hand-made gifts for her family and friends.  It is what brought her joy and it showed in the love and care she put into her gifts. 

It’s not selfish to do what brings YOU joy at any time of year but particularly during the holidays. It’s quite likely that by doing so, your joy spreads to those you care about. You are less stressed and more present during the holidays when you give yourself permission to slow down, plan ahead, and give the attention, time and energy to that which makes you happy.  And when the holidays are over, and the New Year begins, you may just find that you still have the stamina and will to keep those New Year’s resolutions!

The Season of Gratitude


The whirl of the holiday season is well underway with the chaos of crowded shops, busy weekends, and the decorations and baking galore. This time of year is touted as the season of giving, a time of excess, celebration, family, friends, and joy. Its cold outside, well here in the Northeast at least, and twinkling lights and steaming cups of hot cocoa create a sense of cozy comfort worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting. Fall and winter are my favorite times of year. The lead into the holiday season as the weather cools off, the excuse to spoil those I love with yummy baked treats and gifts chosen for their unique interest, and the cozy feeling of being tucked under a blanket in a warm home at the end of each day. All of it makes me feel content and grateful for the life I have.

This year my husband and I were able to host Thanksgiving and with my mom’s help, we pulled off a full feast for family and friends. We sat, we ate, and we talked. We had a wonderful time. My little one had turkey for the first time; though to no one’s surprised the sweet potato casserole was his favorite. After the day ended, my dad commented to me that he missed going around the table to say what we were thankful for. Something I hadn’t even noticed we skipped because reflecting over what I’m thankful for is a mental exercise I engage in often. Gratitude is a powerful concept that, like laughter, can impact mental health.

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley has studied the impacts of gratitude and found lasting effects on the brain and can help break the hold of negative emotions over one’s outlook. Through their work they found that reflecting on reasons to be grateful were beneficial even when those reflections were kept private. Practicing gratitude doesn’t cost money, doesn’t have to be an elaborate or time-consuming ritual, and can be done in the privacy of one’s own mind. It’s a powerful yet simple act that anyone can use to impact his or her wellbeing. It’s important to note that UC Berkeley’s study found that gratitude is not a magic wand. The effects accrued over time with the on-going practice of writing gratitude letters. Even with this caveat it’s encouraging to know that a small act like practicing gratitude can over time have a cumulative positive impact on our wellbeing.  If you want to learn more benefits of gratitude, check out Psychology Today’s article 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude.

So if gratitude can be so impactful, what are some ways to practice this in our daily lives? Harvard Health Publishing of Harvard Medical School gives several suggestions including writing thank you notes, thanking someone mentally, counting your blessings, and keeping a gratitude journal. I hope that gratitude permeates this holiday season and inspires us all to count our blessings throughout the year.

The Compounding Complications of Hunger and Homeless


Each year since 1975, the week before Thanksgiving is known as Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week.  The placement of this awareness campaign in the week before Americans stuff themselves with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie while spending time with friends and family in the comfort of a warm home seems fitting as a reminder that not all Americans are as fortunate.

This Awareness Week is designed to bring attention to the problems of hunger and homelessness.Nationally, 43.1 million Americans live below the poverty level, with 1 in 5 children living in poverty.On a typical night, 549,000 Americans are homeless and 42 million are at risk for suffering from hunger.

The United Way of Frederick County released a very enlightening study of our community.  Eight percent (8%) of our population lives in poverty. Another 31% of families are known as ALICE – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.  These are families whose income is above the poverty level, but not sufficient enough to cover the basic household costs associated with living in this County.  These basic necessities include housing, food, childcare, transportation and health care.  All too often, families in our community are one large expense away from financial ruin.  These large expenses could be medical bills or car repairs or even unpaid leave that results from having to take a day off to stay at home with a sick child.

Hunger and homeless have long-term impacts that extend far beyond the immediacy of trying to figure where the next meal is coming from, where to sleep that evening or how to manage the costs of basic necessities.  When children are hungry, they can’t learn.  When they are worried or anxious about where they will sleep or eat, they can’t learn.  As they fall further behind in school, they become discouraged and this can result in depression, anxiety and isolation.   

Individuals experiencing homelessness are vulnerable to an array of complications as a result of being without stable housing.  They may be victims of crimes, develop mental health conditions and/or substance abuse issues, or become caught up in the justice system due to infractions committed as a result of being homeless (loitering, trespassing, nuisance charges, etc.)

When any or all of these complications impact someone experiencing homelessness, it becomes increasingly difficult to extricate oneself from the quagmire.  Individuals with criminal backgrounds may not qualify for housing programs or employment opportunities.  Lack of housing negatively impacts physical and behavioral health.  Individuals experiencing homelessness may suffer from the exacerbation of a common illness, which left untreated, spirals out of control.  The stress of living without a place to call home may cause or worsen mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.  Addiction can cause and prolong homelessness and homelessness complicates one’s ability to engage in needed treatment for physical or behavioral health conditions.

Indeed, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, more than half of people experiencing homelessness have had thoughts of suicide or have attempted suicide.  School-aged children and youth who experience homelessness are three times more likely to attempt suicide.  LGBTQ youth who are homeless are twice as likely to die by suicide than their heterosexual peers who are homeless.

Hunger and homelessness are not straight-forward issues nor will they be solved easily or without all sectors of our community coming together.  We need the buy-in from our local, State and Federal representatives to provide the needed resources to combat the issues.  We need understanding and compassion from our law enforcement officers, patience and cooperation from our local businesses, support and caring from our faith-based communities and nonprofit human service organizations, the expertise of our health care systems and the voice of our community members to look at each complicating factor and understand that there is more there than meets the eye.  This problem will take a village to conquer. 

Frederick is an amazing community where giving of one’s time, expertise or money is as natural as breathing.  This time of year often reminds us to share our good fortune with others.  But once Thanksgiving dinner is served and the leftovers are gone, please continue to keep those organizations and the people they help in mind throughout the year.  Volunteering your time, expertise, sharing unwanted or unneeded items and, of course, donating money allows these organizations to help those in need year round.  No one chooses to be homeless.  No one chooses to be hungry, particularly a child. But together we can help everyone have more choices to choose from. 

Frederick County Resources

Food Pantries

Homelessness & Housing

#WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft


October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month, a campaign spearheaded by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The campaign focuses on mourning those lost to domestic violence, celebrating those who have survived, and connecting those who work to end domestic violence. A few years ago, the hashtag #WhyIStayed and later #WhyILeft began trending after footage of an NFL player, Ray Rice, hitting his then fiancée, Janay Rice, was shared in the media. The stories of domestic violence that came forward were heartbreaking. They reinforced that domestic violence can happen to those of all genders, socio-economic statuses, races and ethnicities. The stories offered understanding and explanation of what domestic violence can be like and how it plays out. They also offered hope. The hashtags hit close to home for me so here’s a glimpse into my story of why I stayed and why I eventually left.

I spent nearly two years in a relationship that was mentally and emotionally abusive. It started out like any other relationship that I had been in. We were both young, well educated, had stable jobs, came from middle class, two parent families. You wouldn’t have known there was ever an issue between us. But things began to change subtly and slowly until I was living a nightmare of constant fear and insecurity. Over time what I ate, what I wore, who I spent time with, when and what I drank, how I cleaned my home or took care of my pets, and so many other things began to be dictated to me. If I rebelled and did my own thing, I paid for it in the verbal tear down that always eventually followed. I was called terrible names, accused of heinous offenses, and made to feel like I was a failure in every aspect of my existence. It was framed to me as him trying to help me become the amazing person he knew I could be. It wasn’t worth it to fight back though because the fight was exhausting and never-ending and I was always the one who ended up hurt.

I found myself in a state of shear exhaustion and so depressed that despite my work in the mental health field, knowing that it was an abusive relationship, and desperately wanting out, I couldn’t muster the energy to take those steps. I even considered suicide in the darkest moments but that required energy and effort too and I didn’t truly want to end my life. I just wanted out. I wanted my home to be a safe place. I wanted my mind to be my own. I’ve heard people describe leaving as a process and it really was. My path out started by friends discovering pieces of my story when I broke down one night at a friend’s home. They rallied around me offering their support and then checking in with me while, in time, I became ready to take more definite steps. My parents were critical in refusing to let me disappear again and making it known that they would always have my back if I ever needed them. It took me a year to get out.

Getting free of the actual relationship was hard but my story doesn’t end there. I walked away with mental wounds that took time to heal. I sought out my own therapist. I avoided things and places that triggered memories of the abuse. I started dating again but I struggled to trust that other relationships would be any different. When I met my husband and I began telling my story to someone new for the first time, I waited for him to leave because my wounds were still too fresh or hard to cope with. Yet he stayed, he listened, he respected what I needed. Today, we have an amazing relationship built on trust, respect, support, and love. It isn’t always easy; we work hard at maintaining a relationship that makes us both feel valued, content, and cared for. I’m thankful each day for what we have.

My story is fortunate in that the relationship was never physically violent and was short-lived in the grand scheme of things. Many others suffer much worse for much longer. There are resources and supports out there to help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) is just one such resource. If you or someone you know is struggling to escape domestic violence, please know there is hope. The story doesn’t have to end in violence.

World Mental Health Month


October is World Mental Health Month and October 10th is World Mental Health Day. Established in 1992 by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH), this day, along with the rest of the month’s activities, are designed to provide education and advocacy to combat the social stigma surrounding mental illnesses and raise awareness of mental health issues worldwide.

World Mental Health Day, of course, has its own Twitter feed (@WMHDay) and hashtag (#WorldMentalHealthDay). This year’s theme is Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World. The event coincides with WFMH’s rebranding and new visual identify - a green ribbon with rays of the sun projecting outward, getting stronger and brighter, representing the progress the movement has made toward raising awareness and signifying an individual’s path towards recovery. 

The campaign focuses on prevention and early intervention measures that put young people on a path toward positive mental health and wellbeing.

The best path to lifelong wellness is one that starts with good mental health. Young people that grow up with additional stressors due to the effects of trauma, transgender discrimination, major mental illness, bullying and suicide are far more likely to have mental health issues throughout the rest of their lives. World Mental Health Day 2018 will show the importance of creating more services and better care for our young people, and the issues they are experiencing the most these days. The acts of prevention, early interventions, resilience, available information and services are the key factors in creating a healthy future for our young people.

World Federation for Mental Health

2018 WMHDAY Campaign Document

This theme was undoubtedly chosen to highlight the particular stressors our youth face today which are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Between social media, bullying, school shootings, suicide, substance abuse and a myriad of other types of trauma, our youth experience significant pressures that uniquely and significantly impact their mental health and wellbeing. 

Consider the statistics:

1 in 5 young people suffer from a mental health condition, yet only 4% of the total health care budget is spent on mental health care. ~

Suicide is second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds. ~ World Health Organization

Eighty-three percent of young people say bullying has a negative impact on their self-esteem ~

So focusing this year’s World Mental Health Day on our youth seems like a very wise idea.  How can you help? There’s plenty to be done:

1. Share the National Suicide Lifeline’s 24 hour phone number with loved ones. Encourage young people to save the number in their cellphone so it’s always at their fingertips, if not for themselves, then for times when they are worried about someone else. 1-800-273-TALK/8255.

2. If you are concerned about a young person, talk openly with them about what you are observing and why you are worried about them. Be supportive and non-judgmental.  Validate their fears, worries or concerns and make sure they know they are not alone in what they are experiencing.  Most importantly, make sure they know there is help available to them.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask the question – “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?” Parents and caregivers often fear asking this question. They fear it will plant an idea that wasn’t there before. This is probably one of the biggest myths surrounding suicide and suicide intervention. Talking about suicide will not plant the idea. Instead, it opens up lines of communication and an avenue to provide intervention. Don’t be afraid to ask the question – it may mean the difference between getting someone the help that they need and confronting a tragedy.

4. Talk openly about mental health in general. The more we discuss mental health as a culture, the less stigmatizing it will be and the more likely young people will ask for help when they need it. Ensure they know they can turn to you as a trusted adult if and when they are experiencing depression, anxiety or other mental health condition. Studies show that young people with at least one trusted adult in their life fare better and will seek intervention sooner when they experience signs and symptoms of a mental health condition.

5. Know your community’s resources. Be aware of what’s available through a young person’s school, health care providers and within the community. 

Mental health conditions are treatable. Recovery from mental health conditions is possible. We tend to fail our youth when we minimize the stressors they face, sweep their concerns under the rug, ignore warning signs and avoid the difficult conversations. 

Be on the lookout during the month of October and particularly on October 10th for ways in which you can make a difference in the life of a young person.

Suicide Prevention Week

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This week is Suicide Prevention Week, designed to raise awareness of the warning signs that someone might be considering ending their life and honoring and remembering those who have.  As a mother who has spent more hours than I care to remember in an emergency room while my child is assessed for whether he is an imminent harm to himself, this week is tough.  It not only reminds me of the struggles my son has faced, but also how much more work there is to do to bring awareness, education and information to our community to end the silence surrounding the topic of suicide.  I’m also reminded how lucky I am that my son is still with me after four psychiatric admissions for suicidal ideation.

There were the all too common warning signs leading up to each hospitalization.  Each was marked by his increasing desperation and inability to manage his current struggles.  He would become increasingly withdrawn, isolated, irritable and agitated.  He often had trouble making the simplest decisions – what shirt to wear, whether he needed to take his coat to school, what cereal to eat for breakfast. 

As I grew more in tune with the signs that signaled a pending mental health crises, I would encourage him to be proactive and get help before it resulted in a hospitalization.  Sadly, he never took me up on that and each time the trip to the hospital was either by police car or ambulance.  Once, I tried to convince his school resource officer to simply let me take him to the hospital in my car, believing that this would decrease his agitation and fear.  I was kindly, but firmly, told that this would not be possible.  She was so concerned about him that she wanted him to ride in her squad car where he couldn’t open the door from the back seat and jump out of the moving vehicle. 

What I learned from these experiences is the importance of having hope for someone who is suicidal.  This is not to suggest that someone can be talked out of what they are feeling by platitudes or false promises of better days. Their feelings - the desperation, the sadness, the hopelessness - are all too real to them.  It does no good to try to convince them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  They can’t see it.  Or if they can see it, they are convinced it’s an oncoming train, barreling toward them.

But regardless, in the darkest moments when hope is simply not available, it is essential for them to know that someone in their life has hope for them.  Even if we can’t relate or understand their desperation or pain, we can validate that we know those feelings are very real to them.

Like most lessons in life, I learned this the hard way.  Just prior to my son’s third hospitalization for suicidal ideation, I lost my cool.  He wasn’t being proactive.  He knew he was spiraling downward, and like the stubborn child I’ve always known him to be, he was refusing intervention from his therapist and his doctor. The day before he ended up in the hospital again, he’d had a bad day at school resulting in consequences.  I can’t even remember now what they were but I was angry and exhausted by the entire situation.  In our most frustrating times as parents, when we’re as close to our wits end as we can possibly be, we do or say stupid things. 

And I did both.

I threw my hands up and said “I give up! I don’t know what to do anymore!” I knew he was sliding down hill prior to this.  I knew where we were headed.  But either out of fear, frustration or anger – or all of the above – I let those feelings come out.  And he heard them loud and clear.

The next day was the incident in which the school resource officer refused to let me drive him to the hospital myself because she was so concerned he’d jump out of the moving car.  So instead, I watched as she led my son in handcuffs from his school to her waiting police car.

After a few days and a new medication, we attended a family therapy session at the hospital.  My son said that when I threw my hands up and said I had given up, he decided that if I could give up, so could he.  He said he always relied upon my belief that he could and would get better.  I’d let him down that night.  He understood my frustration and even my anger.  But my giving up was almost like giving him permission to give up too.

That moment was a revelation for both of us.  It showed me how important it was for him to have someone in his life who believed it wasn’t always going to be this bad.  

Needless to say, I watch what I say now.  He was just a young adolescent at that time and he’s matured quite a bit since then.  We both recognize that I can’t always be that lifeline for him.  He knows he needs to get help as soon as he starts to see his warning signs. It’s all a constant work in progress but he’s doing the work so that gives me hope.

One of the most dangerous warning signs exhibited when someone is contemplating ending their life is a sense of hopelessness and the belief that things will never get better.  This week, as we think about how we can save lives of those we love, remember that sharing your hope until they again have it for themselves may make all the difference.

The Spectrum of Wellness


Family Wellness Alliance started with one universal believe - that how we feel mentally and emotionally is as important as how we feel physically.  Physical, emotional and mental health are inextricably intertwined.  So why do we tend to, even choose to, ignore our mental health and wellness?  Why do we hide the emotional pain we feel from our loved ones and even from ourselves?  Why are we more likely to go to a physician when we’ve had a cold that has lasted a month but not when we’re experiencing overwhelming feelings of sadness and despair for the same amount of time?

In many ways our culture has come a long way in embracing those who live with mental health conditions though we still have a long way to go.  Portrayals of people with mental health conditions in movies, television and books are still far from accurate depictions of what living day to day with a mental health condition is actually like.  Representations in the media tend to focus on mental illness to explain acts of violence or behavior considered odd or different rather than the talent and contributions made by those with mental health conditions.  For all our advancement as a society, we tend to still revel in the myths and disinformation that swirl around the phrase “mental illness.”

Take for example, the myth that people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are violent.  This is undeniably not at all the case.  In fact, people with such mental health conditions are more likely to be victims of violence and other types of crimes precisely because they are vulnerable and less likely to report when a crime has been committed against them.

What gets lost among these depictions and myths is that our mental health is a spectrum of wellness and illness and each of us moves up and down that spectrum at any time in our lives.  This is not unusual, nor should it be something we avoid or feel shame about.  And though there are many things we can do to take care of ourselves so that we stay toward the healthy end of the spectrum (like eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly), these behaviors take a focused, sustained effort to maintain. 

Journal writing is a good example of this type of effort.  We often encourage people to maintain a journal of behaviors while also noting their emotional and mental well-being during the same period.  After a fairly brief period of time, often just a month or two, it’s not difficult to identify those behaviors that impact our mental well-being negatively and those that improve it.  Keeping a journal for a month or two may take a great deal of sustained effort but the information it yields can be invaluable to learning how to maintain your mental health and wellness.

A Journey toward Hope


When a person becomes a parent, nothing is ever the same again.  For better or worse, the child changes everything.  During the stressful times, we wonder “how many more years until he turns 18?”  During exasperating times, we mollify ourselves and think “he’ll learn when he’s 18 and on his own!”  In reality, they are always our children, despite how old they are.  And whether they want to acknowledge it or not, they need us regardless of how old they are.

Never is this more true than for a family raising a child with a mental health condition.  It’s a long road and there’s nothing magical about the age of 18.  Or 21.  Or 35.  Or 55.  A child with a mental health condition, much like a child with a physical health condition, may be reliant upon mom and dad for many more years than their siblings and peers.

It’s exhausting.  I know this because my 19 year old son, AJ, has a mental health condition.  At 3, he wasn’t speaking conversationally or even using words to describe what he wanted or needed.  But he’d sing the alphabet over and over.  He’d count to 100 and beyond.  He knew his shapes and colors.  But spontaneous language just didn’t interest him.

When he started pre-school, the rages began.  Unexplainable, intensely emotional, often frightening outbursts of frustration when he found a task too difficult or when there were disruptions to his routine.  We pulled him out of pre-school where he’d already completed the kindergarten curriculum. We kept him home, hoping it was just a matter of maturing and catching up with his peers, before we enrolled him in regular school.  He started 1st grade a few months before he turned 6.

But things didn’t improve.  The rages continued.  They were unpredictable and disruptive to the rest of the class.  Phone calls to me were a frequent occurrence and I spent hours in meetings with school personnel and child development specialists trying to figure out what was wrong.  AJ didn’t fit any specific diagnosis.  Autism Spectrum Disorder seemed the most fitting – until you considered how he sought out social connections with his peers.  This seemed to fly in the face of the ASD diagnosis.  Children on the Spectrum tend to avoid social interaction, not seek it out as AJ did.  He had trouble with appropriate social interaction to be sure.  He perseverated on topics no one else cared that much about.  He insisted on specific structure and order to his play.  But thankfully, his peers were forgiving and we were lucky that the children he went to school with were patient and kind.

Until 4th grade when things got worse. Not only were his peers beginning to shun him but the rages intensified.  Therapeutic interventions weren’t working in the classroom or in the therapist’s office.  The only time we saw the little boy we knew and loved was at home where his environment was stable, known and more or less under his control. 

One day in late October (my birthday as it turns out), the assistant principal from his elementary school called.  In a rage during a morning writing assignment (the one surefire type of assignment that would set AJ off), he screamed in frustration that he wanted to die. 

At the age of 8, through his tears and his screams and his red and swollen face, he told the assistant principal, “This is too hard.  I just want to die.”

We had already been contemplating homeschooling as an option and following this horrendous suicidal proclamation, we moved forward quickly. However, we continued to seek professional help.  We thought if we could give him some breathing room to try different interventions without the daily stress of going to school and being inundated with a never-ending cycle of frustration, stress, and failure, maybe we could find a break-through that would set him up to return to school someday better prepared to handle the expectations.

In the winter of 7th grade we were still homeschooling when AJ announced he wanted to go back to school in the 8th grade.  He missed his peers.  He felt different than the other kids he knew.  As both his mom and his teacher, our relationship was strained.  We spent entirely too much time together and neither of us was afraid to admit it. We spent the summer preparing for middle school behavioral expectations.  We practiced what he would do when he felt the frustration growing. And we sent him back out into the world to do battle with his emotions, believing we’d armed him as best as we could.

It didn’t work.  By the middle of his 8th grade year, the school told us they couldn’t manage his behavior.  He was too disruptive to the classroom environment.  I learned the lingo of the school system all over again – the 504 accommodations, Individualized Education Plan, Behavioral Intervention Plan. Nothing worked. 

They moved him to a special education program, in a different school, where the classes were smaller and he was surrounded by kids like him.  These kids often irritated him because of their own special quirks, behaviors and needs.  It only fueled his agitation and frustration and the feelings of being different, odd and weird. 

In high school, he continued in the special education program.  They called it a “school within the school”.  So while he walked the halls and was surrounded by his age peers, he spent his classroom time separated from them, in classrooms with 8-10 kids much like him. 

In 9th grade, he was taken by ambulance for his first psychiatric hospitalization for suicidal ideation.  There would be two more hospitalizations – one where he was escorted from the school by the Student Resource Officer in handcuffs – before they finally moved him in the middle of 10th grade to a school an hour away that was called a “non-public special education facility” that was populated almost entirely by other students on the Spectrum.

It was there that the first discussions of mood disorder popped up.  I always knew the ASD diagnosis didn’t quite fit.  I was both relieved and terrified that a diagnosis of mood disorder seemed closer to the mark.  I’ve spent my career working in non-profit mental health organizations mostly with adults.  Much of the behavior I was seeing AJ echoed the behavior of clients I’d been working with for better than 15 years.  I knew where we were heading.  I felt energized that we had a diagnosis we could treat and terrified because of where that diagnosis would take us if we weren’t completely on top of and diligent about AJ’s care.

I wish I could say once he was there, things got easier.  In some ways, they did.  For once, being around peers like him was more of a help than a hindrance.  He was still easily agitated by behavioral attributes displayed by some of his peers, but at the same time, he found a social support network of kids who were a lot more like him than not.  He went through so many of the “normal” ups and downs of adolescence.  His first love. His first broken heart. Prom. Graduation.  He continued to fight intervention from therapists and the doctor at the school, but he found a medication that worked (and still does to this day) for him. 

At the end of his junior year, he announced that he had decided to stop taking his medications.  He felt he didn’t need them anymore.  He believed he was better.  This is not uncommon among people with mental health conditions.  I’d seen it dozens of times in my professional career.  It never ends well but I knew enough to know that I just had to let it play out to its logical conclusion.  Don’t get me wrong.  I pleaded with AJ to take his medicine.  I bribed him with all the things he loved.  I tried to persuade him with dire tales of what would happen.  All to no avail.  I watched in silence and horror as over the next 6 weeks my beautiful son deteriorated to something unrecognizable.  I was scared of him.  He was angry and verbally aggressive.  The slightest irritant would set him off. 

One night, in a manic state and after refusing to turn off the computer and go to bed, AJ left me with no choice but to disconnect the modem.  Though clearly manic and very much not able to make rational decisions, I still believed it was important to impose natural consequences for poor decision-making. He became infuriated, cursed at me and chased me up the stairs.  I locked my bedroom door and, as I was on the phone with the police begging for them to come to my rescue, my baby boy kicked in the door of my bedroom.  I’d hidden the modem and he began to tear apart my room to look for it.  I ran downstairs and open the door for the police while he was distracted.  He was taken out in handcuffs that night and taken to the emergency room.  He cursed my name.  Told me he’d never forgive me for petitioning his admission to the hospital.  He spent three weeks in the hospital being stabilized on his medications again. 

We went through family therapy so I could explain to him how scared I was that night.  I told him how much he had frightened his own beloved dog, whom I feared would attack him in defense of me.  As he stabilized, he was remorseful, repentant and I believe truly frightened by his own behavior.  It’s not unusual that he can’t remember specific actions when he goes into rages but he remembered knowing he was scaring me and being unable to control his anger.  He promised me he would never again stop taking his medications.  He has not broken that promise to me and I hope he never will. 

AJ graduated from high school in 2016.  His “few months off to decompress” turned into a year fraught with fear about the future and an inability on his part to take any action or even think about his next steps toward adulthood.  It was a long, tough year filled with fits and starts, trials and errors and eventually an ultimatum to work or go to school. 

I’m happy to say that AJ is working now about 15 hours a week bagging groceries in a local chain store.  He still has times when he’s unstable and easily agitated but these episodes resemble panic attacks more than his rages.  Though not completely gone, those rages are fairly well controlled by medications now. They appear only when truly pushed beyond his limit and he is truly unable to make use of all the important skills he has learned.

We’ve learned to take things one day at a time.  He has aspirations for the future but he’s not ready to act on them and I’m okay with that.  Life will happen for AJ at his own pace.  I believe he’s doing what he can right now and part of that is learning how to be an adult living with a mental health condition.  He doesn’t like to talk about it but he’s alright with me talking about it as he realizes his story might help other people.  I volunteer for NAMI, giving presentations to high school students and parents about our experiences.  I’ve co-founded Family Wellness Alliance to raise awareness about mental health conditions and provide support to people who are living with a loved one with mental health challenges.  My way of coping now that AJ is stable is to give back to a community that supported us but to also provide some insight on what types of support I found helpful…and what types I didn’t find so helpful.

Like the school guidance counselor at AJ’s first high school who told me she’d seen behavior like this in her students before and the “outlook wasn’t good.” I honestly believe she was just trying to prepare me for the dark days to come. And it’s true there were dark days.  I’d been doing mental health work long enough to know the reality of what we were facing.  But in those words, she crushed all the hopes and dreams I’d had for my son and replaced them with nothing but fear and worry. 

I’ve forgiven her for that statement because in all other interactions I always found her helpful and supportive. I learned from that experience, though, that how we talk about mental health conditions and how we provide support to others is incredibly important.  The essence of hope and recovery must always be present because I truly believe that recovery is possible for people with mental health conditions.  And in AJ’s darkest times, in those times he really wanted to hurt himself because he just couldn’t take it anymore, it was my job as the person who loves him more than anyone in this world to make sure he had something to hold onto.  Even if he was angry at me for hospitalizing him or making him go to a new school, I was his lifeline to the hope that things could and would get better.  I only took that responsibility lightly once and said something off the cuff that made AJ think I wasn’t on his side anymore.  That I’d given up on him.  And while I’ve forgiven myself for that one moment of weakness during an incredibly stressful time, I always remember it when I’m at my wit’s end with him. I remember that I’m the one who’s naturally optimistic and hopeful against his tendency to always see the negative.  That’s what he needs from me.  And that’s what I hope to help others do for their loved ones. Professionally, I’ve seen stories end badly.  But that doesn’t have to be our story. 

And I’m hopeful that it won’t be.

What Kind of World?


As mental health professionals and advocates, we spend each day trying to help others make their world one in which they want to live. They want what we all want – a peaceful world, a safe world, a world that accepts them for all their challenges as well as their talents. A world in which having a mental health challenge is just a part of a spectrum upon which we all live. On any given day, we all travel up and down that spectrum depending on any number of factors - how much sleep we got the night before, how balanced our diet has been over the last few days, whether our medications are working as they should, whether yesterday was a good day or a bad day. Everyone lives in this world, but not everyone experiences it the same way. We want to change that.

We want to live in a world where mental wellness is as important as eating well, getting enough sleep, keeping physically active and having a nurturing, supportive network of family and friends. We want to live in a world where the words “mental health” aren’t met with skepticism, dismissal or fear. We want to live in a world where people have the knowledge and skills necessary to overcome any challenge faced and where families have the resources they need to help their loved ones. We want to live in a world where people aren’t afraid to say “I’m sad”, “I’m afraid” or “I need help.”

We believe education and advocacy are the cornerstones for building this world. Knowledge is more than just power – its empowering. When we know what to do, we can control our own destinies. We make our own decisions. The decisions that are right for us, right now.

This is the kind of world we want to live in.

What kind of world do you want to live in?