Mental Illness: Love and Acceptance Must be The First Line of Treatment

Our son recently returned for a restorative stint at home, bringing with him the latest addition to our family, Sammy the cat, or “The Meister” as we call him.

Image of post-it notes with the words accept, love, empower and advocate on them
Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

He acquired Sammy during one of the COVID lockdowns last year when he was experiencing burnout. He was living alone and at a particularly low ebb because he unable to work at his job in hospitality. Not eating properly or taking his medication, the environment provided the perfect conditions for someone with ADHD to slip back into depression.

The idea of a cat didn’t appeal to me

Admittedly, when he first suggested acquiring a cat as a companion, I was resistant. Many friends of mine are now raising the pets of their adult kids and after almost thirty years as a pet owner, we are now looking forward to a period when we can rent nice properties again and go away without the worry of leaving them with strangers.

But despite my many (illegal) visits to my son’s apartment to try and keep his mental health in check, I could see that he was slowly sinking under the strain, and it didn’t take long for him to embroil me in an illegal mission to collect Sammy from a western suburb of Sydney with some of the harshest lockdown restrictions. Masked up, heads down, we drove through the unusually quiet streets to be introduced to the newest member of our family.

“Scaredy-cat” is an understatement to describe Sammy

Sammy is the most anxious cat I have ever met. He jumps at the sight of his own shadow and the noises his own body makes when he moves, and there were times in the early days when I visited our son’s apartment when he hid in his litter tray to avoid me. Although he was never aggressive each time my son foisted him onto my lap, it was clear from the way his body turned limp that every second he was there he was planning his escape.

Fast-forward a few months and I was still struggling to warm to him. His clear refusal to acknowledge me as the matriarch of the family (with the respect I believe I deserve) or to cow-tow to my many innovative attempts to connect with him were part of the reason, as was the later loss of our son’s deposit on his apartment for the cat’s damage to the carpet.

Nevertheless, I like to think I am the bigger person and when he turned up at the family home, I welcomed both my boys with open arms, even providing Sammy with a safe space (from me) – a furry cat cube to hide in.

He didn’t leave his box for the first month

The only time he left the cube was when our son’s bedroom door was shut, and each time I ventured into their space and tried to stroke him in the box, he did an impressive Houdini impression to avoid my touch, either by hiding under the cushion or pushing his body so far back against the wall it was impossible to reach him. Nevertheless, he was productive during his transition to our home, developing a handy left hook as an additional mode of defence.

There were a couple of occasions when I enticed him out with toys or expensive treats – because for a street cat, Sammy is surprisingly gourmet in his choice of cuisine – but each time I thought I was making progress, he reverted back to his street behaviour and slapped me back down where he has decided I belong.

It was more than a month before curiosity got the better of Sammy and he began to venture beyond the boundary of our son’s bedroom door, but this time rather than his own fears, the territorial behaviour of our terrifying Spoodle thwarted his progress. Luna is used to our undivided attention and each time he got close to the living area, she chased him away and set Sammy’s intrepid exploration back another few days.

Then one day he appeared on my husband’s desk chair in the study, which was helpfully tucked under the table and out of direct reach of our jealous dog. And even though physical contact with him was still a risky venture, occasionally he allowed me to stroke his paw gently before swiping it away aggressively – I should point out here that my son calls this “playing” and that Sammy is more Jekyll than Hide with him.

And slowly, over the past month, Sammy’s steps to integrate with our family have gone from strength to strength. It goes without saying that they are ALWAYS on his terms – he is a cat, after all – but suddenly he is everywhere, from the bench top when he is waiting for his food, to sitting outside my bedroom when he doesn’t think I am looking.

This morning we caught him checking out our dog’s bed

Evidently, whatever trauma Sammy experienced before the RSPCA found him on the streets had a lasting effect on him and he is learning how to trust humans again – something that can only be done with patience, love and understanding. And though it is frustrating when animals don’t behave the way we want or expect them to, people with trauma behave the same way. FYI, The perfect human example of this is the character of Marianne in “Normal People”.

Several times a year, our son experiences burnout and needs time out to recalibrate from the sense of overwhelm caused by trying to meet the weight of expectations that we (inadvertently) and society place on him. His ongoing battle with his mental health issues mean that he reaches a point when he can’t leave the house without feeling nauseous and feels permanently angry and fatigued. Because he doesn’t look disabled, there is little compassion for his struggles. Others see him as lazy, entitled or weak in some way.

People who have lost trust are often defensive and oppositional

But with love and acceptance – what I believe should be the first-line of treatment for people with mental illness – people like him feel less isolated, judged and ashamed. Though “tough love” may be the gold standard approach to care for some mental illnesses, it is a risky choice and one that doesn’t necessarily work for people who have lost the ability to function completely. It is not an easy route, either, because people who have lost trust, like Sammy, are disillusioned, and often defensive and oppositional.

In the three months since my son and Sammy returned home to live with us, we have watched them come out of their respective boxes and flourish. Slowly, we are reintroducing boundaries – which for Sammy means not scratching my rugs or chewing the leaves of my artificial plants – because we know that they are as important for them as they are for us. But the hope is that with some time to heal and just “be”, both will find the confidence and strength for the next period of their lives.

The True Test Of Parenting Is Unconditional Love

 

We had an impromptu visit last night from one of Kurt’s friends. This boy’s last impromptu visit was on Christmas Day, and this impromptu visit was to apologise for it.

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This friend of Kurt’s is a bird with broken wings who makes my heart bleed at an haemophiliac rate. He bought with him a bottle of my favourite wine, upon Kurt’s direction -(Scarborough, for those of you that still don’t know). He told us it was to serve as a belated apology for his behavior on Christmas Day, when he got shit-faced with people that weren’t his immediate family, because his immediate family didn’t want to be with him.

 

He is eighteen.

 

He is a damaged soul who admits that he has done some ‘bad stuff’ in the past, and although his presence can be emotionally exhausting and certainly damaging to the liver, you know that being there with him, providing an ear to listen to him, is so important that even missing I’m A Celebrity and drinking copiously on a Wednesday night becomes insignificant.

 

I’ve always had a vulnerability, some in-built empathy for damaged goods and although I have yet to meet this boy when he is sober, what I really want to do is give him a massive bear hug and tell him that everything will be all right – even though I don’t know if it will – if we were at that position in our friendship where he fully trusted us and saw us as some kind of surrogate family.

 

We’re working on it. He appears more and more frequently at our apartment, and usually out of the blue.

 

His enforced maturity has meant that he has become a mentor of sorts to Kurt. Although they are the same age, this kid has been through the proverbial mill, unlike our son. Rejected by his parents for what I assume must be far worse behaviours than we’ve ever experienced with our son, it appears that his parents could no longer cope. Gave up on him. I pass no judgment, for there have been several times over the past few years that we have come a hair-width away from asking Kurt to leave, even though we never believed we would ever reach that point as parents when he first came into our world.

 

And after all, we’ve only heard this boy’s side of his story. And I know what it’s like to raise a troubled teenager like Kurt, whose personality demands challenge every parental idealism you had in place since their birth, shred your emotions and make you question every facet of your integrity on a daily basis.

 

And you often step so close to that line of ‘have I had enough?’, ‘is this the point where I have to disregard unconditional love for my sanity, or my relationship, or their sibling’s life?’

 

And it can be really scary…

 

And I’m sure none of you will ever reach this point with your kids, thank God.

 

Because when you witness the fucked up end-result of the kid whose parents reached rock bottom and had to make that terrible decision to give up – and in truth I can’t blame them – all your natural instincts scream to parent that kid, mend his wings, build him up and help him fly again. When you witness the searing pain, the damage and the mistrust in the man-child that rejection has caused, it reminds you that parenting is unconditional, and sometimes we have to adapt our expectations to the needs of our children, because we are family, and family sticks together.

The Family Crazy

In my early teens, I used to lose myself in television shows like Little House On The Prairie and The Waltons. Those television shows encapsulated the idea of the utopian family for me. They represented proper families, something I aspired to have more than anything else, when I grew up.


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I craved the ‘happy ever after’ of the Disney dream.

 

It’s funny to look back on those shows now, and analyse them a little more closely. Those families went to hell and back, survived wars, disease and sickness and yet their love as a family unit, always stood firm. Those shows taught me about unconditional love – that when shit happens, close families stick together, no matter what. The Family Crazy

 

Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls in Little House On the Prairie, spoke to Oprah this week and revealed to the audience a little about what went on behind the cameras back then. Apparently, she and Nellie (played by Alison Arngrim) were best friends in real life.

 

Who knew?

 

For those of you who never watched the series, Laura Ingalls and Nellie were arch rivals.

 

When you get sucked into a show like LHOTP and live vicariously through your favourite characters, you like to believe that what happens in front of the camera happens in real life too. I liked to think that the Ingalls sisters, Mary and Laura, were best friends in real life and that all those Walton kids really sat around one big table at Thanksgiving together.

 

I liked to think that Ross and Rachel would end up married in real life, too.

 

That’s what well-written television and books can do – they help us suspend belief to such a degree that we find ourselves part of their story.

 

We’ve experienced our own Walton moments over the past few months. First, we were visited by my side of crazy, with my dad’s visit, and then this week the old man’s brother and our niece arrived in Sydney to share the crazy from the old man’s side.

 

It’s nice having grown up kids now, because we can discuss ‘family crazy’ and dysfunctionality without fear of offending anyone. We can even laugh about it these days. It’s nice being with family and not having to pretend to be a better person than I am. It’s nice being accepted for who you are and not fearing exposure or being abandoned by them if you don’t meet expectation. It’s nice having people in your life who are genuinely interested in you and your kids.

 

You can’t choose your family, so maybe I just got lucky. Unlike the Ingalls and Waltons, no family is perfect, (I now realise), but their love and support is unconditional.

 

But these visits have also made me realize how much I miss my family. I miss the ease between the old man and his brother, where they can make communication without either of them saying anything at all and where their shared laughter is intuitive. I love the sisterhood of NC and her cousin. I love the fact that Kurt has a cousin who has faced similar issues over the last few years and those dark points in their young lives have created a bond between them.

 

Most importantly, I’m so glad that absence does make the heart grow fonder and that distance is completely irrelevant when it comes to familial love.

Midlife Mayhem – Fake Parenting

I am the ‘fraud’ parent at my daughter’s Parent Evening. While my seventeen-year-old has acquired a fake ID to get intoxicated, I often question my true ID as a responsible parent.

A lot of us are guilty of ‘winging’ this whole nurturing lark. We’ve had to. The dissolution of the ‘extended family‘ has forced us to rely on manuals, magazines and the Internet for information on basic child rearing techniques. And while I don’t doubt that Dr Spock’s advice is theoretically sound, I bet he never had to explain to his wide-eyed son why the missionary position ‘is not uncomfortable’.

With the time constraints of two working parents and the necessity of having to compete with social media for our children’s attention, disciplining and teaching our kids the core values has never been harder. We’re all guilty of citing unconditional love as the main component of good parenting, because that’s the easy part. But does the perfect parent truly exist?  The answer is ‘yes’, because they always show me up at parent evenings.

Each time I attend a parent evening, I get it wrong. While I obviously physically qualify as a ‘parent’, I don’t seem to possess the requisite tools for the trade. The dissident idealist within me still wants to kick off to the teachers about ‘free will’ and ‘living life’, without the constraints of archaic state systems. And no amount of premeditated self-control can transform me into the mature, dependable parent that my daughter wants me to be in the presence of her respected educational advisors. The concept of kowtowing to teachers does not appeal to me and I would rather the Curriculum developed her spirit that maximized her ATAR.

But with the best intentions in my daughter’s world, I attended her Year 12 parent evening yesterday, having bitterly lost ‘rock-paper-scissors’ to the old man. Not an auspicious start, leaving the printout of teacher names and times on the kitchen bench-top, but I improved my performance by remembering to bring her report along, ‘for discussion purposes’, a practice that appears to be common among the more ‘committed’ parents ie. those who don’t have a life outside their children. As my daughter is now in a crucial year of her educational evolution, apparently, it was a last stab at impressing both them and the scholastic hierarchy.

While I was overtly fanning the report in front of my face, even though it was a cool 15 degrees, I spotted the latest trend in ‘dutiful parent’ accessories, the now obligatory notepad and pen! It seems that it is also de rigeur to take notes, as the teacher decimates your child’s self-esteem and cross-examines your parenting skills. Suggestions such as, ‘needs to work harder’, or ‘give up now’, are seemingly too hard to process without a visual reminder.

Luckily, I’d taken the precaution of downing a double Espresso prior to our first meeting

jason is sporting his new hush puppies.
jason is sporting his new hush puppies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

in the science department, to keep me conscious. Erring on the creative side, absorption of any science-based content is always a difficult process for the limited channels of my artistic brain, and the behavioral bi-product of this strain generally shows itself in my physiological impulse to yawn repeatedly.  While the coffee did prevent me from revealing my throat anatomy every time my daughter’s chemistry teacher mentioned ‘mole theory’, it’s diuretic powers of persuasion were responsible for increasing my daughter’s stress levels, as I rushed between appointments, not realizing that my cardigan was unfortunately stuck in my pants in full view of her peers. Once again, an intruder pretending to take on the responsibility of her parent had compromised the highlight of my daughter’s scholastic calendar.

Was it only last year that the ‘united front’ of both parents had attended the event, when a mutual case of uncontrollable hysteria had forced us to leave early due to the math’s teacher choking on his own saliva while discussing the minutiae of quadratic equations?

When did this inferiority complex about Parent Evenings develop? Is the old tag of ‘underachiever’ responsible for me behaving like the ADHD kid, squirming in my chair and planning my escape, when I should be focusing on the educational well-being of my child? When did those real parents, the bona-fide ones with the Hush Puppies and intelligent questions, get their P plates? I live in hope that I get them before my son leaves school.

Requirements for Parent Evening 2013: Copy of School Report, notebook and pen, intelligent questions; maturity and ………badass attitude!

Teach – Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.net

Midlife Mayhem – Who Stole My Daughter?

A pile of Maltesers candies and one split in half.
A pile of Maltesers candies and one split in half. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apparently, I am one of the few mothers to have procured a ‘relationship’ with my teenage daughter.  Out of the ashes of the domestic warzone that started seventeen years, there has been an armistice, although the fragile ties that now bind us are still perilously loose. I fear a reprisal at any time, so celebrating our reunion prematurely makes me a little nervous. I know that one false move could catapult me back into the battlefield, but so far, we are both still here.

A portion of the advice I inhaled anxiously (in my quest to be the ‘perfect’ parent) from those patronizing parenting manuals, must have resonated after all. I discarded it at the time and in despair followed my own instincts, but could I finally be reaping some reward for my efforts now, like they promised me I would?

A young adult has definitely superseded the mutant that used to slither around the house, like some predatory reptile, waiting to pounce on its next unsuspecting victim. Usually me! Somewhere along the line a truce was made, an unspoken agreement drawn up, a ceasefire erected. The same possessed and angry she-devil, who screeched her way though adolescence has evolved, and finally blossomed into a ‘normal’ person.

She no longer persecutes me for attempting to associate, appease or spend time with her; I have even been invited to shop with her, although my request to befriend her on Facebook still receives a definitive ‘no’. She now ‘suggests’ the cinema to me and I am a sycophant to her charms, even though a three-hour fantasy film incites as much pleasure as sticking pins in my eyeballs. You see, I want to spend time with her, now that she’s on the cusp of leaving the nest. So I force-feed myself with ‘Maltesers’ to stay awake, for I must never become reticent and forget the ‘dark years’. Those years of exclusion and her self-imposed exile to her bedroom were painful rewards for the unconditional love shown to her in the early years. And during that period, I believed that they would never end.

But in reality, she has evolved from nappy to short skirt stage in the blink of an eye, although the crows’ feet and the grey in my hair tell a different story. Why did I have such little faith in my ability as a parent, or in her ability to metamorphose into a decent human being?

Our future looks brighter. I find myself entertaining the notion of her offspring (not spawn) – my grandchildren. Such is the circle of life.

Circle of Life photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com (Piškuntál)