Mental Illness: A Parent’s Journey (Stu Ducklow)


The following article was written by my brother about his daughter. Both have given permission for this to be re-posted on my blog. Stu said it was okay “as long as Stella gets all the credit” — that’s like my brother.

I have previously posted about Stella’s depression and struggle with mental illness (please see below).

Like most parents, we thought our first-born child was extraordinary, and we hovered over her as much as any helicopter parent.

She seemed to need more attention than most. When she nearly died of anaphylactic shock at age 4, we sought help from specialists ranging from a pediatric immunologist to Reiki practitioners. When eczema kept her from sleeping, we covered her with creams and dosed her with prescription meds.  When she was hospitalized for asthma, we gave away our four cats.

When she had trouble in Grade 1, we enrolled her in a private school where students were expected to learn to read via the ‘whole language’ process which spurned phonics and spelling. When she still couldn’t read, we took her to an after-school program that drilled her in the very same phonics and spelling that we were paying the other school to avoid. Stella was reading above grade level in a few months.

But we couldn’t come up with a solution for the all-day crying jags, cutting and constant dieting that began at about the age of 16. We turned to the provincial mental health system for help. We had a lot to learn. While mental health professionals are nearly always kind and well-meaning, the system they work for seems designed to serve administrators more than the patients.

For example, Stella was confined to her unit during one short stay because staff was thinking of moving her to another unit and they wanted her available at short notice. This meant that our daily one-hour drive around Halifax, the high point of her day, was forbidden. Fortunately a good-hearted nurse bent the rules when I promised to deliver her within ten minutes of a call to my cell phone.

Over the next ten years we got used to waiting up to 16 hours in emergency wards when Stella felt suicidal or overcome with anxiety or depression. In contrast, she was seen immediately for a fractured ankle, though broken bones aren’t nearly as harmful as suicidal thoughts.

She was admitted at least ten times for short stays of about a week. Though she saw many psychiatrists, they confined themselves to adjusting her meds. Requests for some form of psychotherapy were met with blank stares. She was given a regular outpatient worker who she met with for about a year but that person was hostile to us as parents and dismissive of Stella’s chances of recovery once she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. 

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Parents and Teens: A Few More Comments (Part 2)

I think a big part of parenting teenagers is self-control as in controlling oneself, not trying to control one’s near adult. If I can be more resilient as a parent then maybe I can parent more effectively. Psychologists call this “differentiation” and it is the ability to separate emotions from thoughts. When  thinking becomes clouded by emotional responses, we become undifferentiated. Families with lots of emotionally reactive reasoning used to be called “undifferentiated ego mass.” Lovely description of a family isn’t it?

Back to some comments about parenting teens with an understanding that no one does this perfectly. So first,

— Give up on being a perfect parent or having a perfect kid. Reality is more helpful than perfectionism.

— Don’t push your power, your age or your wisdom. Just because you own the mortgage on the home does not mean that you have the right to coerce or pummel your teens into compliance.

— Believe in your teen’s hyperbole. Exaggeration and overstatement is a favourite in adolescent communication. You don’t need to correct her. Anyway, she might just be the best Math student on the planet.

— You don’t have to be your kids’ friend. Accept yourself as a parent and learn to be good at it.

— Value what he or she has to say even when you disagree or have a different opinion.

— Speak quietly especially when the tension is rising. Tension goes up, voices go quieter and everybody listens more intently.

— Be careful of quick decisions. Quick conclusions are soon problems.

— Admit when you don’t know something. This is easier to do than you think. And your kid will appreciate your incompetence and see it as common ground.

So you might ask, “Did you do all these things?” Uh, no. I just did my best like you. But I wish that someone told me some of this while I was an undifferentiated ego mass.

Parents and Teens — Some Comments (Part 1)

For 5 years when I first started my work as a Psychologist, I worked for Family Services in West Vancouver where I focused on dysfunctional families referred through the public school system, police and probation.

I thought of these kids as “BC’s best” and mostly they were hopeful, resilient, and crafty and making the best out of some tough and tense circumstances at home and at school. They were also hard to handle – it was easy for me to talk with them as they got to skip school to “go see the shrink.” I remember one parent who asked if I knew of a monastery in Africa where he could send his 16-year old son. (Didn’t know of one.)

Some of the parents were excellent in loving and guiding their kids and some were clearly working out their own difficulties in marriage and life through their offspring. Some of these kids became the “Identified Problems” of the greater family tension.

Along the way, I worked up some principles for parents living with teens. These days I am having a resurgence of parents seeking help with their kids and I thought this list might make some sense to some. If nothing else, it might help parents remember what they hoped for when they were teens.

So for parents, in random order as it occurs to me…

— Be careful about criticism of anything. Even when you think you are only making a comment, it may well be experienced as another of a long list of judgments.

— Focus on your teen’s emotions. Kids “naturally” emotionally reason and this can seem illogical to you as a parent.

— Think about what depression looks like in a teen. Sometimes it is in withdrawal and sometimes it is in acting out aggressively. When your child is acting hurt and harmed, wonder about how his inner life is going.

— Say as little as possible and especially about your own experience, unless asked. When kids talk they want to talk and not listen to your thoughts.

— Don’t believe in “teachable” moments. Let your kid talk without your interruption.

— Ask questions that can be answered. Questions like, “Do you want to suggest with me 3 or 4 ideas from which you can choose?”

— Experiment in thinking in non-absolutes. If you have a 70% good relationship with your kids, then celebrate that. Don’t overly prod and provoke the 30% that is not the best.

Okay, that’s enough for today. In fact, that’s probably enough for a few days. I will post a few other ideas in a bit.

Feelings Are Meant to Be Felt

We are at my in-laws summer home in Pender Harbor. It is a beautiful place and it is a beautiful day. Christine (my daughter) is busy looking after our lives and Carole is helping out, as they chat happily. Brent (my son in law) is reading beside me and Jasper (my grandson) is wanting my attention. There are books spread out and games to trip over and a general feeling of urgency between him and me. I want to sit and do nothing and Jasper wants my playfulness, loud noises and funny faces.

At a particular point of exasperation with my non-involvement, Jasper hits my arm with all the strength he could muster, trying to get my attention I suppose, and I speak sharply to him. He’s not used to sharpness from me – he gets mostly big affirmations and funny voices and silly ways to walk. This is the kind of Papa that I want to be, not the sharp and defensive kind.

My scolding scared him and the urgency of the moment provoked a gasp of tears and a startled cry. He doesn’t want me to be close to him or touch him and he moves to the protection of his father’s arms while looking at me with strange horror. A few moments pass and his hurt falls away.

He stands in front of me looking sorrowful and I say to him, “Did I hurt your feelings Jasper?” “Yes Papa, you did.” I say, “I am very sorry for hurting your feelings Jasper.” And then everything changes as he says to me, “I’m not sad anymore Papa. I happy now. Are you happy Papa?”

I know that feelings are meant to be felt. But sometimes my hurt feelings stay with me too long. Jasper seems to have the capacity or the grace to let his hurt feelings go. Paul writes in Ephesians, “live as children of light for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth and find out what pleases the Lord” [Ephesians 5:8 – 10]. Seems like good advice to me.
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