Mental Illness

Helping Siblings Of Children With Mental Illness To Cope

069This whole process has had such a profound effect on me.

You can’t go this kind of stuff and not be changed.

Life experiences can have all kinds of effects on people, it can harden you, it can break you, it can empower you.  No matter what the outcome these kinds of life challenges will change you.  I think of our family dynamic before, we were just your typical family I guess.

I always saw us as typical, but we’re not.

It’s just the beauty of our family even though we’re blended you don’t see the seams very clearly.  I’ve always felt that we fit together almost effortlessly Carmelo loves my boys and I love his daughter and we love the children we’ve been blessed to have together.  The children love each other they don’t see each other as half-siblings or step siblings they’re just brothers and sisters.  As they grow older their bonds grow stronger, the children are at different ages and stages, it’s an ever evolving thing.  As the kids get older the family dynamic shifts and change a bit, but the constant is the love that’s there.  We love each other, not to say that we don’t have our struggles, we’re not perfect by any means, being a blended family is a challenge in itself even though Carmelo and I have been together since the children where quite young just six months two and five.  Despite this, there’s no getting around that the boys have another father and Alexis has a mother.

Alexis lives out-of-state, she’s always been far from us and just recently she’s moved even farther but the distance hasn’t completely squashed the bond that we have as a family. We cherish every second we have with her because it’s limited, it’s precious.  Every summer, every break, when ever we’re allowed to get her, we do.  Ever since they were little Alexis, Christopher and Alexander have always had their private talks.   Little devilish grins and glances that spell out such meaning, but just between the three of them.

I love those side glances they think I don’t see.

The secrets shared between them, late night conversations, text messages back and forth on their cell phones, the phone calls asking for advice. As far as Alexis is from us she is very much still a part of our world.  This is what you want from your children, to know they can lean on each other, know that they have each other’s backs, no matter where they are their bond can transcend the distance.  And that’s the reality of it one day the children may all grow up and head in different directions just as me and my siblings have.  But the bonds that they forge now will keep them close long into adulthood. 20160820_132923

The first time I met Carmelo we were at a Convention for our religious organization, I was a mess that day.  My heart still raw from the rejection of a man I had centered my whole world around for so much of my life.  Throw in some major postpartum depression, I could not get it together.  My head was all over the place still trying to figure out how I ended up in this place, alone a single mom?  The rug had been pulled out from underneath me and I was left with a baby and a 2-year-old, an empty bank account and a house and bills that I couldn’t manage as a single mother.   this wasn’t the plan this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.  My little family was torn apart and all I was left with was a child so angry at me and the world for robbing him of his birthright the right to have a mother and father.  And a baby that was the happiest bundle of sweetness I’d ever seen, just as oblivious to the chaos that he had been born into as I was to the cracks in the foundation of my marriage.  I remember that day so clear as if it were yesterday.  Right down to the yellow dress that I wore.  I couldn’t stop crying and it was so embarrassing.

Pull it together Kendra,

your emotions are showing put it away,

people are watching, everyone knows,

they’ve all heard, your making a spectacle of yourself.

I finally managed to pull it together and involve myself in a conversation, when this stranger comes along and manages to insert himself into the conversation. He pulls out of his wallet a faded tattered picture of a beautiful little girl in a baseball uniform.  He beamed with pride as he told me she’s the only girl on her softball team.  And that was the start of a friendship that eventually became so much more.  I think of that tattered picture of that little girl, that was Carmelo’s golden ticket.  when he asked for my hand in marriage I felt like I had gotten the ultimate gift a beautiful partner for life, but he was a packaged deal and I got the blessing of having this beautiful little girl, that I’ve been blessed to watch grow into a beautiful woman.

Motherhood or parenthood I should say is so many things but a lot of the time it’s scary.  Here we are with these little human beings that we’re supposed to mold, guide and train, into good people, strong people, spiritual people. But there’s no guarantee for all our hard work that the outcome will be successful.   And then one day you see it, the fruitage of your labor, the aha moments, the proud moments when you can say okay they are getting it, they’re listening.  It’s going to be okay, they’re going to be okay.  I’ve had a lot of those moments this past year.  I look at each of our children and I wonder about the impact Ranee’s sickness has had on each of them.  There are the things that I can see but what about the depths of their beings, the core.  the hope is that they’ll grow from this, learn to be tolerant of people’s differences and compassionate.

Christopher is the perceptive one he’s always quietly watching, always thinking, trying to make connections.  He exudes a sort of unsure confidence and I can see he’s trying to find himself as most boys do striking out for independence.  He looks at Ranee’s condition from a logical perspective not emotional.  Christopher is book smart always has been, a straight A student, academics come easy for him he has to be challenged or he becomes complacent.  He attends a technical school and is studying health tech, meaning he’s gearing up to work in the medical field he doesn’t care that it’s not the popular choice for most teenage boys, he’s one of three boys in his class. When Ranee first got sick, he turned to his medical text books looking for a clear-cut explanation within those pages he started doing his research.  After visiting her for the first time in an institution he wrote a report on it for his Health Tech class and got an A.

How do you explain to a child that one day their sister went to school and didn’t come home but ended up in a mental institution.

Where is the logic?

Where is the sequencing?

Where do you find that in the research?

The first time Ranee was away, she asked for him “please bring Christopher to see me”   20160820_123036 (1)

he obliged although I could see in his face that he was hesitant, we explained on the long drive there that this wasn’t like a hospital, it’s different. The doors are locked, everything is weighted, the beds, the tables, the chairs so aggressive children can’t throw them.  There’s only so much explaining you can do, it doesn’t negate that behind the murals and the happy facade of those places there is a different kind of sickness here.  And your little sister is sick. We signed in and put our name tags on, we waited for visiting hours to start and someone from the young children’s wing to guide us through the labyrinth of madness.  This particular place you have to go through the big kid’s wing to get to children’s, Christopher keeps his eyes to the ground, his jaw is set and it looks like he’s using every muscle in his body to propel himself forward.  We get to the children’s wing and the door is unlocked so we can come in.  A worker tells us she’s not having a good day, the voices are strong and she just wants to be left alone.  We scan the room and she is not there, then we hear her sniffling the soft cry from the corner. It is the most crushing sight, her little body curled up in the corner, knees to her chest with her head buried in them. He is frozen, ” it’s okay go to her, say her name,”  I tell him, I’m kicking myself for not preparing him for this.  ” Ranee, Ranee,” he says, in one swift motion she leaps from the corner into his arms “Chris, Chris your here I was crying because I wanted you and you’re here”.  He swallows hard, swallowing the tears down.  But I can’t.  And for that half an hour she is just Ranee again and he is Christopher they talk and laugh the walls of that temporary residence are transformed and we are back home.

It’s morning Ranee has returned back home with us Alexander and Ranee are having a very intense discussion as Alexander tries to understand Ranee on his terms.  I smile and attend to the baby and pretend to not really be listening to the conversation.  They are discussing if they were super heroes what would their super powers be.  They go back and forth with different ideas and Alexander tells Ranee that she already has superpowers because she sees and hears things.  She’s insisting that they are not because they are bad voices and people and they tell her to do bad things. She only sees one good girl in her mind.  But he says “if you could take control of those bad voices you could turn them good and they could be like your crew.  But you have to take control because that’s what superhero’s do.”  She says “I don’t know Alexander I don’t think I can.”  He says “well you have to try don’t you want to be a super hero?”  She goes outside and I watch her sitting on the stoop deep in thought talking to herself or talking to the mean people I’m not sure.  But I chuckle at the exchange he’s trying to help her, to put a positive spin on it.  He’s telling her to fight.  2013-04-30_16-10-52_660

Alexander has been frustrated by this  process, as we all have been. He’s angry at the doctors, at the institutions, that she keeps going away and they don’t fix her.  He visited her a few times but after a while, he said he couldn’t do it anymore, he couldn’t stand seeing her in there, it made him too sad, so we didn’t force it.  It’s difficult for us as adults seeing her in there we respected his feelings on that.  He’s bothered by the injustice of it.  Why her? Why did this have to happen?  His performance academically and behavior in school suffered greatly last year, he became combative and defensive, I worried that our relationship was marred and would never be the same.  It’s hard to not feel that these things weren’t directly related to Ranee’s sickness, but we can’t be certain.  We just give him reassurance that we’re doing the best we can for her and we all have to adjust a little bit how we handle her.  He talks about when she’s older and she doesn’t do this anymore.  I appreciate that he’s hopeful, but we still try to help him see that we don’t how things may progress but this is going to be a long-term issue that we will have to learn how to deal with.  One of Ranee’s visits to the Neuropsych Dr for testing Alexander accompanied me I explained that these tests take about four hours a session and I just sit and wait with Charlene, we had already had two sessions the baby just sleeps and nurses and I do my best to keep her occupied while we wait.  Despite my warning, he still came along and experienced the long boring wait with me.  On the way home he said “mama I can’t believe you do this” “Alexander, this is what moms do, we do what ever it takes for our kids even if it means sitting around for hours.  I’d do it for you too.”  In that moment I saw in his eyes a new understanding a better appreciation and his attitude softened a bit.

One thing we’ve learned is to keep the children in the loop, based on their levels of understanding, when we would travel back and forth to see Ranee it wasn’t enough to say she’s fine when they would ask.  They needed to know what was going on, what happened? How are the doctors trying to help her?  What can they do to help her?  At the same time helping them understand that while she is the focus of a lot of our attention right now,  we’re still very much concerned with what is going on in their lives too. Christopher is older, he has a whole social agenda that doesn’t always include his siblings.  That leaves Alexander on his own, every couple of months we’ll go out just the two of us for a mama and son night.  In the relaxed atmosphere away from everyone he freely opens up, with Christopher his place seems to be the car, he just starts to talk.  And I do my best to listen and give advice with out judgment.  I have to say that is the highlight of my life with teenage boys right now.  My boys talk to me, they tell me things that are difficult sometimes as a mother to hear, but insightful into who they are, where they are in their development as men.  I do a lot of holding my tongue, not overreacting, just listening because I want them to keep coming back to me with the hard stuff.  There are so many moments through out a conversation where I’m saying in my head I can’t believe they’re telling me this, but I’m so glad they’re telling me this.  We have definitely become closer as a family during the course of this past year.  They have shown the levels of their compassion, they have learned empathy.  It’s no longer something that we just talk about but what they’ve learned to put into action.

20160527_204514It’s such a missed bag of emotions for Alexis, being so far away she only gets accounts of what’s going on and the mind has a tendency to run away with the worst. She doesn’t fully comprehend what Ranees been going through because she’s not here to see it.   And honestly, that’s a good thing she’s starting college, trying to find herself in the world.  She gets enough bits and pieces of what’s happening but we don’t want to overwhelm her with it.  She loves her little sister they have a different relationship than hers and the  boys.  Ranee looks up to Alexis in a different way than the boys do, their bond is different maybe because they’re girls or maybe because of the nine-year age difference.  She notices how she’s matured, she says that sometimes talking to her is like talking to her teenage friends.  I have to frequently remind her even though she comes across as mature, she is only nine.  We need to let her keep what ever innocence remains of her.  Her job is to be the big sister steer her in the right direction, encourage her, share her wisdom and motivate her to be her best self.

So really how do you help siblings of children with mental illness?  What I’ve learned is love and  communication cover all kinds of things. Yeah, that may sound cliche, but it’s true. These are some tips I’ve learned along the way.

  • Talk about everything
  • Listen without judgment, everyone is entitled to their feelings and thoughts even if they don’t coincide with your own
  • provide reassurance that as the parent this is your burden to bear the children’s job is to provide love, support, and empathy to their sibling
  • Teach compassion
  • Laugh often, find things to rejoice in
  • Focus on the positive, even small improvements are progress
  • Make individual time for everyone, even if it’s just a short period of time

Above all else show love, it’s not enough to just say it.  Show it in your actions, let there be no doubt in your child’s mind that they are loved no matter what sort of chaos is going on around them.  Although some situations take precedence it doesn’t mean that anyone is less important or loved.

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