We had a great weekend, spent time with friends and family, Ranee had been to a party with all the little girls from our congregation it was a normal weekend. She had confided in me that some little boys at school had been bothering her, nothing malicious, just little boy silliness. But she wanted it to stop, so we talked about telling a teacher. She was nervous about what to say so we even practiced and she seemed to feel good about it. Monday came and our morning was like any other. Three kids in 3 different schools meant a pretty hectic morning, but we had a pretty good system going. I’d Wake them one at a time to avoid the bathroom rush and enjoy my little time with each one of them. I got the boys off to school and woke Ranee, we danced and sang our morning away like we normally do. And I dropped her off.
Honestly, my heart would pull a little every morning when I’d send my children off to school. It’s just a reminder that they’re growing up and I have to let them go. It’s not that I don’t mind my little bit of solitude, but I miss my children when they’re not with me. I worry about how they’re doing. Are they making good choices? Are they secure within themselves to resist negative influences? Are they safe? Did they eat enough at lunch?
I used to feel secure sending my children off to school but since that terrible tragedy in Newtown, my idea of security has been shattered. Every morning when my family disperses to their different destinations I pray that we can all come back together safely because life is so uncertain. Ranee used to enjoy riding the bus, we would walk down to the end of the street we’d talk about what birds or animals we’d see. And discuss what the day would entail for her. After Charlene was born, Ranee no longer wanted to take the bus. She savored those little extra moments with the baby and let’s face it in the cold New England months standing at the bus stop with a baby is no fun.
Whenever my phone rings in the middle of the day from any of the children’s schools my heart sinks a little. Is someone sick? Did someone get in trouble? Who forgot what now? I was heading out-of-town for an appointment when I saw Ranee’s school’s phone number show up on my cell phone. Immediately I was concerned. I had only dropped her off an hour ago.
“Mr’s Burgos it’s Cindy, the school social worker. I don’t even know how to tell you this but something is seriously wrong with Ranee, she seems to be having a mental breakdown or something, She came to me and told me about the boys, we spoke to them and they where apologetic and we had resolved it but now she won’t stop crying and she says she’s seeing a bad man. I’m very concerned, I’ve never seen anything like this I think you should come to the school now.”
When I got to the school I found a completely different child than the one I had dropped off only hours before, my bright lively girl was a mere shell of herself. Her eyes swollen and bulging, she was visibly shaking and crying uncontrollably. She threw herself into my arms. She said the man was saying mean things to her, threatening to hurt her and her family if she spoke of his presence. Telling her to do bad things. Her eyes darted around the room as she said he was flying and landing everywhere, keeping her within his sight, scowling at her. She was actively hallucinating.
Baffled and in complete shock, I looked at Cindy as I cradled my nine-year-old daughter on my lap, and my six-month-old daughter on the other shoulder, unsure of what to even do. All she could tell me was that she had come to her to talk to her about the boys that had been bothering her. Cindy spoke to the boys and they were very apologetic, they liked Ranee and had meant her no harm, they were just playing, they apologized and everything seemed fine. After it was all discussed and resolved that’s when the meltdown began.
My mind was going a mile a minute, what is this? What’s wrong with her? Cindy had put in a call to a crisis hotline. Honestly, I didn’t know what that even meant but as a social worker, I guess that’s who you call when you have a child in this type of distress. I was told to take Ranee home and wait for the crisis worker to arrive.
Ranee was interviewed by the crisis worker at our home. It was apparent that she was actively hallucinating as she said the dark figure was flying around the room telling her not to speak . She would seem fine and distracted, then recoil into herself. When they questioned me I had no explanation, she was perfectly fine that morning. I had no better answers than they did. The conclusion of that visit, she would be fine for the evening and we were to go to a local facility where they deal with these kinds of things for further evaluation the next day.
The next morning Ranee was bright and cheery. But she would waver, as she was getting ready in the mirror she screamed. “He’s back Mama, do you see him sitting on top of the mirror?” We packed her snack for school and got her book bag ready expecting that after our meeting she would just go to school. I’m not sure what I was thinking was going to come of this. I knew what she was experiencing was beyond my control, that it just wasn’t going to go away, but I was unaware of the process.
At the facility, a worker came out and said they were going to take Ranee to ask her some questions. How strange I thought, you have this terrified little girl, in this new strange place and you’re taking her away to speak to her in private? I let her go assuring her and myself that it would be okay. They brought her back an hour later, wide-eyed, face tear shrieked. Next was my turn, they set Ranee up in front of the television with a cartoon and I reassured her that I would be right back. I suppose the questions that they asked are standard I was just so unprepared mentally. Ranee has had no sexual abuse, no traumas no natural disasters or sudden deaths in the family. Our household is just normal, in a blended family sort of way. We just are who we are we serve God, we love each other, and we do our best to provide a stable environment.
The clinician told me that according to Ranee she had been seeing people and hearing voices for years, but they were nice and they had suddenly turned mean and threatening. Years? How could I not notice for years that my child was seeing and hearing things, what kind of mom wouldn’t notice that her child was hallucinating for years? But time to a child is different from adults. It’s like when a child says they’ve been waiting forever but it’s only been a couple of minutes, so we couldn’t really gauge how long this had been going on. I knew they had to ask as much as I didn’t want to admit it. Any family history of Depression? Bipolar? Anxiety disorder? schizophrenia? As much as I hated the dreaded question the answer is yes, yes, yes and yes. This was the moment we’ve always lived in fear of. There are different thoughts on whether mental illness is hereditary or situational. Brought on by trauma or an unstable gestational period. Carmelo’s mental illness seemed to be brought on by the latter.
Her father has bipolar with schizophrenic tendencies. Most people would never know Carmelo suffers from this chronic disease he’s well controlled with his medication cocktail. He knows when his mind isn’t responding to the medication properly. He’s learned how to manage his disease so he can live a fulfilling life. He had never experienced anything like Ranee was experiencing. I had only once seen him hallucinate and that was when he was un-medicated and unwell. Is this it? Is this how it starts I thought, just out of nowhere the mind just breaks and suddenly your mentally ill? I felt so helpless, she was looking to me for help and I couldn’t give it, all I could do was reassure her that these people would tell us what to do to make her feel better.
I sailed through that day in a fog, almost blindly just following the lead of the professionals. I faked my confidence, hid my fear. I didn’t want Ranee to see how terrified I was, in those moments my heart was breaking for her and I was combating a whole world of guilt. Did I push her too hard? How could I have missed this? What did I do wrong? I kept grasping for a reason an explanation something that would explain it away. I’d advocated for Carmelo when he was unstable, I still advocate for him to make sure he has what he needs to stay well, but this was brand new territory Ranee is a child she can’t fully understand herself, yet articulate it to anyone else. Could her mind really just break just like that? Those were the first scary days of many. The first institutionalization of many. And our first steps into the world of children with mental illness.