I’ve written before about my youngest daughter. She suffers from a serious mental illness, but thanks to a good psychiatrist and the medicine she gave her, she is now stable and doing remarkably well. I am very thankful. The events of last couple of weeks have helped remind me of just how much progress she has made.
In fact, she is making better progress than I am. I remember all too well her past rages, the violent outbursts during which she would kick holes in the wall, or smash the window in her room, or fling a plate or glass on the floor, or knock paintings down. All the while she would be screaming, cursing; she would pound on the floor or the walls with her fists. And occasionally, she would end up striking me.
These outbursts, that could last an hour or more, were unpredictable and random, triggered by the mildest of setbacks: such as telling her that we were currently out of a particular kind of snack food, followed by screaming and her kicking a hole in the dining room wall. Or the time she noticed that a spot on her pizza seemed to be a bit overdone, so that she screamed that it had been burned and must be taken back to the pizza place immediately. That was followed by her grabbing a large kitchen knife, putting it to her throat, and yelling that we didn’t love her, we weren’t her parents, we wanted her to starve, and that she should be dead.
But those and numberless similar situations that we faced on a daily basis for five years are a nightmare in the past now.
A couple of weeks ago she had her four wisdom teeth removed. In the weeks leading up to this event, she expressed anxiety—but in calm words. We had calm discussions about the details of the extraction, about the nature of being under general anesthetic; we reminded her that her oldest sister, and both her mom and I had had our wisdom teeth extracted. We talked to her about her other sister who has had surgery on both a wrist and on an ankle. And despite her feelings of anxiety and worry, she remained calm. We saw no expressions of rage. There was no out of control behavior. She experienced the sort of dismay and concern and worry that one might expect of a normal teenager instead of the rage of a mentally ill, bi-polar teenager.
Following the surgery, she endured the discomfort and pain well. She occasionally cried; she whined about eating nothing but milkshakes and mashed potatoes. But she accepted our reassurances that what she was enduring was both temporary and completely normal. And so we got through the whole thing without any problems.
Likewise, when she had a bad falling out with one of her friends over this past weekend, while there was again tears and dismay, the rage was absent. Certainly the falling out was over nothing of real consequence, and her reactions were overly dramatic—but they were the behavior of normal immaturity, not the behavior of lunacy.
Afterwards, I felt relief and pleasure in how much better she is doing now than the previous five years before she got the right medications to solve her issue. But my emotional state during the two travails of the past two weeks were anything but normal. My feelings of anxiety, stress and fear were not that of a normal parent of a normal teenager.
Our dog Snicker is a rescue: that is, my wife got him from an animal rescue organization. In most ways, Snicker is quite the normal small animal; he is a very happy and content creature, whose favorite activity every day is to go on a walk. But there are occasions when we catch a glimpse of the bad things in his past, from before we got him nearly eight years ago (when he was about one-year-old).
He is frightened of squirt bottles. He will cower whenever he sees one in our hands; he reacts the same to hair spray bottles. We have never used a squirt bottle on him; in the time he has been with us, no squirt bottle has ever harmed him. But he tucks his tail and shivers all the same.
My internal stress reactions to my youngest daughter are out of proportion to her current behavior. They are the consequence of how I learned to behave, to cope, to deal with her illness before she was properly medicated. I keep hoping that I’ll get over it, but so far I have not. Even during quiet periods of time, when she is watching TV, or taking a nap, in the back of my head a certain low-level anxiety broods. When she faces the normal disappointments of life, that anxiety awakens and my stress skyrockets.
I have other nightmare experiences that stalk me. One leads me to occasionally visit her room and stare at her while she sleeps.
Why? Just to reassure myself that she is breathing. The memory of her brother who died of SIDs when he was three months old is something that even eighteen years later, I have not entirely shaken. Her violent rages are not the same level of trauma as a baby dying from SIDS. I’m hoping the fear of her bi-polar rage that still plagues my mind will fade both quicker and more completely. Time will tell.As a reminder, if you have a loved one who is suffering from a mental illness, please consider getting involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). They offer support groups and training that can really help you.