As A Mom Of A Child With Mental Illness, This Is What I Worry About

by Annie Shapiro
Originally Published: 
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Hearing about the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain means that I find myself forecasting the future death of my nine-year old daughter.

I can see the 280-character eulogies pouring in on Twitter. Talking about how her 20- 30- 40- or 50-something life ended too soon, how she was a light to those who knew her, the tremendous empathy she showed, that she was an inventor/activist/CEO/nonprofit-running changemaker who championed for the proverbial “little guy.”

This is all despite the fact that she is currently literally, the little guy. While it’s completely normal for parents to project the future for their children and contemplate what they will be like, who they will become and what they will be doing with their lives; as the parent of a child with a mental illness, I can’t help but wonder if she will have the luxury of becoming anything at all as an adult.

Her potential future greatness which has been both predicted and assumed by so many of the people in her life can easily by explained by who she is and what she has accomplished already. She is a black belt in tae kwon do and was chosen as the youngest girl in the 25-year history of her dojang to be in their Leadership program. She decided that she wanted to teach herself how to write script in the summer between first and second grade, and she did. She memorized all of the presidents in order, including the years of their presidencies in first grade, too. She has a phenomenal imagination with the writing skills to bring that magic to life.

But that imagination can also work against her when her mental illness takes over. When it tells her that her accomplishments in tae kwon do are meaningless because her friend can do some crazy flying kick that she has not yet mastered. Or when she is unable to focus on the incredible folktale she wrote for her assignment because all she can do is marinate in the shame she feels because she ran out of the classroom yet again during a panic attack.

And there is no convincing her that her behaviors do not define her. That they are only how she acts and not who she is.

And I know that her demons are not unique to her. That the messages she hears in her head are so, so similar to those heard by chefs and authors and handbag designers and comedians and teachers and bus drivers and CEOs and waitresses and artists.

And some of these people we admire from afar. And some we know intimately. And most are somewhere in the middle.

And all of them are hurting.

And my daughter is hurting. And she is not alone. And this is not something that a Band-Aid and a kiss can fix and that fact leaves me gutted.

As the parent of a loved one with a mental illness, I don’t read about these suicides and merely think about how sad and tragic this is for the person who has taken their lives, or for their families and loved ones; I am also thinking about my loved one. And the “what ifs” begin to pile up in my brain and in the pit of my stomach. What if in the future there is an outpouring of messages, of grief and shock at the loss of my little girl?

And I don’t want to read Twitter eulogies about her one day. I don’t want to hear people’s 280-character messages about her “light” or “potential” or “spirit.” I want her to live long enough and well enough for them to see her character. I want her to want to live long enough to give herself the chance to show the world how much beauty can come from, and despite, pain.

As much as I know that my daughter is not alone in how she feels, I know that I am not alone either. But I also want the other mothers and fathers out there who feel their stomachs drop and their eyes water at the moment they hear that someone else is “gone too soon” and know that it is not a foregone conclusion that they may one day hear those words uttered about their child—I hear you. I feel you. I am with you.

And we will keep talking to our kids. We will advocate for better services for them in school and get them the help they need to the best of our ability. And we will continue to chip away at the sigma and shine a light on mental illness before we have to see more of our sons and daughters have their own light dimmed by this terrible darkness inside them.

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