*******Time for chapter 4 in my beautiful daughter’s story of growth and success beyond Struggles with Mental Health. If you missed chapter 1, 2, & 3, click the links below to read how our journey began. ******
Fifth grade is the year the floor dropped out and everything we thought we knew about mental health was turned on its side. My daughter describes it as the WORST YEAR EVER. I cannot say I disagree. Her fifth grade year we struggled together in new territory with a whole new pile of symptoms. The year was full of anguish, but in the end we learned to climb together into a new place of peace and calm.
How It All Began
At the end of the summer before fifth grade, Mariana began worrying about being sick all the time. It started to affect the way she ate and slept. Her anxiety around illness seemed to be at an all-time high. By the night before the first day of school, she was waking every hour like a newborn baby. She was overcome with worry over illness. She sought constant comfort from me, again like a newborn child. What in the world is happening? I phoned her psychiatrist and he fit me in for an emergency meeting.
Anxiety Turned to OCD
After a quick explanation of our situation, the doctor said Mariana was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder(OCD). OCD is simply put an extreme form of anxiety. Her obsession was over illness and her compulsive behaviors involved not eating and a need for constant comfort from me. We made the decision to add anti-anxiety medication to her med routine and see if it gave her some relief. I felt better having a plan and prayed for quick results.
Praying for Quick Relief
We started the new meds right away. We did everything in our power to comfort and calm her constant fears. There were nights when our 11 year old was sleeping with us in our bed. Other nights she slept on our floor. She began to check dishes to see how clean they were and checked every expiration date when taking food out of the refrigerator. Getting her to school every day became a battle. Every day was the same, “Mommy, I just don’t feel well. Something is wrong. I must be sick.” The first med gave her no relief. The second also gave her no relief. We moved on to med number three and things began to get worse.
Going from Bad to Worse
With the introduction of med three my fearful daughter also became angry, enraged, and often hysterical. It was difficult to talk to her. She would shut down – no talking, no moving, no eye contact. Other times she would simply sob uncontrollably, the only thing that would console her was physical contact from me. I would lie next to her and hold her until the sobbing subsided. The last extreme was violent fits of anger.
One afternoon up north, we realized we were beyond new territory – the floor dropped out below our feet. After simple instructions to get in the car because we were going to the woods for a while, Mariana became a child I did not recognize. She tried to run away from us. I am not sure where she thought she was going, but she started running down the road. Her daddy carried her to the truck and put her in the back seat. She yelled, screamed, and punched at the window. We calmly explained we wouldn’t be gone long and the fresh air would do us all good.
Things Get Scary
As we drove down the road, she screamed at us. We were the worst parents ever and she hated us. She wanted to leave, to be anywhere but with us. As we drove down the road, she started screaming for help out the window and then tried to get out of the moving truck. Shaun pulled over. I crawled in the back seat and sat on her lap to hold her tight. She fought me every minute and continued to yell and scream. Had we been at home, Shaun would have driven to the hospital. We were beyond knowing what to do. But here we were, the closest hospital and hour away, so he continued to drive.
Then as if someone flipped a switch in her brain, the tension ended. Instead of screaming hate, she began sobbing apologies. I held my sobbing daughter until she was too exhausted to cry any more. We then spent over an hour, the three of us, working together in the woods like nothing had happened. Mariana flipped a switch and now wanted nothing to do with what had happened. She moved on. The last thing she was going to do was discuss what just happened. She did not have any answers for us on why. It was our job to help her figure out the next step.
Time for a New Plan
We stopped the med merry go round as soon as we got home. Anxiety meds were not helping and were most definitely making so many things worse. I talked to the doctor and went through the process of weening her from the anxiety meds. The next step of our plan was 60 days without meds except for the ADHD meds we had been on for years. For 60 days, I kept a detailed journal of every emotion my girl showed. Every up, every down, the panic, the anger, I wrote everything down. At the end of 60 days, I faxed my pile of notes to the doctor.
During these 60 days, we continued Mariana’s weekly appointments with her psychologist. I relayed all the information I was journaling to her and she gathered what she could from a very reluctant Mariana. One advantage to seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist in the same office is they are able to easily consult. At the end of 60 days, we had a whole new picture of where she was in the world.
Landing at Bi-Polar II Disorder
I remember it clearly. I sat across from our psychologist and she said, “I don’t want to scare you, but Mariana is suffering from Bi-Polar II Disorder.” I looked right at her and replied, “I am not scared. Not even a little. Now what do we do?” I found out Bi-Polar II leans toward the depressive side of the spectrum and only moves to hypo-mania. I also found out how the anger, OCD, and anxiety were all co-existing as part of the Bi-Polar II. Perfect! Now we have some place to go, a diagnosis, and a whole new list of medications to review. A correct label means we would be considering the correct meds. These 4 little words gave me so much HOPE.
Time to Choose a New Med
We discussed our medication options with our psychiatrist. With Mariana’s age and size he wanted to start with a milder medication and a low dose. Since sleep was such a huge issue, we decided on Seroquel. It is known to help with sleep and the only common side effect was increased appetite. Being that Adderall regularly decreased her appetite and she is small to begin with, we decided an increase in appetite would not be a problem. I can say with certainty I was HOPEFUL and TERRIFIED. Our previous med experiment was such a nightmare. I prayed that moving to mood stabilizers would give us a better chance at finding balance. We were 6 months in and we all desperately needed some calm and balance.
A Long Way to Go
Medication is never a quick fix. It takes time to figure out dosages and to build up in the system. We started our new med and held our breath. We continued to have our tween sleeping on our floor 90% of the time. Just the sound of us breathing gave her a little peace. We managed our way through panic attacks. I watched her cocoon herself in her room, the only place she felt the least little bit safe, during the day. We dragged her out of bed in the morning and off to school. At least we tried to send her off to school at least 75% of the time.
Day by day, little by little, we started to see improvements. It started with sleep. She began to sleep at least half the night in her own room and her actual bed. The next improvement came in the form of appetite. She started to eat a little more. The obsessive fears were still ever present, but it became easier to calm them. Finally, the anger started to subside. Her fuse became longer and if caught at the right moment we could actually diffuse situations before they escalated to epic proportions. We were climbing our way out of the cavern in which we had fallen.
How Did We Survive?
Looking back at the WORST YEAR EVER, I often question how we survived. The weight of being my daughter’s anchor, while holding a full-time job and raising two other children was exhausting and overwhelming. Of course, we also came across the issue that I cannot be everywhere all the time. School was one of our biggest issues.
Mariana got two brand new teachers at the start of 5th grade. In Montessori this is not the norm. We were set to have the same teachers for 4th -6th grade. But things happen, teachers move on, and we found ourselves with new teachers. We were blessed with two of the most understanding women I have ever met; teachers who saw her as a struggling child, not a psycho behavior case. One of these two amazing women connected with Mariana on such a personal level; we began referring to her as our school mom.
Forever Grateful for Our School Mom
Ms. Megan connected with Mariana and anticipated her needs in the same way I did. She could see when emotions were escalating and intervene before disaster hit. As time progressed and Mariana and Megan continued to bond, I would hand Mariana over to her on the bad days. As Mariana was panicking and begging to go home in the school parking lot, I would simply say, “Let’s go find Ms. Megan and tell her you need a school mom today.” As I passed my anxious child over, I knew she was in safe hands. I cannot fully express how grateful I am that God sent us Megan during this disastrous year. Without her, the year would have played out so much different.
We Continued to Climb Together
When dealing with one’s mental health, the road takes many twists and turns. Answers are often difficult to find. There are ups and downs, good days and bad, but through it all we continued to climb together. As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, we continued to see improvements. Our sad, angry, scared girl moved into a space where she was happy, able to communicate her frustration, and fight her fears with logic. Mariana began to eat more, gained some weight, and overall looked healthier and stronger. By the middle of 6th grade, all her teachers were commenting on the improvement they saw in Mariana’s overall behavior and performance. We reached new peaks in our journey.
How the World Looks Now
Today we are in a fabulous place. When I look at our day to day life, I see normal teenage girl full of all the regular angst and emotion that come along with the age. Mariana is discovering new ways to manage her anxiety and depression on her own. She finds ways to calm and soothe her often tumultuous thoughts and comes to us for help when she needs a little extra support. Instead of craving the solitude and safety of her bedroom, she is more eager to go places and do things. She religiously takes her medication on her own without complaint. She sees medicine as a good thing, something to help her feel and sleep better. I thank God every day for the place we are in now. Three years ago, I feared we would never live in a world that looked so neuro-typical, free of constant chaos.
The mental health journey is never over. As one grows, chemicals change and things can evolve and change. Our journey from those first days of struggle in Kindergarten to the 7th grader who is gaining confidence daily was a long one. My mantra during this long and often frustrating journey was “I will never give up. We will find a way together.” To all the moms at the beginning of the journey, know that you are the perfect person to advocate for your child. Speak up for them and never stop seeking solutions. Even though the ground dropped out from under our feet, we climbed our way back to the top of the mountain together.