My 9-year-old throws tantrums that scare me. The other night, she screamed for hours on end, and my wife and I couldn’t soothe her. She punched the wall and destroyed her toys. She said hurtful things she didn’t mean. I wanted to respond the way she needs me to — calmly and steadily. But I couldn't. Instead, I screamed right along with her. I asked my wife to take over so I could help my heart stop racing and my hands stop shaking. I, too, said hurtful things I did not mean.
These are the most challenging moments we face as a family. These are the moments when my daughter’s PTSD triggers my own. We both have traumas from our early childhoods that were not our fault. We both feel terrified. We both feel out of control and ashamed. Mental illness can do that to a family.
But these moments are just that: moments.
There’s a bigger picture. One that is filled with dinner table dance parties, “kissy handshakes” at bedtime and family art projects. Moments where my daughter, who we adopted through foster care three years ago, looks at me and says, “I’m so glad you are my mom.”
We have more joyful moments together than challenging ones, but our brains are wired to focus on the scary feelings. My daughter and I get triggered into fight, flight or freeze — and it’s hard to come back. But we do. Over and over again, we claim our right to happy, healthy lives. This means taking radically good care of ourselves and each other. It makes me a better human, and it makes me a better parent.
Here's everything I likely would have missed out on had my daughter and I not had mental illness. I would never have learned to:
My wife, daughter and I each have our own therapist. We’ve practiced art therapy and play therapy and attachment therapy and even occupational therapy. We’ve received massage therapy and cranial sacral therapy and neurofeedback. Each of these therapies has helped. We talk about how our brains and bodies deserve support to feel good. We choose skilled and loving therapists to help our family heal, grow and thrive. This is our normal.
I don’t know any parents who take time away from their kids like we do. Of course, our daughter hates it when we leave to go on “a date for two nights” several times a year. But we plan to stay married, and to do so, we need to connect and remember who we are as a couple. Our marriage deserves that attention. Period.
My wife and I model taking time alone to focus on our individual needs, whether it’s a 10-minute nap before dinner, a moment to flip through a magazine uninterrupted or a solo trip to the spa overnight. Our little girl sees us taking time to care for ourselves, and now, she can even model that herself. She enjoys her own company as she plays in the sunshine or takes a relaxing bath with essential oils.
“Can you take in the love?” we ask our daughter gently. Our daughter’s anxiety makes it hard for her to take good feelings in, but deep breaths and reflection help a lot. We celebrate our favorite parts of the day. We talk about what we’re looking forward to each morning. We count off “five good things” on our fingers if we’re stuck in disappointment or worry.
Giving is just as important. We notice opportunities to make others happy, and we go for it. Whether it’s bringing water to people who are homeless on a hot day or making artwork for a cousin’s birthday, we look for opportunities to give.
To treat our PTSD, my daughter and I take in the basics: nutritious food, lots of water and plenty of sleep. I insist on these. But like many folks with mental illness, we need more. My daughter takes a low dose of a blood pressure medication for help managing hyperalertness. I take supplements to support my nervous system. Even my wife takes medication for anxiety. We may not need these forever. Or we will, and that’s OK too. We deserve all the help we can get to feel better.
There are times when PTSD symptoms seem to take center stage in our lives. At those times, we remind ourselves that these — the dark days — are part of being human. Then we get right back to self-care — back to showing ourselves and each other love and compassion, and to being the joyful, imperfect and beautiful family we are. Through adoption, across racial differences, in spite of mental illness, we love each other deeply.
This is my family: We have mental illness, and I’m all the better for it.
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