After being a professional caregiver for more than 40 years and recovering from a stroke and a coma, I can honestly say that raising a teenager with mental health issues is the most challenging thing I have ever experienced. Being a parent is hard enough under normal circumstances. Teenage years are full of challenges like power struggles, rebelliousness and defiant behavior — and that’s before factoring in bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
It has been a few years since my son was diagnosed, but I still remember the sleepless nights — the worrying about not only his safety, but our own. We made numerous trips to the hospital for evaluations that often turned into weeks in the hospital as they tried to adjust his medication. There were outbursts of anger for what looked like no reason. The threats of suicide — not to mention the actual attempts — were horrible nightmares that no one should have to experience.
I dealt with some social workers who were only in it for a job and didn’t seem concerned about whether our son lived or died. Once, I asked one of his social workers if they were going to make sure he took his medicine or try to keep him longer in the hospital given his recent overdose that left him in a coma for several days and damaged his heart. She curtly informed me that they didn’t plan to ask for a longer committal.
“But what if he tries to kill himself again?” I asked her, emphasizing the seriousness of the situation.
At this stage, the social worker told me that if he did and succeeded, it wasn’t their problem. After all, he was just one of a growing number of cases assigned to her, and none of them really meant anything except a paycheck.
For years, my husband and I slept in shifts, not only for our son’s safety, but out of concern for other children and ourselves.
One of the many times the police had to be called to our house to help restrain our son, the new suicide prevention officer informed me that I needed to remove everything he could use to hurt himself or someone else with from home. But he had no grasp of the extent of our situation. This just wasn’t possible.
I had long ago removed sharp cooking utensils from the kitchen as a safety precaution after he had tried to kill us with a knife. That made sense. But what the officer didn’t understand is that my son was very resourceful when it came to arming himself with household objects — there was no way to remove everything from the house that he could potentially use to hurt someone.
Once, my son hit his brother in the head with a vacuum cleaner — were we never to have clean floors again? He picked up rocks in the yard and would throw them at us. He had taken a 4-by-4 timber and destroyed the windows and body on my car, beating the roof flat. He took the axe we used to chop firewood and chased his father with it. That happened the same day he broke every window in our house and threatened to kill us all with a knife.
Between the ages of 11 and 14, the incidents were endless, but he was too young to force to leave and yet too dangerous to live with. Even after he turned 19 and I finally made him move out, the torture he inflicted on our family continued. I helped him get an apartment and checked on him at least once a day for several years after that, but no longer have contact with him for my youngest son’s safety. It was the hardest decision I ever made. Not a day goes by I don’t wonder about him.
So many times I have held my breath waiting to learn the identity of some mass shooter or a crazy guy with a knife reported on the news. I am so relieved when I find out it’s not him — at least this time.
I know I did all I could to help him. I took him to countless doctors, and he was hospitalized multiple times until he was old enough to request to be released. I made sure he took his medicine until he got old enough that legally I couldn’t force him to anymore. I still tried, but my hands were tied. I talked to government agencies seeking to find someplace that could help him, all to no avail. I even asked Child Protective Services if they would remove him and put him someplace safe, but since we were not abusing him, they could not help us either — even though he was abusive to our other children.
State laws vary, but Texas has some of the worst for families of a child with mental illness. At 16, he was allowed to make his medical decisions. There was nothing we could do unless we got a judge to sign off on it.
Our son quickly learned the magic words, “I will not harm myself or anyone else. If I feel like I want to, I will call for help.” Two little sentences meant to help people seal the torture for the rest of my children and myself for years.
But despite being able to make his own medical decision when he was 16, I was still legally responsible for him. If he went on a rampage and broke windows at a neighbor’s house, I had to pay the damages for not controlling my child. Under these laws, I could not do anything to ensure he stayed on medicine or got treatment to make sure he didn’t do those things.
Thousands of other parents face similar situations every day. Next time you see a teenager behaving in a way that seems inappropriate, give his parents a little slack for me. I shudder whenever I hear people blame the parents for their children’s actions. When you remove all ability from a parent to take care of a child yet hold them financially responsible for their actions, it doesn’t make sense.
Remember as you come in contact with people, you have no idea what terrors they might be facing at home. They might be fighting with all they have to prevent another tragedy. Please also remember that this monster is still their child and they love him or her, even though they may hate their illness.