My stepdaughter’s freshman year in high school is coming to a close. I haven’t talked about her on this blog as much as I’ve talked about my son, and that’s because we’ve dealt with some very serious, very heavy things this year alongside her, which I wasn’t comfortable disclosing to the world.
There is so much stigma attached to mental illness and I didn’t want to subject her — or our family — to the judgment I will undoubtedly receive by making this information public, but I recently came to the conclusion that keeping quiet about this only further perpetuates that stigma. She is not a leper or anything... but mental illness isn’t something you typically announce or you’re proud to discuss. No one goes to a dinner party and brags about a mentally ill family member. But the more people I’ve opened up to about it, the better I’ve felt about the whole situation — it seems like everyone I know has been touched by mental illness in some way, so I’m coming clean:
Last fall, we were dealing with an undue amount of anger and depression in our daughter, which reared its ugly head in the form of her self-mutilating (cutting), terrible grades, poor social relationships, loss of interest in things she once liked and generally acting like an a-hole to everyone around her, so we took her to a therapist and a few weeks later she was diagnosed ADHD and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder – no, it’s not just teen angst). Her diagnosis snowballed into bipolar disorder/manic depression by December. We started her on a medication regimen around Christmas. Um, where is the handbook for raising a mentally unstable 14-year-old?
Then in March, after another (serious) bout with cutting, we made the decision to unenroll her from school and send her to a partial-hospitalization-program (PHP) for six weeks. The PHP is technically a “charter school” day program where she received intensive one-on-one and group therapy most of the day, along with tutoring to keep up with grades. Hubs and I both work outside of the home full-time, so during that six weeks, we also had family sessions at the PHP center one night a week and we were still seeing her outpatient therapist one night a week. She also saw her psychiatrist there twice a week, who changed her medication twice in the 6-week period. It was like a tornado — we either had an evening appointment related to her care or a blowup at home; no day was just a "go to work, come home, make dinner, spend time with family, go to bed" kind of day.
Is this all in her genes – is it all hereditary? I don’t know because neither my husband or I are her biological parents, but we found out later from her mom that there is mental illness on both sides of her biological family, including bipolar disorder on her mom’s side. Sheesh, how were we to know? Which behaviors are the ADHD as opposed to the ODD as opposed to the bipolar? It is all such a gray area because most of the behaviors overlap...
But now she is happy to be back at her regular school (she got back just in time to take semester exams - oh joy). Grades are pretty much over this year — all the damage has been done, so Hubs and I are done stressing over it for her. Time to cut our losses and move on. She's going to spend a long time at her mom's this summer (as is typical for her summers), a welcome break from us, I'm sure, and a break for us as well.
Just when I feel like I want to pull my hair out or throw my hands up and say, “This is not my problem — I didn’t sign up for this!” I remember that she didn’t either. No one signs up for mental illness. I’ll never experience this whole ordeal from her point of view and she’ll never be able to see it from mine, but somehow we’ll get through it together. The sophomore year is always easier, right?