Adolescent mental illness can be chaotic.
During the early days of my daughter’s mental illness we lived in chaos and crisis every single day. I would brace myself in the driveway after work, never knowing what the evening would bring. Living with adolescent mental illness can put you in a persistent state of flight or fight. Eventually I sought the help of a therapist. It was the best decision I ever made!
One of the first things she told me was that I needed to get off the ride. My daughter was on a roller coaster and I was right there with her. If she was up, I was up. If she was down, I was down. It’s no wonder I felt like I had no footing of my own. I didn’t. I was engrossed in her path. From the high peaks and fast curves of that roller coaster, I couldn’t catch my breath or see the ground clearly.
What I needed to do was to step onto the platform and lovingly support her from there. It was from that vantage point that I was able to maintain the most perspective for both of us. In co-dependent terms, I was learning to detach with love. In her crisis, stepping back seemed counter-intuitive. My mother’s instinct was to run toward her when she’s hurting, not away.
Stand on the platform.
Standing on the platform, I was able to see clearly that being on the ride had actually been inhibiting her own growth and healing. In my effort to stop the pain and protect her, I would solve problems for her that she could have, and should have, solved on her own. I advocated when she should have advocated for herself. Her suicidal ideation scared me so I was on a mission to save her when it wasn’t my job to save her. When she self-harmed I reacted emotionally, only fueling the pain and shame she felt. During emotional outbursts I was easily goaded into engaging in escalated interactions because when she was up, so was I. And the list goes on and on.
The truth is that she needed to experience her life fully – the good, the bad and the ugly. Those were lessons for her to grow upon, and I was taking that from her. It was her path and my job was to support, not control.
Let’s be honest.
Making her responsible for me wasn’t fair and only compounded and complicated things for her.
I needed to begin to reclaim my life which had become lost along the way… and to become the best mom I could be.
I re-established my own boundaries and started a non-negotiable self-care ritual. Stepping onto the platform for that first time gave me just a little bit of space to breathe. Over time, that space became larger and larger, until I stood strong in my own life and truth. Not until then could I start taking steps toward my own growth. I took back my own energy and life. I detached from my daughter’s path with all the love in my heart.
And here’s a huge bonus for us- this was one of the best things I ever did for my daughter. Her behavior and mental health improved. She is empowered to be accountable and steps up. Healing started. We weather her ups and downs better because I’m not on the ride. She’s proud of me and the work I’ve done on myself that is independent of her. Our relationship is stronger and continues to grow.
A Few Simple Steps to Get Off the Ride
Awareness – First become aware of when your life has merged with your child’s. Start to recognize when you are on the ride. In the beginning, you may not realize you’ve been on the ride until after the ride has ended. That’s okay. Eventually you’ll notice it before it happens. For now, becoming aware at any point in time is the first step.
Belief – This might be harder than it first appears but will be critical for success. It took me a while to really understand how this was the best for my daughter and myself. You have a lifetime of patterns at work here. Be patient but honest with yourself. Make a list of the WHYs both for you and your child. What happens when you’re on the platform? How does standing on the platform differ from being on the ride? What happens when you’re on the ride? How does that feel? How beneficial is it to me? To my child? Refer back to this so that you can start to rewire those thought habits and build new, empowering ones.
Practice – Just like with any new behavior, you need to practice. Make this a conscious, intentional part of each day. Start your day with the intention to be on the platform. Visualize yourself on the platform or if you’re already on the ride, visualize yourself stepping onto the platform with love and compassion. From there, you’re watching your child on the roller coaster, staying calm and reasonable and supportive. Both of you are exactly where you need to be.
This is a wide brush stroke on some difficult change with adolescent mental illness, but it’s a start. I’ll dig deeper into this more in other blogs. I also understand that not all kids will respond well to the change, and will likely fight it. Hold firm. Be consistent. Show them that you’re that solid, loving parent who can’t be rattled. See what happens.
In the end, their behavior may not change — and that’s not even my point here. In the end, the only thing you can control is yourself. Stepping onto the platform is the only way to take back your power and reclaim your life. It’s no longer dependent on the roller coaster you’re child is on. It’s completely up to you.