I walked up a short flight of stairs to the front door and there he stood: A tiny, 2-year-old boy with a rough start in life who would soon be my son.
The wave of his tiny hand and sad look in his eyes made me want to wrap my arms around him, love him and give him the happiest childhood possible. I thought it would be easy to take his pain away and make everything better. I quickly learned this was far from the truth.
Bonding didn’t happen right away. I was Mom number three for him, and he was done bonding, done losing. Oh, but I tried—I talked to his pediatrician, guardian ad litem and case worker in hopes that one of them could give me pointers on helping my son bond with me. Not only that, he woke up screaming night after night that the house was on fire.
I could only speculate on the hurt and trauma my little boy had endured. Professionals encouraged me to be patient and hang in there; after all he was “too young” for therapy or interventions and would eventually “get over” his fears and develop into a happy child.
The road was long, and the walls were high and hard to climb. We often got to the top only to fall back to the start. Our hurt, angry and scared little boy didn’t understand and as his parents, we hurt for him and for ourselves.
What more could we do? And would it be enough? Should we believe the psychiatrist who told us, when our son was only 9 years old, that we needed to lower our expectations—to come to terms with the fact that children who presented with much fewer behavioral health issues than our son spent the majority of their lives in institutions?
We decided we wouldn’t “lower our expectations,” nor would we give up on our son. There was a reason we were in his life and he in ours.
Still, things went from bad to worse.
He was arrested at 11, spending eight weeks in juvenile detention awaiting trial. During his hearing, I pleaded with the judge to allow my son to attend a residential treatment facility for young boys. The judge either felt sorry for me or agreed and sentenced my son to residential treatment. He spent 18 months there.
Meanwhile, I kept looking for support for families like ours. We had lost most of our friends. We didn’t blame them—they were either scared to be around us or tired of hearing about our heartbreak.
Luckily, and thankfully, I found a flyer in my son’s case manager’s office for NAMI North Carolina’s Young Families Support Program. I sent an email to the Family Support Advocate for the county where we lived, and she invited me to lunch.
As we chatted and got to know each other, she gave me a folder with NAMI information and an invitation to the support group meetings scheduled for the following month. At that first family support group meeting, my husband and I were invited to participate in a new NAMI program for parents and caregivers. The program, NAMI Basics, was scheduled for six Saturdays in a row.
It was during Class 3, when we were telling our stories, that I broke down for the first time. My poor husband was shocked and didn’t know how to respond. After all, I didn’t cry. I was strong. I had to be. But on this day, I wasn’t strong. I was angry—at the mental health system, at my son’s birth family, at the world.
If I felt this much pain, I couldn’t imagine how my child was feeling.
That six-week course changed our lives. It allowed me to mourn our loss. The loss of the child we thought we had and the ability to accept the child we did have.
As the years passed, my son moved from residential treatment, to a group home, then to a therapeutic foster home, and we continued to support him emotionally and financially. I was told many times to give custody of him to the state and not turn back. Even if possible, that was not an option for me. He’d already lost two mothers, he wasn’t losing me too.
Every time I felt defeated and wondered if I should give up, the coping skills and problem-solving skills I learned in NAMI Basics came to my aid. Like many others, NAMI Basics saved my family. It gave us the tools to keep going and keep fighting for my son—his care, his happiness and his life.
My son is now 23, married with two little boys of his own. He and his wife bought a home last year. College wasn’t his thing, so he went to trade school and is an electric lineman. He calls me often, especially when he is angry or depressed. I was, and have always been, the “phone call” on our Crisis Plan for him.
During my most recent birthday phone call, he gave me the best present I could have received. It cost him nothing but it was priceless to me.
“Mom, I remember all the years of being lost and wanting to give up and feeling like nobody cared about me. I was able to keep going and not give up because you and Dad told me over and over that I have a purpose. You told me I might not know that purpose for years to come, but to always remember: ‘You have a purpose.’”
He told me he was helping a teenager through a mental health crisis when he realized: “My purpose is to help people the same way you and Dad helped me.”
Helping him find his purpose, I had found my purpose.
Anita Herron is manager of national education programs—including NAMI Basics—at NAMI.
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