Parenting a child with mental health issues changes you.  Wouldn’t it be awful if it didn’t? It’s an experience that runs the gamut from emotional moments of sadness or satisfaction, and action moments of “I did it!” to “I can’t believe that just happened.”  You can pretty much be assured of lots of ups and downs each and every day, often intense ups and downs. You try to become nimble and a master at quickly adjusting.

When I was in my early 20s, I would pace myself to any drummer I could hear.  I could tackle things that appealed to me and give a wide berth to those that did not.  Things were pretty predictable, too.  If I did well at work, people noticed and gave me a thumbs up.  If I let something slide, I was the one stuck with the mess later.  I was feeling like I had some control over my life.  That was before my son was born.

At the time, I was a little star struck by the self-assured women I met, who seemed unfazed by judge-y people and didn’t agonize (too much) over decisions.  They spoke at meetings in a clear, confident voice and I, at least, didn’t see them sweat. The closest I got to that was women’s empowerment songs in the car.

Then I had my son.  He was a trying baby, not sleeping through the night until he was two.  He was smart, loved laughter and very strong willed.  By the time he hit first grade, it was pretty apparent he was anxious (ever see a t-shirt chewed out of shape by an anxious child?) and he needed a lot more at home and at school that I ever thought he would.

The first time he was evaluated by the school was one of those moments that changed me.  The school psychologist had done a battery of test and sat with me to go over them.  “His IQ is really high,” she told me.  “His father must be very smart.” She then went on to say that because he was smart, he didn’t need any extra support at school.  I sat there stunned.  His father was the one who was smart? Not me, even a little bit?

I didn’t speak up at that meeting, but went home and had a serious talk with myself.  My son needed me to be strong.  He needed me to be articulate, persuasive, and persistent and (at least) act confident.  I needed to learn a few things and quickly.  I couldn’t pace myself to just any drummer, I couldn’t do what appealed to me. If I wanted to be effective, I had to change.

Later, as my son needed more services, I became my own navigator of the children’s mental health system.  For any of us who have done this, it’s a labyrinth of twisty turns and dead ends.  I worked hard to learn and to become good at finding and getting what he needed.  What I also found is that one feature of this labyrinth is that you can do everything “right” and still not be successful.  It wasn’t like work in my 20s where doing good work led to a thumbs up.  I learned to take satisfaction from doing things well and give up expecting predictable results.  Sometimes I got them, but not always.

One day at a fair, I stopped and got a Tarot card reading.  I remember it was a day where I was feeling jumbled, at odds with myself.  I was losing my old self and didn’t know my new one very well.  I sat down, chose the cards and listened.  “You’ve always worn velvet gloves,” I was told.  “You are gentle and patient. But you are entering a time in your life where you need to have an iron fist inside that velvet glove.  You need to be strong.”  It rang true.  Inside, I was growing stronger, more like those unfazed, confident women I had admired.  Outside, I could still wear the velvet glove. Some of the old me and some of the new.

A few years later, I had another meeting with a school psychologist, a different one.  This one went very well.  Sure, I was savvier and more prepared.  But more than that, I had changed.  I was firmer, stronger and insistent.  I was the kind of advocate my son needed.  I mourned the old me a little, but I knew that staying in my comfort zone would have been a huge mistake.

Sometimes I wonder who I might have been without a child like mine.  Would I still be singing those songs in the car as if they were about someone else?  Now I sing them about me, a lot of the time anyway.