mental illness

Childhood Trauma and Mental Health: Guest Post From a Survivor

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Herding Chickens Guest Post:

One of my readers has agreed to share her experience on Herding Chickens. She has been following the blog for awhile. C always has great insight about my children, particularly Mary. This is because C is a survivor of trauma herself. She also lives with a mental health diagnosis she agreed to share with my readers.Enjoy! I think parents like me have a lot to learn from C. This will be written in an interview format. You may leave questions for C in the comments section.

HC:  Thank you for agreeing to do this. I am hoping you can shine some light on mental health and childhood trauma. Can you share your story with us?

C: First, I’ll give some background. I just turned 30 and I am in a master’s program for clinical counseling. I am a trauma survivor. My earliest memories involve trauma. This trauma involves my parents and maternal grandmother. I was never removed from my home. I did not start receiving treatment until I was 12 years old and it was from a guidance counselor.

I had my first psychotic episode around that time as well and began self-harm. I went impatient around that time. I wasn’t given a correct diagnosis at that time. I was too old for RAD, too young for borderline, and too young for bipolar. So they threw oppositional defiant disorder at me.

My parents were very good at acting perfect while demonizing me. They would call me a “bad little girl.”  I was medicated for depression and later Bipolar Disorder. I was discharged with lots of conditions such as limited contact with my father, family therapy as well as psych evals on my parents. I was supposed to attend a day program, and continued individual therapy. I went to the day program and continued therapy.

That therapist saved my life. He saw through the denials of abuse and sent me to a residential treatment facility. I went when I was 14 almost 15 and spent about a year there. By week two I refused meds and quickly became manic. I stayed that way for months. I did make friends while I was there. There were a few adults I came to trust. I  believed that they would protect me and they did. I got my Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis while I was there.

My parents were supposed to go to couples counseling, psychoeducation and parenting classes. They went to the parenting classes my mom went to therapy on her own. They were supposed to decide if they were going to be together to separate. They did not. I was discharged with no aftercare plan. For about 5 years I swung between mania, psychosis and depression. I also developed Agoraphobia. I didn’t go back to therapy until age 19.  I did a lot of talk therapy at first. Eventually I did prolonged exposure and Dialectal Behavior Therapy (DBT), which I think desperately needs to be adapted for children. I wrote a paper and did adapt it somewhat. Then I went back to talk therapy and I still go weekly.

My personal life is depressing. I don’t have many relationships. My fear of abandonment is crippling my need for attention drives people away. Imagine an adult friend having those clingy behaviors Mary is having.  My family can shun me at times. I struggle with attaching to people inappropriately and letting go. I am still intertwined with my parents and am “retraumatized” often. I have no choice right now because I need to keep my medicaid while I’m going to school fulltime. I find strength in my trauma. I am currently in a fight with my previous university for discriminating and stigmatizing me. Since age 15 I have attempted suicide 4 times. It has been 6 years since I injured myself. Self-injury, like cutting, is very much like an addiction. When I was younger I was manic more than depressed, but that pattern has reversed in recent years.

I have always known I am not my diagnoses. I have Bipolar but I am not Bipolar. It’s something I manage. It has both enhanced my life and damaged it. It takes time to develop a very strong understanding of the diagnosis.  Making sure you have the correct diagnosis is so important. Learning how the diagnosis affects my life and not how I affect the diagnosis was important. Also there are many therapists who treat the diagnosis and not the person. That is detrimental. No matter how close a person’s symptoms match a disorder in the DSM, there are always many nuances, differences and uniqueness to each person.

HC: You sound like an incredibly strong person. When did you start reading “Herding Chickens and Other Adventures in Foster and Adoptive Care” What drew you to this blog?

I started reading this blog about 8 months ago. I think another blog I follow had a link to it on her twitter. I kept reading for three reasons (in no particular order): 1) I am still trying to make sense of my life. I thought if I could read about kids who have experienced trauma and what they are like, I might find a group where I fit in. Also, sometimes I still like I caused so many problems for others with my behavior. If it’s from the trauma I can absolve myself of that. 2) Fostering/adoption is something I am considering. 3) The blog is compelling. It took me a very long time to get help. I want to see the turnout for children who get the therapy, meds, and proper parenting.

HC: Thank you! Can you tell our readers a little bit about your diagnosis? How did this affect your childhood? How does it affect you now?

Currently, I am diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder type 1, Borderline Personality disorder, and PTSD. By the time I saw a professional I was in sixth grade and the professional was a guidance counselor. He recognized something was not right with me. I was too old for a RAD diagnosis but still too young for a diagnosis of Bipolar, Borderline Personality Disorder, or PTSD. At that time (1999) Bipolar was not diagnosed in children. Although, all the mental health professionals I’ve seen in my adult life agree that the bipolar came out in 4th grade. I have very few complete memories before age 15. I will get random snippets of things, but there are very few things I can recall at will.

That being said, I know I was well liked by teachers and peers. I just never knew what to do with that. I knew how to be a friend, but not how to have friends. I got into fights a lot, usually when something was happening that I had couldn’t tolerate and had to stop. This could be teasing or one instance a friend was just playing around. She shoved me a couple of times, even after I told her to stop. I nearly broke her jaw. Physical contact has always been a trigger for me. I had many fears. I was paranoid a lot. I was manic a lot. I was very lonely.

As an adult, fear of abandonment and the need for someone to love me rules all. I attach to people instantaneously. It’s like I am a child and I have wrapped myself around mommy’s ankles immediately. I never would have done this with my mother. I don’t know how I choose these people. It just happens. Then I will do almost anything to keep these people in my life. At any sign that they are going to leave, whether it is real or imagined, I become distressed. It’s like experiencing all 7 stages of grief at the same time. It’s like a hole is burned into my soul that can never be filled except by that person. I haven’t had many relationships romantic or otherwise. I feel pathetic. My chronological age and emotional age are so out of sync, that I can’t make it work. Emotionally I am about 18. Chronologically I am 30! Of all my diagnosis the Borderline Personality Disorder is the worst.

HC: I know that you experienced some childhood trauma, which causes you to feel unsafe in relationships. Many foster/adoptive parents want to know one thing. How can we help? What would have helped you in childhood to know you were loved? Is there anything that helps you now?

These are great questions. I will answer them in reverse. What helps me now is simply knowing that someone is thinking of me. My cousin is great for this. He will text or call me because he saw something that reminded him of me. It could be something we did together, or he could just invite me to dinner. Can you believe it’s that freakin’ simple? Yet so very few people do it. Sorry, but it isn’t about you making sure they feel loved. They have to be able to feel loved. I’ve lived so much of my live believing I’m “unlovable.”

I don’t think that belief was shattered until I was 18 and my nephew was born. A big part of feeling love is being chosen. When my nephew was a baby he chose me over other people. The belief that I was “unlovable” started to peal away. I think that in childhood, having friends would have helped in a major way. If you can get your kids to socialize, and make a friend or two, it would be great. I know getting to that point is difficult because their chronological age and emotional age don’t match up. I did read a study that said kids with anxiety often build confidence and social skills, if they are placed in a group that is a year or two younger. That may be helpful here as well. Creative outlets are also important. I know Mary and Carl are musically inclined. So maybe lessons of some type would be beneficial. This can apply to sports as well. Having that talent and knowing there is something great about them is helpful.  Giving them control over when and where to share that talent can balance the inferiority/badness/out-of-control they feel.

HC: That is really helpful advice. Thank you. Have you ever had violent outbursts during a manic episode, or periods of dissociation? What signs or triggers should parents look for? Since we can’t read our children’s minds, what does it feel like to be out of control?

Comments on Bipolar Disorder: Anything can happen during a manic episode. The longer the episode goes on the greater risk for losing control, becoming psychotic, and dissociating. Be aware that mania in children and adults look very different. I was often violent during mania, complete with crazy strength. I once picked up a wooden coffee table with 4 panes of glass measuring about 24×24 inches, and threw it across the room at my brother. He was calling me names and teasing me. I had no other resources to make him stop, because of the mania. I also flipped over a sofa with my dad sleeping on it. I would bang my head on things punch things. This evolved into cutting and burning. The self-injury was almost always an effort to escape the dissociation. It was so scary.

Comments on Trauma: Dissociation is so much more that not being in control. It’s not knowing which way is up. Not knowing what’s real and what is a dream. Who is talking to you and what’s just the hallucinations. Keep in mind that as a child I was not in treatment and my trauma wasn’t over. I ended up in a residential program at age 14-15. My experience was unique. Most kids don’t talk about positive experiences in residential treatment facilities. However, I had one counselor who took care of me a lot she said she always knew I was dissociating/entering psychosis by the way I would look at her. She said it was as though I was looking through her. She also said it was like I was struggling to listen and nothing was getting in. Also I tried any attempt to control things. I had OCD-type behaviors. I wanted to organize having and doing things is a just so manner.

HC: Thank you for sharing that with us. It sounds like that caregiver was very attuned to you. What accomplishment in your life are you most proud of?

During undergrad I was in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Club. We were looking for a cause, and I suggested having an out of the darkness walk. Those are walks that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has to raise awareness about suicide, suicide prevention, and stigma surrounding mental illness. So another student and I made it happen, and we had our first campus walk. Over the three years I was there we raised about $20,000. We also brought people together to talk about this issue. We remember those who have been lost, the survivors, attempt survivors, and those who are struggling. We also had events leading up to the walk.

HC: That’s quite an accomplishment! If you could have changed anything in your childhood, what would it have been and why?

I wish my mother would have taken my side just once. She chose my father over and over again. She participated in the infliction of pain upon her children. Til this day she doesn’t take my side or acknowledge my pain. However, she will for my brother.

HC: That’s terrible. I’m very sorry about your mother. No one should have a childhood like that.  What would you like parents of children with mental health disorders to know?

It can take a long time for anyone living with a mental illness to come to terms with it. They can feel like there is something inherently wrong with them, especially kids. Keep your kids age appropriately educated and let them have a say in their treatment. Listen to them and make them feel like they have some control. They will have to deal with this on their own one day, so prepare them for that. Also, let your kids see that mom and dad or grandma and grandpa, or insert adult role model here______, are also flawed. Adults make mistakes too. Let your child’s disorder be part of them, but let them know everyone has differences and no one is inferior to anyone else. Beware if they are idolizing and glamorizing someone. Talk them about how there are things that they don’t know about the person they idolize. The danger is in creating an idol that they can never live up to.

Aside from the trauma, I think dealing with the Bipolar Disorder is easier because it’s always been there. I know what to look for, when to call the doctor, and all that jazz.

HC: How is your life different because of your condition? In what ways are you flourishing despite your struggles?

I can’t imagine having a career, a family, responsibilities, and then losing everything. My social life suffers most. I don’t have friends, and I don’t drink or party so that doesn’t help. I drank once. I was of age (23). I didn’t get drunk. I had 2 beers and 2 shots of vodka and I got manic. I even checked with my psychiatrist before I went to the party. She said it should be fine, it would only increase the effects of my Klonopin. Never again! I am trying to start a photography business, and I do great in school. I am pursuing a graduate degree in psychology. I hope to do something to help the community mental health system and eventually go into private practice.

HC: Your story is an amazing one. You are such a survivor. One last question: when are you starting your own blog and where can we find it? Lol

Not sure. Let’s see how this goes first lol.

 

**Our guest poster, C, is open to answering reader questions. You can leave them in the comments section.

 

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mental illness

Tantrums From Beyond the Grave

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Roger with me at age 12

 

Roger was telling her to hurt me. Mary was writhing on the floor scratching and clawing at her hair and face, as she spoke to him. She then tore apart her bedroom and started screaming at other people who weren’t there. She screamed the neighbor’s name a few times shouting, “Call the police! We need the police!” She alternated between asking for the police because I was hurting her or because Roger was hurting her. In the meantime I attempted to hold her arms down away from me as she attacked me. I was lucky enough to leave the room, before I could get hurt.

Mary launched a fully loaded plastic bin and a trunk out of her bedroom door and down the hallway. Even though it’s been 2 years since she has had a violent outburst directed at me, I remembered to hide behind the bathroom doorframe. As soon as I could, I closed the door to her bedroom and called for help. Yes, the police would be coming after all.

While waiting for the ambulance I could hear Mary screeching from the other side of the door. She was relatively safe as I had already removed scissors and sharp or dangerous objects from her room. Obviously I hadn’t thought about the plastic bin or the trunk, but she’d removed them herself when launching them down the hall.

Half of her screams are wordless cries and howls. Some of them are directed at “Roger,” and another unidentified person. Sometimes she broke into an almost gentle, crooning song. Then she yells at me, “I hate spending time with you and I don’t want to be in this family! Roger tells me you make all the bad choices. He hates you! I HATE you!!! I don’t want to live here!” She throws her body against the door as if trying to physically break through it to get to me. In her all of her rage, she has forgotten that her door, like all bedroom doors, opens inward.

There is nothing I can do. She isn’t listening to my words. She is listening to what Roger is telling her about me. I can’t go in and physically restrain her. With my back injury I can’t even sit or stand for longer than 10 minutes. She hasn’t been like this since 2014. I am surprised to say the least.

When my husband comes and the ambulance comes she is still in her room screaming at me for being a “stupid B*tch” who “never gets anything right.” In the ambulance and at the hospital she tells the same story. Roger was being mean. He told her to hurt me. He told her to do these things. Imagine everyone’s surprise to learn that Roger is my deceased father. A man she never even met when he was alive.

She is admitted in-patient again, for safety, at the psychiatric hospital. I am tired. I am frustrated. I am mad. It’s not anger at my daughter. She can’t help the mental illness that is causing these auditory hallucinations. Somehow I am irrationally mad at my father. We always had a strained relationship, at best. Now, somehow, it seems he has managed to find a way to mess with my life from beyond the grave. Thanks a lot, Dad.

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

 

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family

The Great Homework Heist

I am pretty sure that our daughter just pulled off the greatest homework heist of all time. Don’t get me wrong. I hate homework, too. I am an elementary school teacher and I’ve seen the research behind it. Basically, it has no effect on learning. It’s useless. It’s also a part of life and something that my reluctant daughter must learn to do, no matter how stringently she protests.

She’s hidden her assignment sheets. She’s “lost” important papers in her backpack. She has feigned absolute ignorance as to knowing what an assignment sheet is even for. She tells us that her teacher refuses to let her take her homework home from school. She tells her teacher that her parents refuse to let her complete her homework. Somehow, none of this is her fault.

Our daughter is a very bright girl, and it didn’t take long for her to figure out that we email back and forth with her teacher. So the homework tug-of-war continued. I found that if I sat close to her and prompted her with questions, she calmed a bit. I think doing any kind of independent work triggers a feeling of abandonment or a feeling of simply not being smart enough. I felt like we were getting a pretty good system down.

Then, last night, she came home insisting she had to go to the chorus concert that was starting in 30 minutes. It’s true, there was a school concert. The only trouble is, she hadn’t joined chorus at the beginning of the school year. In the elementary school, students can choose to give up their Wednesday recess for choir practice. They don’t need a permission slip to join, they just sign themselves up. I vaguely remember her saying at the beginning of the school year that she wasn’t going to do it because she didn’t want to give up recess.

Last night my husband and I looked at each other in confusion. The concert was right there on the calendar. Mary seemed astonished and a little hurt that we had “forgotten” she was a part of the chorus. Needless to say, we felt awful. The family rushed through dinner and I fished out her fanciest dress and did her hair. She went to the concert, alright.

The problem was, she wasn’t part of the group. Her name wasn’t on the program. The choral teacher let her up onstage but professed that Mary had never joined chorus or been to practice. To our daughter’s credit she sang in the concert. She performed songs she had never practiced and she looked competent doing it.

This kind of lying is not at all uncommon in kids with traumatic backgrounds. When any kind of fear response is triggered, they launch into activities they believe will protect them or keep them safe. I have to give her credit for this one. It took some serious planning. She is a smart girl. Of course, we had to work on her homework the next day before school.

So is homework completion the thing we are working the hardest on? Not at all. Is it honesty? Again, not at all. It’s safety. We want her to feel safe. My husband and I spoke to her teacher about alternate ways for her to complete her homework. We discussed options to help us communicate better. And we included our daughter in the conversation. After all, she is the one with the fear.

But can I tell you all a secret? I sort of wished I could give her a high-five.  I could never have pulled this one off!

 

**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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