How I explained my mental health condition to my kids

Should I talk to my child about my mental illness?

Many parents who experience living with a mental health condition will often wonder if they should open up and talk to their children about mental illness. I know, because I was one of them. Perhaps you’re one of those parents as well.

I believe it is common for parents to question whether or not they should open up and discuss such a taboo subject to their little ones. They may view it as, “bad” or “wrong”. But, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. My first thought when deciding to open up about my condition was, “they are not going to view their mother as being a strong woman, they will see this “sickness” as a “weakness.” However, through recovery I learned that having an illness does not make us weak. In fact, managing and expressing our emotions or episodes in a healthy way makes us remarkably strong. I want my children to understand that. I want them to see my resiliency. So I decided to open up about my mental health condition.

Communication is the utmost important thing, and I find it extremely difficult to live with mild to severe symptoms around my kids and NOT tell them why or what is going on. Although, I believe it is not a bad thing to be open about our struggles, it is still very important to understand HOW to explain those struggles and condition to our children. I’ve always said, emotions are never bad or wrong, but how you express those emotions can be determined as good or bad. The same applies here. Our struggles are neither, right or wrong – good or bad, but how our children view our reactions to these struggles can be determined as good or bad.

If you are a parent, then you already know how curious little ones can be. They will continuously ask “Why?” until they feel they have the information they need – but sometimes it still doesn’t stop there. I admire curiosity and encourage my kids to always ask “Why?”, when it is appropriate, of course. With that said, I had to be mentally prepared for a million questions when opening up to my oldest child about my condition. Not only that, but be completely educated on the subject of my condition as well. Below I list an example of several questions my kids asked me when I opened up to them about my mood disorder, this may give some people an idea of what to expect.

The first thing I openly discuss with my children is our emotions. I truly believe that our emotions drive our behavior. It helps to explain these more complex topics to children when an example can be made that will relate to them. For example, there is a popular Disney movie that my kids love called Inside Out. This movie emphasizes our emotions and how our mind works at a level our children can understand. Therefore, I often reference scenes from the movie to help explain my situation a little better. I’m allowing myself to get on their level to help them better understand the minds like ours.

My oldest is nine years old. She also struggles with her emotions like I do. After discussing the importance of emotions and how it drives our behaviors, she brilliantly decided to come up with a code word for the both of us to use when we are struggling. I let her pick the word – “Congruent”. With the understanding that when this code word is said, we would stop what we are doing and take a deep breath. Collect our thoughts and emotions for a moment, then calmly discuss our feelings with one another before things escalate. For me, an example would be – receiving a triggering email from someone. Instead of having a breakdown or start screaming at my computer over it – I take a deep breath, look at my kids and simply explain the following: Mommy just received a rough email regarding something I need to work on and it has upset me a little. I am going to put my headphones in for a moment and take a few minutes to myself to collect my thoughts. This usually results with a response from my daughter, “Okay mommy, we’ve turned the TV down a bit so you can focus. It will be okay. I love you.” (Best.Kid.Ever, right?!)

The second thing I openly discuss with my children is the frequency and inconsistency of my mood swings and what I do to help myself through difficult times. My kids know that I attend therapy and take medications to help regulate my emotions, they may not understand the full extent of these things but they don’t need to at this age, in my opinion. With our code word in place, I explained that using the code word will help me tremendously, thus giving her the understanding that she plays a huge role in helping me feel better. I lightly discuss my coping skills such as putting my headphones in, listening to music, going for a walk, writing, or just having cuddles in bed with them. With this, they can see that I’m handling my intense emotions in a healthy way.

Inclusion is important. I want my kids to feel as though they are apart of something that I know will be helpful for them. After I openly discuss my mood disorder, I ask my kids if they have any questions. I encourage them to open up to me about what they are thinking and how they are feeling on the topic while reassuring them that they are in a safe space with no judgements. After answering any questions they may have for me, I turn the conversation around a bit and ask them what I, “Mommy”, can do for them when they are going through a tough time. This allows me to understand their needs as well. It goes both ways and it’s extremely important to understand that as a parent.

For me personally, I tried to answer their questions to the best of my ability. I think it’s important to not overload their brains with too much information regarding a complex subject. Here are a few questions my children asked me when I opened up to them about my mental health condition:

Questions

My personal responses
Why do you feel sad though? Sometimes I feel sad when I see something that brings up a bad memory. Or when someone says something that hurts my feelings.
Why are you not happy when you’re around us – don’t we cheer you up? You absolutely do cheer me up and make me very happy. Sometimes things on TV or my phone can put me in a bad mood and that doesn’t have anything to do with you. Spending time with you and cuddling up with you is very helpful for me.
What kind of things do you talk about in therapy? I talk about emotions, work, school and set some personal goals for myself. My therapist likes to help me achieve these goals.
Being alone is lonely, can’t we just all play together? Being alone and being lonely are two completely different things. I enjoy being alone. It helps me to collect my thoughts and think clearly. I rarely ever feel lonely. After I collect my thoughts, I would absolutely love to play a game together.
Do we stress you out? Being a parent has its stressful moments but in general, no – you do not stress me out. If anything, you help me in many ways you don’t ever realize.
Do I have a mental illness? I don’t believe so, no. Not everyone has a mental illness.
Should I go to therapy too? I don’t see the need for you to go, however if that’s something you would like to look into then I will fully support that decision.
Daddy gets sad sometimes, should he go to therapy too? Therapy doesn’t work for everyone. If daddy has a great support system (which it sounds like he does) then he may not want or need to go to therapy and that’s perfectly OK.
Is this a secret? Do other people know about this? It’s absolutely not a secret. The people I am closest with do know about my mood swings. I prefer to discuss it with people if it’s necessary but i’m not ashamed of the struggles I face.
Are you getting better? With my friends, family, support systems like therapy, and YOU – I am getting better.
Why do you have to take medicine for it? I don’t have to take medicine for it, but I choose to because it helps make my moods or emotions less intense. Medicine doesn’t make my emotions go away but they are just there to help keep me a little balanced.

Since explaining my mental health condition with my kids, I have noticed an increase in comfortability when discussing their emotions and feelings with me. I’m surprised by their new level of emotional intelligence and how well they are handling this condition I live with. Overall, it definitely brought us closer together as a family.

How are you?

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU ASKED SOMEONE HOW THEY WERE DOING? DID YOU GENUINELY MEAN IT? DID YOU TAKE THE TIME TO LISTEN?

Many may not realize that in the moments of battling a mental illness (or any illness), these three words can make a huge impact on the day of the minds like ours (yes, I had to throw that in there). One year ago I made a commitment to myself to be sure to ask those around me how they are doing, at least one person – every.single.day. Strangers, friends, family members, and coworkers. However, it’s important to not only ask the question but to mean it genuinely. LISTEN. Watch their body language, their facial expressions, their words, their tone. It says it all.

The reactions I receive when asking this question are somewhat surprising to me. In my personal experience, the responses go one of two ways:

The first and most common reaction go something like this: Good, thanks. – Simple and quick.

The other reaction I also find common is: I did this and this today, I’ve been really busy. – Thinking I asked them what they did today or what they are currently doing, not realizing that I just asked how they are feeling.

Nowadays, a lot of conversations are unfortunately in the form of texting, and social media has taken over to show off to the world how crappy or happy we are, therefore, many won’t ask how others are truly feeling, they think they can see and understand it all through technology. OR, we are wrapped up in our own lives that we don’t take the time to ask others how THEY are feeling (I’ve been there!), OR maybe we feel as though expressing our feelings is a sign of weakness or burdensome to others (It’s really not). Either way, the question, “How are you?” is often used in passing, yet not being taken serious enough, in my opinion.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO PICK UP THE PHONE AND ASK SOMEONE HOW THEY ARE DOING.

The reason why I say this is because, as someone who lives with a mental health condition and has faced many difficult times, including the feeling of being completely alone – I really just needed someone to ask me to how I was doing in a deep way that made me feel as though they genuinely cared. This past week I have experienced a lot of emotional and physical pain. I believe some people could tell. I have voiced my feelings to a few, but not one person has genuinely asked me how I was doing…until today. My sister. Gahh – I love her sweet heart. She must have sensed something all the way from Texas because out of the blue I received a message asking me if I’m okay. It immediately put a smile on my face. (Thank you, sis!)

A couple weeks ago about 300 people were laid off from our company due to closed facilities. It was a difficult time for everyone was affected by it. One of the gentlemen that were given an end date with the company sat near me and although we were not close I still wanted to ensure he was okay. I went into his office and asked him how he was doing. His response went something like this, Oh you know – trying to get my tasks done today, I’m swamped.

I responded with, “Okay, let me ask again. HOW ARE YOU? Are you doing okay?”

The look on his face was a look of shock as though he had never heard the question before. He sat back in his chair and said, “I’m stressed out. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have options, but I need to think about which option I will take. It’s sad. Thank you so much for asking.” I sensed appreciation in his tone after our heartfelt conversation.

You see, when someone you know is in a hospital bed bleeding or with other signs of a visible injury or illness, people will run to their bedside in panic or worry asking with sincerity if they are okay. What about our invisible illnesses?

Last year, my mentee was admitted to the psychiatric hospital for self-harm. She was 15 years old. I had spent many days with her, picking her up from school, having her over for sleepovers and movie nights, and enjoyed weekends exploring and going to the movies. She was such a bright young girl, and I loved bonding with her. I received a phone call from her mother one evening stating that she was “contemplating” on taking her daughter to the hospital. I immediately advised that she admit her or I would. She needed help and was apparently suffering. I asked her mom for the information of which hospital she was admitted to, and her mom responded in shock, “Why?”. I said, “because I am going to visit her. I can meet you there if you’d like?”

The point of my short story is that her mother never showed up to visit. From my understanding, she never even called her. Her daughter was in the hospital for 5 days. When I appeared at the hospital to visit her, this young girl was completely shocked and cried as she grabbed onto me. I asked her why she was crying and she told me, she had never had a visitor before (it wasn’t her first attempt). In fact, most of her roommates hadn’t either. We sat in her room, and I listened to her talk for a couple hours. I gave her the best advice I could about coping skills and reassured her that she wasn’t alone. I learned so much that day, especially the importance of empathy.
Did you know about 8.3 million people have had suicidal thoughts in the past year? It is important to reach out and ask others how they are doing. You could save a life with one simple question and take the time to listen, and when you do, remember this:

THEIR FEELINGS ARE THEIR FEELINGS. THEY MATTER. THEY ARE VALID AND ACCURATE TO THEM. DO NOT DISMISS, DISAGREE OR TELL THEM THEY SHOULDN’T FEEL THE WAY THEY DO.

This is so important to understand. This goes for all circumstances, not just hurting people with a mental illness. For everyone.

I’ll end it with this – How are YOU doing? Respond below or email me if you need someone to talk to. Help is always out there.

-Minds Like Ours, Kayla Fae

Taking Back My Narrative

I’ve done things at the age of 23 that I’m not proud of. I’ve had horrible names written on bathroom stalls about me, the whispering, the shit talking, people looking directly into my eyes asking me how I can show my face in public, some family members and friends have bullied me on Facebook and stopped inviting me around. Someone harassed me for months stalking my every move making me feel unsafe to walk to my car alone, texting me from four different untraceable phone numbers a day, knowing what I was wearing and what my plans were every day and even talking about my children.

I was, at a time, left feeling completely alone wanting to end my life. To top it all off, during this time trying to seek help through therapy I was diagnosed with a mental illness that I was suffering with for years prior and the stigma associated with it didn’t help, people called me “crazy”, some people didn’t believe me, or said it’s just made up for attention.

The lack of support, compassion, and empathy from others at a time I was at my lowest was awful. I made mistakes, we all have but nobody deserves to be bullied online or offline. You have no idea what internal battles people are facing. It can take just one person, or in my case, two little people, to help keep us moving forward. Please be kind to others.

It has taken me time and effort to accept the truth that my story is unparalleled and powerful. It has taken me time to finally forgive myself, to stand up for myself and to take back my narrative and to realize that I play a necessary character in the narrative of those around me, as do you.  This is my story, I’m not ashamed to share it.

Please take a moment to watch Monica’s TED talk below. “It’s time. It’s time to take back my narrative.”

Heavy and Light

I drove to Los Angeles by myself to attend Heavy and Light, To Write Love On Her Arms. It was by far an incredible experience.
I stood in a room full of stories, music and other people that have suffered or struggled like I have.
I overcame a fear, I learned a lot, and I can honestly say how proud I am of myself to have come this far.

Growing up as a teenager, I was scared to be alone, and go places alone. I thought the word “alone” meant “lonely”. Only until the last few years have I learned that there is a major difference between the two. After having two kids, one at the age of 18 and the other at 21 and my husband working swing shift every night, it taught me to grow up. I had to learn to live in our house alone, go to sleep alone, I had to learn how to cook and take care of the kids and the house when he wasn’t home. I was terrified in the beginning, we just bought a brand new house when I was 20 years old, it was about 45 minutes away from family, in a town in the middle of nowhere. I remember the first few weeks I would call the cops every time I heard a noise. It was awful, I had never been alone, I didn’t know what to do.

On January 15th of this month, I made the decision to drive by myself to L.A. and visit the House of Blues for the Heavy and Light show by To Write Love On Her Arms. I got my own hotel, walked around L.A. by myself, went to the show, then the next morning I took a drive to Santa Monica (I’ve never been there before) and walked along the ocean and had a nice lunch to myself on the pier. The weather was 75 and sunny, couldn’t have picked a better time to go. It was the most empowering experience I’ve ever had. I had moments of anxiety, but I pushed forward and did something I had always wanted to do. A lot of people told me, “Wow I could never do that, I could never travel somewhere alone.” It made me feel proud, and brave. I did it and the best part was, I can’t wait to do it again. Below are some pictures of my trip. 🙂

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Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

SELF-CARE ISN’T SELFISH

  • Posted on: 25 August 2014
  • By: Tiffany Keesey

“You know those moments where someone perfectly puts words to something you’ve been feeling but haven’t named?

That moment happened for me when I was sitting in the conference room at Invisible Children three years ago and a guest speaker was talking about insecurity. It wasn’t even his main point, but I will never forget when he off-handedly said, “You can’t invest in others if you don’t invest in yourself.”

It struck me. It felt as if he had just given me permission to embrace something that I had felt stirring within me. At that point, I had been working for the organization for 5 years, and I was exhausted. I loved my job and the organization, believed in the mission, and was surrounded by the most incredible community, but I was worn down. I couldn’t understand why I felt continually tired and overwhelmed when I knew I was doing the job I was supposed to be doing.

And here’s what it came down to: I was putting myself last. The tendency in the nonprofit world is to always put the cause above ourselves. It’s easy to forget to prioritize self-care when you are doing something you feel is more important. I had been working crazy hours and pouring most of my energy into my job, and I was doing it without putting much thought into what was fueling me.

I know this is not just true in the nonprofit world. My friends that are new parents struggle to find any time for themselves when their kids demand all their attention, and students are taught to achieve in order to get into college or to land a good job, often forgetting to take care of themselves. Somehow, as a culture, we’ve come to view rest as weakness and self-care as selfish and unnecessary.

None of that is wrong. Working for a cause, working hard in school, and being there for your child are all wonderful things. But I believe it is time for a shift in our mentality. When we take time for ourselves, when we prioritize balance, and when we cultivate other interests, we are better for it.

Studies show that we are 20 percent more productive when we work from a happy state of mind, as opposed to a negative, stressed, or even neutral state. When we are energized, we are equipped to tackle the game-changing tasks instead of just checking our inbox. We’re better prepared to solve problems, to overcome obstacles, to make the hard decisions, and to innovate.

Every now and then, let’s trade practicality for play and work for balance. Think of it as preparation for the next season in life where your life or your family or your job demands a lot from you. You need to be your best in those times. You need to show up. So, for now, let’s free ourselves of the guilt of having to always be busy because busyness just masquerades as productivity.

It doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Here’s where you can start:

1. Go back to the basics. Feed your mind and body with nutritious food. Stay hydrated and get enough sleep. Get outside for a few minutes if you’re stuck in an office all day. Be active, even if that just means choosing the stairs over the elevator.

2. Incorporate a daily ritual. We all can find an extra 15 minutes a day to invest into ourselves, whether that means waking up a little earlier, cutting out some wasted time at work, or getting off Instagram for a little bit. Begin or end your day with something that energizes you – maybe it’s journaling, taking a brisk walk, reading poetry, practicing yoga, or just making coffee and letting your mind be still.

3. Find time to cultivate larger interests outside of work. If you don’t know where to start, go back to what you loved when you were young. If you were a bookworm like me, join a book club. If you miss sports, join a kickball league. These activities remind us who we are.

4. Learn how to say no. This was the hardest thing for me, as a recovering people pleaser living with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). I challenge you to think of your time to recharge as sacred. Put it on your calendar if you need to, and don’t allow it to get pushed to the bottom of your priority list.

Repeat after me: I will be a better [student / friend / leader / spouse / professional / parent] if I take care of myself.

Great. Now go be amazing.”

To Write Love On Her Arms

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