I Was So Focused On One Child, I Missed The Signs Of Mental Illness In The Other

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mom comforting daughter

The day of my first therapy appointment was the day I said for the first time, “I think my daughter probably has OCD.”

It was a footnote to a larger conversation. Who lives in the house with me? How are our relationships? What are the important dynamics to know about before entering into a therapeutic relationship?

I’d spent the last five minutes telling Ellie about my oldest daughter — her medical condition, her learning disability, her anxiety, and depression. The younger one didn’t have any of those issues. She was healthy, advanced in her studies, and didn’t show the signs of instability her sister did.

Most of my finite reserve of attention and energy was focused on stabilizing the big girl so she could participate in school, social, and family activities. Little didn’t need that much attention. She was always so chill. She was fine.

I told myself that, even as it became ever clearer that wasn’t the case. Having one child with mental health issues was hard enough — having two might break me.

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Out of nowhere, she became inflexible.

My daughter (I don’t use my kids’ names in my stories, and truth be told I’m usually writing about my big girl, but henceforth in this one, I’ll try to refer only to my younger daughter, to avoid confusion) has always been incredibly bright. We often say we don’t remember her first words because it seems like she’s been speaking in complete sentences since she was born.

As a baby and a toddler, she was the most relaxed child I’d ever met. She hardly ever cried. She was the kind of kid who would just run around on errands with you all day, nap in the car, and be an absolute delight to be around. She played with other kids, idolized her sister, and had an amazing imagination.

That chill, go-with-the-flow attitude started changing when she was about preschool-aged. Suddenly, things needed to be done in a certain way.

When I left the house, I had to do all the goodbye things in just the right order (“Beep, wave, blow a kiss, roll down your window but wait,” and don’t ask me why we’re rolling down the window after we’ve done all those other things or what we’re waiting for; it doesn’t make sense).

If I screwed it up, I got to watch her face crumple as she stood on the front steps, sobbing and waving goodbye.

When we played with her toy figurines, we had to follow her vision (even though she wasn’t articulate enough to communicate that vision), otherwise, there would be a meltdown. If I was taking her to a place she’d been before, she needed to go through the door in the same order as last time and sit in the same chair in the waiting room. You get the picture.

You can’t exactly rationalize with a three-year-old that it doesn’t matter in what order you go through the door, the experience, once she gets inside, won’t be affected. It terrorized her when things were switched up. So, a lot of the time, we did things as “just right” as we could, in an attempt to save her anxiety and our eardrums. (Often even that didn’t help, but we did our best.)

The stimming began a few years later.

Around the time schools went remote, we noticed some more behaviors that concerned us.

She’d be using her tablet to do her classwork and she’d start sniffing. Sniff. Sniff. Sniff-sniff-sniff. Soon she was sniffing from the time she woke up in the morning to the time she fell asleep at night — even when she was in bed falling asleep, the sounds drifted down the hallway.

Then there was the finger- and toe-rubbing. I can’t even describe this one clearly, but it was another stim that started slowly and soon ramped up to the point that she couldn’t finish a simple sentence without stopping to sniff or rub. And then she’d have to start the entire sentence over again.

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I’ve got a lot of compassion. I recognize how hard it is to live with mental illness. I even have my own stims, which developed when I was around preschool-aged and flare up when my anxiety runs high.

But these behaviors were a lot to deal with, even for me.

In the end, it was her who asked for help.

One night, I was lying next to her at bedtime, and my beautiful, sweet, seven-year-old said to me, “Mama, sometimes I want to kill myself.”

Words won’t capture the feeling I had just then. I’ve never been punched in the gut, but I imagine that’s what it would feel like. All the color drained out of the room, the blood from my brain pooling somewhere in another dimension.

And yet I responded as if she hadn’t said the single most frightening thing a parent could ever hear. I kept my voice clear and level, with a measured amount of concern.

Don’t minimize. Don’t ignore it. Show you care. Let her know the gravity of her words. Don’t discourage her from opening up to you like this.

“Honey, why do you say that? That’s a pretty serious thing to say.”

Meanwhile, my heart pounded so loudly she could surely hear it from her spot next to my shoulder.

“Well, not kill myself,” she said. Thank goodness. “I just want to stop doing those things.”

The finger things, she elaborated. And the toe things, which I guess I didn’t even realize she’d been doing, but which made sense when I thought about how she would shift as she spoke, rubbing her fingers and sniffing and starting her sentences over and over again.

She wanted to stop, but she didn’t know how. That’s a familiar story.

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By the next day, she had an appointment with a therapist.

I’m going to take a brief interlude here and recognize how incredibly fortunate we are that we live in a place where there are child therapists, and that we were able to schedule an appointment so quickly, and that we were able to take her due to our flexible work situations, and that we didn’t have to worry where the money would come from for these appointments, and that we had insurance that would reimburse us for a portion of the cost. More about that in a different story, but what a travesty that not everyone has these privileges.

It’s the same thing but different.

Learning how to help my older daughter was difficult. It required stepping out of my ingrained patterns of behavior, taking the time to empathize before blowing a gasket, and giving space for her to feel heard.

With my younger daughter, the same skills were in order, but because she processes her emotions in such a different way, and probably also because I’m using so much energy on her older sister, those skills are harder for me to access.

I often feel like I’m learning my way into yet another treatment community, developing a whole new way to help someone I love more than life itself to live a full and healthy life.

And sometimes it feels like too much.

It’s overwhelming to schedule all the appointments, and even to step back and take a deep breath and not snap to a reprimand when I realize she’s bleeding yet again from the scabs she continually opens and reopens on her arms and legs.

I’m treading in open water, struggling to catch my breath as more and more pebbles are being added to my pockets.

But all that swimming is making me stronger, and though my stroke isn’t perfect, I’ll keep going as best I can. Because, as overwhelming as it can be to parent multiple kids with all their needs and idiosyncrasies, it’s also my job to help them navigate this confusing world.

And that thought is what keeps me afloat.

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Nikki Kay is a writer, educator, and mental health advocate from New England. She writes about the intersection of mental health and parenting with an emphasis on trauma recovery. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook: @NikkiKayAuthor

This article was originally published at Invisible Illness . Reprinted with permission from the author.