I always thought our family was perfectly normal…
As toddlers the girls were into drawing, painting and played happily with friends. We had fun holidays as a unit and with extended family and friends. Later, the girls did well at school and my husband and I counted our blessings.
My husband often worked long hours and there were times he had to work weekends too. This was hard for us all; I needed a break from being a full time mum and the girls needed their dad. My own upbringing was quite strict and I was determined to be more supple with my own children. This, in combination with Sam’s absences, made for an environment where boundaries weren’t held.
As my eldest daughter Charlotte got older, she learnt to manipulate me…
We had to move cities for my husband’s work, which also had him travelling a lot. Though the girls were more than able to keep up academically at their new school, emotionally they struggled. I tried to keep them on an even keel with activities like movie nights, long dog walks and shared meal preparation but I was fighting a losing battle.
Teenage Charlotte began to refuse any requests I made of her – little things like picking up laundry and clearing the table. With high school looming, her moods and anger became more frequent. She became increasingly rude, started to isolate herself in the evenings and spent more time on social media.
When I voiced my concerns to friends they said that their kids were doing the same things so I didn’t think much more about it and put it down to ‘hormones’. When Charlotte started high school, she joined the field hockey team and started to make new friends.
I thought life was settling down. Boy, was I wrong…
One morning I got a call from school to say that Charlotte had written a suicide note. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do. Sam was away with work so he couldn’t help. The school counsellor was great, explaining the protocol in situations like this and introducing us to professional mental health support. A professional therapist assessed Charlotte as ‘at risk’ and referred her to a teenage psychiatric hospital.
That was the start of a long downward spiral for Charlotte’s mood, antisocial behavior and mental health issues. While in hospital Charlotte learnt from other patients how to cut herself. From the teen psychiatric outpatient center she started smoking and learnt where to buy drugs.
At home, we began to fear her coming home from school and felt we couldn’t give her the parent support she needed. We would walk on eggshells, never knowing what mood she would be in. Sam was still away with work a lot and Charlotte was becoming abusive to me – verbally and, on occasion, physically aggressive too. Charlotte is a bright girl and it felt like she would plan some destructive behavior when she knew that I wouldn’t be able to cope or had to go out. The stress we were all under was terrible; I felt alone and scared.
We were lurching from one crisis to another…
That Summer we took a trip as a family to celebrate my birthday. All was going well until one evening when Charlotte flew into a rage. For the first-time, Sam saw her extreme antisocial behavior at its worst. The next morning, he and I had a long talk. Despite our best intentions, we realized we were failing Charlotte and possibly endangering our other daughter.
We contacted an education consultant who recommended a residential course of therapy. I felt relieved. Charlotte was going to get help to cope with her depression. When she first started at Spring Ridge Academy for teenage girls, she was defiant, resistant and unwilling to change. Her therapists had their work cut out for them but gradually, over time, Charlotte began to realize that the only way out was to roll up her sleeves and participate.
Charlotte had the most intensive therapy, but we also benefitted.
We had weekly phone therapy sessions and, with help, slowly began to learn how to communicate more openly with each other.
In addition to the weekly calls, the school held a workshop for parents. This event changed my life. It made me realize I need to speak up and say what I feel.
After years of avoiding conflict I stopped being a mouse and started to grow a backbone.
My relationship with my husband became more balanced and healthy and I stopped saying yes to everything.
As I became stronger, my relationship with Charlotte changed. She was used to me accepting whatever aggressive behavior she felt like dishing out but now the balance of our relationship was changing for the better.
It’s been a long, difficult and emotional road…
Though we’re through the worst of it, it’s not over by a long way. Every day, week and month brings a new challenge that tests us all in some way but we have learnt how to communicate our feelings, fears and concerns to each other in a healthy way.
It’s not plain sailing and there are times when I fear we are slipping backwards, but after a time-out and a few deep breaths, the family comes back to talk through the issues. This is progress. None of us are perfect and we all have baggage, but the process we have been through has helped us understand ourselves better and treat each other with respect.
My family means the world me to and I love them all to bits. I feel sad that we didn’t have the knowledge, resources or skills to prevent Charlotte’s slide into depression. But I am happy that because of the care she received, and the lessons we all learned, we’ve become a happier and healthier family.
Names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.