Parenting in the World of Mental Illness

The first time I met my son he was 9 months old. We had just had an adoption fall through and I remember crying as Sears carried away the white canopy bed and bunk beds we had purchase for the two little ones who we thought would become our children.

My son has the brightest blue eyes you have ever seen. He was living in one of the mountain towns with his grandparents. His mom had some “issues” and wasn’t able to take care of him.

I believe that just as you are chosen by God to give birth to the child you bear, you are chosen to adopt the child you are presented. I had some knowledge of attachment disorder and my son’s birth mom was very open about her drug usage but he was so little, how much impact could it have on his life? I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Diane Mulligan

Diane Mulligan

At three, he was diagnosed with attachment disorder. We learned about the disorder and religiously attending therapy for the next 5 years. Things were going well and I decided to adopt again. I met my daughter on one of those beautiful April afternoons when the trees are just starting to bloom. She was standing outside a foster home holding a twig filled with little white flowers, waiting to see who would show up. Big brown searching eyes, smiling but with a steely knowing that people can hurt you, looked up at me as we made our way to the mall. She has always been ready for people to let her down. it was really all she knew. Behind her beautiful smile was a tremendous amount of rage and fear at the world. But she was a fighter and I wanted to be the one to stand behind her and restore her faith in herself and what life had to offer.

Every child tests you, but one who has been so hurt has to take the test to the extreme. My daughter did. Meanwhile, lurking just under the surface of my son’s personality something was changing. I thought it was just the difficult transition all children go through when a new sibling enters a home. I was wrong. My son’s bi-polar gene expressed within a year of my daughter coming to live with us.

Welcome to the alternate universe of mental illness where almost everything you ever thought you knew about parenting becomes useless, except for the most important thing: love. Welcome to the world of the unknown, and the unknown causes fear and trepidation for you, your family, your friends and society. Welcome to the world where most people watch and judge, others run in fear, and a few amazing people stand up and join with you.

I have always been blessed. I have had the love and support of my parents, I have good friends who stood by me and did what they could, I have had great jobs, I had money for treatment options and I have the skills to research, ask questions, and most of all I have a strong faith that God will provide me what I need at that particular moment whether I know I need it, don’t think I need it, or think I need something else.

Mental health was not something I knew about, yet I know now that people all around have been dealing with mental health issues for years. One in four Coloradans will experience a mental health issue. With that many people impacted, how could I not know more? Well I know more now and realize still how much I have to learn.

No mom wants her child to suffer from any illness, especially a chronic illness that will forever impact their lives. I railed against mental illness. I spent hours researching, calling experts, trying to find services. Navigating this brain disease is one of the most difficult things I have ever done. My mom watched me as things began to spin out of control in my home. We weren’t safe. My son would tell me the darkness was coming. My daughter’s fear and anger would take over and there would be destruction and violence. By this time I was a single mom.

When a child diagnosed with a mental illness or mood disorder goes through an aggressive, violent rage it reminds me of a tornado. You can see dark clouds gathering as their attitude starts to turn, like the pelting rain and hail, their speech would become pressured and if you had exhausted all the tools you knew to diffuse the situation, you couldn’t out run the twister. You needed to hunker down, be as safe as possible and ride out the storm. We know now that many of these children’s brains are in fight-or-flight mode and so after the event, when everyone is spent, most don’t remember what happened. This is much like the aftermath of the tornado: The sun comes out, the birds start to sing, but all around you is destruction. Walls have holes punched or kicked through, tables are broken and for me as a mom, I could feel a little piece of me was also lost.

All moms need to take a break and reconnect with themselves in order to be the moms they know they can be. It is called respite, but so many don’t understand the term or the definition. Never is this more important than when you have a loved one with a chronic illness or disability. Sleep is an answer for many of us as, a mental escape, for me it was a massage where I could completely clear my mind and just stop the world for 55 minutes.
My mom also needed an outlet where she could help me so she came up with the idea of CHART, Children’s Help and Assistance for Residential

Treatment. CHART helps families who adopt children diagnosed with mood disorders and mental illness who require the 24/7 care of a residential treatment center. My mom lives in Tucson and she lived my life through the phone that became my lifeline. I was again so blessed. She never judged. She listened. But most importantly she supported me as a mother, which also meant she would verbally kick me in the butt and keep me going when I thought I couldn’t go another minute. CHART gave us both something extremely positive to do that could help others. The reality is that in building this group we were helping ourselves. Today I have expanded my focus to fighting the stigma mental illness and working to make it easier for people to get treatment. Creating Community Solutions Colorado is a tremendous group of those who are diagnosed, their families, non-profits, school districts, law enforcement and government entities coming together in this battle.

My children are now young adults. I have learned what we all learn: Life never is what you think it will be, sometimes it is worse, sometimes it is better but always it is amazing. I met a wonderful man who became my husband and he and his family have joined in our fight. For almost a decade I did what I thought I should do as a mom: Fight mental illness. But the truth is that being a mom has taught me that when you fight something it fights back. Now I embrace it and I fight for it. I am continuing to learn how important it is to find the beautiful, amazing moments in every day, how I never had a day when I didn’t meet someone who I realized had challenges so much larger than my own. I learned that no matter what the diagnosis, your children are beautiful amazing gifts in the people they are, and finally, that their diagnosis does not have to define your life…in fact it can uniquely teach to you how to embrace it.

One thought on “Parenting in the World of Mental Illness

  1. I have no knowledge of Ms. Mulligan’s case. I am reacting here to some concepts mentioned in her essay.

    “Attachment Disorder” (AD) is an unrecognized diagnosis used only by Attachment (Holding) Therapists. It is based on numerous misconceptions and myths about child development.

    Unfortunately, this bogus diagnosis and Attachment Therapy/Parenting have been popular in Colorado for decades, despite the fact that this practice has been denounced by the mental health professions as abusive. It is time for state and county DHS agencies to undo the harm they have done in promoting this practice, rather than continue to promote it.

    For info about the AD diagnosis:

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