Stepping Out of Stigma’s Shadow

By Kelley Hamann, ALMI ACS AIAA and Mental Health Advocate

My familiarity with mental health has been gleaned from the shared experiences of a loved-one’s day-to-day challenges with mental illness, as well as with the associated stigma, which, in my opinion, stems from a lack of public understanding and compassion. As a member of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), I work to minimize stigma, bringing awareness to mental health issues through advocacy—by being open, honest and sharing our experiences so that others can begin to understand.

Sharing Our Story

September 2016

In sharing my family’s experiences and opinions, I will concentrate on what’s worked and not worked for us.

But before diving right to the heart of our story, let me first provide a bit of background and perspective as to who we are as individuals and how we came to be a family, so you can better understand how we got to where we are today.

Growing up in the 70s was a time when having career options were fairly new for women; yet when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my response never changed—I wanted to be a mom. That’s what made my future infertility so very devastating.

Living in California, I met and married my future husband in the 80s. We were young when we met (I was still in high school). You could say we grew up together, however that would not be entirely true. While I continued to mature and venture into adult life, turns out he’d already plateaued long before I’d met him; no matter how much I wanted things to be otherwise, he was just never going to mature into the strong and supportive man I needed, and would never be emotionally available to me. Worse yet, he would become manipulative and emotionally abusive in ways that would serve to belittle and berate me; he convinced me that I deserved no better and, because no one else would want me, I was lucky to have him. I recently read a post on LinkedIn from Shannon Thomas (LCSW-S) about a book she just released on Amazon: Healing from Hidden Abuse. I wish I knew then what I now know about his behavior (would’ve saved years of internal turmoil and guilt and led to quicker action in leaving the marriage).

Still looking to the goal of motherhood, we began to “try” for a baby. After ten failed years of “trying” the natural way, then unsuccessful fertility treatments and even three surgeries, we were approached with the most amazing offer of surrogacy. And in the late 90s, my goal of motherhood was attained with the blessed birth of my daughter (whose name is being purposely withheld at her request for privacy).

Life through different eyes

After adopting my daughter, it was as though I began to see my life through different eyes. Once I became a parent, I could no longer disregard the warning bells that for so long had been blaring (ignored) in my head. My husband was never going to exhibit the father figure characteristics my daughter needed to see. My daughter was going to need a good role model of a healthy relationship or she too would be doomed to repeat my mistake, choosing the same type of spouse she saw me choose, one that could never put her needs first because he was too busy focusing on his own.

For example, just weeks into parenthood, she developed colic. I recall walking the floor in the wee-hours while she wailed in discomfort. This didn’t go on for long before he complained “Shut that noise up, I have work in the morning!” I didn’t know what a narcissist was at the time; I just remember bursting into tears at how selfish and mean he was. Rather than making any efforts to leave the room, I continued to pace the floor with her, except now there were two of us crying.

I used to hold fast to the belief that once married, you stayed married — no matter what, especially if you had children. Plus, I was terrified of being a single-parent (although truth be told, I was already living the life of a single-parent since all of the parenting “stuff” was just too inconvenient for him). After serious reflection on our situation, I changed my thinking and now believe it is not always healthier to stay together just for the sake of the children, especially if it is not in their best interest and sets an unhealthy example for them. And in this case, it wasn’t in her best interest and it wasn’t in mine; so after nearly two decades together we parted ways. We were living in Oregon at this time and he moved back home to California with his parents and I made a fresh start here in Wisconsin, where I later met and married the most wonderfully supportive, perfect-for-me man and we’ve now been together for nearly fifteen years.

How did my daughter feel about all of this? Well she was in kindergarten at the time of the divorce and it was a few years later when I remarried—in fact she was the one to give me away at the ceremony, and she and John have built a steady bond. I don’t think John could love her any differently if he’d been there from day one. He slipped into the role of Dad like it was the most natural fit. John always wanted to be a Dad and she clearly needed a good Dad; the match was just simply perfection. In fact, here’s a quote from her that sums it up nicely: “Mom, thank you for finding me a good Dad. I’m so glad you married him.”

But getting to this place of understanding for her was not easy and required a lot of patience, understanding and biting of tongues for John and me. You see, my ex never learned how to be a Dad so it was very difficult for my daughter to go back and forth on visits from a home with healthy boundaries, unconditional love and structure to one headed by an immature dysfunctional narcissist. When she’d come back from these visits, it’d be like having to de-program her. She would never be 1st in his eyes (as a child should) and was his little pawn, used in his game of getting back at me, ways of hurting me—she’d come back saying such awful things.

When she was young and I felt the wrath of the aftermath of her visits with him, in pain and heartbreak, I would think to myself how I’d “look forward” to the day when she saw him for what he truly was so I’d no longer have to deal with this crap. Then when that day actually came, it broke my heart to see her hurting. And because I’d had such an ugly thought (even though perfectly normal, and just a thought), I was racked with guilt.

Being racked with guilt, especially when it came to anything related to the divorce that resulted in her being sad—well it was an all too familiar feeling, and it was hard to shake. There’s a lot of wisdom in what I’ve read so far by Shannon Thomas (again found on LinkedIn): “If no contact is not an option, then detached contact will be necessary for recovery and healing.” She also posted: “Narcissists do exactly what they want, when they want and how they want. Any minor adjustments they may make on behalf of others will feel to them like very selfless acts that deserve praise. A survivor is wise to remember that the narcissists’ highest agenda is their own comfort and happiness. This is why No Contact is the best choice for many survivors. It’s exhausting trying to navigate around a narcissist’s ego.”

Onset

It wasn’t until my daughter was around 16 that she finally broke free from his manipulative grip for good. She kept clinging on to the hope he’d change and finally step up and be the Dad she needed him to be; but after seeing him fail time and again, she finally gave up all hope.

First, in the winter of 2012, she suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing ice hockey. She required special care and], after preparing a special binder detailing what she needed and going over it with him and discussing her medications and her memory challenges and such, he completely failed on many levels — to the point of denying her challenges and severity of injury despite medical documentation to the contrary; accusing us essentially of making it up (to what end we had no clue).

In June of 2013. she had a full scale panic attack, refusing to fly back with him for a summer visit, because she felt so unsafe in his care due to his denial of her health issues. When she became inconsolable, he did the easy thing: called me from the hotel in Milwaukee at 2am to come and get her to take her home rather than them flying to California together within a few hours.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, when she was later diagnosed with mental illness, my ex not only denied that to be true, he didn’t want her to take her meds, and discouraged her from doing so. That was when she knew that to become healthy, she needed to break free from his influence.

Through all the struggles, John’s been our rock: steady and strong, never complaining and always there with a hug waiting. In addition to being my soul-mate and the perfect father, John shares our love for dogs and books and he’s a hunter. While I’m the white-collar office worker, John’s used to building stuff with his hands. When our daughter was growing up, we were 4H leaders, school volunteers, and whatever else was needed, John was there; that didn’t change in any way when she became sick.

John drove us an hour and a half each way in the snow every day she was an inpatient, for a visiting period that was shorter than the amount of time it took for us to travel there and back. He attended the 12-week Washington County NAMI Family-to-Family classes because they were offered right at the time of her initial diagnosis when she was still unsafe to be left alone; he knew most nights she’d want her Mama (but we did tag-team a few classes when we could). He was by my side through many therapy sessions and parent educational sessions; but now I am starting to get ahead of myself.

“Doing for others” has essentially become woven into the fabric of my family as church and community leaders and volunteers. Never did I once purposely set out or consider becoming a mental health advocate—not because I felt negatively about it, but more because I didn’t really spend a lot of time exploring how I felt about the subject. That changed the summer of 2014. And every day since then, we’ve spent A LOT of time thinking about the subject of mental health.

You see, it was during this time that our teenage daughter began to behave “strangely” and have uncharacteristic violent outbursts. Nothing held her attention, yet everything held her attention. She’d talk nonstop about nonsensical things and then get angry when we didn’t understand or if we asked questions, trying to understand. Trying to have a conversation with her was a challenge all to itself. It was like having nine conversations all at once — you’d gets bits and pieces of each of the nine separate thoughts/topics, but not enough of any one of them to string together into a sentence or to follow along; not one thought flowed. It was like a big tossed salad of conversation---lots of good stuff in there, just all mixed up.

Then she started slipping in her hygiene and her room quickly went from slightly untidy to typical messy teenager to whoa, this is a problem, I’m up to my calves (which later became up to my thighs)! When we had to move her into a different bedroom of the house entirely out of safety concerns, her hoarding could no longer go unaddressed. In her active state of depression, she’d try to rationalize with us: “But I love my stuff and I don’t wanna get rid of any of it…my stuff has never hurt me and always makes me happy.”

Escalation and Denial

Then, like the flick of a switch (and with no way to explain to us why), she became afraid of her room and would not spend time in it, refusing to sleep in it, spending months sleeping on the couch. Over a short span of time, our routine became nights with little to no sleep, crying and screaming until 2am, until medication and/or exhaustion eventually kicked in. I’d look at her, staring into her eyes, wondering where my sweet, loving daughter had gone—wondering if I’d see her again.

It was during this time that she began cycles of 2–3 entire days straight without sleeping, filling her time furiously journaling. Mostly, she kept track of her racing thoughts, active paranoia, conspiracy theories or listing all of her newly forming fears to share with me when I woke up the next morning. During these times, she was often victim to catastrophic thinking, and she’d fall victim to worse-case scenario events that her ill brain had tricked her into believing to be real. She’d really be worked into a frenzy by the time I’d wake up the following morning — if she hadn’t woken me earlier out of sheer panic.

I kept trying to attribute her behavior to a relapse from her head trauma from two years prior; she’d never quite been the same since. And she’d been having a rough patch with her first-ever romantic relationship. It could be something like this, right? She was 16 almost 17—was this the first time to notice this behavior? What about that panic attack in 2013? What about the gradual isolating behavior? What about the entire first grade when she had to be physically checked in every morning with a yard-lady (more than once having to be physically peeled off of me as she clung for dear-life) because she kept chasing after my car when I pulled away from the curb—that was a bit more than run-of-the-mill separation anxiety.

Recognizing we were out of our depth, we suggested we seek help. At the mere mention of counseling, our daughter threatened not to go and, if dragged there, not to speak, and for good measure, she threatened to HATE us if we pushed it!

Things escalated quickly as she was experiencing her first break from reality — she became an obvious (even through my apparent denial) threat to herself and others. That was when we knew we couldn’t do this on our own anymore. That’s when my husband and I decided that, though she may “hate us” for calling in the cavalry, we loved her enough to live the rest of our lives with her being alive and safe to continue hating us.

The long and short of it: she was diagnosed with several mental health conditions: Bipolar, OCD, Generalized Anxiety with Panic, PTSD and SPD, which later prevented her from attending school for many months of what should’ve been her senior year in high school. In fact, the first two years after her initial diagnosis, our daughter spent all but 2 months admitted into some form of hospitalization (full, partial or day treatment). In fact, thanks to an incredibly supportive school staff, my daughter is looking to graduate this year, a month before her 20th birthday; “hey, we all have our own timelines” we tell her and we’re so proud of her.

Taking ownership of recovery

In the time since diagnosis, there’s been a lot of growth, for us all. To give credit where credit is due, the hardest work has been done by our daughter. We’ve pooled together a lot of wonderful resources on this journey and made valuable connections, like our local NAMI affiliate, and the education and support provided by the outstanding medical professionals we’ve met along the way. Our daughter is currently in a good place in her recovery, having been stabilized through medications and therapy and having taken ownership of her recovery. 

Our personal experiences have changed us in ways we’d never expected. For one, it completely changed our view of mental health/illnesses. Because of this, we now understand that a mental illness is just that, an illness, not a choice; yet it often carries with it great shame, which can hinder those who most need help from seeking it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Our Family Mantra: One way to minimize stigma is to bring awareness to mental health issues through education and advocacy. Mental health issues impact people of every walk (and stage) of life. By starting the conversation, we can support one another.

This week, share your story… Or listen to others…

Next time in Stepping Out of Stigma’s Shadow:

A Parent’s 1st Reaction

I can still remember our first reaction upon hearing that she was battling Bipolar, OCD, Generalized Anxiety with Panic, PTSD and SPD was for my husband and I to grieve… not knowing much of what to expect for future outcomes, we grieved for what we imagined would be the profound changes that’d take place, robbing her of lifelong hopes/dreams and for the loss of the parents we thought we’d no longer get to be.

Then, through education and support, we “wised-up” and began re-envisioning the parents we’d need to become to support her…



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Last edited by Patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on September 14, 2016

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