Weathering the Storms

A family's journey through earthquakes, loss and bullying


Web-only article from "Schools" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (2)

stock photoLoss upon loss

When I inherited the care of two beautiful young girls entering their teenage years, I had absolutely no idea what a roller coaster journey we were all about to embark on!

Simran* (15) and Layla* (12) came to live with me here in Canada about three years ago. They had survived a devastating earthquake in their South Asian country, but had lost their home. Roused out of deep sleep, they fled the building with their dad while it crumbled all around them. This was on October 8, 2005.

Three years before the earthquake, in November 2002, the girls lost their mom—my sister—to cancer. My sister’s death was very hard on all of us, but especially her daughters. The girls were just nine and six when she died. They saw their normally robust, strong and loving mother quickly deteriorate. Near the end, she couldn’t remember who she was or where she was. All of this was extremely traumatic for Simran and Layla.

We were all just beginning to get back into the rhythm of daily life when the earthquake hit. After my sister’s death, I visited the girls in South Asia in the winters, and they came to visit me and the rest of their mom’s family during their summer holidays. But after the earthquake, it was decided that the girls would come live with me while their father tried to pick up the pieces. One week after the quake, they arrived.

I was so grateful the girls were alive and unhurt. When the earthquake first hit, I actually saw the building the girls lived in on the television news coverage of the devastation, and was frantic until I heard they were alright. I wanted to do everything in my power to make things better for them. Little did I know that I was about to enter the most challenging period of my life.

Instant parenthood—and navigating the school system

I was single, with no children of my own. Overnight, I had to turn into a mother, advocate and ‘student’—I experienced a learning ‘cliff’ in how to parent teenagers! I had to handle all the practical issues, including legal matters to do with guardianship and immigration (and finding a legal expert to represent me without charging an arm and a leg). But, especially, I had to deal with the school system.

There were many hurdles to get through just to get the girls registered in a school. Administrators automatically assumed, that because the girls were South Asian, they would need access to special programs in the school system. Most were very surprised when I said the girls not only spoke English fluently, but were conversant in four different languages—so wouldn’t need an intensive ESL program. Nevertheless, I had to talk to a lot of people at the school board, as well as writing letters and e-mailing, before this sank in on their end and we were put on track for the regular school program.

I had also been told that the only two elementary schools (the girls were in grades seven and four) in my neighbourhood were full for the 2005/2006 year. But, luckily, after almost four weeks had passed, space for the girls opened up at one of the schools down the road from where we lived. (And, in spite of their honour roll report cards, including in Language Arts, the girls were still being pulled from their classrooms to go for special English language instruction!)

Both girls were very excited about starting a new school in a new country and making new friends. Alas, the ‘honeymoon’ was short-lived. Along with this new start came a whole new set of life challenges.

Trauma upon trauma

Racial stereotyping popped up loud and clear once the girls were in the school system. Peers made fun of the girls’ accents and told them off if they spoke in their mother tongue. The other kids knew little about the culture and country the girls were from and said things to them like: “Is your father a terrorist? Does he have four wives? Do you live in huts in the jungle? All you people look like monkeys!” This was very difficult for the girls to deal with.

Come the 2007/08 school year, however, both girls seemed to have settled well into grades nine and six—their second year at different schools, since Simran was now in secondary school. She displayed the usual teenage angst about appearance and mildly rebellious behaviour.

But suddenly, in April 2008, Simran became debilitated by intense anxiety, headaches and stomach aches and just refused to go to school. As a parent, my first instinct was to make her face her fears and force her to go to school anyway—it’s so difficult sometimes to know when and how much to push and when to lay back. But as far as Simran was concerned, she simply couldn’t step out of the house.

We had a lot of support from her high school principal, counsellor and teachers during this period. The principal met with Simran and I at a location off the school grounds, encouraging her to return to school, and she did. (This principal has remained in touch with Simran, visiting her in hospital and guiding us in seeking alternate school placements.) The teachers gave Simran extra attention and more time to complete assignments, since she had to catch up after a three-week absence. And the counsellor made a referral to the local child and youth mental health (CYMH) team.

With the referral to the CYMH, we were well into the first steps of her diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—apparently triggered by an incident with peers at school. She had suddenly been rejected by her social group.

After a short hospital stay and weekly individual and family therapy sessions at the community mental health centre, Simran had enough strength to start grade 10 at a different school. Still fragile and not quite focused academically, she was settling in as best as she could, when the bullying started again. She was the new kid on the block, who had good looks and a great academic record.

One October day, this bullying culminated in Simran being tricked by a classmate into a meeting just outside the school grounds after school, then being surrounded, punched, kicked and robbed by a gang of older, out-of-school girls. (The ‘trick’ was agreeing to talk and try to resolve the fact that this girl had been sending toxic text messages to Simran.)

The school administrators and school (police) liaison officer dealt with this incident immediately, but it sapped the last ounce of strength from Simran and she decided not to press legal charges. The school counsellors spent a lot of time with her. The offending student was suspended for several days, the girls were put in separate classes, and someone accompanied Simran to the bus stop after school (I drove her there in the morning). But, still, she would see the girls who attacked her on the street. The fear came back and she started having severe panic attacks.

This added trauma landed Simran, who was still trying to cope with losing her mother and surviving the earthquake, back to square one on her journey through the highs and lows of PTSD. Together, we faced the terrifying symptoms, now even more intense than before: flashbacks, paralyzing fear, nightmares, fainting spells, disorientation and disassociation. Simran became suicidal and needed to be hospitalized again—and we almost lost her because the meds had a highly adverse effect on her liver.

Now, after 10 weeks in hospital, Simran is in a residential treatment program, where she is on the road to recovery and reintegration back into the community.

Keeping strong; cultivating support

Individually, and as a family, we are all still struggling to get life back on track. We have good days and we have bad days. For Layla, who has had her own (more manageable) mental health challenges and trauma recovery to deal with, it has been very difficult to witness her sister’s journey.

I work in the mental health field, on the front lines, so I had some ‘knowledge’ of bullying and trauma issues. I also knew about the health care system and how to access community resources—and, still, trying to get help was an overwhelming experience. All my knowledge and training went right out the window when I found my family experiencing these things so fully and personally.

I still have a hard time coming to terms with how cruel teenage girls can be—and how daunting it is to navigate and access the many resources within the school and mental health systems. Sometimes, keeping my own focus, especially at work, is very hard.

Luckily, I have a very supportive and caring workplace, which gives me the strength and flexible working hours needed to take on all these challenges. What has also helped me to survive is my faith, my community network, support from close friends and family, a positive attitude and the willingness to work at “unlearning” the amount of stigma that somehow builds up in all of us.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development’s Child and Youth Mental Health Team has always been accessible and supportive. The FORCE Society for Kids Mental Health and the whole mental health team at BC Children’s Hospital have also been marvellous community resources.

And my experience with the school principals, staff and counsellors has been nothing but positive. I believe this is because I have reached out to them and have communicated with openness, candour and honesty at all times. Willingness to set one’s ego aside and say: “I don’t know; I need help”—and motivation to problem solve and make changes—goes a long way.

About the author

Shabana* is a single mother of two adopted children struggling with mental health issues. As a front-line mental health worker in the Lower Mainland, she empowers families and individuals facing similar situations, by providing knowledge and resources needed for the road to recovery and wellness