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A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

New Life Brings Hope to a Family Struggling with Mental Illness and Addiction

Linda Del Degan

Reprinted from "Families and Crisis" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 12 (4), p. 25

I walk quietly into the room. My daughter-in law has a contented smile on her face. My grandson, all of four hours old, is snuggled in her arms. My son, eyes closed, his body enfolding his family, is also smiling gently.

It has not always been like this and it may not always stay like this, but I savour this moment.

As a child, my son was challenging, impulsive, constantly not listening and getting into trouble. Before the age of 13, he had three depressive episodes, and then he experienced a psychosis. But there were limited services for youth his age, and it was only after he’d been in and out of several treatment centres that he received any diagnoses at all.

I had assumed his childhood depressive episodes were situational. We had immigrated as a young family to Canada from Britain when our son was two years old. When we arrived, we established a group home for teenagers. Within a few years, our son was abused by two of the group home clients. We were horrified. We immediately involved Social Services,* and the abusers were removed from the home. But our son suffered severe trauma.

Then, when my son was seven years old, my children’s father abandoned us and moved to Victoria. He saw his three children only sporadically and wasn’t emotionally or financially supportive. He left our children feeling neglected, unloved and inadequate.

After their father left, the children and I lived a life of fear—fear about the present, fear about the future. My youngest daughter retreated to her room. My middle daughter grew up too quickly, taking over household tasks, compensating for her elder brother’s emotional swings and erratic behaviour. I, too, struggled emotionally and relied on close friends for support. We asked ourselves desperately, “When will it end? When will we feel safe?”

I was fortunate even in this difficult period to meet the man who would become my new husband and stepfather to my children. I was hopeful that things would get better—but instead, they got worse.

It was during this time that my son’s mental health really began to deteriorate. When he was 15, he had a particularly difficult visit with his father. He came home angry, disappointed and deeply hurt. Over the next few weeks, he started swearing, bullying his sisters, stealing money from his stepfather, and smoking cigarettes. And then, early one morning, he quietly informed me, “Last night I was planning how to kill you.”

I still remember the fear that coursed through me in that moment. I realized that something needed to be done.

Together, he and I went to the hospital. There, he was taken to a different room and interviewed alone. At the end of the interview, the psychiatrist came out to the waiting room and told me, “Your son is psychotic. He is a danger to you. He must not go home.”

My life changed that night. From there, my son was moved to the psychiatric unit at Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. Over the next several months, despite the safety protocols of the psychiatric ward, my son made several suicide attempts. The psychiatrist would quietly explain that these suicide attempts “weren’t serious, they were just attention-seeking.”

I was unconvinced. Seeing your son’s arms in bandages due to self-inflicted injuries seems pretty serious to me! But I also felt completely unsupported. No one offered any advice, no one offered any support services to our family as we went through this crisis. During this period, I often went to the garden at the back of the hospital to sob on my own. I was desperate for answers, an end to this horrible nightmare.

When I had no more tears left, I would return to my son, trying to present a calm and soothing presence. I would tell him how much I loved him, how I would always be there for him. I’ve continued to use this approach over the years.

Much to my sadness, my son didn’t come back to live at home after his hospital stay. We tried to have him home several times, but he had started using non-prescription drugs—he called it “self-medicating”—and this made him unpredictable, unsafe. After spending time in various treatment facilities, he was in foster care for the next several years.

As a mother, I was plagued by my feelings of failure and thoughts of “If only I had done this or that.” And although I visited him regularly, I never found out until much later how difficult and demoralizing those years in foster care had been for him.

At the age of 23, while he was attending Vancouver Film School, my son was officially diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, with adult ADHD and an anxiety disorder. The experimentation with medication began. Eventually he seemed to reach a certain stability. He got married, he was sober, he was able to work. But inevitably something would happen to destabilize him, and he would become psychotic. This happened over and over again, until eventually his wife had had enough and left.

If it had been difficult before, it became even more difficult at that point. My son’s life became completely consumed by his drug addiction. I would only hear from him when he was in crisis, psychotic, or about to become homeless. We always took him in. For a while he would stabilize, and then he would disappear before he could get additional help.

Two years ago, when he met his current common-law partner, both tried to stay sober. But always at the six-week mark, they would give in to their cravings. Social Services got involved, and my daughter-in-law’s two daughters from a previous relationship were removed from the home.

When my daughter-in-law found out she was pregnant again, I wept. I feared what would happen. Social Services had been very clear: if they used drugs, their baby would be taken from the home. My son was determined to be a good dad, a loving and caring dad—all that he never had.

And so began their journey towards sobriety. My son sought help from Delta Mental Health, but the organization could offer only 10 minutes a month with the psychiatrist. And when he became psychotic and the ambulance was called, he would often refuse to go to the hospital. His previous experiences in the psych ward had terrified him. I think it’s fair to say that my son has been traumatized by our own health care system.

But in the calm that always follows the storm, he has often quietly told me, “Mum, you saved my life!”

As I write this, my grandson is four months old, and he is thriving. When I look at my son with his own son, I can remember more easily the many kindnesses he has shown me over the years, the times when he has made me laugh until tears rolled down my cheeks. My son is a gentle, compassionate, intellectual soul, an artist, a musician, and a comedian, determined to thrive. He enjoys philosophical discussions, he is tender with his wife, he loves his stepdaughters and enjoys spending time with his niece and nephews. And he is proving himself to be a doting, loving father.

And how wonderful it feels when he holds me in his arms, hugs me, and tells me that he loves me!

But our family life has not been one of surviving one crisis and then moving on. The nature of my son’s mental health and addictions means that we are constantly anticipating and preparing for the next crisis. My son wants desperately to enjoy a life of equilibrium, but he needs guidance to manage his complex mental health challenges without succumbing to his addictions. When he does not receive the mental health support he needs, he runs the risk of “self-medicating” with unpredictable street drugs. Many addictions programs do not meet the needs of those with severe mental health challenges, and many mental health support programs are not set up to serve those with addictions.

Thankfully, we have recently discovered the Supported Independent Living (SIL) program, a provincially funded housing initiative for those with mental health issues and addictions. My son is now on the wait list, looking forward to the possibility of moving out with his partner and their son, and regaining guardianship of her daughters.

I hope that in the future a greater understanding of mental health issues and addictions will mean that there is more help available for families going through similar circumstances. The wait lists for psychiatrists and counsellors are long, which is particularly difficult when emergency support services and housing options are limited. Ten minutes a month is not enough! More coordination among health support systems would serve families better.

But throughout all of this, I have only to look at my grandson’s smile to feel hope for the future of our family.

About the author

Linda is an elementary-school teacher and a new grandmother. As the daughter of a concentration-camp survivor and the mother of children with mental health and addictions issues, Linda is familiar with the struggles faced by families with similar challenges. She hopes that soon there will be more support services for families in crisis

*the Child Protection office of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD)

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