March / April 2013. Our oldest daughter Elizabeth’s mind and emotions had taken a radical turn for the worse.
After suffering a severe emotional and psychological breakdown, she was escorted to the local hospital and admitted into the mental health ward for observation and analysis.
After about a day’s stay at the county hospital, Erica and I were advised that it was the opinion of the doctor and behavioral health professional, that Elizabeth needed to be admitted into an inpatient psychiatric treatment facility as soon as possible. The closest location, where there was enough room available for an adolescent, was in Raleigh, NC…almost a four-hour drive from our home at the time.
Erica and I didn’t have much choice; Elizabeth’s was being admitted because, during the assessment and interview with the mental health staff, she had said some things which were very concerning. She said she wanted to die; that she wished she wasn’t born and didn’t want to live anymore.
The hospital staff’s hands were tied, and so were our’s as parents. For her safety and our family safety, Elizabeth was transferred from the county acute behavioral health care ward, and released to the inpatient facility, which was all the way in Raleigh.
As much as it hurt to know Elizabeth wasn’t going to be coming back to the house that evening, it hurt, even more, to know my little princess’s mind was being bombarded by such dark and wicked thoughts. She was only 13 years old…her whole life was ahead of her; what could be doing this and why?
My heart and soul told me something deeper may have been going on, but the eyes of my inner-understanding were not keen enough to discern what Elizabeth and our family were battling with. In my mind, I saw faint dots which were possibly connected to the same issues other people in my family had wrestled with and succumbed to, but I didn’t know in which order to connect them…but more on all of that later. Right now, I want to reflect back on the three years preceding the experience I’ve just described.
Up until that point, what initially seemed to be ‘normal’ adolescent tantrums and moodiness, had grown in size and intensity. Almost all the signs of an underlying issue went unnoticed by me. I was assigned to a warship as a senior enlisted crew member; I spent most of my time aboard the ship either preparing to get underway or out at sea participating in back-to-back drills and training evolutions. When I was at home, I was either recuperating from my long work hours or catching up on whatever family time I could. I was never home long enough to ever notice Elizabeth’s degrading behavior pattern or emotional state.
My wife Erica, on the other hand, had seen it all. She was the one who was answering the letters and phone calls from the teachers at Elizabeth’s school, telling us of progressing problems with our daughter’s behavior; her poor performance in class and confrontations with her peers.
By the time I had come back from my deployment at the end of 2012, Elizabeth’s 5th-grade teacher had suggested that my wife and I seriously consider having our daughter seen by an adolescent behavioral health specialist for an assessment and possible diagnosis.
This came on the heels of several parent-teacher conferences we had at the school to address the learning challenges as well as the social interaction issues that Elizabeth was having. Slowly the layers of the onion began to be peeled back.
Going back further, while we were stationed in Hawaii, we had noticed that Elizabeth did indeed have some difficulty comprehending the school work from grades one through four.
Aside from a “daily behavior notebook,” academic performance tracker and the regularly scheduled parent-teacher meetings held for the entire student body through-out the year, Erica and I were never specifically notified of Elizabeth having any major behavioral issues which needed professional care.
Overall, the theme of Elizabeth’s teacher notes seemed to indicate that she was highly intelligent, very artistic but that she had a problem focusing and applying the information presented in class.
Complicating the fact that our daughter was demonstrating behavioral and learning struggles at an early age, was that neither my wife or I had a point of reference or a baseline to work from when it came to raising a child with any type of emotional or behavioral health special needs: meaning that, sure we knew Elizabeth had challenges, but we figured they were normal ‘growing pains’ and that she’d outgrow them as time progressed.
It wasn’t until we were stationed in back in the Hampton Roads/Tidewater area, and Elizabeth was enrolled in the local public school, that we became aware of the possibility that her issues were more chronic and probably closely related to a more severe and profound problem, which had yet to be diagnosed. We lived in a rural North Carolina town about 10 miles south of the VA/NC state line and about 40 minutes from my job in Norfolk, Va.
The rural North Carolina school district had smaller classrooms, more student-friendly resources, and a better-funded faculty than the previous school district Elizabeth was enrolled in back when we were stationed in Hawaii. Long story short, North Carolina had a superior public-school program; because of this, Erica and I were not only made aware of the problems our daughter was having, but we were given, with what at the time seemed to be, a way ahead.
Adding to the shock of learning that our oldest daughter may have been struggling with an undiagnosed behavioral health need, was the fact that her 5th-grade teacher made us aware that Elizabeth’s academic proficiency was only near a 3rd-grade level.
My wife and I were stunned. How could all of this happen? How could our little girl be so far behind not only in her learning, but also in receiving treatment for an issue that we didn’t have a name for?
As we slowly drilled, more in-depth, into the school work and behavior issues, we discovered that while Elizabeth was enrolled in the Hawaii public school system, the teachers had known there was an issue. Elizabeth revealed to us that there were several occasions where she had been placed in isolation away from the other children; alone and segregated with nothing but her school subjects and a pencil.
Taking the time to remember all of this and type it up just breaks my heart. If I could go back in time, I’d give my little girl a hug, rescue her from that entire situation and tell her that everything would be o.k.
Looking back now, it’s hard to wonder how much could have been prevented through proactive and comprehensive engagement with the local school and my family. Regardless, at this point, it’s neither constructive or healing to play the ‘what-if’ game. The best we can do is note the lessons learned and press onward.
Like I stated previously, once we were made aware that there was a strong possibility that Elizabeth had special emotional and behavioral needs, we made the choice to have her diagnosed.
Our first step was to get Elizabeth diagnosed through her primary health provider at the base clinic. Every effort was made to figure out what was wrong. The three main approaches were:
Was it a behavioral issue that was treatable through talk-therapy and counseling?
Was it a ‘chemical imbalance’ which could be treated through pharmaceuticals?
Was it a combination of both behavioral and chemical?
After several follow-up appointments and through various iterations of drug prescriptions, Elizabeth showed no signs of overall improvement. The only ‘solution’ that the doctor could give was to alter either the dose or type of drug she was prescribing our daughter. The unseen realm in her mind and soul still remained a place which was troubled and hurting.
With each change in dose or type of drug, my wife and I would watch our daughter’s behavior shift and change, often with the advertised side effects being pronounced to the point that Elizabeth would almost be too sick to go to school.
We had entered a painful cycle of ‘Catch 22’. We felt damned if Elizabeth didn’t take her medication because her behavior would become uncontrollable, erratic, violent, and even destructive. Yet, we also felt damned because often with each dose we administered, Elizabeth would become a spaced-out shell of her usual self; she would zone out with a blank stare, suffer migraine headaches and endured either extreme nausea or an excess appetite.
Any parent who has had to sit helplessly by and watch their child suffer will understand how my wife and I felt. We wanted to take away the invisible pain from our little girl. Something was going on inside her mind, which was influencing her actions and emotions. Nothing the doctor did seemed to fix it. Our family medicine cabinet had run out of space because of all the prescriptions she had been given. It had come to a point where we had to buy a separate plastic container to store what seemed like a miniature pharmacy.
Our little girl…our princess…our oldest child Elizabeth was on a cocktail of anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and mood-altering medications…and yet nothing seemed to work. Finally, the doctor at the base clinic recommend we take Elizabeth to a behavioral therapist out in town.
This time, instead of depending solely on biochemistry to attack that unseen thing which had illegitimately taken up residence in the complex network which comprised Elizabeth’s mind: her thoughts, will and emotions…an alternate course was taken. In addition to a modified regimen of medication, a new treatment method was added…psychiatric therapy.
We were referred to one of the most renown and reputable mental health practices in the Hampton Roads area. It was assumed that this added layer of treatment would address the part of the mind where chemistry seems to cease having an effect; the human soul.
Desperate to do whatever it took to get our daughter well again, my wife and I started Elizabeth on a regular routine of speaking with the therapist. Once again, with a new technique added to the already elaborate treatment plan, Elizabeth seemed to respond positively. For the first several sessions, her mood and temperament appeared to normalize…each time we believed that our little girl was back.
But the respite wouldn’t last long. It was as if that dark and brooding presence would adapt itself to whatever new treatment technique was being used…and so it did once again.
In addition to the pressures of changing hormones, academic stress and any genetic pre-dispositions, two new factors were added into the already volatile mix: peers and sexuality. Elizabeth was 13 years old by this point. Every day at school she was inundated by sights and sounds which were laced with every and all manner of sexualized themes. Many of her peers wrestled with these same themes, and some even propagated them.
Elizabeth’s choice in ‘friends,’ music, art and media became a minefield of dark-depressing themes, hyper-sexualized confusion, self-mutilation and rebellion against the traditional values we had worked so hard to establish in our family unit.
Despite our best intentions as parents, we were caught unaware and unprepared on an unseen battlefield; a place where things like medication and secular therapy alone are of little use. Sure, these are two very potent tools which, many times, have proven to be integral in healing portions of the human mind and body; but without the necessary third component, they are just bandages on a wound that goes spirit deep.
It’s been said by theologians and even many in the mental health field, that human beings are comprised of three parts: body, mind, and spirit.
I’m not a mental health expert, licensed counselor or certified therapist. Nor am I trained in the medical sciences in any way, shape or form.
But I am an expert on loss and what it looks like when the spark of hope slowly dwindles in a human heart. Tragically, I’ve witnessed first-hand when a person’s passion for fulfilling their created purpose is slowly suffocated by darkness and self-hate. I have seen what it looks like when a human being is fighting their own personal three-front war; where the mind, body, and spirit are in constant conflict. It’s a battlefield where they are the primary casualty, followed by the tears and heartbreak suffered by those they leave behind.
It is based on my experience and the preponderance of evidence, which my own eyes and heart have painfully witnessed, that I believe we, as a species, are indeed created beings; formed by a Creator to be a synergy of three very different yet co-equal parts. It’s this three-part assembly which was designed and made in The Creator’s image…of which our most vital essence, the spirit, was personally breathed and imbued with the other two parts; body and soul.
None of this would become real to me until I saw my own child; a young girl full of hope, potential, and promise, become dragged upon that battlefield. Our family was in the middle of a war and Elizabeth was in the cross-fire.
Unable to name or clearly see the enemy that we were fighting, we launched our ill-equipped offensive of medication and therapy, which would always be followed by counter-assault from that invisible malevolence. Our best-laid efforts, strategy, and intentions were missing the most critical component…The Creator.
Needless to say, our most difficult trials still laid ahead…