Family Therapy is Helping My Daughter and I Cope With My Mental Illness
It didn't take me long to realize just how much my mental illness was affecting my daughter. My therapist suggested I bring my 6-year-old to a session and it was life-changing for us.
When I close my eyes, I can still smell the fresh salt emanating from her damp curls. My daughter Simone loved to splash in the ocean water and frolic freely on the shore. She filled her red pail with sea shells while I repaired sand castles the changing tides washed over. She wore a polka dot swimsuit and ivory sun hat as we sat on a checkered picnic blanket to eat peanut butter sandwiches around noon. Simone even ate the crusts. We went to the beach every weekend, but that ceased when my mental health deteriorated five years ago.
I am a 29-year-old single mother with a 9-year-old daughter. The state of my mental health tends to ebb and flow every few years. For the first four years of Simone's life, my depression and generalized anxiety were tolerable—and other days, nonexistent. When I'm at my best, my little girl is vivacious, affectionate, and silly; I live for these moments. The challenges arise when I spiral downward.
In 2014, the ever-tightening grip of mental illness rendered everyday living problematic. I endured daily panic attacks and struggled to even get out of bed. Simple responsibilities other parents performed with ease proved to be strenuous for me. At the time, the possibility of being an inadequate parent was too horrifying to contemplate. So, I opted to live in denial.
- RELATED: We Are a Family With Anxiety
But by age 4, Simone became exceptionally perceptive. She was aware of every nuance in my voice and body language. She lost the desire to play outside by the time she turned 5. She preferred to watch television or play games on her iPad.
She aced every subject on her school's report card—however, her teacher noted she was concerned about my daughter's social interactions. Simone played alone at recess, isolating herself from her peers. I embraced her warmly, acknowledging how proud I was of her excellent grades. I debated mentioning her teacher's side note, but ultimately it felt ill-timed. Instead, we made towering ice cream sundaes for dinner to celebrate, but my guilt consumed me.
I knew all too well her happiness was withering away as a direct result of my mood. I always made it a point to ask about her school day. I asked: What was the best part? The worst? How was her day overall? Monday through Friday, she gave me the same continuous stream of vague, yet reassuring responses.
But she started politely refusing dinner several evenings each week for a good six months. Every night, I offered to cook any meal she was willing to eat, like rainbow macaroni and cheese. She'd offer to stir food coloring into the six separate bowls of noodles. But her excitement faded by the time I delivered her grandiose dish to the table. After nibbling on a few bites, she claimed to be full.
I recall giving Simone a bath one night in 2016. Her spine and collarbones were protruding; she was losing an unhealthy amount of weight. The utmost shame I swallow for habitually failing my daughter still shatters my heart.
Shortly after, when Simone was 6, I scheduled an appointment for family counseling with a therapist I had been seeing for a year. I was being treated for my anxiety and panic disorder, but when my constant worries about Simone's mental health began to dominate our sessions, my therapist suggested she and I come in together.
The first year of family therapy was life-changing for us. We weren't attempting to hide our inner troubles from one another, the way we once had. I learned that revealing my true emotions actually encourages Simone to follow suit. As it turns out, my questions about school had only heightened her anxiety. Rephrasing "How was your math test?" to "I was thinking of you during your test today and I bet you did wonderfully" made all the difference. She was baring her soul, telling me all about her school days—the good and the bad. The tools we acquired in therapy strengthened our relationship.
At the request of our therapist, Simone also met with a psychiatrist. After evaluating my daughter, he clarified that she is not mentally ill; rather, she is an empath—just as I'd always believed. That means she's a person who experiences an overabundance of empathy, often to the point of adopting the pain of others at their own expense. That's why when I regress, Simone senses my suffering—despite the forced smile plastered on my face.
- RELATED: Therapy Made Me a Better Parent
Today, Simone recognizes she is not responsible for my happiness. There is always an open invitation to communicate with each other, and we know it. Prior to therapy, my daughter was apprehensive about discussing her sadness, anger, or anxiety. She worried that I might "absorb" her mood like she absorbed mine. Now we focus on solving our problems in lieu of avoiding them.
Every night before reading bedtime stories, we have an outstanding appointment for a "feelings check-in." Usually, Simone asks me to take the lead. I tell her about my day, if I was presented with any challenges, and I rate my mood on a scale of one to 10. When I'm finished, she is welcome to ask any questions. And then she takes her turn. We choose to hold hands during these intimate conversations. I'm allowed to ask questions when she's done sharing, but I was advised to keep them to a minimum—to avoid causing her any anxiety.
We still attend family therapy biweekly and I continue to participate in my individual sessions as well. I am prescribed medications that aid me in living a normal life. Simone's weight is healthy again. She's also made some friends in her class and we arrange playdates every so often.
This past summer, we ventured to the beach almost every weekend. Simone brought her red pail and shovel, and I packed our favorite picnic blanket. We collected sea shells and beach glass. We didn't mind the sun-bleached sand crystals burning the soles of our feet. We also sat side-by-side to eat lunch and Simone ate every last crumb of our simple (yet delicious) peanut butter sandwiches—crusts and all.
Megan Lane is a New York-based freelance writer. Her niche is mental and physical health, addiction, and recovery. She was previously employed as a journalist by two local newspapers. After taking a several-year hiatus to focus on her mental well-being, she is now pursuing her dreams as a freelance writer.