Five years ago I thought my youngest son Sam was going to sail through high school, and go off to college on a full scholarship. Whip smart, he seemed to succeed at nearly everything he attempted. School came easily to him, earning all A’s. A natural athlete, Sam excelled at his chosen sports, soccer and track. When he tried out for the school play he landed the lead and he possessed a marked musical ability creating amazing pieces of original music with his keyboard and guitar. Fierce confidence was phrase that I came to associate with this kid.
Then his sophomore year arrived. From January to May Sam fell off an emotional cliff and it was painful to watch. At first I wasn’t sure what was going on, had he started using drugs, or did he just stop caring?
I had been through the teen years with his older brother and was quite familiar with the typical teen behavior of pulling away, individuating and spending an inordinate number of hours alone in one’s bedroom. But gradually I had to open my eyes to the truth; my child was seriously depressed and he needed help.
Five years earlier Sam had experienced a brief bout of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The psychiatrist I took him to said his OCD was not serious enough to warrant medication. He thought cognitive behavioral therapy would be adequate. So that’s what we did and within months Sam’s symptoms seemed to have disappeared. Ahhh, mental illness averted, or so I wanted to believe. This was just blip. And life went on.
But not really. I have a sister with bipolar disorder. For more than 30 years I have watched this disease play out for her and it has been a long painful ride. Could my child have a serious mental health disorder? Am I seeing the early signs of bipolar disorder in him?
If denial could will it away, I was ready to try. But when you’ve seen mental illness up close and personal, you really can’t. If it sounds like I’m contradicting myself, that is exactly what I did. It was too painful to imagine a child of mine living a life with so much mental anguish, with mental illness and yet I knew that sweeping it under the rug would not do him any good.
Sam started therapy which provided him with an outlet to talk but no real relief from the depression. During this time I discovered that he was in fact smoking pot and I made it clear that self-medicating was not an option. This was something my sister had done to deal with her depression in her twenties and it most likely triggered her first psychotic break.
Sam was dead set against medication and I was pretty much with him on this decision. We were both concerned with the side effects and questioned its effectiveness. As the summer drew to a close I began doing some research on Neurofeedback (NFB) therapy or Neurotherapy. NFB is a type of biofeedback that uses real-time displays of brain activity—most commonly electroencephalography (EEG), to teach self-regulation of brain function. Sensors are placed on the scalp to measure activity, with measurements displayed using video displays or sound. Neurofeedback basically retrains the brain, harnessing our own brains ability to self-correct.
I shared the idea with Sam and he was eager to try it. Seven months later, after bi-weekly sessions he felt and we saw a marked improvement in his symptoms. And that’s a very good thing. But NFB is not a silver bullet. When it comes to mental illness there is no silver bullet. There is awareness and willingness to engage in treatment, and an absolute necessity to try and leave the stigma out of the equation.
Today my perspective on this 17 year old boy has totally changed: I am not so concerned with Sam’s grades or whether or not he even goes to college, although I suspect he will. And while he has resumed track, it doesn’t matter what his times are on his best event, the fact that he is engaged in something physical that he enjoys is enough.
But perhaps the most important thing that has changed from a year ago is Sam’s own perspective, and his awareness of his mental health. He has taken ownership of the fact that this disease is something he will have to deal with for the rest of his life.
I have and will continue to have frank conversations with all three of my children about their mental health and the fact that they need to take responsibility for it, just as they do their physical health.