There is a quiet and growing crisis affecting families today. One which is negatively impacting our most cherished loved ones – our children.
Behind the smiles and jokes, the selfies and snap streaks, lurks an insidious risk. To be blunt, our children’s mental health and happiness is under attack.
Fighting words, right? Unfortunately, there is no single bad guy to defend against.
Let’s be very clear. Mental health is complex. It’s not only trauma or abuse that threatens our children. Genetics, poor diet, lack of sleep and sunshine, isolation, and now even our technology are just as likely to be at the root of any particular person’s mental health challenges.
No matter which contributing factor impacts your family most, they all wield a sword or an axe. The ideas listed here, and many more, are chopping the foundation of our children’s lives out from under them.
Many of the causes of this calamity are cultural, unintended and wide-spread. As parents, our best defense is to become as educated as possible to protect and prepare our children to navigate this new and complex world in a positive and healthy way.
We hope our story may provide your family some small comfort. Perhaps it may encourage you to look for the information and resources your family needs to be your healthiest and happiest. At the very least, please know you are not alone. There are many of us out there who want to help! Please, do not hesitate to ask.
The Jackson’s Story
This is how our story began…
Wednesday, February 11, 2015 began in typical fashion. I had returned from an overnight business trip late the previous day. I was a bit tired, and not in the most positive of mental states. Arwen, my beautiful and loving wife, was also tired and stressed from having “single-parented” our four amazing, over-achieving, and over-extended children in my absence. She’d also simultaneously juggled the kids’ activities with the various leadership positions and responsibilities she holds within the community. Can you say… modern busy family! That was us. We were “living the dream”. Our life was exactly what we had always dreamed it should be. Or, so we thought.
In hindsight, there were plenty of clues that we were tempting fate. Blinded by our own naivety, we launched ourselves into each new day. Therapists and medication for both parents and children should have been all the information needed for us to get real, to take a breath, to make a change. Of course, the “should have, would have, could have” is behind us now.
That evening, I drove Madison, our eldest daughter of 14 years, to her club soccer practice in Houston. This bi-weekly excursion totaled three hours each practice, and resulted in her getting to bed quite late, 10:00PM at the earliest on those nights. This was our norm and we didn’t think much of it.
This Night was Different
We made it home a little early that evening, 9:30PM, and I was quickly under the covers. I’m a morning person and I was ready to get some sleep. As I headed to the master bedroom, Madison headed to her room upstairs.
Shortly after I had tucked in, certainly no more than 20 minutes, I was nodding off when Arwen shook me awake. Our 16 year-old son Mitchell was standing near the foot of our bed with a shell-shocked look on his face. I will never forget that look… he was scared and lost. His look and demeanor shook me to the core.
It took us a long time to get him to even speak, much less tell us what happened. Eventually Mitchell confided that he had just made an effort to kill himself.
Only minutes earlier, he had “snapped out of a trance” standing in front of the door to the bathroom he and his sister share. Knife in hand, he had gone there with the determined plan to disrobe, step in the tub, and “sever his femoral artery”.
I often think about what might have happened that night. As disturbing as the memory is, it’s not the violence or finality of the act itself that I most often reflect on. That’s not what tightens my throat and catches my breath when I think of that night.
Instead, my mind zooms in on Mitchell’s own description of how he’d removed his clothes and climbed in the tub, “so we would not be burdened with cleaning up the mess”.
To this day, I feel physically sick when I try to resolve the conflicting thoughts my son faced. On the one hand, he had come to the conclusion that he had no reason to live. While on the other hand, he loved us enough that he did not want to burden us more than necessary.
As if cleaning some blood could in any way compare to losing our child. It is my greatest life’s regret that I didn’t realize how conflicted and tortured he must have been… long, long before he reached that point.
We were Lucky!
Mitchell does not remember much, from the time he picked up the knife in his room, until he found himself standing in shock at the foot of our bed.
His plan was thwarted by sheer, dumb-luck. Madison had decided to shower before turning in, instead of the following morning, as was her typical routine. And, as is often the case with siblings, she was not interested in her brother’s wish to use the bathroom, and not the least bit concerned he might think she was hogging it. She simply ignored his knocks. None of us know how long he stood at that door. A minute? Five? Sometimes life throws you a bone.
After getting enough of the story out of him to realize the gravity of the situation, we grabbed the cot we keep for family visits, placed it beside the bed and had him sleep there, inches from us, the rest of the night. I sat and or lay in my bed and watched him – simply watched and thought. Hour after hour, I watched and I thought. Every parent’s deepest fear was so narrowly avoided.
At first light, we got up, got the girls to school and headed to the hospital. Mitchell stayed there for the next 7 days. His recovery has been consistent. Not perfect or fast, but consistent. Healing deep mental wounds is not an easy path.
Unfortunately, Our Story Doesn’t End There…
Both Mitchell and Madison had seen therapists prior to that fateful night, Mitchell for depression, Madison for anxiety.
Madison has always leaned toward perfectionism. And though she’s absolutely amazing in everything she attempts, the pressure she places on herself can be immense. And, it was that pressure that created significant, mental health challenges for our second child.
For a long time, Madison was not aware of her role in saving her brother’s life. We did our best to shield her from the details of Mitchell’s experience, and for good reason. Her ability to cope with her anxiety was already stretched thin. She did not need the additional burden.
Most of the time with Madison, you wouldn’t realize she was struggling. If you were around her a lot, you might notice a few interesting OCD rituals she enacted when stressed. Mostly though, she seemed healthy and happy and engaged in her activities. That was soon to change.
When the girls arrived home from school the afternoon following Mitchell’s “near miss”, we gathered them together, told them Mitchell was having a really hard time with his depression and that we had checked him into the hospital. We answered all of their general questions, if not the details described above, and made every effort to assure them that he was ok and that he would soon return home.
Almost immediately, Madison started imagining her brother harming himself. The images and scenarios spanned the reach of her imagination. They were at times graphic, and quickly became ever-present. She was very open with us, telling us what she was experiencing. We took her to her therapist immediately and repeatedly. We talked with her and reassured her, in our attempts to help relieve her pain. We did everything we could think of to help.
Madison’s thoughts soon turned from her brother to her harming herself. They very rapidly escalated to what is known by the Psychiatric profession as “suicidal intent”. These insistent thoughts continued to worsen even after Mitchell returned home. By the second week, each day was chaos. Each night, I sat with her, holding her hand, while she cried herself to sleep.
Whereas Mitchell’s episode had been an explosion out of the dark, totally unforeseen, Madison’s was more like a freight train, a terrible vision of sound and fury, barreling towards us every single day. It was a device of certain destruction, one we could do nothing to avoid.
On March 3, just 19 days after we’d admitted Mitchell for psychiatric treatment, Madison told us she no longer felt safe. After a group discussion, we all agreed to admit her to the hospital, where she would spend the next week.
Mental Health Affects the Entire Family
As you might expect, the rest of the family was affected by these events as well. Arwen and I were exhausted, confused, sad and literally functioning minute to minute. Taylor and Riley, our two younger daughters continued to go to school, attend practices and social events – seemingly regular daily life.
At the time, we provided for these two as best we knew how. We took them to visit the person who was by then our “family therapist”… in that tumultuous period, she probably knew more about each of us than we did ourselves. Basically, we triaged. We left the mental healthcare of our youngest children in the therapist’s capable hands, while we focused on Mitchell and Madison.
Honestly, to this day I am not completely clear on how these events affected Taylor and Riley. It would be almost another year and half before our family could come up for air and even consider this question.
The Road to Recovery
Over the next 14 months, Madison had three more extended hospital stays, and multiple months of daily outpatient treatments. She cried, isolated herself, self-harmed, and fought with us. She continued to think of doing far worse. Everything we tried resulted in small improvements followed by seemingly insurmountable setbacks. Her progress was far more challenged than her brother’s. These were dark days for our family, and many of the details are murky, either suppressed or forgotten.
Fortunately, something finally clicked in her fourth hospital stay. A new Psychiatrist tried a different medication, one that suppressed the impulse to self-harm. That turned out to be the missing component in Madison’s solution. Since that medication was introduced, her progress towards health and happiness has been consistent, and now she’s back on track, and enjoys many of the same pursuits she had three years earlier.
These are years we can never give back to her. But, we’re committed to ensuring that she never has to endure such hardships again.
Mitchell and Madison, all of us actually, still have short periods when we become unhappy. But these instances are less frequent, less severe, and far shorter in duration now that we have the knowledge and experience to better deal with them.
Our Wish for All Families
We’ve always considered ourselves “fairly normal”… and you would too. “The Jackson Six” as we call ourselves, thankfully are still six. We are truly blessed.
We experienced a bone-jarring, eardrum-blasting wake-up call… not an “aha moment” or your standard “epiphany”. We went from “generally healthy and happy” to full-blown crisis literally overnight!
Through hard work, open communication, persistence and love, we overcame our situation. For more than two years now, I have studied books, researched everything I can find on the web, and spoken with countless other parents and children who have endured similar experiences.
Our family now has the knowledge to identify when things are trending in a negative direction. And, we have the skills to correct our course effectively when this happens. These skills give us better control and help us monitor our own mental health situations, identify our challenges, support one another and seek help when we need to.
That first night, and the ensuing three years, shaped our family’s focus and purpose in dramatic, and hopefully valuable ways. We are all now healthy and mostly happy. We continually prepare ourselves to deal with a complex world, as we pursue our goals and dreams.
Our deliberate and consistent efforts are leading us to a “happy ending”, at least to this life episode and we want others to have full and happy lives also.
As a result of our experiences, Arwen and I have rededicated ourselves to ensuring the health and happiness of our children. We have also come to realize that we want to dedicate the remainder of our lives’ work to helping as many families as possible do the same.
To this end, we are creating multiple pathways to share our story and the knowledge we have gained with as many families as we can reach. You can find us on social media, learn more about us on our website, and even put parts of our methodology into practice with an app that we have created.
We share our story in the hope that other families will be inspired to seek the knowledge and skills required to ensure their own family story is filled with health and happiness. We will continue to share what we learn, and to support everyone who wants to join us on this critically important journey.
And finally, please know that the Jackson Six wishes your family nothing less than Health and Happiness.
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