New Zines 6
Every single teenager I know (or know of) is currently, or has been, pretty damn depressed at some point. Why can’t we talk about the fact that depression in the teen years is a normal developmental stage? It’s as normal as acne and periods and voice changes and first sexual experiences and all the rest. It doesn’t matter if you attachment parented or had a full time nanny. It doesn’t matter if your kid is the straight A super star, the homeschooler, or the barely passing pothead. It doesn’t matter if you’re a really good mom, or a little bit detached. Humans get depressed.
I’m sitting here watching all the teens feel all the feelings and I think, what a perfect time for parents to talk hard and open with their kids. Say the stuff. Share their stories. OWN THEIR ROLE IN IT. Because all parents play a role in their kid’s emotional lives, good and bad. We are human. It’s just the way it works, and it’s okay. So rather than shame or fear or denial say, Yeah, I’m sorry for xyz and here’s why and here’s what and here’s how and now lets move forward. I’m sorry I pushed you too hard, or overprotected you, or tried to live through you, or ignored you, or didn’t take you seriously, or wasn’t there for you, or couldn’t protect you, or or or…
The teen years are a great time to also talk about trauma and oppression and what they are experiencing, or have experienced. It’s a great time to teach real skills. To talk about diet, and outside time, making time for just thinking and creating, and sleep schedules, and if they self harm how it can be a good coping mechanism, and social media/text/instragram/video games/screen time and how it can suck the very life right out of you. It’s a good time to hand them a notebook and a pen. It’s a good time to talk about how you deal with shit. How you manage, or don’t manage, your own mind. It’s a good time to toss in some B and D vitamins, fish oil, tumeric, and probiotics.
Trust me parents, your kid will get depressed and it might be scary for you, but if you manage it right this time can be a profoundly empowering experience for them. Go buy a copy of this book right now, even if your kid is 2 years old, it’s powerful and helpful and a damn good book to hand to your kid one day. This is their journey, they need a guide and not a dictator or someone who will fall apart, deny, or fix it.
I sat down with mama and brilliant mental health activist, Leah Harris, to discuss parenting and intergenerational trauma. If you don’t know Leah, you need to. Music by the amazing musician, mama, and mental health activist, Bonfire Madigan Shive.
(I didn’t actually write this for National Suicide Prevention week, I didn’t even know it was Suicide Prevention week. I’m just ridiculously sick and since I can’t do much more than go to work and then come home and sit or sleep, I actually got some writing done. I have been planning to write about this forever.)
A few months ago I realized that I hadn’t talked to my teenager about suicidal feelings or extreme states. This seemed impossible to me since a good part of my life is dedicated to mad activism. My older daughter and I talk opening and often about madness, but somehow I had overlooked any sort of direct dialogue with my youngest, now sixteen. Of course my teen has been present when her older sister and I have had these conversations and she has heard me talk openly and passionately about all things mental health. She is fully aware that her sister has been through some big stuff and knows more or less how we navigated those times, but the two of us had never sat down and had a focused discussion about crisis.
This realization hit me while on a long car ride with her. We were mostly silent as we drove through the country, listening to her Death Cab for Cutie CD. Every now and then one of us would point out a heron or a hawk or a patch of wild flowers along the side of the road, but mostly we were both just lost in our heads wandering around in our own private thoughts. And then a song came on that made me think of one of my friends who took her own life years ago, and that led to memories of my own suicidal feelings and my oldest daughter’s past emotional rollercoaster ride of highs and lows. I suddenly felt that this topic needed to be addressed, and since I tend to be a little (and by that I mean a lot) impulsive the time to address it was right at that moment.
“So it just occurred to me that I have never talked to you about suicide or extreme states–what some people call psychosis. I think it’s actually sort of important though. I mean realistically at some point in your life, maybe soon, or maybe it’s already happened, you’re going to feel suicidal or one of your friends will. Or maybe you will sort of go crazy or one of your friends will. I guess I feel like it’s kind of important to talk about this before it happens, you know?”
“Mom, this isn’t normal. Most moms are like, we need to talk about drinking or safe sex or whatever, but my mom is like, hey Honey, let’s talk about killing yourself and going crazy.”
“Yeah, but I think it’s important. I mean it’s pretty hard to get through life without either losing your shit in some way or knowing someone who is losing their shit in some way.”
“Oh I agree. I mean I think if more people talked about this stuff it would make it better for everyone, but it’s still not normal.”
And then I put on my best fake 1950s mom voice, “Sweetheart, sometimes you may find that you feel like you want to die or you might find yourself thinking you’re God or Jesus, and that’s perfectly normal. It’s okay to think you’re Jesus every now and then and when you do you can always talk to me.”
“Gee thanks, Mom.”
“Besides if you’re Jesus that will make me the Virgin Mary and that would be sort of neat.”
We were silent again for a bit. I was surprised that I felt a little awkward trying to navigate a conversation about madness with my own kid, but I guess it’s like a lot of hard conversations and kids. I think for me it was also a bit of a loaded topic being that I had gone through some pretty big, scary stuff with her sister just a few years ago and so the remnants of that were still floating around. Still I knew it was a critically important topic, so I just dove in and let my thoughts flow with no real plan or map on how I wanted the conversation to unfold.
I started out talking about self-injury. I let her know that a lot of people think that self-injury, particularly cutting, is a warning sign of suicidal thinking and that I don’t agree with that at all. I let her know that I thought self-injury was actually a fairly legitimate coping strategy, one I hoped she never had to employ, but valid nonetheless. I told her a little bit about Kate Bornstein’s awesome book Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens Freaks and Other Outlaws and her view on cutting. I let my teen know that if she felt suicidal, and if cutting kept her from acting on those feelings, then she had my permission to cut the shit out of her arms.
I hadn’t thought about what I was going to say to her in advance, but I already had a firm grasp on my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about suicidal feelings, extreme states, self-injury and what my reactions to these things are in general, and in the moment of crisis. I have navigated my own path through madness. I have helped people through these different states, and I have lost someone close to me to suicide. I have spent the last eight years learning and growing and figuring out just what I believe about mental illness, intervention, and how to safely navigate extreme states and feelings.
If you haven’t taken the time to really think about these things yourself, if you haven’t spent much time learning about the different approaches and theories, if you have never experienced being around someone who is suicidal or in an extreme state (psychosis), or if you yourself have never been in this state then I urge you to give these things some real thought before talking to your kid. Take some time to really think about what you would do and how you would react if your child started to self-injure or was thinking of taking his or her own life or if you found out that one of their friends was self-injuring or in crisis. What would you do if your child was wildly manic or in active psychosis? Of course nobody can predict just how they will react when face to face with a difficult, and often really scary, emotional situation, but having thought about these things in advance is really valuable when (and it’s much more likely to be a when than an if) you find yourself face to face with a teen in crisis.
I let my kid know that if she was ever feeling suicidal she could talk to me, or her sister. I promised her that my first reaction would never be to dial 911. I didn’t promise that I would never dial 911 because I don’t think that’s a promise that any parent can legitimately make. If my child were about to take her own life I would do what I had to do to save her…even if it went against my core belief that hospitals rarely help, and often harm. When your toddler darts out into traffic you don’t even hesitate to react. Your mother instinct is raw and primal and that instinct doesn’t go away once your child is a teenager, or young adult…or ever. So I can promise her without hesitation that calling for outside intervention or taking her to a hospital would be my very last and very desperate move when all others possibilities had been exhausted, but I couldn’t promise I would never do this. I think it’s super important to be honest about this with our kids. Trust is critical in getting someone through crisis and making empty promises will destroy every shred of trust.
I also let her know that if one of her friends were struggling she could come to me. I let her know that she should never try to help a friend through suicidal feelings or an extreme state all alone because it’s really damn hard and confusing and scary. I let her know that I would always support her in supporting her friends. I let her know that I would also be there for any of her friends that needed an adult ally. I let her know that if one of her friends turned to me for support I would not automatically inform their parents, but that I couldn’t promise that I would never inform their parents. Each situation and each child and each family is unique and all I can promise is to use my best judgment to do more good than harm to anyone that trusts me with their deepest pain or distress. I let her know that I take that trust very seriously and would never violate it.
We discussed a little about what it feels like to be manic, what it feels like to slip into an extreme state, what I might do to help her or one of her friends navigate that state of being. We discussed my views on psychosis and how I believe that in many, if not most, cases it’s something that can be successfully traveled through with the proper safe, loving, and kind peer support. I let her know that I think often times there is a message in our madness and that it’s not something that people need to panic about and instantly try to resolve. We talked about my view on meds and I did promise her that I would never, ever force her to take meds because that is a promise I know I can keep. And within all of these topics we touched on my own past experiences with suicidal feelings and manic energy. We talked a little about what her sister has been through and we touched on what it was like when our friend, Amy, took her own life. We talked and talked and talked…and then eventually we got quiet, turned the music back on, sunk into our own thoughts, and continued to watch for the roadside hawks and herons.
Think about this stuff, learn about this stuff, and then talk to you teens about this stuff. It matters.
Original Riot Grrl, radical mental health activist, and rad mama Bonfire Madigan Shive talks about her journey to motherhood. Featuring some of her awesome new music.
This essay originally appeared here: http://www.theicarusproject.net/
I was eighteen years old when I gave birth to my son and discovered first-hand the very real dangers of being a marginalized mama. It was the mid 80’s and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum were bemoaning the high cost of unwed teenagers having babies. Headlines like, “Children Having Children” were splashed across every newsstand magazine. Sad faced teenage girls clutching babies, with falling down trailers or run-down apartments in the background, stared out from the covers. According to these articles the children of “children” faced a life of low education, poverty, prison, even rotting teeth, and of course it was society that bore the huge cost of these bastard children.
I was assigned a social worker and was counseled about the wisdom of giving up my baby for adoption. When I shyly told them that wasn’t an option I was assigned a nurse to visit my home after the birth of my baby. I didn’t realize until after the fact that the purpose of this nurse visit was to determine if my home was safe for my baby and to observe my parenting. I learned very quickly how to play the game. I learned very quickly that I wasn’t the right kind of parent.
I began my life as a highly sensitive and sad child. My childhood memories are filled with crying fits that lasted for days, trying to hurt myself, though not fully understanding that it was intentional, and spending hours alone in my dark closet curled up in a tight ball. I was shy, quiet, mostly friendless, and bullied in school. The world was a rough place for me. In my twenties I was diagnosed with ADHD and later with clinical depression, it was suggested a few times that maybe I was bipolar, but I managed to stay mostly under the radar. As a young mom I had learned that it’s not safe to be honest. This lesson turned out to be very valuable to the survival of my family, and yet at the same time it created a deeply painful isolation.
In 2003 I came out as queer and that coming out tossed me even further under the microscope of potentially unfit. Being queer is a little different than being gay or lesbian in the eyes of the mainstream. It’s a little shadier, a little more suspect. I would find out that many of the things that define “queerness,” including a fluid gender expression, are also many of the things that the mainstream deems signs of mental instability. It became even harder to play the role of the “normal” mom.
Coming out as queer made me drunk on the excitement of finally discovering who I really was. I wore my queerness like a sparkly rainbow cape…and with that cape I flew hard and fast. But along with this intoxication of meeting myself for the first time, I also found myself with three children and no real way to make it financially, the loss of my house, my marriage and much of my family, and the deaths of several people close to me. My moods started to shift dramatically. I would stay up for days at a time drinking and sleeping with girls and then I would crash hard and dream of driving my car into the lake. Up and down I went.
About a year into my coming out I found myself flying a friend, who was in a very extreme state, across the country to return her home. When we arrived on the east coast I found that nobody in her circle was willing to care for her and after six days I was forced to return home. My friend and I agreed that the only option was to check her into the hospital. It was profoundly traumatic for everyone involved, but there was one moment that stuck with me above all others. As we were getting ready to leave I found her pacing her room and silently crying. She was terrified because she only owned men’s underwear. She identifies as genderqueer (she uses female pronouns) and she knew firsthand, from previous encounters with the mental health system, that her gender expression would be seen as a severe symptom of her “mental illness.” It broke my heart and it sank in deep. Simply being who we are can be an incredibly dangerous thing sometimes, but especially when facing mental health professionals.
That lesson stuck with me as I traveled along my path to self-identity while navigating the mental health system for both myself and my daughter. As my daughter transitioned from her teen years into adulthood she found herself traveling in and out of extreme states. As we worked our way through the mental health system I made sure I presented myself as “normal” as possible, never mentioning my own mental health background or the fact that I was queer. Being gender variant in my physical presentation, I made sure to keep a nice pair of “girl” jeans and a long sleeved “girl” blouse (long sleeves to hide my tattoos) tucked away in my drawer for all psychiatrist appointments or possible ER visits. It was humiliating to have to go to appointments in “drag,” but it was also critical for our survival.
I remember going to the NAMI Family to Family classes in an attempt to navigate my way through the maze of mental health “recovery.” It was the 4th or 5th class when the facilitators went into great detail on the symptoms of the various mental illnesses. They presented gender dysphoria as a sign of schizophrenia. When I spoke up I was told quite firmly that confusion about one’s gender was not always a sign of a serious mental illness, but it was in fact often a sign. I never returned to the classes, but I did leave with the deeply internalized message that it wasn’t safe to be me even more firmly settled in my gut.
At the age of sixteen my daughter had given birth to a little boy and we were raising him in partnership. It made me incredibly nervous that her fragile mental state and young age would cause people in authority to start poking around. When Felix hit his 2nd year my daughter slid into a very unstable emotional place and the decision was made for me to take over as the primary caretaker of my grandson while she pursued “recovery.”
By this time I was partnered with a woman, and even though I had learned my lesson about how to make myself appear to people in power, I wasn’t prepared for the first time we took Felix to the doctor. He was three years old, on state medical, and we were at a Community Health Clinic, a combination that causes everyone to assume that you lack certain life and parenting skills. The doctor walked in and we explained our relationship to little Felix. The doctor asked, in front of Felix, if the reason we had him was because his mother was on drugs. My body went numb, and then it surged with rage, but I knew to play the game. The fucking game. Rule number one of playing the game is presenting as “normal.” Rule number two is: Lie. Lie with sincerity and confidence. I calmly said that no, she was not on drugs. I explained that she had been very physically ill and was unable to take care of him at this time, but that she loved him very much and saw him daily. The doctor looked at me and at my partner, then down at little Felix.
Felix has always been very gender fluid and we have just allowed him to be who he is. That day he was wearing flowered leggings and had on nail polish. The doctor motioned to his nails and pants and said, “Are you okay with this?” The rage slid quickly into fear. How had I overlooked this? I knew enough to make myself look normal, but it had never occurred to me that I had to stifle a three-year-old just to keep that microscope off of us, and I should have known better than to come with my partner. I’m sure in the doctor’s eyes these two dykes were trying to make this little boy gay. I was just so thankful that this doctor knew nothing or my own mental health background or that of my daughter’s. I was so thankful that I had known enough to lie to her and tell her my daughter had a physical illness, but what if I hadn’t? Had I told her the truth about myself and my daughter I can only imagine the conclusions she would have drawn and the possible ramifications of those conclusions
Being “crazy” makes parenthood a uniquely dangerous thing, add on being queer, or a person of color, or poor, or too young, or in any way marginalized and being a “crazy” parent ups the danger significantly. This pressure, judgment, and extreme scrutiny only piles on more stress which in turn creates greater emotional trauma, which in turn affects our ability to not only function in this world and parent effectively, but it also makes it difficult to safely seek help when we need it. And sometimes we really need it. I remember how my daughter and I would rehearse the things she would say to her psychiatrist before her appointments. We were always vigilant that one wrong word could be twisted into her being unfit or dangerous in his eyes. When a “crazy” teen mom and a “crazy” queer granny are raising a little boy you have to think hard about every word you say.
I believe the only way to change this is for parents who are dealing with psych stuff, especially marginalized mothers, to start speaking out, to come together, and to let others know that they aren’t alone. Still it’s scary. I feel that it’s absolutely critical for people to tell their stories with raw honesty, and mostly I do, but I also know that sometimes raw honesty can backfire. It sucks and it isn’t fair and this enforced silence hurts us and it hurts our kids. If you’re reading this and you’re a “mad” parent that’s trying to navigate the system, just please know you aren’t alone. Write your story, speak up, reach out, and hey, email me. Let’s talk, because community can make all the difference…for us and for our kids.