“What’s wrong with me?”
That’s what my son, Ben, blurted out one day outside at his preschool. He was four years old at the time. He couldn’t tell me why he asked the question, so I tucked the incident away. Looking back, I realize that this was one of many incidents and behaviors throughout Ben’s childhood and teen years that I would tuck away, ignoring my gut instinct that he needed tools to better cope with his outbursts, intense thoughts and general sadness.
Years (and many life lessons) later, I have reflected on what I wish I had done for my son to better support him as he navigated mental health challenges.
I Missed the Signs During My Son’s Childhood
Ben’s struggles began at birth with inconsolable crying. Medical professionals used the vague term “colic” to describe the hours and hours of evening crying for which there seemed to be no apparent cause or cure. (Much later I would read about a correlation between colic as a baby and mental illness). However, when Ben was about four months old, this exhausting behavior stopped and he grew, evolving as a curious, fun little guy. I assumed that things had become “normal,” and I had nothing to worry about.
However, Ben would go on to face numerous mental health setbacks. Throughout elementary, middle and high school, he regularly saw a therapist and paid intermittent visits to a parenting coordinator, due to an extremely tricky, volatile divorce. I wondered if his emotional struggles were exacerbated by (or linked to) his father’s bipolar disorder diagnosis. Often, when Ben would return from a weekend visit with his biological father, he appeared agitated and was prone to outbursts or distancing behavior. He did will academically, and he had a few friends throughout school, but he lagged behind his peers emotionally and socially. I always felt that he was hard to read, as his behavior could be unpredictable.
In My Son’s Teens Years, I Ignored My Instincts That Something Was Wrong
Ben expressed the pain he was experiencing in concrete terms — but I found ways to rationalize and tuck away what was in front of me. His high school senior year extended essay (a requirement to graduate with a specialized high school diploma) was titled, “Childhood Trauma and the Severity of Bipolar Disorder as an Adult.” In the piece, he wrote:
“…Take, for example, a divorce. With divorce rates occurring at about one in every two marriages, it is not uncommon to find a child from divorced parents. At a young age, this can be very traumatic... This stress could cause night terrors, which in turn could cause an obsession with gore. This could also cause depression to become evident, and, paired with irritability, would cause warning flags to be raised. However, while a traumatic event such as a divorce could cause these behaviors, a therapist might write the entire thing off as unhappiness from the divorce. While simply talking to a therapist would help in the short run, the treatment may not be appropriate, and the child might struggle with depression until the disorder was properly diagnosed.”
Looking back, I can see that my son was writing about his experience in plain sight. While I saw the words on the page at the time, I ignored my instincts again. Instead, I intellectualized the situation and kept Ben’s words at arm’s length. I also continued to accept his therapist’s perspective that we must not assume Ben was suffering just because his biological father had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But Ben’s words seemed to tell a different story.
My Son Now Struggles in His Adulthood
Now, almost 10 years later, Ben tries to portray someone who is not suffering with symptoms of mental illness. I call this his “I’m ok” persona; he often says, “I’m fine,” when I know he’s not. I can see the way he suffers, battling severe insomnia, hygiene problems, mood fluctuations and unhealthy amounts of screen time. As a parent, I am pained to see him living with these quality-of-life inhibitors that he is not yet ready to address.
When my son asked, “What’s wrong with me?!” as a preschooler, I couldn’t answer his question — but I knew he wanted help. He truly wanted to know what was wrong, but I simply wasn’t equipped to know or answer him. I often wonder how many parents travel this long, winding road: from awareness that an illness is affecting their child, to, perhaps, ignoring signs through denial, to a desperate realization that their child needs help and attempting to navigate the health care system for an illness that is so difficult to diagnose and treat.
As Ben aged, I worried about health insurance; would he be able to access the necessary care once he turned 26 and was no longer on our family insurance plan? Ben recently turned 26 and, thankfully, he has a job and health insurance. For now. But we have a long road ahead of us. Does he still wonder “what’s wrong?” If he asks himself again, I can only hope that this time, he’ll want — and get — his question answered.
Elise Cassie is the mother of two beautiful children, ages 26 and 18. As a mother of an adult child suffering with a mental illness, she has found NAMI to be a lifeline for support. As an environmental education specialist, she promotes getting outside and into the natural world as “medicine” for all, especially children. She lives in Florida with her husband and youngest son.