This week I traveled across the country. It is no shock to those who know me that I am a chatty person, and as I had over three hours to get to know my seat mates, I started a wonderful conversation with the gentleman next to me. We talked about jobs and reasons for travel, and as usually happens, the conversation quickly turned to family and children. As we continued to chat about our lives, the story of my son’s mental illness was woven through my narrative. He listened carefully and asked thoughtful questions. Encouraged by his understanding and compassionate responses, I continued to share some of the realities of parenting a child with mental health concerns. I shared some of the harder moments because that was the part of our story that was most on my mind that day.
Well into the conversation he started to shake his head and tell me that my story was overwhelming him. He was having a hard time absorbing the realities of living with a child with serious mental health needs. I told him that my family wasn’t unique and that thousands of parents could tell him the stories I was sharing. He just kept shaking his head, obviously sad and overwhelmed.
Then he started to grin a sheepish grin and told me he wished he could meet my son. Mental health conversations with strangers rarely go that direction, so I was touched by his compassion. Then he said something that brought me up short. He looked me in the eye and said he wished he had 30 days with my son without me around so that he could fix him.
He explained that my son’s problem wasn’t the psychosis he experiences from trauma or the sensory overload he deals with, or even the impulse control that causes him to sometimes exhibit unsafe behaviors. No, his problem was so much simpler than I understood. My son’s problem was a lack of respect for his parents, and given 30 days he would resolve that problem and everything else would work itself out.
I could feel my heart beating erratically as my blood pressure started to rise. Using my calmest voice, I asked him how he would teach my son respect. He looked straight at me and told me that he would beat his backside. He emphatically stated that any kid who hit his own momma needed to have someone teach him a lesson he wouldn’t forget. He had done it to his own kids and he would be happy to do it for mine.
Okay, full stop. Did that just happen?
In the days since this experience I have had many thoughts running through my head, but let me start with the big ones.
- Hitting someone does not make them better people. Yes, it might get their attention, but what lesson is learned when you get that attention? Our kiddos have enough struggles to overcome without believing that smacking someone around is how to get people to do what you say. I understand that spanking kids used to be common, and honestly my parents used spanking as a way to discipline when I was younger, but that doesn’t mean it will cure a mental illness. Thinking you can spank mental illness away is just one of the many beliefs that create the stigma families face when they try and get help.
- Mental illness is a disease, not an attitude issue. You can’t punch someone hard enough to knock their neurotransmitters into balance anymore than you can backhand someone’s pancreas into creating the correct amounts of insulin. I know this gentleman was equating the often socially unacceptable behaviors of a child with mental illness to the sometimes-similar behaviors of a child who has not learned to respect their parents. Of course, I want my child to show respect, and him not respecting me may or may not be part of his behaviors, but his mental health concerns make that far more complicated than a simple bad attitude.
- Childhood mental illness is not the result of parents who don’t know how to discipline. This gentleman’s assumption was that because I can’t control my child, he is out of control, and the doctors are mistaking that for mental illness. Parenting a child with mental illness is not the same as parenting a child without mental illness, and there is not a single perfect parenting manual that explains how to do either successfully. Every child needs a slightly different approach and what works for my child may not work for yours. I am not sure I have ever met a parent of a child with mental health concerns who doesn’t feel judged. Friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and even the lady in the grocery store line all seem to have an opinion of how we could be doing a better job. We are doing our best, and our failings didn’t cause this.
- Judging doesn’t help my child. I remember the old adage about not judging until you have walked a mile in someone’s shoes and I wonder what the goal is when people tell parents they are responsible for their children’s illnesses. That judgement is a large reason that families struggle to get professional help. It is why they frequently don’t reach out to their friends and family for support. They are so afraid that they will be told their child is struggling because they aren’t good enough to figure out the problem and fix it. We don’t blame a parent when a child is diagnosed with cancer, but strangers feel completely justified in telling someone they just met why their parenting is responsible for their child’s current situation. Compassion will go a lot farther than blame.
But then I had this realization…
- Compassion is not always easy, but it needs to go both ways. It takes a specific effort to hold space for supporting people with stories you don’t understand. It is human nature to want to alter uncomfortable situations to make them fit your understanding of the world. Having the grace to listen without identifying fault isn’t always easy. Sitting with people in their truth is hard. I know that my story is intense, but I have heard stories that are more intense than mine, and I am sure there are stories that would even leave me speechless. Acknowledging that compassion isn’t easy helps the storyteller meet the listener where they are. If I don’t want to be judged, I can’t judge the person hearing my tale. The gentleman I was talking to was honest with me and shared his truth. I can choose to see that as an insult or a judgement, but I can also choose to see it as an open dialogue about a really tough subject and be grateful he was willing to participate.
By the end of the flight we left on good terms. He sincerely wished me well and specifically told me he hoped my son would get the medical treatment he needed. I don’t know if anything we talked about will change his views on childhood mental illness, but I know our conversation will stay with me for years to come. I learned a lot from him, and even if I didn’t agree with what he said, he was willing to personally get involved if it would help my child. He didn’t know me before that flight and he certainly doesn’t know my child, but he was willing to take on the task of helping my child fix his life. That is significant.
I could choose to be mad, or insulted, or even offended, but I won’t. Instead, I am going to choose to be grateful for the chance to reflect on a situation that I have never taken the time to analyze before. There is a lot of stigma, judgement, and mis-information out there, but if we want that to change, we need to continue engaging in open dialogue and be ready to have these hard conversations. The gentleman on the plane gave me a gift. His ideas can’t directly help my son, but his willingness to discuss hard topics is an important step towards “fixing” mental health stigma, and that helps us all.