#OnOurSleeves: Celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month!
We can’t see what’s going on inside the minds and hearts of those around us. But at least when we are supporting adults, they can tell us what they’re experiencing. With children, it’s often difficult (or impossible!) to understand exactly what’s happening in there.
Biff and I know more about this reality than most parents. We knew that future mental health challenges were a possibility when Hailey and Riley came to live with us— children who have experienced abuse or neglect often need support in managing the big feelings and deep wounds they’ve survived. Getting them the assistance they need, and being patient with them on the journey, is something we’ve always been committed to. But personally, I never could have imagined how difficult it would be to give them everything they need.
Riley has always had to work hard to focus on what was happening in front of him, and has often struggled to stay in a positive mindset. When he was seven, we had him assessed so we would have a better sense of what he might need from us in terms of supports. I thought I was ready for whatever might come up during those assessments, but when the pediatric psychologist gently told us that Riley met all the criteria for ADHD, I was shocked. How had I missed this? Was he going to need medication? Do we really know the long-term effects of that medication on tiny bodies? Weren’t there other options for treating it?
I dug into the research to learn more about ADHD— its various forms, its suspected causes, its treatment methods. All this happened in the shadow of my own experiences with attention and focus; when I was a kid, my family would always joke that I had ADD, never considering that it’s actually a serious and sometimes crippling mental health condition that absolutely can be treated using a variety of different methods. One night, as I was reading about ADD and ADHD, I came upon a quiz to help adults determine whether they might seek treatment for the condition. Remembering those jokes from my childhood, I took the quiz.
Do I often have a hard time focusing on someone who is speaking to me? Yes.
Do I find it hard to follow through on tasks that have a lot of details? Obviously.
Do I get so immersed in projects I am interested in that the rest of the world seems to fade away? Definitely.
As I completed the quiz, I got a sinking feeling. And when my results came up— 100% alignment with the symptoms of ADD— I knew the truth. It wasn’t just Riley who had clinical attention deficit disorder… it was me too.
I called my mom.
“Mom… we got hard news this week. Riley has ADHD.” She listened without responding. “And also… I think I have it too.” Silence.
“Honey, of course you do. You can’t finish anything! Your brain works a million miles a minute— you make connections faster than anyone else in the family. You used to have a different book in every room of the house! We did have you tested, but I think you were just too smart for them to pick up on it. I think both you and Riley deserve to know what life is like without this issue getting in your way. He deserves to be able to learn and focus in class like other kids. And if the medication has side effects for either of you, or you don’t like the way it makes you feel or whatever, you can always go off of it.”
As usual, my mom was right. So I decided to try medication for myself… and for Riley. I sat down with a psychiatrist and answered his questions. I told him that I was a hard-working nonprofit professional who has kids and a side hustle. I’m a storyteller and an activist and an educator— and I have to work late most nights because I can’t seem to organize my days in a way that makes sense. I can’t start projects from scratch because even getting started can feel completely impossible. I go to the store to get butter and come home with 12 other things— none of which are butter! I’m smart and hardworking and accomplished… but many tasks are nearly impossible for me to perform.
Within about five minutes, he informed me that there was no question in his mind that I have ADD.
I’m not gonna lie— a wave of relief washed over me. Turns out I’m not lazy, as I’ve sometimes been told. I’m not stupid or undisciplined or spacy. My brain is just wired in a particular way that makes certain tasks more difficult than others. It also means I’m lightning-fast at solving problems. I’m great at thinking outside the box; I can come up with new, creative solutions to old questions. I can go on live television and be put on the spot and craft smart answers with zero preparation. There are things I’m great at, and for the things I’m not great at— the things that cause anxiety and sow self-doubt— I can get help with.
It also means that Riley and I have something to bond over. It means I’ve been able to take my meds the same time he does, and we can talk about the ways we harness our “superpowers” and tame our demons. It means I can show him that there isn’t anything wrong with him— just different.
My mom has helped us both through this process by giving me the permission I needed to seek medical solutions for this problem Riley and I share. But I did disagree with her on one point: she always told me to keep our diagnoses, and the fact that we are taking medicine, to ourselves. “You just don’t want to open yourself up to criticism,” she said. And that makes sense. But unless we destigmatize issues around mental health— for us AND our children— other families will continue to struggle, and feel alone, and face judgement. They will continue to face unsolicited advice from those with no clinical background, no training in mental health issues, and no awareness of children’s development.
So we are choosing to wear our hearts On Our Sleeves, and are partnering with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to break stigmas, start important conversations, and raise much needed funds for behavioral health research and care. We are standing with the one in five children who face mental health challenges, and the families that are fighting hard to support them. We are committing to destigmatize this important issue by sharing our story and invite others to do the same.
Do you have personal experience with childhood mental health issues? How have you navigated it? Share your story on your own social channels, sending YOUR community to the #OnOurSleeves campaign so they can be part of the conversation and break the stigma!