Domain 2: Classroom Environment, Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities, Personal Learning

Stepping Into the Light: OCD/Mental Health Awareness

the serious one… the humorous one

the focused… the squirrel chaser

the rule follower… the teenager

the brave 15 year old, who stepped into the light, leaving the elephant in his shadow

the one who has added awareness to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is now 17

my incredible son, Trent

At the age of 15, Trent was just beginning to see life differently… the life he was gifted, not burdened by. The one that he shared responsibility in. The one he was able to take charge of, given the right tools. In 2017, he asked me to talk about “The Elephant in the Room.” He wanted me to share his story. The thing is, he didn’t want me to share it so that I had something to blog about. He didn’t want me to share it so that he could obtain likes and shares within social media. As a matter of fact, not once has he ever even asked me if it was even read.

He simply wanted others to know they were not alone.

Leading up to this point, he had been consumed with thoughts for so long that he had almost forgotten what life was like when he himself could turn it around. The time when he felt a sense of control. As an 8-year-old child, he was in need of skills. The kind of skills that we weren’t prepared to teach him. The kind of skills that would take years of practice. There was no “quick fix.” My teaching background urged me to dial the phone for help, while my husband’s hand wanted to hang it up. Not because he didn’t want to help, but because he only knew how to keep personal worries and concerns to himself. He knew how to push forward with a tough mindset and resiliency. He knew how to break within the privacy of his own space and forge ahead projecting strength, even when he didn’t have it. He thought that it would be the same way for Trent. He thought Trent would grow and be the man we were wanting to raise him to be or more like how we wanted to raise him. Trent would do just that, but in order to get there he needed a different upbringing, different supports.

The elephant was sitting right there, staring at us in full control. He had us running around making everything perfect so Trent wouldn’t hurt. He had us walking on eggshells, just trying to get through a dinner out with family and friends. He had us working overtime to create the “perfect scenario” in hope that Trent would survive the moment, whatever moment that was on that day. He was in charge… not us, not Trent, but the elephant in the room.

Then the day came that my husband knew it was bigger than us and my hand freely reached for the phone once again.

As Trent has aged, he has grown stronger than ever. That is not to say that his life is easy, or without the whack-a-mole effect of OCD, but “the elephant” is no longer his best friend. It is actually not even a friend at all. It is more like an acquaintance. One that passes through, but does not dictate his world. Impacts it, yes. Challenges it, most definitely. Creates walls in place of bridges, yes… but the difference is he knocks them down over and over again. He now takes full advantage of the strength within his OCD, as he knows it will always be a part of his world. Now he finds positive use for it. Obsessing over his grades so that he can maintain high scholastic standing. Obsessing over the next big catch, as fishing eases his mind. Knowing how to distract when OCD wants to gain attention. If you ask him how he got this strong, he will tell you that his family loved him like no other, but that without therapy he would not be able to answer that question to it’s entirety. Therapy has given him a new lease on life, one with conviction and strength. Reaching out to the experts was the best decision we had ever made.

Some ask me, how I handled it as a mom.  How did I “handle” watching my son painfully navigate his world of anxiety.   My reply… the best that I could. That is where I myself took pause. “The best I could!” Was my best enough?  The answer was no. My best could never have brought Trent to where he is today. Yes, I had a background that was very supportive of Trent’s needs, but to truly be the best mom I could be, I needed to see beyond my strengths and value the ones that were one phone call away.  One call away to make an appointment for therapy.  My role as his mom was to give him the opportunity.

As we talked to others about this, we felt the cringe. The secret society that we just entered. The judgement being made in place of support. I’m not sure how or when the term “therapy” became such a cringe-maker in society, but to me it was a gift that I was ready to open.

So I ask you, are you going to be the one that tries to break him by cringing over the topic of therapy? Are you going to be the one spotlighting your “perfections” so that he questions why he is incapable of such a high non-existing standard? Are you going to judge him for being brave enough to share in this very conversation?

Or are YOU going to be the one driven for a better tomorrow by walking alongside my son as he ventures into this world contributing to the society that you helped to create?

Let me ask you something. As an educator do you find yourself opening doors of possibility for others? Do you try to link passion to purpose? Do you try to teach the whole child and then tell others to do it too? Do you speak at conferences about Project Based Learning, Universal Design for Learning, Building Character, Creating Leaders and Making Changes for the Betterment of Education? Do you sit on your own thoughts to stop and listen to others speak so that you can learn more about their WHY, their purpose? Do you take time to network because relationships matter to you? Do you want to be better?

If you said yes to any one of these questions, I ask you then… do you have conversations about the gift of therapy? Do you engage in tough conversations? Do you open yourself up to vulnerability, either to allow your story out or to let someone else’s in?

As long as we lead others to believe that this is a taboo topic, a private conversation, something that we attach shame and guilt to, what good is the rest? What are we really trying to say or not say? Are we truly equipped to function in the society we have helped to build without the supports of those passionate about the whole person, the mind, the balance, the brain, mental illness, social emotional learning and so much more?

In education we do not get a free pass on our impact. We will create an impact and it is up to us if it will be positive or negative. Where do you stand on this? Are you having conversations about self-care, mindfulness, and balance? I am asking you to amplify those conversations… to be courageous. I am asking you to open your heart and mind, and use your ability to make change by having conversations about the importance of therapy. For educators looking to prepare kids for their future role in society, you must do your part to remove the judgement cast. Then and only then can we build up human growth and potential by walking in one’s shoes.

While attending #TeachBetter19 this past weekend, I continued to build my professional growth portfolio, but even more I made incredible friendships. I witnessed a truth and vulnerability like never before among educators. You could feel the sense of comfort, acceptance and care in every room that you walked through. Towards the end, I started to get pulled into private conversations revolving around this topic, the elephant, OCD, mental illness, therapy, and Trent’s bravery. Each conversation came with pain, emotion, emptiness, questioning, and a whisper. Yes, our personal lives are private and we hold these conversations close to our heart, but I am left wondering if we can turn up the volume just a little bit. How has my son found the strength to tell his friends, family, and acquaintances and we are left with a whisper?

As I left the conference I heard my name being called one last time. It was then that I knew my purpose was clearly being conveyed. It was then that I knew I was being seen for the imperfect human I am… and it filled my soul. That’s when they said, “Thank you for being vulnerable, you will never know how much I needed to hear this today.” They went on to say, “you are always smiling and so positive that I would have never known if you wouldn’t have shared. You give me hope.”

I challenge you to follow my 17-year-old son’s lead. I challenge you to share vulnerability. I challenge you to better yourself and others by spotlighting the whole child.

Let’s give HOPE

Domain 2: Classroom Environment, Domain 4: Professional Responsibilities

The Elephant in the Room~ connecting with mental illness

the quiet one… the loud one

the picker… the tapper

the distracted… the focused

the respectful… the belligerent

the rule follower… rule breaker

the meticulous risk taker!

There are so many ways I have heard this elephant described.  I could probably add 100 more terms and phrases to this list without hesitation.  It is usually followed up with…

he doesn’t look like anything is bothering him 

he just checks out

he wouldn’t have to ask so many questions if he just paid attention

he just won’t let it go

and my favorite… how does he continue to earn poor grades when he is so bright?  Twice Exceptional?  But if I’m being honest the statement is more like…  this is what gifted looks like? #truth

How do you describe mental illness?  How do you view the elephant in the room?  I know an elephant.  I have raised an elephant who is best friend’s with my incredible son.  My son met his elephant at the age of 8.  Prior to this friendship, my son was a compliant rule follower… a straight A student… a role model for others.  Yes, they are separate… their own.  My son.  Mental Illness.

Then the day came.  The meeting.  The joint kinship.  The one that introduced my son to distractions, rule breaking, meticulousness ways, perfection, and repeated behaviors to sooth and calm his new friend the elephant.

I saw the changes.

I saw the elephant!

My gut knew from an early age that the tendencies were there… the kinship… the illness.  They were one with their own identities.  Our family walked on eggshells of anxiety… we reassured to the point of exhaustion, we centered our lives around the elephant in the room without saying a word.  We started to speak it’s language.  We fed it.  We calmed it and tucked it in at night.  We were literally raising an elephant alongside our beautiful son…

the elephant in our room…

OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER

We faced it head on.  Therapy 5-7 days a week.  We exposed ourselves and our son to his anxiety.  Yet, the whack-a-mole effect of OCD did not go away.  It simply became a part of our existence.  Yes, our existence.

This is what we as educators need to understand… the elephant is NOT GOING AWAY!

Need I mention that I have a background in Special Education.  An emphasis in Emotional Support.  A Masters Degree in MOM… yet listening to fellow colleagues struggle with the elephant in the room leaves me… speechless.  

So where do we go from here?

Let’s start by acknowledging that mental illness is a part of OUR lives.  NOT just a child’s life… OUR LIVES!  We are in this together.  We must educate ourselves.  We must find a way to understand a child’s way… their being in order to educate them to the best of THEIR ability! To bring out their best… to let their light shine so bright that it puts their elephant in their shadow (in place of just the opposite.)  They deserve it!

Have you ever tried to walk in their shoes?

My son is now 15.  He battles mental illness better than many adults I have come into contact with in my lifetime.  He has strength. He has courage. He has empathy.  He has GRIT.

He said to me, “Mom, tell my story… it will help other kids.”

Yes, Trent, I will.