By Jena Martin, Director of Special Populations Family Connection of South Carolina
My name is Jena, and I am a full-time mom and professional. Of my four children, one has significant mental health challenges, one qualifies for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) based on his disabilities, and one has chronic health conditions. In addition to attending work and school each week, our family must also coordinate scheduling for group therapy, speech therapy, and individual counseling—and this does not account for ENT appointments every six months, medication management appointments every three months, and typical appointments such as dental and well visits.
When the pandemic started, my teenager (“J”) had just returned home and reentered school after his second inpatient hospitalization for a mental health crisis. Initially, the idea of attending school in his pajamas, in his room on a computer, was inviting and appealing to my son. In hindsight, it occurred to me many months later that we, collectively—parents, teachers, providers, interventionists, and therapists—expected our children to suddenly be able to schedule and organize themselves independently outside of the classroom, understand and portray appropriate online etiquette in this “new virtual norm,” while sitting for six hours or longer daily with minimal breaks.
I watched J as the isolation from others grew. His room started staying dark all the time; he no longer opened the curtains to divide the school day from night. His outlets for socialization and physical activity were limited, or stopped completely, due to rising COVID-19 numbers. I constantly struggled to balance his mental health needs with the very real and very scary implications of what “bending the rules” could mean for him, us as a family, and those he could have possibly exposed while playing a quick game of basketball outside when the whole world was doing life inside.
A year later, when summer football practice finally resumed, some of the light returned to J’s eyes. He was able to release negative emotions and energy through activity and see his friends on the field, even if they were masked and practicing six feet apart. A week before the new school year started (in person!), he tested positive for COVID-19. Therefore, he had to quarantine for 14 days upstairs alone, isolated except for a phone to call us, a device for music, and the occasional sighting when we would go outside into the front yard and talk to him from his second-story bedroom. Because his younger sibling is considered high risk due to a compromised immune system, we remained vigilant about not taking any chance of mixing germs despite my concern that J’s history of anxiety and depression was related at times to isolation.
After missing the first week of school due to the quarantine policy, the downward spiral began, and depression and anxiety reared its head. J felt completely overwhelmed and behind despite having wonderful school staff, a therapist, and parental support. He was practicing football at half capacity due to lingering COVID fatigue and having to be tutored on missed assignments, and socialization was limited, at best, behind masks and plexiglass. Less than two months after school began, J involuntarily entered the emergency room and was subsequently transferred for his third inpatient mental health hospitalization.
During this time, my diagnosis of anxiety was weaving its way through my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. While I can pinpoint the big “events” that triggered my son’s struggles, my struggle comes more from a silent, underlying darkness that builds with each small thing, not one big event. I experienced no break in the day from my role as a parent and employee. Although I couldn’t ask for a more gracious and flexible CEO and coworkers, my feelings of growing guilt led to frustration and then rumination, which eventually became full-blown anxiety, even though I received medication management every 3 months from my doctor for my symptoms. I felt like I had one foot in each role and couldn’t commit fully to either. Having four children at home—ranging from high school, middle school, elementary, and preschool—each with their own special needs, while trying to manage a higher-level director job that demanded significant headspace. This situation created the perfect storm for my anxiety to manifest in the form of weight gain, disrupted sleep, impatience, and self-doubt.
Now that we are entering the other side of the pandemic, my hope is that as a society we ask, “how are the parents?” Living through COVID-19 and all of its implications is one of the hardest things I have done since becoming a mom, and I can do hard things. There is no diagnosis, prescription, or name for the intense emotional strain of watching our children live through this unprecedented time, while we simultaneously continued to carry our usual responsibilities, with several additional roles and responsibilities. While some routines have returned to whatever the new normal is, the load doesn’t necessarily feel lighter for those of us who walked the journey of childhood mental illness, which the pandemic exacerbated beyond measure.
Today, my anxiety is better managed through professional counseling, walks, painting, and medication management. My son is also in individual and group therapy, receives medication management, and has a safety plan outlining coping strategies when his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is triggered.
In summary, I hope the takeaway from my story is that when you see us parenting, working, playing, worshipping, and/or learning, don’t forget to ask: “how are the parents?” We are very skilled at being seen through our own darkness.