At my son Carter’s last visit with his psychiatrist, he answered all of Dr. S’s usual questions: Was he sleeping? How was his mood? Did he see or hear anything that other people didn’t?
He answered her and as always filled in the gaps in conversation with chatter about his hobbies and his dogs. He told Dr. S about plans for his 13th birthday the following weekend, launching into an extensive list of the gifts he hoped to receive, but Dr. S has known Carter for a long time and has learned how to interrupt him gently to get the information she needs. At the end of the appointment, she ran Carter through a brief neurological exam (all normal), ordered labs (standard), and said, “Well, it seems like you’re doing really well, dude. I think you can come back in three months.”
Carter whooped. “Three months! Yes! Mom, can I have your phone?” and he charged out of Dr. S’s office and down the hall while he tapped at the phone screen, trying to connect to any family member so he could spread the good news.
I smiled at Dr. S, saying, “He’s never gone three months before.”
Dr. S returned my smile with her gentle one and said, “He’s come a long way.”
Once in the car, Carter called my dad, my mom, his own dad, then his dad’s mom. I don’t think any of the people he called were clear on what Carter was telling them, but they understood his excitement and congratulated him.
Elated as he was, I’m not sure even Carter understands how momentous this is. It’s true that he’s never gone three months between visits with Dr. S, and that Dr. S has been his psychiatrist for seven years, but what he doesn’t remember is that he’s never gone three months in his life without seeing at least one doctor. There were months when he saw multiple doctors and weeks when he had three or more appointments. There were days in his first six years when I drove him to more than one appointment as we tried to identify the causes of his frequent vomiting episodes, his sleeplessness, and his unrelenting terror. Later, there were weeks when I spoke to Dr. S every single day as we struggled to keep Carter out of the hospital and safe while he rocketed between suicidal depression and overwhelming mania.
I remember those years in the haziest of ways and if I didn’t have files overflowing with reports and assessments from doctors, psychologists, and schools, plus my own journal and blog entries, my memory would make everything smaller, more manageable. Carter screamed like a child afire almost from birth. He was beset by physical and emotional challenges whose causes we wouldn’t begin to understand for years, and the fear and sleeplessness we endured came within a breath of killing me and destroying our family. Carter suffered, and I suffered with him.
My primary occupation during that time was wishing. I wished that my child was well. I wished, if he couldn’t be well, that whatever was wrong was something visible and easy to identify so someone would name it and ease his suffering. I wished the unbearable and dangerous lives we were living would either improve or end because I couldn’t imagine continuing on for years as we were living then. I lost any hope I’d had that things would ever be better.
There is a suffering worse than one’s own, and that is to see one’s child suffer and be unable to help. When Carter was overwhelmed by rage or anxiety; when he was moaning over the pain of a migraine; when he was begging me to kill him or trying to throw himself from the car on the freeway; when he was screaming all the way to school from terror; when he clung to my neck and begged me to make him feel better; when he lashed out at me and demanded I let him kill himself; in every traumatic and terrifying moment I prayed God, put this in me. Take it out of him and put it in me and give my little boy life. The human heart can break, and break again, and again, and again, and eventually there descends a kind of numbness, which is a horror in itself because it seems to indicate the death of one’s empathy.
Eventually, we landed in the office of a developmental pediatrician who heard my concerns and understood the gravity of our situation. He prescribed medication to help Carter sleep and I am not speaking hyperbolically when I say that he saved our lives with those little pink pills. By the summer he turned six, it was apparent that Carter needed a higher level of care than a developmental pediatrician could provide and we were transferred into the capable hands of Dr. S.
The worst (please, I beg, let it have been the worst) was still ahead of us, but we have never since then been alone. Now that Carter has been relatively stable for several years, I have had some time to recover, and although I have a hard time remembering those impossibly difficult years, I know they changed me. I don’t recognize pre-2002 Adrienne. I am stronger in some places than I was then, and irredeemably broken in others. I’ve been refined by fire.
My family lives now with a tenuousness I couldn’t have borne before. When people ask me what I think the future holds, I can only shrug. Carter may live with us at home, or he might be killed by police who don’t understand his behavior and interpret it as aggressive. He might hold a job and live in a group home or he might take his own life, as so many people with his diagnosis do. He could stay fairly stable for the rest of his life, or he could go off his medicine and become acutely psychotic, maybe going to prison for some crime committed when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I can’t predict and I don’t try. I do my best, in each day, to help Carter experience success and find some joy. That has to be enough.
Photo: Matt Benson/Unsplash