What to Look For & How To Find Help When Your Child is Depressed
By Lydia F.
When he was 14 our son became a stranger in our midst. His behavior changed. His attitudes, his grades, his friends, and his loss of interest in things that had always been important to him all changed. Some shift took place in him that we couldn’t explain or understand.
We thought it was a phase. Our friends and family assured us he was a normal adolescent male. “It’s just teenage angst,” they said. “He’ll grow out of it. Wait and see.”
We waited. Meanwhile our entire household was upended by his explosive anger as we all tiptoed on egg shells trying
to avoid triggering his rage. But no matter how care
ful we were the slightest perceived wrong on our part would set him off. So when he was there, home was a miserable place to be. Our other kids were frustrated and angry. They worried about their brother and at the same time they resented that his issues were taking over the family.
His grades fell. “It’s not for lack of ability,” his teacher said. His A’s and F’s were evidence of his approach to school they said, and they described him as: checked out, not invested, has an attitude, flippant, defiant, agitated, arrogant.
He’s cutting class, they told us. He seldom bothers with homework then shows up to ace the test. There are days when he’s engaged and entertaining, focused on debating teachers and fellow students in class discussions. He effectively persuades, then turns the tables and takes his argument’s opposite view. He likes playing devil’s advocate. Sometimes he’s thoroughly enjoyable.
But our son was obviously not interested in school and only did what he was in the mood to do. “His declining GPA will limit his options for college,” his teachers warned, as though we didn’t know. One speculated “Frankly, he just may not be ready. Or he may not be college material.” He’ll find his way, wait and see.
We were alarmed by the seriousness of it all. We knew our son was“college material,” and we also knew as things were, he didn’t care about the consequences of his failing GPA. Like his teachers, we had no clue how to enlighten or help him get back on track in school. And while the grades were important we were more concerned they signified the loss of our son’s natural curiosity and passion for learning. Curiosity, one of his core traits, was overshadowed by his self-destructive lifestyle.
His junior year our son walked off the soccer field during practice one day. That was it, he told us. He was through. Soccer had been his go-to for stress relief, endorphins, team work, and personal challenge. His sudden resistance to a sport and social circle he’d reveled in since early childhood was another indication our son was not himself.
He withdrew. When he was home he sulked and prodded and provoked conflict with whoever happened to be in the room. Mostly, he locked himself in his bedroom where with music blasting through headphones, he cocooned himself in darkness. He slept endless hours and woke still exhausted, unmotivated and often unwilling or unable to leave his bed. He began skipping out on his long-time friends to hang out with a different crowd, on edge and brooding. With them our son began to experiment with drugs. Like the parents we harshly judged in the past, we had no idea that our son was using cocaine, prescription painkillers, and whatever was accessible through his dealer. He never looked like we thought a teen drug user would look so how could we have known?
Given what we did know about him, we realized what our son was experiencing wasn’t normal. His moods and behavior were intense and extreme. As he continued the downward spiral of emotional volatility and high risk behavior, we had to do something, but what should we do?
We made an appointment to consult our family pediatrician. He’d treated all our kids since birth and we trusted him. He spent an hour with us carefully going over our family history and the changes we’d seen in our son since he was 14. The doctor advised us that our son needed to be evaluated by a psychiatrist to determine if his uncharacteristic behaviors were due to a biochemical imbalance in his brain. Honestly, we were surprised and disappointed by the guidance the doctor offered. We didn’t believe in taking medication for behavioral issues and we didn’t want to drug our child. I’m sure we weren’t the first parents to reject the idea that our child had a medical problem in his brain.
The doctor was gracious and patient as he pointed out that if our child had asthma or type 1 diabetes we wouldn’t fault him for the dysfunction in his lungs or pancreas. We would promptly seek and comply with treatment, partnering with specialists in our son’s care. To not pursue treatment if he had asthma or diabetes would be irrational and neglectful of us as parents.
“It’s a problem of perspective” he said. For asthma and diabetes, we wouldn’t search the internet for alternative theories and treatment without medicine. We wouldn’t question the validity of asthma or diabetes as physical diseases that require medical intervention and ongoing care. As difficult as a diagnosis of asthma or diabetes may be, with diagnosis comes education and understanding. Symptoms make sense when we learn to recognize them as signals of what is happening in the body. Also, he said, with diagnosis and treatment we learn that an incurable disease well managed will give our child the best opportunity for a normal, healthy life.
Despite the information he gave us, we didn’t see eye to eye with our son’s doctor. We were concerned that a “so-called” diagnosis of mental illness would give our son the perfect excuse to continue dismantling his life and our family. We felt “mental illness” is over-used as an explanation for destructive behavior and an attitude of entitlement. We didn’t want our son to avoid taking responsibility for his choices based on a diagnosis. We knew he needed to face the consequences of his choices and behaviors. We didn’t want to give him an easy way out.
And then he overdosed…
to be continued-