Two young ladies of Orchard Place reading - at Orchard Place Des Moines

A Mother's Story

“My son looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore.’

What in your 10 years of life could be so hard that you don’t want to be here anymore?

And for a mom to hear that, and not know what to do? I didn’t know what to do.”

Being the mother of a child with mental illness can sometimes be an even greater struggle than dealing with the disease oneself. One mother decided to share her story, to help others in similar situations understand that they are not alone, that there are others who understand and are willing to help.

This is the story of her son’s struggle, her family’s struggle, and her own struggle of raising and loving a child who would lash out, whose thoughts were furtive, and behavior seemed uncontrollable. The son, the youngest of four, wasn’t simply dealing with typical youthful rebellion or adolescent depression.

He was violent and miserable. He kept his parents awake at nights in fear of what he might do. He’d become a danger to himself and to others. “We spent a lot of time not sleeping,” Mom said. “Is he going to burn our home down? That’s the things that we were afraid of.” And he still wasn’t even a teenager.

“Everything from putting on his shoes to brushing his teeth were power struggles,” Mom said of her son, who was only 10 years old at the time. Every day became another battle in their home, whether it was brothers fighting, screaming tantrums about the school he didn’t want to go to, angry fits that seemed to come out of nowhere, or fighting about fighting.

And nothing anyone tried made anything better. “He was trying to self-harm himself. He stabbed his brother twice, with a knife – stabbed him good enough to need to go get stitches,” Mom said. “Somebody was going to get hurt, whether it be him, whether it be me, whether it be a family member; there was somebody who was going to get physically hurt.”

Every parent deals with unruly children from time to time, but few have it to the extent that this family did. “He just knew how to take it to the next level by assaulting his brother,” his mother said.

The family became worn down. The parents grew physically and emotionally tired after fighting to keep their sons from hurting one another. Their children were living in an environment full of fights – both verbal and physical – yelling, anger, and sadness.

“Yelling wasn’t working. Ignoring him wasn’t working,” the mother said. “The (ideas) that I knew that were given to me by family, by friends; those things weren’t working.”

The mother began to seek professional help for her son, but again struggled to find success. “We were going to doctors and they were trying the medication for a month and we’d come back and say, ‘It’s not working.’ And so we’d try a different medication,” she said. “It never seemed like they listened in their 15 minutes of a doctor’s appointment.” “There was just nothing we did (that worked),” she continued. “We were hopeless. We had no friends, no family really that understood.

If we did go out we were always called home to go back because nobody could control him. We couldn’t really take him out into the community because he was probably going to hurt himself or hurt somebody else or steal something from a store. We were home and the doors were closed, the curtains were closed, and I was afraid to let the neighbors see in our house. We were alone.”

This was the point at which her and her husband realized that something needed to change in order to save their son and their family. Luckily, they found what their son needed. They found Orchard Place, and that decision saved him, and saved their family.

After completing admissions forms, her now 11-year-old son was living in Orchard Place. And within a matter of days it seemed as though everything had changed. Nothing was fixed immediately, but it sure wasn’t the same.

Their son was gone, hopefully on the path to recovery, and the house was quiet for the first time in years. “I remember taking a vacation from work and I just stayed at home and for the first time I wasn’t on edge, fearful for what he was going to do,” the mother said. There weren’t bloody battles being waged in the living room or yells that could be heard across the house. It was peaceful and the fear that had held the family captive dissipated.

But even despite the quiet, the journey was far from over. It was only just beginning, with several hard battles still on the road.

“I went through a major depression because I thought I failed; I’d failed him, I’d failed my family. His dad went through a depression too. And it took me awhile to understand that it wasn’t about me, it was about all of us,” she said. “I remember (thinking) did I make the right choice? Did I not make the right choice? What if this doesn’t work? What it does work?

I think I was more afraid of it working because a part of me felt that I was going feel like a failure if it worked as a mom, as a person who is supposed to hold the family dynamics together.” It became clear that her fears hadn’t been immediately eliminated once her son was living in Orchard Place; they were simply changed. She was worried about what would happen after her son’s nine months of treatment at Orchard Place was over.

Fortunately, it seemed that Orchard Place had some of the answers. “It was probably a good month of him being (at Orchard Place) before we ever had a full-fledged conversation. Because he was mad. And not just at us for putting him in here – that was the least of why he was mad.

He didn’t know how to talk about it and I think they taught him to talk, to use words here,” she said, and the same thing happened for the family in turn. “(Orchard Place) taught us how to communicate with him and how to talk to him and what questions we need to be asking him in order to help him, instead of accusing him.” That mindset is what helped bring about change.

The family learned how better to aid their son, their brother. Rather than to control or fix him, they learned how to help him with love instead of anger. Because he wasn’t and isn’t broken, he just needed to be taught how to better cope with his emotions and how to remember to be calm when he might feel the urge to act otherwise.

He just needed support from his loved ones, and they were more than willing to provide it, once they were taught how. While living at Orchard Place he was cleansed of medications so that the doctors on staff could start over and find out how best to treat him, rather than just try to control his behaviors.

He got a clean slate and had understanding minds around him – a much needed shift. “He smiled,” Mom mentioned about one of their early visits to Orchard Place. “It had been a long time since he even smiled. And his eyes weren’t so dark and sunken in. And he said ‘Hi’ like he actually meant it.

He didn’t look so angry.” Once he was home the family’s fears were dispelled. Their son was home. He’d remembered how to smile. He let his parents relax and sleep without worry again. He was happy.

“It didn’t matter anymore,” Mom said. “My son was getting better. And that was the most important thing, that he could be better, that he could function.”

No, their lives were not perfect once the family was reunited. The brothers still fought.

Transitioning back into the public school system after Orchard Place was a struggle, but their family dynamics could return to normalcy for the first time in years. Some of them were still on edge at first, unsure at how their brother’s/son’s time at Orchard Place may (or may not) have changed him, but it became clear that it had had an effect on him.

“There was a day that him and his older brother got into it and we all just kind of stopped what we were doing and waited for the physical part to happen, because when they fought it started verbally and then it went physical and we were waiting for that physical contact to be made, and it didn’t happen. They argued. They’re brothers,” she explained. “And it didn’t get physical that day. He actually looked at us and was like ‘What’re you looking at?’

“‘We’re just kind of waiting for you to put your hands on your brother so we can divide you two’ … He looked back and was like ‘You’re crazy’ and walks away and it was over. He never (used to) walk away,” she continued. “We laughed. For the first time in a very, very long time my family laughed,” she continued. “Not everything is perfect, but that moment was perfect.”

In one year he had changed from a consistent instigator and perpetrator of assaults to someone who was able to remain and keep himself in check. Was he perfect? No, but his time at Orchard Place had assuredly made him better.

The doctors and family and friends that struggled to listen had been replaced with Orchard Place’s professional staff, who not only listened to and understood their problems, but taught both the son and the family how to best deal with problems when they arose.

“They taught me how to be a mom … They empowered me enough to give me strength to be the mom that he needed me to be,” Mom said. “He’s been on the same medications for five years. It works. The behaviors are different. But even when he decides to get a little creative and get a little different, we can change with that, we can roll with that, we can deal with that, we can handle that. It’s not embarrassing.”

This improvement not only helped his behavior improve at home and in the community, but it also allowed the family to readjust and become whole once again. They were able to return to loving one another like they should have been and being a functioning family, a drastic change from the tenseness to which they’d become accustomed.

“The yelling stopped. Yelling was a big deal in my house, I mean we’re a loud family, but we were yelling all the time. And we stopped yelling at each other and just kind of calmed down and talked,” Mom noticed. “We were taught that he feeds off of our emotions, so if we emotionally react to him it’s going to trigger him to react even more.

We learned how to keep ourselves in check, so that he can’t pick up on that.”

Still, it wasn’t just Orchard Place that brought about change. The family was wholly devoted to helping their son get better. They wanted the best for him, for him to be happy, and he was the reason that their lives were able to take a positive turn that is still continuing, now five years after he was admitted to Orchard Place.

He was devoted to getting better just as much as they were committed to helping him along the way.

“I think he gave me the hope by making better choices and decisions,” the mother said, a smile coming across her face as she thought about her son. “He’s a pretty cool kid. He’s fun to be with … He’s just a typical kid. He doesn’t like homework. He still, to this day, likes peanut butter sandwiches more than any other food. … He’s funny.”

What the future holds in store for him is still unclear. He doesn’t like change and so transitioning to college would be a difficult shift, but he still has a tendency to surprise his mom, and sometimes for the better.

“He’s even had a couple girlfriends,” she confessed with a maternal, worried but hopeful sigh. “Maybe when he’s 30,” she joked.

“We still have concerns and we deal with them and we talk about them. I don’t want him to be the kid that lives in Mom and Dad’s basement and plays video games until he’s 40,” she continued. “I don’t think that’s fair to him and I don’t think that it’s right for my family and for what I want for my children, and so we’ll take it as it comes. And if we need to do group home settings or things like that, it’s on the table and we’re prepared for that.”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

And although no one knows for sure what’s in store for them as a family, they now have the tools and mindset needed to help each day be better than the last. Fear is no longer the domineering emotion; it’s been replaced with hope and optimism for their son’s future. The parents are not worried about what he might do in the middle of the night. Instead, his future is what’s on their minds, and that future looks bright.

A special thanks to the Mother who shared the story of her family with us.