Friday, December 27, 2013

On Being a Rad, Mad, Queer Mama

I was eighteen years old when I gave birth to my son and discovered first-hand the very real dangers of being a marginalized mama. It was the mid 80’s and politicians on both sides of the political spectrum were bemoaning the high cost of unwed teenagers having babies. Headlines like, “Children Having Children” were splashed across every newsstand magazine. Sad faced teenage girls clutching babies, with falling down trailers or run-down apartments in the background, stared out from the covers. According to these articles the children of “children” faced a life of low education, poverty, prison, even rotting teeth, and of course it was society that bore the huge cost of these bastard children.

I was assigned a social worker and was counseled about the wisdom of giving up my baby for adoption. When I shyly told them that wasn’t an option I was assigned a nurse to visit my home after the birth of my baby. I didn’t realize until after the fact that the purpose of this nurse visit was to determine if my home was safe for my baby and to observe my parenting. I learned very quickly how to play the game.  I learned very quickly that I wasn’t the right kind of parent.

I began my life as a highly sensitive and sad child. My childhood memories are filled with crying fits that lasted for days, trying to hurt myself, though not fully understanding that it was intentional, and spending hours alone in my dark closet curled up in a tight ball. I was shy, quiet, mostly friendless, and bullied in school. The world was a rough place for me. In my twenties I was diagnosed with ADHD and later with clinical depression, it was suggested a few times that maybe I was bipolar, but I managed to stay mostly under the radar. As a young mom I had learned that it’s not safe to be honest. This lesson turned out to be very valuable to the survival of my family, and yet at the same time it created a deeply painful isolation.

In 2003 I came out as queer and that coming out tossed me even further under the microscope of potentially unfit. Being queer is a little different than being gay or lesbian in the eyes of the mainstream. It’s a little shadier, a little more suspect.  I would find out that many of the things that define “queerness,” including a fluid gender expression, are also many of the things that the mainstream deems signs of mental instability. It became even harder to play the role of the “normal” mom.

Coming out as queer made me drunk on the excitement of finally discovering who I really was. I wore my queerness like a sparkly rainbow cape…and with that cape I flew hard and fast. But along with this intoxication of meeting myself for the first time, I also found myself with three children and no real way to make it financially, the loss of my house, my marriage and much of my family, and the deaths of several people close to me. My moods started to shift dramatically. I would stay up for days at a time drinking and sleeping with girls and then I would crash hard and dream of driving my car into the lake. Up and down I went.

About a year into my coming out I found myself flying a friend, who was in a very extreme state, across the country to return her home. When we arrived on the east coast I found that nobody in her circle was willing to care for her and after six days I was forced to return home. My friend and I agreed that the only option was to check her into the hospital. It was profoundly traumatic for everyone involved, but there was one moment that stuck with me above all others. As we were getting ready to leave I found her pacing her room and silently crying. She was terrified because she only owned men’s underwear. She identifies as genderqueer (she uses female pronouns) and she knew firsthand, from previous encounters with the mental health system, that her gender expression would be seen as a severe symptom of her “mental illness.” It broke my heart and it sank in deep. Simply being who we are can be an incredibly dangerous thing sometimes, but especially when facing mental health professionals.

That lesson stuck with me as I traveled along my path to self-identity while navigating the mental health system for both myself and my daughter. As my daughter transitioned from her teen years into adulthood she found herself traveling in and out of extreme states. As we worked our way through the mental health system I made sure I presented myself as “normal” as possible, never mentioning my own mental health background or the fact that I was queer. Being gender variant in my physical presentation, I made sure to keep a nice pair of “girl” jeans and a long sleeved “girl” blouse (long sleeves to hide my tattoos) tucked away in my drawer for all psychiatrist appointments or possible ER visits.  It was humiliating to have to go to appointments in “drag,” but it was also critical for our survival.

I remember going to the NAMI Family to Family classes in an attempt to navigate my way through the maze of mental health “recovery.” It was the 4th or 5th class when the facilitators went into great detail on the symptoms of the various mental illnesses. They presented gender dysphoria as a sign of schizophrenia. When I spoke up I was told quite firmly that confusion about one’s gender was not always a sign of a serious mental illness, but it was in fact often a sign. I never returned to the classes, but I did leave with the deeply internalized message that it wasn’t safe to be me even more firmly settled in my gut.

At the age of sixteen my daughter had given birth to a little boy and we were raising him in partnership. It made me incredibly nervous that her fragile mental state and young age would cause people in authority to start poking around. When Felix hit his 2nd year my daughter slid into a very unstable emotional place and the decision was made for me to take over as the primary caretaker of my grandson while she pursued “recovery.”

By this time I was partnered with a woman, and even though I had learned my lesson about how to make myself appear to people in power, I wasn’t prepared for the first time we took Felix to the doctor. He was three years old, on state medical, and we were at a Community Health Clinic, a combination that causes everyone to assume that you lack certain life and parenting skills. The doctor walked in and we explained our relationship to little Felix. The doctor asked, in front of Felix, if the reason we had him was because his mother was on drugs. My body went numb, and then it surged with rage, but I knew to play the game. The fucking game. Rule number one of playing the game is presenting as “normal.” Rule number two is: Lie. Lie with sincerity and confidence. I calmly said that no, she was not on drugs. I explained that she had been very physically ill and was unable to take care of him at this time, but that she loved him very much and saw him daily. The doctor looked at me and at my partner, then down at little Felix.

Felix has always been very gender fluid and we have just allowed him to be who he is. That day he was wearing flowered leggings and had on nail polish.  The doctor motioned to his nails and pants and said, “Are you okay with this?” The rage slid quickly into fear. How had I overlooked this? I knew enough to make myself look normal, but it had never occurred to me that I had to stifle a three-year-old just to keep that microscope off of us, and I should have known better than to come with my partner. I’m sure in the doctor’s eyes these two dykes were trying to make this little boy gay. I was just so thankful that this doctor knew nothing or my own mental health background or that of my daughter’s. I was so thankful that I had known enough to lie to her and tell her my daughter had a physical illness, but what if I hadn’t? Had I told her the truth about myself and my daughter I can only imagine the conclusions she would have drawn and the possible ramifications of those conclusions.

Being “crazy” makes parenthood a uniquely dangerous thing, add on being queer, or a person of color, or poor, or too young, or in any way marginalized and being a “crazy” parent ups the danger significantly. This pressure, judgment, and extreme scrutiny only piles on more stress which in turn creates greater emotional trauma, which in turn affects our ability to not only function in this world and parent effectively, but it also makes it difficult to safely seek help when we need it. And sometimes we really need it. I remember how my daughter and I would rehearse the things she would say to her psychiatrist before her appointments. We were always vigilant that one wrong word could be twisted into her being unfit or dangerous in his eyes. When a “crazy” teen mom and a “crazy” queer granny are raising a little boy you have to think hard about every word you say.

I believe the only way  to change this is for parents who are dealing with psych stuff, especially marginalized mothers, to start speaking out, to come together, and to let others know that they aren’t alone. Still it’s scary. I feel that it’s absolutely critical for people to tell their stories with raw honesty, and mostly I do, but I also know that sometimes raw honesty can backfire. It sucks and it isn’t fair and this enforced silence hurts us and it hurts our kids. If you’re reading this and you’re a “mad” parent that’s trying to navigate the system, just please know you aren’t alone. Write your story, speak up, reach out, and hey, email me. Let’s talk because community can make all the difference…for us and for our kids.

Nina Packebush is a rad queer mama and granny. She has written for numerous publications and is currently focusing most of her attention on radical mental health activism. She is a just about to launch a blog for mad-identified, queer parents and grandparents and for the parents of mad-identified kids. Please come and join her at:

This article originally appeared at The Icarus Project.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Four C’s of being a Parent with a Mental Illness

I was driving my ten-year-old daughter home from her friend’s house one cool summer night. The car windows were down, and the wind whipped through our hair as the radio blasted one of her favorite songs. We sang along at the top of our lungs, laughing and screaming with delight. Just behind the excitement in her eyes I saw a touch of hesitation, a worry, and rightly so. I was manic, and while she didn’t know specifically about my bipolar disorder, on some level she recognized the signs, and it scared her.

It scared me, too, because after the highs always came the lows. My lows involve many hours in bed, many days or weeks of irritability, migraines, and emotional shutdowns. Sometimes I fear that my kids may look back on their childhood and remember mom always being in bed. But, then I remind myself:  I am doing the best I can with what I have. I didn’t ask for this mental illness. It’s not a matter of whether I deserve it or not. It can’t be cured or wished away. It is a fact of my life, and like it or not, it is a fact of my children’s life.

Now, what to do about it? Roll over and die? No way! Here are some of the things I have done that have helped me deal with being a parent with a mental illness.

1. Care for myself

I believe the best thing I can do for my children is to take care of myself. This includes taking my medications as prescribed, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, going to scheduled doctors’ appointments, seeing a counselor on a regular basis, and asking for help when I need it.

I didn’t always feel this way. I used to drink excessively, which lead to many dangerous mood swings and extremely reckless behavior. And I never asked for help, which is how I ended up in an inpatient psych unit a few years ago. Neither scenario left me able to care for my children, so I have learned the hard way that I must care for myself in these ways before I will be able to care for them.

2. Control my environment

Another thing I have learned as a parent with a mental illness is to not over-schedule my family’s activities. This means my kids don’t play every sport that their friends are playing or join every club they want to. This means they get to have one friend sleep over instead of three, and that they eat McDonald’s a few more times a month than I would like them to when I’m not feeling well enough to cook dinner again.

By decreasing the physical and mental demands I place on myself, I am able to be more emotionally available to my kids even when I am somewhat depressed. It’s a trade-off for them, but one that I believe is worth it. I would rather them remember a calm mom reading them a book each night than a road-rage mom driving them to practice every day.

3. Communicate by words and actions

I try to make sure my kids know that my behaviors, whether manic or depressive, anxious or otherwise, are not their fault. I tell my younger school-aged child that I am not feeling well because I get sick sometimes, and that is why I take medicines and go to the doctor’s every month. As my other child, who is now is middle school, grows older, I am able to tell her more about the specifics of how a mood disorder works and how it affects the chemicals in my brain.

When I am depressed, I try to be easy on myself; model healthy self-care behaviors like sleeping when I need to or taking a hot bath, so that I am teaching my kids good habits even when I am sick. I have also taken them to counselors over the years to get their emotional and psychological needs treated, because when my behavior is disordered so are theirs.

4. Cherish my children

I think the most important thing I do for my kids, and for me, is to hug them and tell them I love them every day…every, single day.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of being a parent with a mental illness? How have you overcome them?

Wil is a mental health writer and mother with Bipolar Type II and Anxiety Disorders, and BPD traits. She is the founder and editor of Turtle Way, an online literary art journal for those with mental illness. She blogs at Write into the Light. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @writen2thelight.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Please talk to strangers

One of the most tragic things we teach our children is “don’t talk to strangers." This sound byte phrase has produced generations of socially anxious and fearful children and adults that don’t know how to relate to other people. We are taught to fear and avoid anyone outside of our family circle. It is repeated to us so much as children that when we are faced with strangers as adults, there is still that initial gut reaction to keep silent and run away to save ourselves.

Teaching our children to not talk to strangers is not only detrimental to their developmental well being, but their relational skills and the idea of community. No wonder it feels forced when we try to create community. We have killed our communities by instilling this false sense of security in ourselves.

Our only hope for connection, and to save modern humans from complete interpersonal alienation, is to teach the next generation that it’s okay to talk to strangers. It’s okay to say hello to your neighbors, the store clerk, the woman sitting beside you on the bus, the taxi driver. It is okay to ask them ‘how are you doing?’ and mean it more than as another form of ‘hello’. It’s okay to answer someone’s ‘how are you doing’ with a ‘I’m great today, how are you?’ or ‘I’m not doing so hot but I’m still here. How are you?’ They may look at you a little strange at first, but if enough people can relearn that strangers are okay, that they are just like yourself… well then we might even save ourselves.

M Osborn is a radical mental health activist, artist, and writer located in Richmond, VA. Founder of Dispatches From the Mad Parenthood Front, Mindful Liberation Project, FOIA For Change, the RVA Peer Support Line, and /r/radicalmentalhealth, and co-founder of RVA Peer Support and Something Something PressAuthor of Coping Skills and Trigger Warning, and co-author of Mindful Occupation: Rising Up Without Burning OutM also helps moderate several mental health-related blogs, including Life After Eating Disorders, A Space of Safety, and Your Mental Health First Aid KitThey can usually be found musing about the world at their personal blog and filling spaces with artand can be contacted at megan[at]mindfulliberation[dot]org

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dispatch From the Mad Motherhood Front

June 22, 2013

The pain is complex. This time has afforded me the opportunity to analyze the pain--every dark recess of it, every blindingly searing and burning light of it. The throbbing of my heartbeat in my head, the aching burning in my stomach, the stabbing gripping pain in my uterus and vagina, the ripping pain in my breasts, the searing stabbing vice-like smashing pain in my spine, the aching in my joints.

Every day it is something new, and something old. Every day I am attempting to focus on the good and not allow the pain to overtake me. Nothing good would come of that, because I would lose the last semblance of sanity I have left. I need that sliver of sanity for my daughter, who is not quite seven weeks old. I hold it together long enough to take care of her, only to lose my mind and break down crying and sometimes screaming in the other room. I have never known such a level of anxiety as I have felt since her birth, and I have a lifetime of anxiety under my belt.

Everything that happens I quickly determine if it will affect her in a potentially harmful way. As the world works, most things end up in that "potentially harmful" box. I want to prevent harm from befalling her, so I try my damnedest to prevent, stop, and lessen whatever the catalyst was. This turns me into the most critical person I've ever been in my 27 years. 

Being a mad mother is probably the most difficult role I will ever have to fill. I have to combat a lifetime of traumas so that they don't end up affecting her in a negative or traumatic way. I have to deal with the "normal" anxieties of parenthood when all I have ever known of anxiety has been crippling and debilitating.  I have to reel in my fears, thoughts, and reactions so as not to inadvertently hurt her or my partner in the process. Daily I have to use so much willpower just to be alive that it hurts. 

I've hallucinated from lack of sleep, leading me to wonder if it is something inherent in me or if it really is just the sleep. I question whether I should tell my psychiatrist, who, due to a couple bad decisions in practice on their part, has gained my distrust. I see them within a nonprofit organization for the homeless, at risk of being homeless, and uninsured. For awhile I fell in the last two categories. I have never before seen such conveyor belt-like psychiatry before being privy to this particular practice. 20-25 people smash together in a small waiting room after checking in at the front desk. You're given an "appointment time" that's merely arbitrary: people are seen in the order in which they arrive. One-by-one, people are called back to a small office and emerge 10 minutes later with their prescriptions in hand. It always takes hours to go to these appointments. With a newborn, these appointments are impossible. 

As someone who appreciates a *positive and seemingly genuine* therapeutic interaction, this setup made me uneasy from the beginning. My unease was confirmed in the first appointment, when the doctor attempted to diagnose me with the "kiss of death" personality disorder after asking me a handful of vague questions that any Millennial would have experienced at some point in their lives. That coupled with putting me back on a medication I had been on before without tapering me onto it (which can be fatal) has resulted in my complete distrust in the process, at least with this doctor in this practice. 

How could I trust that any medication they suggest would be safe for breastfeeding? I can't even trust them to acknowledge and treat what is really wrong, not what they want to see instead. So, I've avoided going back. I've tried self medicating with chamomile tea but it is no longer adequate. The anxiety is too strong... it has turned into its own living, breathing organism that feeds off of everything around it. 

To know that there is something/someone that relies on me so much that it would die without my assistance frightens me. At least pets are able to get into the trash or cabinets to their food stash to eat if you were absent-minded. A baby though...a baby is totally helpless. And everything that you do or don't do affects their development. Don't talk to them or cuddle them enough and they can have developmental issues that you would only know about after the damage from neglect was already done. And how am I to know what is "enough"? I've only had pets to care for before now. This is a human being that is going to learn words, become an adult that may try to change the world, may or may not have children of her own to mold, and can manipulate her environment in ways that pets cannot. I am tasked with the huge responsibility of caring for this tiny human when on most days I am unsure how to adequately care for myself.

Now, even how I care for myself can affect her development, as I am breastfeeding. Never before has my health been so crucial, and never before have I been so ill. I have been constantly sick since before she was born. From preeclampsia that required early delivery and an extended hospital stay to a uterine infection from the surgery to a full body infection brought on by antibiotics and a compromised immune system, I do not yet know what it is like to be well and be a mother. I hope that I will be lucky enough to see that day sometime in the future, someday.

Since her birth I feel like I have become more mad, more intense, but in a hyper-rational way. Before, my madness was based in a reality in the past-- a reality where I was destroyed again and again by trauma. I would often find myself in irrational arguments with my partners or even myself, based on my reaction to what had happened to me before, not what was right in front of me. Now though, I deal with that on occasion, but more frequently deal with the hyper rationality that is an anxiety-prone mother caring for their child. Such rationality only exists in the future tense, where what is happening now may be and most certainly can be detrimental in the future.

My irrationalities exist in the past tense, where they have already been detrimental and tore me down before, and keep coming up again and again through flashbacks. But it's always about what happened before, never really connected to the reality of right now.

My brain focuses on what ifs and what was, not what is. I have a hard time existing in now. The times I can feel so simple, so pure. Those times are when I'm the happiest. I've had a few of those times since her birth. One involved a huge smile spreading across my face as I watched out my front door at a thunderstorm. The rain came pouring down in diagonal sheets that later flooded our backyard with puddles that, were they not filled with mud, I would have jumped in. It was in that moment that everything that happened to me before and everything that might happen in the future no longer existed. All that existed was now: me standing in the doorway, looking out at the streets of Richmond as cars drove by with rain pouring down on everything. In that moment, I was the teenager across the street, I was the driver in the passing car, I was the biker trying to get home, I was the mother standing in the doorway. In that moment I was home. In that moment I was free. 

I hope I can teach my daughter that no matter what happens, we can find this freedom regardless of how trapped we feel. I hope that I can teach her that it's perfectly okay to feel scared and helpless well into adulthood, and that it's okay to hold onto that childlike wonder where the rain washes everything away...

M Osborn is a radical mental health activist, artist, and writer located in Richmond, VA. Founder of Dispatches From the Mad Parenthood Front, Mindful Liberation Project, FOIA For Change, the RVA Peer Support Line, and /r/radicalmentalhealth, and co-founder of RVA Peer Support and Something Something PressAuthor of Coping Skills and Trigger Warning, and co-author of Mindful Occupation: Rising Up Without Burning OutM also helps moderate several mental health-related blogs, including Life After Eating Disorders, A Space of Safety, and Your Mental Health First Aid KitThey can usually be found musing about the world at their personal blog and filling spaces with artand can be contacted at megan[at]mindfulliberation[dot]org