Surviving Others Mental Health Crises

My dad was right - We are at the shallow end of the gene pool

5/24/20246 min read

brown concrete building during daytime
brown concrete building during daytime

When I was 10, my dad, his girlfriend (who is now my stepmom), and I were sitting at the kitchen table in their apartment after eating dinner or playing a game or some other typical activity, but the tone changed. I could sense that we were in for a serious conversation. My dad knew how important seeing him every week was to me, and he had to tell me why I would not be able to see him for a bit. I can’t remember the whole conversation, but what stuck with me was that he said he was going on a sort of vacation. This was the best way he knew to explain this to a 10-year-old.

After he took me home, I asked my mom about it. She told me that he was going to be in the hospital. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that he needed to stop taking a medication called Valium and that they were going to help him. I sat in her lap, and I cried. I did not know exactly what was going on, but I understood that he was sick, he needed help to stop Valium, and that I would not be able to hang out with him for a while.


This was my introduction to my family history of mental illness. A year later, I had my first panic attack. I was 11 and had no idea what was happening to me. I thought that I was going crazy and was afraid to tell anyone, but I told my dad. Even at that young age, I knew he would understand.

He explained that he also got them. And he explained anxiety to me. He told me they may happen again, but I should not be afraid of them. He said that I was not dying and I was not going crazy. He told me that, no matter what, I had to make sure I went to the same place and did the same things that I did when I had them. As I got older and more able to understand, he connected the dots between his anxiety, his valium addiction, and increasing agoraphobia.


The first several memories I have of my mother, she was crying. It was not until years later, when she went through weeks where she would not cook or eat, and we could only watch the home shopping network because everything else would make her cry, that I realized she had depression. I also realized that she passed this down to me.

Years later, when I was well out of the house, married, and a parent, she began having serious suicidal ideation. She never made an attempt, but it was clear this was where she was headed. I spoke with my stepdad about this, and she began an intensive outpatient program. This helped with the suicidal ideation (or at least the verbal expression of it), but she was depressed until her Alzheimer’s advanced enough that it clouded the depressive thoughts.


When my son, Josh, was three or four years old, we were at McDonalds with my dad and stepmom. Josh, was playing on the playland outside while we were talking. Josh, as always, got up to the top of the playland and froze. He started crying. As my dad watched, he said, “he’s one of us.” I went to the bottom of the structure and tried to coax him down. As always, I had to climb it myself, take his hand, and help him down. I hoped that this was just normal childhood quirkiness and that he would outgrow this fear of heights.

But I was wrong; the fear of heights stayed. At 21, he still has them, actually. But they do not interfere with his life too much. I have tried, like my dad with me, to encourage him to face this so that it does not control him. Unfortunately, though, the anxiety did not stop there.


My husband and I have always been open with our son about everything. This, in turn, led to him being open with us. He had already come out to us as gay in middle school. He came to one of us whenever he was worried about anything like I did with my dad. I valued (and still do) this part of our relationship and cannot stress how important this is, especially to

As he grew, it became increasingly clear that he did not enjoy being around groups of people. He did not like school — really, truly hated it. There was a lot of anxiety around school, but it was difficult to tease out what was anxiety, what was boredom, and what was just a general dislike of school.


His sophomore year of high school was the worst. He started having stomach aches and diarrhea. He missed so much school. More than often, he would try to push through, but occasionally, he couldn’t get himself to do it. I did all the parenting things. I tried to encourage him to go, and I made staying home as unpleasant as possible — no computer, no video games. The usual.

I spoke to his teachers, but they could not do anything to help. I asked him to get transferred out of the AP English capstone class, which was causing the most problems. She said to us both that she did not think he had the social or intellectual maturity and discipline to handle the class and that he was bringing his entire group down, threatening their grades as well. While simultaneously saying that it was too late to change to another English class.

As the school year progressed, I could see the fear in his eyes and feel it in my gut. I asked him if he had thoughts about hurting himself. He said no. I told him to promise he would come to me before he did anything like that, and he did. I called his doctor. They told me to give him Imodium for the diarrhea, so I got some. I explained to them that I thought it was anxiety. They said that they could not do anything but gave a list of child psychiatrists and told me the wait list would likely be months. He started to get a little better, and I was in a particularly busy work season, so I didn’t call them.


A few weeks after he turned sixteen, he came to me the evening before he was supposed to go to school to work with his group on a capstone project. Students were out for parent-teacher conferences, but his teacher allowed the capstone kids to use the classroom to work on their projects. He was obviously unsettled and anxious. My husband and I were already in bed, but we asked if he wanted to sleep in bed with me. Something he had not done since he was sick as a small child. He said yes.

Then he said he was sorry. He said he loved us, and he didn’t mean to. I felt my stomach drop. I knew in my heart what he was about to say next. And I felt guilty for not getting him help sooner. He told me that he took several Imodium. He could not say how many; he wasn’t sure. He said over and over again. “I love you. I’m sorry.” We called poison control, who had us take him to the hospital. He ended up in a children’s psych ward for a week.


Then things started to change. He learned a few coping skills. We were able to get him immediately into therapy and to a psychiatrist. He was assessed by a neuropsychologist, who said that he was on the mild end of the autism spectrum. We were able to transfer him out of the class that was causing the most anxiety and get him a 504 plan at school that allowed him to remove himself from class or from the way overly crowded hallways if he felt a panic attack coming on. He rarely had to do so — I think just knowing he had the option helped with his anxiety.

When COVID happened, he did better. He no longer had to be in a classroom of over 30 and a school of almost 2,000. He could attend classes online and do the homework afterward without dreading having to go to school in person. When our school district opened back up, he chose to remain online and was able to graduate.

He tried college but did not like the dorms, the classes, or the campus and decided it was not for him. After 2 ½ semesters of plummeting grades, he withdrew in the middle of his third semester, deciding that he would not be able to raise his grades above failing. This broke my heart because I loved college so much and wanted that incredible experience for him.


We are now five years past that horrible night. He has a boyfriend, and they are about to move six hours away so that his boyfriend can work on an MFA. He works as a shift lead at a fast-food restaurant. Most of his friends are online, and he plays DnD with them a few days a week. He does not have the life I envisioned when I thought of him as a happy and fulfilled adult. But. He does seem content, and that is good. I am happy for him.

We still have an open-door relationship where he can come to me with anything. I still worry about another mental health break, especially when he moves so far away. But I know that this is my own residual anxiety and not anything that he has done to worry me as before.

Mental health problems across generations can be so challenging, but I am glad that he knows he can come to me, and I will understand without judgment, the same as my dad did for me. Happy Mental Health Awareness Month, and please check on your kids — and parents.