Mothering Mental Illness

Pediatric mental health disorders SUCK.

They steal the joy of normalcy from raising my little family. They lurk around the most mundane places and hide where we least expect them, ready to ruin the simplest moments.  

I am a fighter. I plaster on a smile, seek happiness in unusual places, and use humor to cope. Even still, there are times when my grief is all encompassing and impossible to explain. Sometimes I disappear because I’m holding up my family and the weight bearing down on my shoulders is too complex and heavy to unload in a quick text or Facebook post. Moms like me tend to lean back into the shadows when things are falling apart.  

mom hands over houseSometimes I wish I could tell you what it really looks like beneath my armor.

If only I could place my hand on your arm and show you everything swirling around in my head for a moment. You would close your eyes and really see.  

And then you would hug me, and I would so gladly let you.

I wish I could tell you that I often cry at night when I’m alone making lunches in the kitchen. Because it finally got still and quiet, and I don’t know if he’s going to be okay. I am the strongest warrior, but folding up his napkin and tucking it beside the little bag of Goldfish does me in every single time.

I wish I could explain that the old me changed when I realized I might not be able to fix him. When I could no longer deny the possibility that my baby might not be able to live a regular adult life on his own. There is a piece of a mother that dies when she has to accept this. The roots of my grief bloom from this dark place.

I used to think that grief was reserved for the death of a loved one. I was wrong. It is the heavy coat that I can’t take off. Sometimes I’m able to push up the sleeves and ignore it, but there are times when it becomes too heavy to walk.

On the bad days when I wonder if he’ll be able to take care of himself, breathing in and out and keeping the fear out of my eyes is the extent of what I can accomplish. The unanswered calls/emails/texts and missed lunches/appointments/parties pile up in the corner and taunt me. I tell myself they aren’t proof that I’m failing.

I wish I could explain that when he is out of my sight, every ring of my phone hits me with a wall of heart-thumping nausea that brings me to my knees. Sometimes I wish you could stand in my shoes when he comes to me, brimming with desperation to have a friend over, and I’m running out of excuses. I wish I could tell you what it feels like when he finally stops asking.

I wish I could tell you how I worry about him socially. How utterly debilitating it is to wonder what the other kids think of his panic and emotions. How I wonder what parents say about us when I’m not around. I know better than that and chastise myself for it. I’m acutely aware of how needy I am with my questions and ringing hands.  

It is heartbreaking to know that your child is the one people are discussing out of earshot.

You probably don’t know how often I worry about suicide. How carefully I listen to every word he says in an effort to spot the darkness. How the statistics rattle me. How even when the tide turns and his smile is sunshine, I’m watching him. Wary. Looking, so I don’t ever miss a sign.

I wish I could tell you more about this grief of mine that ebbs and flows. That I am not okay at all.  

Also that I’m totally okay.

mom holding kids hands

During turbulent times, I frequently sit in the chair beside his bed as he sleeps and marvel at how brave he is. I like to watch his eyelashes laying in soft fans against his cheeks while I pray for him.

Then I wander into the littlest one’s room to do the same. I stroke the fluff of his hair from his face and pray for God to protect him. He’s growing up watching his hero suffer with something that he can’t see or understand. He doesn’t get to experience life in the ways he deserves. I can’t think too long on what all of this might be doing to him inside.   

I wish I could explain that this is why I don’t see my text messages in a timely manner and why I’m so hit-or-miss these days. I wish I could share that nothing is more humbling than standing in a crowd and watching for the little thing that will trigger the panic — while trying to act normal and remember to smile and talk. I wish I could tell you that I’m still here.

I wish it were possible for you to understand the toll it takes on a mama when she’s on high alert around the clock. When everything from running into the grocery store to stumbling over an untied shoelace can trigger the panic monster, your relationship with the rest of the world begins to change. As days turn into years, it gets harder to turn the unnatural vigilance on and off at will. Sometimes when I’m out with friends, it feels like my clothes are on backwards and everything around me is upside down. I wonder if I look as weird as I feel.

I wish you knew that I don’t want anyone to pity us. I wish you understood that I don’t want you to see my son’s precious face, all dimples and big brown eyes, and think of the worst moments of his illness. Because he’s everything beautiful and wondrous. Just as God made him.

So I don’t talk about it much.  

I would never wish for any parent to understand pediatric mental illness in the way that I do. EVER.  

I will always wish that we could all be kinder to each other. You never know what’s going on under the armor.  

Chalna is a native Texan born with Jedi reading and writing skills and an inability to add or subtract. She’s married to her favorite pilot and has two fabulous sons, 9 and 4. Her oldest suffers from GAD and OCD, and her life’s mission is advocating for children with mental health disorders. She is a freelance writer who loves wine, carbs and Amazon. She shares life with pediatric anxiety on her blog, She Shines Her Light , and writes professionally in the middle of the night. Find her at Chalna Writes.


  1. This was so good. And while mine may not have the same degree of anxiety, I get it. You write beautifully and clearly. I see you.

  2. I do know….there’s never a deep-breathing minute….especially while he’s incarcerated….and the time of parole comes very soon bringing additional challenges and stronger faith. How can I possibly know how to plan, how to prepare, how to anticipate? I don’t know this adult man that is about to join me in life again . What has this done to him in the last 14 years? What has he learned and how has he suffered from the worst of our society, and how can I help him fit back into a society “on the outside” when I no longer understand it myself?

    • Carol, I’m overcome by your comment. I keep writing and deleting and writing again, trying to find the right words. I am praying for you and your son. And I know that you’ll pull yourself up by the bootstraps and find a way through it because that’s what we do. People always tell me that I’m so brave and strong, but honestly, what choice did I have? We fight for our babies. Please know that my heart is with you and feel free to reach out whenever you’d like. I wish that I could hug you in person.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I feel so alone sometime at night when I’m worrying if tomorrow is the day she will hurt herself. I always ask if this was my fault. No one else has this problem. Again thank you

    • Pamela, you brought tears to my eyes. I am so glad that my words made you feel less alone. The loneliness of this life shocks me sometimes and the knowledge that someone out there understands and is with you can be everything. And friend – hear me with your soul right now – it’s not your fault. We ALL end up down that rabbit hole from time to time and it’s the exhaustion talking. You are a brave, strong, amazing mother . You show up every day, love her, support her, and fight for her. She knows that in her heart. That is enough. The mental illness is NOT your fault, mama.

  4. I have never read a piece that articulates my experience so accurately. In fact, you named that which I had not quite admitted. I can’t say thank you enough. I might as well just print this out and go find myself a therapist! 🙂 Grateful for your gift. ~ Mom, Wife, Educator, & Counselor from Oklahoma

    • Angela, thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to share this with me! Comments like these give me the strength to keep writing about the hard stuff and that means so much to me. I’m sorry that you know these feelings so well, but it definitely helps my soul to know that I’m not alone out here in this hard space. Thank YOU!

  5. Your brilliant gift to describe everything I am feeling and so many others as well is truly a blessing from God. But this ache in my heart is ever present wondering if there will be another suicide attempt that is actually successful. How have we survived 3 already with increasing severity? I cannot bear to look 10 years into the future. The past 20 years with my son has been grief filled yet joy filled as well. Thank you for articulating this dilemma. This mama’s heart is broken.

  6. Marla, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write this comment. I appreciate your words more than you can imagine and I’m honored that my post touched you. I desperately want moms like us to know they aren’t alone and you’ve given that back to ME! It breaks my heart that your boy has been in this battle for so long and I wish I could hug you right now! I know EXACTLY what you mean about equal parts grief and joy!!! It’s good to feel like we are all out here together. ALL THE LOVE to you.

  7. Just to offer you hope- as a person who has dealt with OCD for as long as I can remember, I’m in a great place now in adulthood. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but it’s GOOD. I know everyone is different and everyone’s individual struggles, even with the ‘same’ things, look so different. But if it offers you some glimmer of hope- it is very possible that as your son gets older he may gain the ability to understand his triggers and emotions better and deal with them in a healthy way that allows for a healthy life. You’re doing very very hard work. But he feels seen and loved by YOU and that means the world.

    • Becky, I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to leave this comment!!! It helps IMMENSELY to hear things like this!!!!! I don’t pray that my son will wake up one day cured, but rather that he will grow to manage his anxiety in a way that leaves room for some peaceful normalcy. It does my heart a world of good to hear from adults who can attest to that being a real possibility! THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart!!!

  8. As a mom of a schizophrenic now adult daughter, your words echoed my steps through her younger years. No one should know what it’s like living with all the meds snd sharps locked up, and yet that has been my life for more years then I care to think about. She’s 36 but has to be taken care of as if she were still a small child while respecting that she is an adult. Thank you for sharing


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