After 30 years as a reporter, feature writer and columnist for The Toronto Sun, Sandy is now a freelance writer, public speaker, mental health advocate and Seneca College instructor. You can learn more about Sandy here, and contact her here.
"Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light." Groucho Marx
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Children of all ages often blame their mothers for all their problems.
Today, I come not to blame my mother, but to honour her.
If you've ever wondered why I'm so comfortable talking openly about my mental health issues, my psychiatric history and any of my mental and emotional experiences, I credit my mother.
She was and is very enlightened, considering she was only 21 when I was born in 1948 and her mother died when she was 28, at the age of 60. My mother was pretty well on her own with a child who didn't conform. (That was a buzzword back in the 1950s and 1960s – conformity.)
When I was a kid, and a very dramatic, theatrical, stagy and rather "unusual" one, my nickname around the house was Sarah Bernhardt. I was described as histrionic – not to be confused with hysteria.
One way my mother handled my early emotional "acting out" was to channel it. From the age of nine, she sent me to drama classes – not to be confused with drama therapy. In the 1950s, these classes were a wonderful outlet for me. I'll never forget the fun I had at the Jack Medhurst Acting Studio. His classes sparked a lifelong love of the theatre, many exciting and successful acting experiences in skits and plays at camp and school, and led to my graduating with a BA in Drama and English Literature from Queen's University.
In the early 1960s when I started seeing my first psychiatrist, my mother used to say: "If you break a leg, you go to a doctor who puts it in a cast so it can heal. If there's something wrong with your mind, you talk to a psychiatrist, so you'll feel better."
Of course, those were the days when children were never diagnosed with bipolar disorders or anxiety disorders or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or any of the hundreds of disorders available today. Those disorders didn't exist. There was basically a "one-diagnosis-fits-all" for troubled children – schizophrenia.
In the 1950s and 1960s, children were never prescribed powerful drug cocktails of anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, mood stabilizers and who knows what else. Many of those drugs didn't exist. Then and now, all drugs are tested on adults because it was and remains unethical to do drug testing on children whose brains and bodies are growing and developing.
I have no regrets about this. If you want to understand what can happen when children are prescribed these powerful neuroleptic drugs, have a look at The Medicated Child.
Back in my youth, psychiatrists knew almost nothing about childhood mental health or mental illnesses, but my mother did the best she could at the time. For this, I am enormously indebted to her. When I was a kid, it was relatively rare for a child to be seen by a psychiatrist. Childhood psychiatry was in its infancy. On the other hand, starting then probably helped me enormously. Early intervention often does.
As far as I'm concerned, today most psychiatrists still know very little about mental health in general and childhood mental health in particular. They know about serious mental illnesses because that's what they study and see.
They know about symptom management and control. They know about creating square pegs with medications, which control symptoms. Without some form of psychotherapy, medications alone never impart insight or help people of any age to understand and overcome their emotional issues.
Also, and this is really a big issue for me – who advocates for children with mental health issues or psychiatric problems? They have tiny voices. They cannot speak up for themselves. If they try, they are rarely heard or listened to or taken seriously.
There are no quick fixes in healing emotional and mental health disturbances, even though that's what many people demand.
My mother has often said that all children are geniuses until they go to school. Today, what happens, especially in the public school system, when a child "acts out"? Often, not always, a teacher who is not trained as a psychologist, who has no mental health expertise of any kind and is ill-equipped to make any kind of psychiatric or psychological diagnosis, will make the first call.
Parents will be called in and told that their child isn't like the other children, is disruptive, is acting out and that there's something wrong and the child should get help or be seen by a doctor, perhaps a psychiatrist.
Kids are not square pegs, yet too many teachers try to turn them into square pegs.
A child is sensitive and emotionally fragile.
There are other ways to help children who appear to be acting out or unhappy or troubled, other therapies that do not involve medications which are highly invasive and have often serious side-effects.
Trust me, I know of what I speak. I lost my only kidney to Lithium toxicity in 1991 and although I've received a kidney transplant, I will never be physically healthy. I survive on a diet of drugs all of which have side-effects, several of which are highly carcinogenic.
The word therapy means "to heal" and there are many non-medicinal, non-psychiatric therapeutic approaches that have proven to be remarkably helpful and healing in children – Theraplay, play therapy, art therapy, dance therapy, music therapy. Sports is a popular and very therapeutic activity – though few people think of "hockey" as a form of therapy. Physical activity is healthy and healing. Its benefits are widely accepted as teaching teamwork, imparting self-confidence, and numerous other emotional and physical benefits.
The advantages of keeping a child out of the mental health system are manifold.
They avoid being labelled, perhaps the most emotionally deleterious consequence of going to a psychiatrist. Labels are internalized and take years to overcome. Some people never do. Adults often suffer from the aftershock of negative stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination if they are labelled with a psychiatric diagnosis.
It's taken me 49-years of psychotherapy and I'm still struggling with feelings of inadequacy because I grew up in the mental health system – with the misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. Yes, psychiatrists make mistakes. Why chance that with your child.
Labels have a habit of sticking.
In the 1960s, after a nine-month hospitalization at The Clarke Institute of Psychiatry for psychosis, where I was given Chlorpromazine, the first anti-psychotic, known then as "the chemical lobotomy," a diagnosis of catatonic schizophrenia and my first course of ECT – my psychiatrists told my mother there was "no hope for me and that I would be a revolving door case. Sick for the rest of my life."
My mother chose not to believe them. She chose to believe in me. She became my advocate and taught me how to advocate for myself. One of her greatest gifts to me.
I often say in my speeches and always in my classes where "celebrating difference and diversity" is our motto, that there is only one label that I will accept, if there must be labels. Human. If you must label me anything, label me human.
Most mothers and fathers do the best "mothering" they can. Everyone makes mistakes. Our mothers were mothered, too. Their mothers made mistakes. The knowledge about and norms of parenting have evolved over the years. Sometimes for better, sometimes not.
I have never given birth to a child – not unusual for many mothers today – however, I have two stepdaughters. The youngest was 12 when I met her father and 13 when we were married. The eldest is 20 years older, from a previous marriage, and is a happily married professional.
My youngest stepdaughter's mother died when she was eight, so you can imagine how she felt with me intruding on her exclusive relationship with her father.
There were fireworks, but on the advice of my psychiatrist, we did not send her for help – her father and I went for help. Weekly group sessions with other parents of difficult children, facilitated by a noted child psychiatrist in a group called Parents for Youth. (Now, sadly defunct.)
We learned how to stay on the same page, how to give our daughter appropriate opportunities to prove she could be responsible and that grounding and curfews simply didn't work for her. This year of "therapy" for us was the best investment in her happiness and in the health of our marriage. Today, she is a lively, independent, self-sufficient young woman finishing her BA in drama.
All I know is that my mother did the best she could for me at the time.