Pediatric Mental Illness on Parade

My friend Olive and her little girl came to visit us. (Her name is not really Olive, but her anonymous-for-the-web name for her daughter is Pickles, so I’m going with a whole relish-tray theme.)

This was kind of a big deal for me because I’ve always sworn I would never meet any of my online friends in real life. No way. I enjoy my online life and I was afraid that, if I met my virtual friends, we might hate each other. It seemed too risky.

But I’m also kind of a sucker, and Olive pretty much twisted my arm (not really), so here she came, Pickles in tow.

Pickles is a little younger than Carter, but they have a great deal in common. They both love dogs and they both have psychosis, for instance. They both enjoy cartoons and both can go from happy to raging (or terrified, or despondent) without warning.

Just two little kids but more, which is why Olive and I met each other online in the first place. In spite of what the media says, the community of parents whose children have serious mental illness is really quite small.

But the kids did great, for the most part. Carter was fascinated by Pickles’s medicine and eager to compare it to his own. It was all so new to him, this opportunity to be around another child whose experience of the world was similar to his. Every time he was alone with me, he talked as fast as he could, dissecting Pickles, telling me all the ways they are similar and all the ways they are different. He’s a surprisingly introspective person when he’s not screaming at people to stop looking at him.

The third day Olive and Pickles were here, I had to pick up Brian from work and everyone wanted to come along with me, so Carter and Pickles piled into the back seat and Spencer rode shotgun. Halfway to our destination, I heard Pickles say, “I don’t want to talk about that!” She was looking out the side window, away from Carter.

Carter launched into a long, impassioned explanation about how he didn’t mean to upset her, but if she would just listen he could make her understand because what he’s saying is very important and if she would just uncover her ears and listen to him he could make it all OK!

As he does. You know how some people see a problem and immediately start throwing money at it? Carter thinks that there is no problem too large to be solved if you just drown it in words.

Pickles refused to uncover her ears or turn and look at Carter, so he redoubled his efforts, increased his volume, and tried to pull one of Pickles’s hands away from her ear. “But I was just trying to tell you…”

She clamped her hands back over her ears, turned to face Carter with her face screwed up tight with fury and said, “I have to take some space and this is my only way to take some space. You have to let me take some space!”

Carter, his own face now growing stormy, responded, “I am not in your bubble!”

And they went, lobbing therapy-speak back and forth across the back seat at each other, trying to find the magic words learned from some doctor or counselor or behavior management specialist that would solve the problem. “You should use your skills to calm down!” “I already used my skills! You use your skills!” “I can’t because you won’t let me take some space!” “I would let you take some space if you would use your skills!”

Finally, Pickles turned back to the window, hands clamped tight over her ears, humming loudly. I could see Carter in the rearview mirror and I could see that he was approaching nuclear meltdown. Face bright red, jaw clenched, he hissed “I am so angry right now!”

Meanwhile, I was in the front seat doing my best drone imitation, speaking in a near monotone, “Everyone is OK. Let’s all take a deep breath. Carter, you look out your window. Pickles, you look the other way, out your own window.”

They weren’t listening to me, which is not surprising since neither of them was listening to anything except the pounding of their own anger.

Finally, we arrived at Brian’s office, and Spencer got in the backseat between Pickles and Carter. “You look out that window,” he said to Pickles, “and you look out that one,” he said to Carter.

And they did.

And all was quiet on the way home.

If you hear me refer to that dark-haired 14-year-old boy who lives in my house as Saint Spencer, you’ll never wonder why.


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26 thoughts on “Pediatric Mental Illness on Parade”

  1. So other than that how did it go? I can’t imagine he as a lot of “play dates” so I’m curious to know. And? You totally met an internet person. Go you.

    1. It went pretty well. You’re right; he doesn’t have many playdates. He goes from zero to overstimulated in no time flat. But with 3 adults plus Saint Spencer, we mostly managed to keep a lid on things.

  2. Awesome! So glad you had a great visit. And as for your ban on meeting blog friends IRL? Imma gonna make you break it again, because my brother just bought a house in Santa Fe and some time in the next two years we’re going to go out to visit him there. I haven’t been to New Mexico in… at least 20 years, and the kids have never been west of Pennsylvania. Looking forward to it!

  3. I have seen with my daughter an incredible empathy for others. She is compassionate and kind, and unfortunately with her bipolar, a walking time bomb. She blows her stack so readily that her neurotypical peers don’t want to play with her. I think she and her brother, even though they fight with a passion, are closer becsause they “get” each other in a way the “normals” don’t.

    1. Exactly. They bumped against each other several times, but it was also really wonderful to see them taking care of each other. And Spencer. Oy. I’m seriously giving that boy a medal.

  4. I’m so pleased by the little things you need to elaborate on. They like cartoons, they are two children. And I’m pleased to no end by the actions of a considerate adolescent boy. Good kid, that Spencer!

    1. Because kids are funny! These two are so different from most kids, with unusual experiences and vocabularies and WAY over the top reactions, but still, just funny kids.

  5. Now that you’ve braved it, and you know we ‘net friends don’t have three eyeballs and gills, count me in next time. We can have SuperTim babysit. Imagine THAT mental illness parade!

    1. Oh, man. That could be epic. We’d need a film crew for that! Yup, you get yourself on down here. I’ve broken the ice and now there’s no stopping me!

  6. Hey Adrienne (kinda want to start with YO instead of Hey) … sorry it’s been so long since I’ve stopped by. Life and work have had me CRAZY busy (and just plain crazy) and it has just recently started to settle down a bit! I have missed all my blog friends and look forward to catching back up!

    I am still hoping that I can talk some of my *classic* bloggie friends into adding my Tigger blog to your readers. It’s much of what I used to write on Beth: A Work in Progress that people responded to well. I am making a disciplined effort to search out blessings and joy every day and post about them on Looking for Tigger. Plus I write a little about something that God has spoken to my heart that day. If I could subscribe for you I would totally do it because I really think you would love that little blog. But I can’t. So … I’m going to ask (again) please come visit me at and subscribe! I’m really trying to grow that little corner of the blog-o-sphere and I need some support from my friends! Thank you!

  7. Oh, man, Adrienne. That story just made me grin ear-to-ear.

    When I was eighteen I traveled across the country to go stay with online friends with whom I helped run an online community for self-injuring teens. It was such a huge leap of faith — these were the days well before Facebook, mind you, and at the time I was so paranoid about having my picture on the internet that my friends, with whom I’d been in regular daily contact for over a year, didn’t even know what I looked like when I got off the plane. Putting that kind of personal information online, much less actually going to *live* with internet friends, seemed totally insane. But the thing was … these people also really *knew* me. They understood me in a way that no one else in my life at the time could even begin to. I’d come to trust them, deeply, over the course of that year. So I went.

    It was one of the best decisions of my life. Hands down.

    The first night I was there, we were all eating dinner — ten or so of us, sort of exuberantly babbling all over the place, just excited to be physically in the same room with each other after having worked so closely together on this project for so long. It was an incredibly emotional situation: thrilling, joyous, energizing — also, a little nerve-wracking and anxious. Every person in the room struggled with self-injury. Every person in the room struggled with some form of depression. The energy was all over the map, and it was easy to get overwhelmed, on occasion, but we also all understood each other in a way in which we were totally unused to being understood. So we could help each other with things we were used to battling totally on our own.

    At one point, I remember, I got an emery board from my bag and started slapping it against my wrist, not really even realizing it. It was the beginning of a classic self-injurer’s stress response: let me manage this emotional high with a little bit of pain. A little bit of sensation. Those unconscious responses generally lead somewhere, with SI. A silly little habit that would be totally innocuous in other people, no more dangerous than biting your nails, just isn’t, for a habitual self-injurer. It escalates.

    And then, before I really even realized I’d been stressed out at all — thank you, dissociation — my friend S reached across the table and gently, but firmly, took the emery board out of my hands. And smiled at me. Everyone at the table noticed, and sort of tacitly acknowledged it, without breaking conversation much. But instead of feeling embarrassed, or guilty, or whatever else I’d have felt in regular company if publicly called out like that, I just felt deeply, deeply relieved. And grateful. Everyone there knew why she’d done it. Everyone knew how I was feeling, even before I did. Everyone recognized me for exactly who and what I was. And no one was judging. Because they were all just like me. I felt utterly, preciously, safe.

    “Thanks,” I said. “You’re welcome,” she said. Nothing else needed saying. We went on with our incredible night, and then on with our incredible summer. It was such a tiny little moment. But it’s one of the most precious memories of my life, because it was the first time I had felt so deeply welcomed, and safe, for the whole of what I was. Struggles included. It was the first time in years I hadn’t felt alone.

    I am so, so glad that Carter got to experience that. Fights and all. If you battle something daily that most people never have to encounter — if your head works in a way that most people, no matter how much they love you, just can’t grok — it is so intensely, deeply relieving to be in the room with someone to whom you do not have to explain yourself. And I’m glad you got to spend time with Olive, for the same reason. There’s just no substitute for shared experience. There’s no substitute for feeling, even just for a few moments, less alone.

    Blessings, as always, to you and yours, my dear.


  8. My daughter was 4 when she was diagnosed bipolar, and now my once four year old manic girl is an almost 11 year old that cannot hands all the emotions that come with puberty. We have moments though, when I am so thankful that God gave me this kid.

    Our 8 year old son has OFF and some form of sensory problems that haven’t been properly diagnosed.

    The favorite part of my day is therapy speak at the homework table.

  9. Little kids communicating in therapy speak! Delightful, in a “Peanuts” kind of way.
    I’m glad Carter got to hang out with someone like him.

    1. It really was so cute, even if I was a little off-balance because of the volatility (both kids have histories of some dangerous behavior). But it was also kind of reassuring since they were both trying to use the skills they’ve learned!

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