My child was diagnosed with mental illnesses. It’s taught me that love can be unlovely

Despite all her efforts to create a perfect home, a perfect life and to be the perfect mother, Wendy Solbak still ended up sitting in a hospital with a mentally unwell child.

I have moved from wanting to fix her to accepting her as she is for who she is

A woman with sunglasses on her head hugs a younger woman.

This First Person column is written by Wendy Solbak, a school counsellor in Fort McMurray. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

This isn't the way it's supposed to be.

The thought echoed through my mind as I sat in the atrium of an Edmonton hospital waiting for an emergency consult with a child psychiatrist.

We had made this five-hour trip to a hospital from our home in Fort McMurray, Alta., because of my daughter's increasingly alarming symptoms.

But my actual journey alongside an individual with complex mental health struggles began the day my daughter sprung from my womb. It just took me 13 years to understand Naomi's behaviours — often impulsive, intense, scary and unpredictable — were not going to be "parented" away, but were instead the symptoms of a serious medical illness.

Perfect is an illusion

I grew up in Calgary as the second oldest of four children. Our family dealt with some struggles and trials as I entered my teen years, and those events left a lasting mark on me and how I moved into adulthood. I was determined to do things right with my own children, even perfectly.

As a high school educator, I had read all the books, followed all the programs, did all the things to ensure my child would be resilient, independent, kind and emotionally well. Her brain had other ideas.

I laugh at my 20-something self now, because, of course, perfect is an illusion. Despite all my efforts to create a perfect home, a perfect life, and to be the perfect mother, I still ended up sitting in that hospital in the spring of 2017 with a very unwell child.

The remainder of 2017 was a blur of hospital admissions and travel to and from Edmonton. My daughter was in hospital more than she was home that year.

We often drove to and from the city in one day, an exhausting 10-hour round trip to see her and meet with doctors. I often felt tremendous despair and hopelessness as I watched my precious daughter suffering. I was shattered, worn down and weary.

It was a horrible feeling to be so helpless and so far away from her. Nothing can prepare a parent for leaving their child behind plate glass in a child psychiatric ward.

The diagnosis

Naomi was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She exhibited an extreme fear of germs, which created debilitating rituals around being clean.

These rituals impacted how she ate and that often meant she did not eat, how she showered, how she dressed and even how she slept. There were times when she slept on the floor, because she deemed her bed dirty.

Her behaviours around self-injury, impulsivity and difficulty regulating emotions fit the criteria for borderline personality disorder so perfectly that her doctors told us it was an appropriate diagnosis. I recall reading the list of characteristics related to BPD and crying at how accurately the list reflected my interactions with her.

After months of hospitalizations, I hoped my daughter was "fixed." What I have come to understand is that mental illness is often chronic. There will be flare-ups and symptoms are managed but not necessarily cured.

For a time that created deep helplessness and hopelessness in me. How is a mother to accept suicidal ideation and attempts as part of her daughter's reality?

I accepted the diagnosis, but to accept the terrifying symptoms that were a part of her diagnosis? That was excruciating and a time of profound grief for me.

To surrender what I envisioned for her, for my parenting journey and to release my death-grip on what was supposed to be became my own healing journey. Simply bearing witness to her agony and anguish with empathy while not trying to fix or change her, while accepting my own anguish has been a place of personal evolution.

It is what it is.

Radically accepting the "is-ness" of the moment be it good, bad or beyond horrible. It has been a slow and sometimes tedious process to come to this place. Through my own extensive personal therapy and new learning and knowledge in my master's program, I have moved from wanting to fix her to accepting her as she is for who she is. For whom she is far exceeds her diagnosis.

The gifts wrapped up in the pain

Stephen Colbert has stated, "I love the thing I most wish had not happened." Reflecting on the six years since my daughter's diagnosis and my nearly 20 years of parenting this quote resonates with me. I now see the gifts wrapped up in the pain.

The wrapping paper is hideous and yet this experience has been a gift.

I embraced the challenge of going back to school and getting my master's degree in counselling psychology with the aspiration to help individuals and families the way we were assisted.

Our family has expanded our compassion for those living with mental illness and we have come to see that a life can be both messy, complicated and unlovely, while also being beautiful, inspiring and joyous.

We have all come to understand in new ways that life is bittersweet, full of both joy and sorrow and often it is through heartbreak that we more fully experience and appreciate joy and unconditional, sacrificial love.

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Wendy Solbak

Freelance contributor

Wendy Solbak is a former high school teacher who recently earned a master's degree in counselling psychology and enjoys incorporating her new learning in both her professional role as a school counsellor and personal life.

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