The stress of caring for a kid with mental illness can take a significant toll on a parent. This experience can weaken an immune system, exacerbate existing conditions, and retrain the brain to respond in unhealthy ways to any negative stimulus. This toll, all too often, comes as an unexpected cost to a parent. I know it did for me.
We live in a suburb of Syracuse, New York. I spent twenty winters there. I thought I was somewhat inured to winter conditions, beyond the typical, mostly good-natured grumbling with strangers in the grocery store line. February and March of 2015 just about did me in. Even in a city grown used to its place on every “worst winter weather” list, people were ground down by that winter. The average temperature in February that year was 9 degrees, the coldest on record. Snow fell every single day from January 29 through March 9. Besides the constant accumulation, the snow clouds also meant limited sunshine.
It’s hard to find enough adjectives to describe how I felt during that endless winter. Desperate. Defeated. Insignificant. Failed. Battered. Crumbled. Fruitless. Weak. Sick.
Besides the weather, we were enduring the depths of a crisis season which had lasted for over two years by then. Our son Nicholas came home from his most recent hospitalization somewhat more stable, but still suffering from daily suicidal ideation. We never left him alone, and most of my time was spent on his care, either appointments or homeschooling, or even just thinking, praying, and researching. I would never give up on hoping and working for my son’s well-being, even though some days I almost wished I could. But there was a real possibility my body would give up on me.
I started finding the shower drain clogged with clumps of hair. I was wrapping the elastic around my ponytail an extra loop. Googling “hair loss” led to a little questionnaire asking about stress six to eight weeks back. The life cycle, or whatever, of hair follicles meant that stress could show in hair loss after that length of time. Oh. Well. Yes. Maybe it had been a little stressful to agonize over whether Nicholas would be going into residential treatment.
“Did you punch me in the chest while I was sleeping?” I asked Dan one day, teasing but a little worried. “It aches when I take a deep breath. It hurts to the touch.” My fingertips felt my sternum and the pain like a tender bruise.
Later, Dan sent me an email with the subject line “Maybe it’s this?” I opened the attached link. It led to a medical site with a short article describing costochondritis, an inflammation of the joints between the ribs and the sternum. Symptoms: sore to the touch, pain upon coughing or deep breathing. Often brought on or aggravated by, yes, intense stress.
A week later my doctor confirmed my internet diagnosis. I was in her office for headaches, which turned out to be a sinus infection and double ear infections. I brought up the pain in my chest. Although she ran tests to make sure it wasn’t a heart problem, she agreed that it was probably costochondritis. Plodding through my days in a fog of pain and low grade fever, I waited for the antibiotics and ibuprofen to do their jobs. All I wanted was to stay under the covers in a quiet darkened room with the door shut.
Within a couple weeks, I was back in the doctor’s office. “I have this rash,” I told her. “It’s really irritated. I’ve tried putting lotion on it, but it’s spreading and kind of blistery.”
She looked at the angry blotch on my rib cage, then moved around the table to look at my back. “Ohh,” she said.
“Oh what?” I craned my neck around trying to see what she had noticed back there.
“You have shingles.” Her face was sympathetic.
Later I was back in front of the computer, going to the few medical websites I trusted to inform accurately. An outbreak of shingles is commonly linked to a weakening of the immune system. This can sometimes be traced back to, yep, stress.
As a last straw, one morning as I put away laundry and straightened up my bedroom, I blacked out. I was turning from my dresser to get something else to put away, and then my face hit the floor. I wasn’t aware of losing my balance or falling until I hit. For a stunned few moments I could not tell if I was okay.
After some skin glue to patch up a heavily bleeding cut, a CT scan, and another prescription for painkillers, I went home from the urgent care clinic. When the bandage came off, I had a strange-looking eyebrow and a deep purple bruise that looked like goth eyeshadow.
I wish I had known that the stress of caring for my son would require real attention, especially during the crisis years. We can be much healthier as people, and much more effective caregivers if we expect, and plan to mitigate, the effects of stress.
Tina Yeager (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)* says, “You need to restore yourself. Adrenaline overload will cause you to get knocked out in the process whether you want to or not, because you’ll get sick.
“(Chronic stress) can cause chronic illnesses or exacerbate chronic illnesses. It can cause digestive problems, heart problems, even something as severe as stroke. People can develop fatigue syndromes or fibromyalgia. It can cause you to be unable to concentrate. You can get insomnia. Stress is not good for any of our physical, mental, or emotional systems.
“Finding some small stress relief things is really good for a parent. You can pray while you’re doing relaxation breathing exercises, invite the Holy Spirit to bring restoration and healing. Also some exercise is really, really good. Exercise helps restore serotonin levels. And it doesn’t always take a lot of time. You could probably even do that with your child. And if they’re right there, you don’t have to worry about being vigilant about what they’re doing while you exercise.”
- You will experience heightened, sometimes extreme, stress while parenting a kid with mental illness.
- Chronic stress can cause negative physical, mental, and emotional impact.
- You can take steps to keep yourself healthy by limiting the effects of stress, if you are intentional.
Take care of yourselves and each other, friends,
Infusing Courage into the Soul-Weary
*Tina Yeager, who was gracious enough to be interviewed for this post and my future book, is the author of Beautiful Warrior: Finding Victory over the Lies Formed against You (click here to learn more) and the host of the podcast Flourish-meant. You can find her at TinaYeager.com.