That familiar whirling blur of anticipation, worry, hope and fear swirls in my gut. My palms sweat and my heart pounds faster. My mind races through what might happen this time, what might go wrong.
I’m nesting again. It feels just like it did twenty-three years ago when I was expecting the birth of my first child. And here I am doing it all again.
Only this time, my baby is not coming home from the hospital. He’s coming home from prison.
My son was arrested two and a half years ago during a manic, self-destructive time in his young life. Ignoring his newly-diagnosed bipolar illness, at the age of eighteen, he spiraled into a two-year alcohol and drug-induced madness that eventually landed him in prison. He’s been locked up since March of 2013. It’s finally time for his life to begin. He is scheduled for release in early October 2015.
So as my younger child packs up his room to leave home for his freshman year in college, I am preparing for my older child to move back home again. It will be the first time he’s lived under my roof in five years.
I remember reading “What to Expect When You Are Expecting,” earmarking pages for future reference. I soaked in my mother’s advice as well as the wisdom of my co-workers and friends who already had children. I watched Ron Howard’s film “Parenthood” so many times I could quote it line by line.
I thought I was ready for anything.
But I never considered the possibility that my child would suffer from a mental illness. I should have, though, since I have one, too. Coping became instinctive for me. Even in my darkest days, I have always strived tirelessly to please others. I have always refused to let my bipolar illness break me, so even when my son began to show signs he was struggling too, I must have subconsciously assumed he’d have the same instincts. Unfortunately, I was wrong. His brewing illness coupled with his fear of stigma steered him in another direction. I tried to intervene, I saw it coming, but nothing I did changed the trajectory of his life. He was destined for self-destruction. Standing by, unable to alter his course, I sometimes squeezed my eyes shut, too afraid of watching his speeding, downward spiral.
Parenting isn’t easy, especially when your child has a condition that is elusive, that morphs constantly, and that is judged so harshly in our culture. The last twenty-three years have been filled with equal parts joy and heartache: a wild ride of emotions. Now, five years after he walked out my front door, he’s coming back again. The trip to the amusement park isn’t over yet. I feel that same anxiety and hope that I felt when he first fluttered inside my belly so many years ago. But I refuse to be afraid this time.
I am looking at this like a second chance. My job will be to help him find peace and structure, to continue on his journey of recovery, and to develop the necessary skills for happy, healthy independence. My job is not over. It is beginning again.
In the movie “Parenthood,” Grandma shares her perspective on life:
“You know, when I was nineteen, Grandpa took me on a roller coaster….Up, down, up, down. Oh, what a ride! …I always wanted to go again. You know, it was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”
Yes, Grandma, you certainly do get more out of the roller coaster. The exhilaration, yes, but also the nausea, the exhaustion, the fear. And yet, here I am, standing in line for it again. I can see the merry-go-round in the distance, turning slowly, predictably, and I wonder what that would have been like.
But, instead, I focus on the colorful, twisted steel tracks of the roller coaster looping endlessly overhead. And I smile to myself, because this time, I’m ready for it, eyes wide open.
Annie Slease is a teacher and musical theatre director from Delaware. Ever since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, she has been writing about her own son’s battle with mental illness that eventually led to his incarceration in 2013. She maintains her own blog, www.stillhopefulmom.com, as well as contributes to the International Bipolar Foundation’s website. She is an active member of her local NAMI chapter, and she is working on a semi-autobiographical young adult novel about mental illness and its stigma called A Brother’s Oath.
Featured Image and all photographs provided by Annie Slease