Estranged mother and son face each otherThis past Christmas, my husband gave me a journal to write down my dreams, goals and daily meditations. I filled almost every page, but I didn’t write about my dreams or goals. Instead, I wrote apologies to my son. I wrote so much that my hands needed ice packs. I dug down deep. I went through the ink of two pens. Apologies are like the decision to paint your house pink — go big or go home.

Then I wrapped a sparkly bow around the journal and headed to a coffee shop to meet my estranged son, who is 21 years old. He’s not a little boy anymore; he is now on his own, living his life in a city far away from me. And he hates me for missing his cries for mental health help when he was growing up. By missing these signs, he says, I disciplined him harshly for things he could not control — and, in turn, warped his sense of self.

Reconnecting With My Son Brought Back Painful Memories

Deep breaths, I reminded myself. Because this was hard. I hadn’t heard from him in two years, but it had been at least three since I’d recognized him. Somewhere around the time he turned 20, I saw a complete personality change. Parts of him that used to seem like eccentric traits we could make room for, now seemed cruel. His eyes changed, and where they once held the kindness of a little boy, now held the decisions of a man.

I waited in the coffee shop for him. He was late. Again. Then he came. At least he came.

Thin, I thought. He still looked thin. I wondered if he still forgot to eat.

We did not embrace. It had been two years, after all.

This meeting brought up complex feelings because my son was not the only one in pain. Underneath my unconditional love for my son lies the trauma of raising him. After all, I’m human, too.

And it was hard. He was hard.

My Attempts To Help My Son Were Misguided

According to everyone, my son was a troublemaker. He had quirks that people deemed distasteful: His hyper fixation on things, his hygiene issues, the not sleeping enough, the sleeping too much, the piano playing that went on all day long.

Then there was his dark side, which involved criminal mischief and lack of remorse when he hurt someone. But still, I told myself, he was just weird. That didn’t mean anything was wrong with him. I loved my quirky troublemaker. I didn’t want anything about him to change. I guess I wasn’t really thinking of how it felt to be him. Maybe instead of always thinking about how it felt to be his mom, if I had thought of what it felt like to be him, things would be different now.

Moreover, I didn’t want to hand my child over to the trained professionals — people who I didn’t know and who didn’t love him. Because I was afraid they would hurt him, not help him. Because I thought I knew best.

I Thought Love Would Be Enough

I didn’t miss his cries for help, as my son claims; I heard them. But I thought love would be enough to address his challenges. I thought a happy family, good schools, healthy foods, piano lessons, a fluffy dog and family who cared would be enough. But this approach ignored some painful realities.

I am a nurse practitioner with a strong family history of mental illness that created almost insurmountable obstacles to happiness. I watched loved ones drift in and out of hospitals, oscillate between sort-of-good days and terrible days, experience homelessness, build and destroy, heal and rebound — for all of my life. My own depression took more from me than I can describe.

So why didn’t I get my own son the help he needed?

In my clinical rotations as a nurse, I saw the inner workings of the pediatric mental health system. And what I saw was not always positive. In fact, it terrified me.

Images of what could happen to my son if I reached out for help for him ranged from giant orderlies with menacing smiles who would overly restrain him with straight jackets to doctors who would drug him and destroy his brilliant mind.

I Did My Best To Apologize And Take Responsibility

“I’m sorry for raising you in the Baptist Church,” I had written in the journal. “I’m sorry for every pastor who ever told you that you were bad. I’m sorry for the days I spanked you instead of held you. I’m sorry for not getting you the help you needed, and for what that did to your sense of self. I’m sorry for everything that ever made you believe you were bad, weird, stupid or flawed, when you were just a kid who needed help.”

I watched him read the journal and hoped, once again, that love was enough. He took his time reading it, about two hours, and considered every word. He closed it and thanked me for writing it and said he would never forget where he came from, or all the good we did for him, but that I was a bug. I was a brain eating bug, who crawls around the earth eating his brain with my venom.  I quietly said, “I’m so sorry.” And I got up and left him there because there was nothing more I could say.

We’ve come so far in our discussion and understanding about mental health in the last 20 years. What I can say now is that I am so sorry for the scars on his heart that have my name on them. I tried to be the orderly, the doctor, the nurse, the therapist, the teacher and the coach. But maybe, just maybe, had I trusted and sought out available help for him, I wouldn’t have needed to fill an entire journal with apologies. And maybe one day he will have the heart to forgive me.

Lisa Campbell is a nurse practitioner and writer.