After 4 years of constant crisis in their home, Rhonda and her family finally found relief through a new program for caregivers of children with mental illness: Family Connections. Featured in the MHF 2017-2018 Annual Report.
When her second oldest daughter Rachel was 13, Rhonda received a phone call from the school guidance counselor. Having 3 daughters who were all fairly high achieving, never in trouble, she thought at first her daughter was getting an award.
To her surprise, that was not the case.
Instead, the guidance counselor told Rhonda something she wasn’t prepared for: a friend of Rachel’s had told the counselor that Rachel had been binging and purging, as well as cutting.
“You could have just knocked me over; I had no idea,” says Rhonda.
“We asked what the next steps were and she advised us to go to our family doctor.”
Within a month, their family doctor had found a spot in an eating disorder clinic for Rachel, and she was receiving care. Still, by December of that year, she was admitted into acute care at Alberta Children’s Hospital with suicidal ideations. Symptoms of depression and anxiety began to present, and Rhonda realized that perhaps the eating disorder wasn’t the only, or predominant, issue.
Rachel began cycling between being treated first for her eating disorder, and then for her mental health. At 16, Rachel’s symptoms were finally identified as traits of borderline personality disorder (BPD).
Rhonda found private care for her daughter, and paid out of pocket for personal therapy for their family, but found it didn’t offer what they were looking for. Their therapist was competent but, very young and having no children of her own, what she said did not feel relevant for Rhonda’s family. Meanwhile, their home felt like a war zone.
We tried everything: adult programs, children’s programs, EVERYTHING. Except for in regard eating disorders, there was nothing out there for families who needed support.
With few resources available from the physicians she met, Rhonda read every book she could find and scoured the internet for information, trying to understand what was happening to her daughter.
“If there was something that could have helped us at that point, I would have found it.”
By this time it was September of 2016 and Rachel had begun monthly attempts on her own life, including once while she was in treatment at the eating disorder clinic. “I thought to myself: if I don’t do something she’s going to die.”
It was at this point that Rhonda found Family Connections. She participated in a phone-in group and later attended skill-enhancing sessions in Edmonton. The program provided answers she had long been searching for, and gave her access to a network of other parents with a shared experience. She no longer felt in the dark.
What changed? “I’m not trying to fix her anymore,” says Rhonda. Family Connections taught her to approach her daughter from a place of non-judgment. Further, course materials about the root cause of disorders like BPD shifted her fundamental beliefs about her daughter’s illness.
“It’s like, physiologically, she got pieces for Jenga and everyone else is playing Scrabble. And we’re all approaching her not being able to understand why she can’t just play Scrabble. She’s doing the best she can; she just doesn’t have the same pieces.” All this time, says Rhonda, Rachel was just turning up the volume in an attempt to get someone to listen. “I would react the same way if I was in her shoes.”
Rhonda’s new mindset transformed their home. What would formerly have instigated a battle can now be dealt with calmly, with Rachel naturally de-escalating her mood with no adversary to fight.
Shortly after Rhonda completed the training, Rachel—who had moved out of the house—came back home. “She knew she could come to me, and because I react differently now she knows she can trust me.” Rachel hasn’t had any suicide attempts since then.
And while part of this is Rachel’s hard work in therapy, much of their new home environment is due to the skills of communication taught through Family Connections.
“She’s experiencing fewer episodes and they’re shorter,” says Rhonda. I can take a break and she’s knows I’ll be back when I’m calmer. She’s in school and has just graduated.”
Rhonda now acts as the volunteer facilitator for Family Connections in Calgary, teaching other parents the skills she has learned. “We’re what’s left after care. We see our kids the other 99% of the time,” says Rhonda. “I want to give this experience to other families, because I know there’s nowhere else to find it and it has drastically changed the quality of my life.”
I cannot express my gratitude on a big enough scale. There are no words. If all we did to change the system was to add Family Connections, I guarantee it would save lives.
To see upcoming Family Connections workshops in your area, visit the Sashbear website.