Our “new normal” began the year my 10-year-old son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And, it was hardly “normal” at all.
Life at home was a whirlwind of long days and longer nights, helping calm our son’s manic states: dinners out and far too much money spent, my husband and I tag teaming, trying to console him and keep a semblance of routine in the house for him and his little brother. Restaurants often served as the only diversion that could provide a little peace in the evening, and no one had a spare minute to cook.
Bedtime was often spent convincing our son to go for a ride in the car; it was the only way to soothe him so he could fall asleep. Otherwise, he would continue cycling, which meant pacing and muttering or lying in his bed staring at the ceiling because his brain was stuck on something and he couldn’t force it to be “unstuck.”
It was a constant cycle: trying medication after medication, with side effect after side effect. We even put him into a partial hospitalization program for awhile. Both my husband and I frequently missed work days when our son’s regular school would call abruptly and ask us to pick him up because he was assessed as suicidal or he was sobbing because he was so depressed at school.
Our hearts were breaking in a million pieces while our son wondered what was happening to him — to his brain. “There can’t be a god. Because if there was a god up there, I wouldn’t feel like this. No god would ever do this to someone,” he would say. Or, “My head is so mixed up. I hate my brain.”
After a typical evening, we would all finally drift into an exhausted sleep. I would wake again at midnight, sobbing for an hour because I couldn’t believe this was happening to my sweet, sensitive, beautiful 10-year-old son. My husband comforted me with whispers during the night of, “We’ll get through this. He’ll be OK. I know he’ll be OK.”
I’m a special education teacher, and sometimes during the school day, I would cry in the bathroom for a few minutes and then quickly wipe my tears to put on a happy face for my students. A few kept asking, “Why are you gone so much?” so I finally had to let their parents and the school administration know we were having “family struggles” at home.
The holidays crept up on me that year, and in no way did I feel ready for them or have my usual enthusiasm. The only gifts I had time to find were for the few people who had spent endless hours with my son when he couldn’t make it through his classes. So, I was completely taken by surprise one morning just before winter break, to find an envelope lying on my desk with my name written on it. I tore it open, and a card was inside.
The message simply read, “We pitched in so you could buy something nice for your family this holiday season.” There was a crisp $100 bill inside.
Although there were no names on the card, I knew immediately it was from my friends (and colleagues) in the special education department. My heart was warmed by their kindness. I couldn’t believe they had put this together right under my nose and I didn’t even notice! I almost cried, but my smile was too wide.
At that moment, I could envision winter break as a peaceful island in the midst of our chaotic lives. I was grateful people cared that much.
I thanked them profusely.
“We know times have been hard. Just treat yourself,” they said.
I knew exactly what to do with this gift.
I planned an after-holidays overnight for our family at a water park, about an hour from home. It would help with the certain-to-be-devastating letdown following the excitement of Christmas.
I knew it would be a good time for a getaway. Time to forget about the reality of life. Time to take some real family time. The kids would be distracted with the water park and dining out. We could all float around in the water, relax, and forget about our troubles for a while.
That is almost exactly what happened. But of course, life is not a fairy tale, and there were bumps in the road on the trip, literally and figuratively.
I panicked whenever my oldest son would leave our sight. We stayed up too late, and our oldest woke at the crack of dawn, looking to us for entertainment. And he still had moments when he wanted to be alone, or I’d catch him with a sad, faraway look on his face.
But I mostly remember the good parts: the boys’ smiles and the feel of the wave pool, their faces as they shot down the water slides and were soaked by the spray; dinner and soda pop and family time, and watching movies in the room together. We roamed around and looked at ice sculptures and went on a real carriage ride with horses. We drank steamy hot chocolate after coming in from the cold. Barbecue was our comfort food, and it never tasted better.
I heard a noise I hadn’t heard in a while. It was the boys playing, shrieking, squirting each other, the sound of my oldest son’s laughter. It was a loud, uncontrolled laugh, a genuine “I can’t stop” chortle. That is my favorite sound in the world.
Although it was only two days and one night, it felt longer. For a time, my husband and I weren’t stressed out with everyday life, running around trying to make everyone happy. Our son was able to leave his troubles behind, and his head felt better, for a while. He played with his brother. I was able to take pleasure in each small moment because there was finally a string of small moments to take pleasure in.
I will always remember the generosity of my friends at work and the reason we were able to create those memories. We would never have planned that getaway, or even thought about it, if it weren’t for that gift.
Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.
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