“If you founded the parents’ group, then why did you stop attending?”
A legitimate question I could not readily answer.
That question was posed to me in the Q and A after a Mental Health talk I gave a few weeks ago. I had been invited by a Northern California synagogue to speak as part of their open-to-the-community “End The Silence” series on mental illness. They asked me to talk about the parents’ support group I started – and led for 6 years – at my own synagogue in DC.
If you’ve read this Blog, you may have come across my post from September, 2014 – titled a “Different Kind of Kvelling” where I first mentioned our P/YAWS – short for “Parents of Young Adults Who Struggle.” The Washington Post then published a version of my post in its @OnParenting section – and word spread.
One of my life goals (truly) is to foster the creation of support and strategy sharing groups for parents of young adults who struggle with mental health challenges such as anorexia, anxiety disorder, bipolar, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia at synagogues throughout the U.S.
So I was thrilled to come to California to explain why I started our P/YAWS group, how we ran our meetings and why our network of parents had been so helpful to me and to many others.
Many hands raised with questions during the Q and A session – most I could easily answer, but when asked if, after I stopped leading the group, I remained a regular participant, I stopped to consider. I gave a short response, which I forget (blame it on the bad cold I was getting over that night).
Now that I’m back home I’ve been pondering the real reason I no longer attend our P/YAWS meetings.
At first – so I tell myself – I didn’t attend because I wanted to give the parent co-facilitators who replaced me some space to develop their own style. Running a group like ours isn’t easy. Parents come with heavy hearts and worried minds. Sharing stories is painful. We support each other, offering ideas for doctors, therapists, meds, local and distant treatment programs and strategies to use with challenging young adults. Tears flow, laughter too; sometimes everyone wants a chance to talk, sometimes people want to talk too much. There is a different rhythm to each meeting. My personal “weapon” of choice was a strong sense of humor – perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea but it seemed to work. The group thrived.
And it continued to thrive without me.
After I stopped going to meetings, I was surprised at how relieved I felt.
For years I had been carrying around in my own heart and head everyone’s else’s stories. I could facilitate the back and forth based on what I knew – I would ask S. how her son was doing on his new med or remind C. that the last time she came to the group, her daughter had been hospitalized, how was she doing now. Not being the sole person in charge freed me up to let go of the knowledge weighing on me of other participants’ pain.
The more I thought, the more I realized didn’t want to go to the group anymore, even as a participant.
In part because I didn’t want to scare anyone away. Mental Illness happens on a spectrum. When a new parent comes to his first meeting, it can be because their young adult son has just had to leave college because of a mental health crisis. That parent is confident that there will be an effective medication, a promising therapy and that next semester their child will be back in school. And sometimes it works out that way. Our group has had many successful “graduates.”
But for those of us on the longer-term, “work in progress” path, our stories are more like roller coasters than linear tales of successful coping. I didn’t want the new parent to listen to my longer-term narrative and fear that their trajectory would resemble ours. It might or might not.
P/YAWS has been amazing for me and my husband. We could not have gotten through all that we did without it. From a wisp of an idea to a thriving monthly group for eight years, I’m proud of my role. It was through our group that I learned that a parent can only do so much. Most young adults with mental illness can change, can grow into stability but the parent cannot do it for them. Your young adult child has got to want it more than you do.
For now I’ve facilitated all I want to; I’ve encouraged, I’ve supported, I’ve shared plenty. I’m not letting up on my plan to prod other synagogues to create groups similar to ours. The need is clearly there. But I’m going to be on a hiatus from participating around the table. Let others speak, share and be comforted. I’ve had my turn, time to sit back for a while in silence (unusual for me!) and apply the lessons I learned.