Due to the recent call to attention on Mental Illness, I wanted to share with you my family’s experience with anxiety and PTSD.
When I was first told I had cancer, and Brian and I had decided on the mastectomy rather than the lumpectomy and radiation, it came time to tell my 3 girls. It was early November 2010 and my youngest was turning 9 on the 6th. I don’t remember when we told them exactly. Was it in October or did I wait until after her birthday? My surgery was the 18th so it was before then. Emma, my youngest was my baby. We had a special bond and still do. She was at a tough age because she was old enough, and smart enough to know what cancer was, but young enough to still let her fears coast out of control. She put on the brave face like her sisters did, and didn’t let me see how scared she really was. I remember explaining to them that the biopsy showed it was very early stage cancer, and the type it was wasn’t even considered cancer. I would be healthy and this mastectomy would give me a great boob job and we wouldn’t have to worry about cancer ever again. Oh to go back in time when I believed it would be that easy. After my surgery revealed a stage 3 tumor in my chest wall and cancer in 11/12 lymph nodes, I had to now think about how I was going to tell my girls. Hadn’t I just swore to them this was a piece of cake we would never have to worry about again? It wasn’t easy. All three of them cried. But Emma was the one who got angry. She yelled at me for promising it was nothing to worry about. How it wasn’t fair, and why did this have to happen to me? I had no answers for her. I was asking myself the same things.
Once radiation was over, and my hair started growing back, Emma saw that I was still me and her fears subsided. Then November 18, 2011 came. It was the one year anniversary of my mastectomy but it was also the day my sister was brutally murdered by her husband of 20 years. Poor Emma’s 10th birthday party was the next day and she was so excited about it. I remember calling my mother in law to come stay with the girls and then calling a close friend to sit with them until their grand mother could get there. It was all so surreal. My brain couldn’t wrap itself around the fact that my only sibling was dead. I too quickly had to say goodbye to my own girls so I could break the news to my parents, and then drive to NJ to tell my nephews they would never be going home again.
Emma seemed ok throughout it all. My nephews moved in and everyone tried to make the best out of a hellish situation. Unfortunately our nightmare was just beginning. My younger nephew was always difficult. He had a very short, violent temper, and he began early on to torture Emma. He would tell her he would duct tape her to a chair and stab her. He threatened to kill her several times, and then say he was only playing around. He began to have many other issues and for two years, I went from counselor to counselor trying to get help and a diagnosis. I knew he wasn’t right. When he finally had a breakdown and admitted to hearing voices, he was sent to an inpatient clinic for a week who said he could no longer be around young girls and needed to get serious counseling and medication. A week later he was living with his Aunt and Uncle on his father’s side in Virginia. Our biggest fear was that he would rape and kill Emma as this is what the head of Psychiatry at the clinic told us he thought about. He was supposed to be on certain medicines and receive full day counseling but his Aunt and Uncle did not follow through with the doctor’s recommendations and to this day, he has not received any of the counseling he was supposed to have.
Emma started to become fearful and anxious over things that never bothered her before. She could no longer sleep alone, or shower without her sister in the bathroom. She began panicking about going to school. She wasn’t eating and never felt good anymore. As the months went by, and as we got counseling for her and her Dr prescribed anti anxiety medication for her, she slowly became herself again. In October 2014, I had to go on another infusion chemotherapy and I lost my hair for the second time. This scared Emma more than I thought it would. I mean, she knew I was constantly on one chemo or targeted therapy or another for the past 4 years so what was different now? I finally realized that losing my hair was scary to her. As long as I looked like me, even if I was still going through treatment, she could think I was ok and the cancer was going away. Emma was diagnosed with PTSD and severe anxiety. The PTSD was from my sisters murder and the anxiety is from my cancer. It will always be something she will have to live with. Eventually, she will be able to control her anxiety, but for now it is a battle we deal with every few months. Today wasn’t a good day. When I had to go in the hospital for the staph infection, she went into full panic mode again and didn’t want to go to school. She was given Xanax to help her over the immediate panic feelings and went back to her counselor. She hates feeling anxious and afraid. She just wants to be normal (her words) and not feel so scared all the time. So this morning was not very pleasant trying to get her to go to school. I was screamed at that she hates me several times, and told I don’t care. It was the typical morning when Emma’s anxiety is bothering her.
As her mom, it kills me to watch her go through this and not be able to help make it go away. I can’t put on a band aid and kiss it better. I feel helpless and I am wracked with guilt. After all, my cancer is to blame for her fear of losing me. And my decision to take the boys in after Kim died caused her to be mentally abused by her cousin. I have spent months and years going through what if scenarios. The bottom line is that there was nothing I could have done to prevent or change what has happened. I don’t want my 14 year old to have to deal with anxiety issues at such a young age. I want her to be having fun in school, acting boy crazy, and laughing with friends. I hate Cancer for not only taking my life, but also hers. I hate my ex brother in law for causing such a nightmare of things that all stem from his selfish crime. I want my life back. I want it to be normal again. But it never will be normal again. This is the new normal and we all need to learn how to live in it.
Cancer doesn’t just happen to the person who gets it. It happens to that person’s whole family, their friends, and even their co-workers. Mental illness is the same way. It may seem easier to just pretend it doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t make it go away and it won’t make it better. Please don’t ignore the signs of mental illness in yourself or in your family. Ask your Dr if what you are thinking and feeling is normal for you. Ask another Dr if the first one doesn’t take you seriously. Keep searching and asking until you get the help you need. You aren’t alone and you don’t have to prove you’re super person in order to prove a point.
I hope that by sharing this personal story with you, it will help others going through a similar issue to keep the lines of communication open. It isn’t embarrassing or weird to have a mental illness. It only becomes so when one refuses to get help and ignores the signs. I wish you all peace.