It’s through their own lens of lived experience that Charlotte and Kirsten co-founded ALL IN Family, a nonprofit organization that supports the family members of an individual experiencing a mental health challenge and/or addiction. “We believe that when one member of the family is struggling with a mental health challenge and/or addiction (dual diagnosis), it impacts every member in the family. At ALL IN Family, we are here to support you.” When asked why these ladies have created ALL IN Family Charlotte and Kirsten share “ALL IN Family was created to fill the gap that was missing in both our family stories, support for the family. Our why? – To be of support to family members, and family of choice, to enhance a better understanding of their persons mental health challenge and/or addictions so no one feels alone.”
Looking back, I first recognized the beginning of my family’s mental health story back in the fall of 2010. My youngest daughter was in grade 5. Our once happy easy going little girl had a significant shift within, as my husband described it “her light and spark just disappeared over night, and she went dark.” To be honest, I am glad I had no idea what our family (and especially our daughter) was about to endure over the next several years.
The impact and consequences of a mental health challenge and/or mental health diagnosis on an individual are fairly well known in society. What is less known is the impact and consequences the family experiences, especially if they are in a supporting role. For me (as a parent), I never thought I could be so bent and broken AND still keep going as I did back then. To be frank, unless a person experiences this scenario in their own family they likely cannot relate or understand the impact caring for a family member (experiencing a mental health challenge or illness) has on the entire family.
Back then I believed whole heartedly that if my children were not thriving, well I was clearly failing them as a mother. With this belief I carried a tremendous amount of guilt, shame, and a negative internal stigma that was relentless. I believed we were the only family on this planet that was experiencing what was happening in our home. I thought I was protecting my daughter from harsh judgment by creating a culture of secrecy and shame in our family, we are not to speak of this outside our home.
The years that followed were extremely difficult. My daughter started self-harming at 10, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at 12, anorexia at 13, she spent a year in treatment when she was 15, embraced drugs and alcohol by 16 and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19. As her mother I gave myself the role of 24/7 caregiver and I made it my fulltime job to keep her safe and alive. This left my own needs and the needs of my entire family completely neglected. The chronic stress over the years went beyond what I was capable of handling. Chronic stress, exhaustion, depression, anxiety, a physical illness all crept in, I was not functioning, and I was not OK. I can look back today and clearly see I was not giving my family the best version of me; I was fractured, and I was broken. I now know I did the best I could and that time with what I knew. If the me of today could go back and support the me of years past I think our family story could have been different.
In the summer of 2016, I met my dear friend Charlotte. While we stood on the steps of our legislature building during a mental health rally here in Winnipeg, I finally met a mother who had a similar story. This was my first experience with peer support, and it was a much-needed lifeline for me and my family.
Fast forward to today, my daughter lives in wellness and has taken ownership of her own health and my family has gone from surviving to thriving.
I am blessed to have two amazing daughters. My eldest daughter, who refers to herself as the “tester child” was diagnosed at an early age with ADHD. For me she was an artist, a visual learner who was overly sensitive and very busy. She was lots of work for me, and I did what I could to support her and her needs. My youngest daughter refers to herself as the “forgotten child,” because she felt she had to learn at an early age to take care of herself because I was consumed with saving her sister.
In middle school, my oldest was bullied through exclusion. It was more than she could take, and I watched my happy loving child turn overnight into someone I did not recognize. She became unreachable; her appearance was dark, and her mood was filled with sadness. I tried everything to help her but only seemed to make things worse.
I felt I had failed her as her mother, and I was to blame for what was going on with her.
I reached out for help and lots of advice was given, and she and I bounced around from doctor to therapist to counselor looking for that miracle fix.
Self-harm showed up in all forms which were her choices of coping strategies. She was labeled a bad kid and I was labeled a mom with my head in the sand.
Shame and blame filled my thoughts, and I began to retreat from friends and family. I felt like I was the only one on this planet that was living this world.
I wish I had met one mom who had been in a similar world that I could reach out to for support. Someone who would share in that space of vulnerability who could listen without judgment and offer words of encouragement that only someone with lived experience could offer. So, when I met Kirsten and here was this mom who has a similar story to me. Wow! Someone who looks normal and does not have a normal world just like me!
Fast forward many years. I am happy to say both my daughters are doing exceptionally well both with their mental health and their life in general.
As for me, I see the value in peer support. I never want a parent or family member to feel the way I did in that there is no hope. My lived experience of thinking back to those dark times is a gift to families going forward. I wish that there was a “me” then to support that “lost me”. I know my story would not have had so many “bumps in the road” if peer support for family members would have been offered.