Time to talk about mental health: Go along on a mother’s journey

Published 7:45 pm Tuesday, November 22, 2022

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Join a Davie County mom for a brief glimpse into her family’s journey alongside a loved one diagnosed with severe mental illness.

“I texted Sister at 9:34 p.m. Sierra just showed up in a Charlotte Emergency Room, she’s alive.

Sister’s immediate reply was, ‘How did we get to Sierra turning up in the ED is prayers answered? But, it sure is.’

For the past three months, Sierra had been working toward wellness in a Charlotte group home. She’d been drug-free for over six months. I had just allowed myself to hold out a glimmer of hope.

But then the inevitable happened. Five days ago she ran away and had been missing since. I added money to her PayPal account and watched (often logging in hourly) to see where/if she spent the money. She didn’t. When Sierra lives on the streets she doesn’t have access to places to charge her phone, if she even keeps up with her phone. Watching her PayPal transactions serves as proof of life for me during these dark times.

How did we get here? I wonder that all the time.

This isn’t the first time Sierra’s done the same thing: running. In fact, she’s done it over a dozen times in the past few years: from our family home, other group homes, and homeless shelters. Every time it happens, sleep comes to me intermittently, and my heart aches to wonder if she’s still alive. Once again I puzzle over why she can’t just get with the program. Tragically, her brain isn’t wired to follow rules, accept accountability, and value her self-worth.

Sierra suffers from severe mental illness and chronic medical conditions. For many months of the past two years, my daughter has chosen to live on the streets. Sierra’s especially vulnerable to the dangers of the streets because she’s a young woman with Type 1 diabetes. It doesn’t matter what she eats, how much she exercises, or what she weighs; her body does not produce insulin and she absolutely must have multiple daily injections of insulin to survive. If all else fails to locate her I know she’ll turn up in the emergency room after about 10 days of being missing with diabetic complications. That’s what led to the opening texting conversation with my Sister.

Our family doesn’t look like the family I always imagined would have a daughter living on the streets and doing all the unimaginable things that nice girls don’t do. We live in Farmington in an affluent neighborhood. Our kids grew up with ponies in the barn, went on nice vacations, and spent holidays with extended family. My husband and I are college educated with professional careers. I serve in leadership at my church and volunteer countless hours every month to help others.

Mental illness strikes every family equally: the deacon at church, your partner at work, and the single mom in Section 8 housing. I never imagined this was true until it became part of our family’s reality. I know it’s the harsh reality of many other families like ours and like the ones you know.

From the very beginning of the journey, we would make countless trips to the emergency room with Sierra in crisis. In the beginning, it might have started with what looked like an adolescent temper tantrum: yelling, hitting us, putting holes in drywall, and threatening self-harm. Countless times we had to call the sheriff to intervene. By the time she got to high school, things escalated. She might kick out her bedroom window, run away for days, or even assault law officers coming to help us. Once when she cut her wrist, the paramedics debated calling the Lifeline Helicopter in hopes of getting her to Baptist hospital more quickly. As a young adult, she often chooses to live on the streets and developed an addiction to drugs.

Appropriate housing with support has been a struggle to locate for Sierra. At times, Sierra just hasn’t been able to live at home. She is not safe and we are not safe. Caring for someone with severe and persistent mental illness is a full-time job that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion.

There is a profound shortage of beds to care for and support our North Carolinians living with severe and persistent mental illness. Locating a bed at a residential facility is nearly impossible. The wait lists are months and sometimes years (we once waited 18 months). During this time everyone in the family suffers struggling to maintain some measure of wellness and safety. Even when a bed is located they are never close to home.

During high school, Sierra lived in a psychiatric residential treatment facility nearly 3 hours from our Davie County home. She was there for 11 months. Every week I made that drive to see her for a few hours, over 50 all-day trips. I dream of the day when supportive housing for my mentally-ill daughter is accessible and nearby. With these supports the possibility of her being safe and well exists. I imagine picking her up to go to church with us and having lunch afterward. Wouldn’t it be amazing to combine professional support with the natural support of family to mentally ill loved ones?

I share these stories without any desire for pity. I want Davie County to know that life with a loved one stuck in persistent mental health crisis is scary and stressful and exhausting. It is lonely. No family wants to admit the level of dysfunction that exists within the walls of a seemingly normal family.

No mom wants to risk the judgment of failure. My honesty comes from a place seeking to normalize mental illness and destigmatize the families journeying alongside mentally unwell loved ones. My hope is that honest discussions will be the first step to bringing about the services, housing, and support families desperately need to bring about wellness.”