by Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, F.E.A.S.T. Board
“Calm down.” “Be confident.” “Relax, mom.” “Please stop shouting, dad.”
Isn’t it strange how that kind of message can cause us to feel rage and shame?
When a parent is faced with a child in our care who is raging, suicidal, and irrational, and we’ve begged and pleaded for help, stopped in our tracks while the rest of our family and our responsibilities derailed, the very worst thing to say to us is “Calm down, mom!”
As if we could. As if we should. As if our lack of calm is in some way the reason for this crisis.
And yet, the truth is, we must. The magic that we have as parents, that no one else has, is the power of getting really, really calm.
Calm is not apathy, nor is it lack of engagement. Calm is powerful. Calm is centered and focused.
Calm is not ignoring the crisis nor is it easy. It’s courageous. Courage is not the lack of fear it is acting despite fear. We are scared. Our kids need our calm.
The kind of calm that helps a frightened child leave a burning building. The kind of calm that keeps everyone together when lost.
Parents are able to do difficult things.
In fact, no professional or co-worker or social worker or neighbor or even sibling or friend can do what a parent can do: to calmly and resolutely stand up to fear. We’ve done it since our kids were babies. We’ve done it without sleep and without support and without the perfect book to tell us how. We do it without compensation and, if we do it right, without gratitude in return.
I know it seems like an insult to tell a parent to be calm when facing florid, active, in-your-face mental illness. Occasionally, it is: there are still some in positions of treatment providers who distrust or underestimate parents. But that’s not under our control. What we can control, the only thing we and no one else can control, is our reaction.
Mental illness can cause sufferers to mistake the intentions of others, even loving intentions. Mental illness symptoms can distort and manipulate emotions. The glorious and unique power of parents is that we know our person best. We know what is “them” and what is the eating disorder once we get the hang of it. We know that we’re good parents, and we know that even if our person can’t see it, we mean them well. We know nothing will make us believe that they are not loved, and that we are not loving. We can be calm in that storm like no one else can: with love. Courageous love. Exhausted, worried, sometimes angry, courageous love.