Learning to Enjoy the Present

Stories of Hope: An Interview with Theresa Larsen

This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked mental health advocate and author Theresa Larsen about her son’s mental health challenges and their effect on the family. Here’s our interview:

DS: Tell us about when you first started noticing concerns related to your son’s mental health. How did these issues continue to affect him and your family before he received treatment?

TL: I first noticed something was wrong with my son when his father and I separated. He was nine years old and started having separation anxiety and banging his head on a wall whenever I left. He saw a counselor at that time and it alleviated some of his issues. He appeared to revert to the happy kid he had been before this incident.

When my son was eleven years old, after a full day at Disney World, he told me there was no point in living. I tried to get him back to the counselor then, but he refused to go. I also made a huge mistake by invalidating his feelings. Instead of telling him that it must be painful to feel that there was no point in living and asking him to talk more about it, I did what most parents would do and said, “Why would you say that? We just had a great day at Disney, you have so much to live for…”

I was concerned that something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. My son masked his feelings, showing himself as calm and controlled, and things seemed fine for a few years.

What I didn’t know was that my son was having a personal battle with himself on a daily basis. He kept all of his emotions inside for fear of shame or embarrassment. These emotions were so overwhelming that my son began cutting.

It was at this point that I knew he needed help. He was now fourteen. My son saw a therapist and a psychiatrist. He was given medication and counseling, but nothing seemed to alleviate his emotional pain like the physical pain of cutting.

This was a very difficult time for our family. Once my son’s emotions spilled out in the form of cutting, he found it difficult to manage the intense emotional load that he was suppressing and they manifested themselves as anger, worry, fear, and depression.

My daughter was two years younger and she often just avoided her brother. Everyone in the household seemed to walk on eggshells whenever my son was around, for fear of upsetting him.

DS: What was the turning point that led your family to decide to seek help for your son?

TL: My son received treatment at various times throughout his youth. There was a point when I knew that what we were doing was not enough. My son had multiple cutting incidents, some that required stiches, and others that were superficial.

Seven months after he first self-harmed, my son was severely depressed and refused to go to school. On that day he seriously injured himself with a metal guitar string. His psychiatrist recommended a psychiatric facility.

From that day on my son’s mental health took a significant downturn. He spent eleven days in an acute care unit. When he returned home I was constantly afraid that one day I would find him dead. It was then that I knew that he needed more care than we were able to give him.

DS: What has your son’s treatment consisted of, and what has worked well for him?

TL: My son’s treatment has encompassed a variety of methods. He spent seventeen months at a residential treatment facility and they worked with Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which was very effective. The DBT training and skills he learned have helped him for years.

My son was heavily medicated for many years on numerous medications, sometimes four different ones at maximum dose at a time, but other than reducing psychosis, the medications did not provide him with a long-term solution.

What seems to work best for him is a combination of things, such as using the skills he learned in DBT therapy: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotion regulation, along with exercise, art, music, meditation, writing, and hanging out with friends. Like with any illness, the best treatment is a multitude of therapies.

DS: How are things going for your son and your family now? What have you learned that has helped your son and your family stay positive and healthy?

TL: My son is now twenty-two years old and he is doing better than I ever imagined he would. He works full-time at a veterinary clinic and he goes to college part-time, studying Biology. He isn’t sure what he wants to do once he graduates from college, but he loves astronomy and the workings of the human mind. He is also writing a “self-help” book to understand how the mind works.

My daughter graduates from college next year with a degree in Psychology. My husband and I still worry sometimes when the phone goes off, but we are learning to enjoy the present and not worry about the future.

I have learned that advocacy is a great vehicle to self-help. I work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), volunteering in schools and presenting a program, called “Ending the Silence,” that teaches youth about the signs and symptoms of mental illness and suicide and how to help themselves or a friend. I talk and write about mental health whenever I have the opportunity and this, in itself, has helped me to heal.

DS: Tell us about your book you wrote to chronicle your son’s journey: “Cutting the Soul.”

TL: I started writing about my son’s journey from my perspective at the suggestion of my therapist. She thought that if I got my emotional pain out on paper it would help me to feel better. As I wrote I realized it was helpful and that maybe my story could help others, so I chronicled four years of my son’s mental illness.

There were times when it was extremely painful and I had to get up and walk away, but with each word I put on paper, I was one step closer to healing. When my son approved the manuscript, I had it published.

My goal was to help one person with my story. What I didn’t realize was that I would be helping many people and one of those was my own daughter. I gave her a signed copy of my book while she was home from college at Christmas time. I figured she would just put it on a shelf and never look at it, because why would she, she lived it. But instead she read it over the course of three days, and each night at around 2 a.m. she would text me and this is a summary of what she said, “I have no words–absolutely incredible. I have extremely underestimated all you went through with Matthew. I have absolutely no idea how you coped with that, and still managed to be an amazing mother to me. I am so proud to call myself your daughter. Your strength inspires me. If I can become half the woman you are I would be thrilled. I’m so blessed to have you as my mom. I love you more than you’ll ever know.” That’s all I ever needed.

DS: What would you like to say to families to encourage them when they are still facing mental health challenges with one of their family members?

TL: I would tell families who are facing a mental health challenge with a family member to not give up. The path that you are on may not always go the way you expect it to, but don’t lose hope.

Don’t forget about the other siblings, they are affected by this illness too. I would also say to make sure you take time for yourself, because if you fall apart you can’t help anybody else.

Look for resources in your area to help you. There are also many great online support systems and resources. Don’t be afraid to talk to others about what you are going through. There is strength in knowing that you are not alone. Mental illness is common. Someone you know will understand.

About Theresa

Theresa Larsen graduated from Florida State University with a degree in elementary education and a minor in psychology. She taught school in England, Wales, and the United States for over twelve years. She is a trained presenter and coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) “Ending the Silence” mental health awareness program for youth. She is also a writer and her writing credits include a Welsh children’s book, an educational article published in the Cardiff Advisory Service for Education, parenting and mental health articles published on Yahoo, PsychCentral, The Mighty, The Stigma Fighters Anthology Volume 2, and her award-winning memoir, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother. Learn more about Theresa at her website.

Thanks so much to Theresa for sharing her family’s inspiring story of hope!

Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!


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