Living with Mental Illness is like Playing Tennis with a Flat Ball
By: Theresa Larsen, author of “Cutting the Soul”
Imagine going onto a tennis court on a sunny day to play a game of tennis. You grab your racquet, stretch your arms, and pick up a ball. As you throw the ball in the air to serve, the thrill of competitive excitement fills a space inside of you. The ball falls to just the right height, you swing through, hitting it over the net, and into the service box. You pause momentarily sensing that something is not quite right. The ball felt heavy and did not sail as far as you expected. You put this thought out of your mind and focus on the return. Your opponent is able to return your serve with ease. As you strike the ball it falls flat of the net, rolling slowly toward you. You pick it up and look at it carefully. It looks like any other tennis ball, it feels like any other tennis ball, but it doesn’t perform like any other tennis ball. You look around at other courts and see players hitting without difficulty. Everyone around you is playing tennis with a ball that bounces high, is light in weight, and soars when hit. Everyone except you. Your tennis ball feels weighted down, heavy, and uncooperative. You have to hit harder, move faster, and think quicker than everyone else or you get left behind. Your resolve to do this dissipates with each swing of the racquet.
Imagine playing tennis day after day with a flat ball. This is what it is like to live with mental illness. You quickly become exhausted. Your muscles ache with the added effort. You want to do what everyone else is doing, but you can’t because your brain does not let you. Often, the more effort you exert the further behind you get, until you want to give up altogether.
I watched my son spiral out of control down a path I could not navigate. He was depressed, angry, and ashamed. The only coping skill he found for himself was cutting. It was a dangerous and destructive coping skill. I watched, helpless and afraid that one day I would enter his room to find that he had completed suicide. I was unable to lift him out of his chasm of depression and despair. As a parent there is an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness when you are incapable of helping your child.
No parents look at their child and imagine what could go wrong in their life. Instead, we see hope and opportunity for their future. We don’t ever imagine that our child will be tormented by his or her own mind. No parents are prepared to learn that their child may have something seriously wrong with him or her that could change their inner core, their ability to love, their ability to empathize with others. These were things I faced with my son. He had changed-was changing-into someone I didn’t know. I wanted to help him, but I had no idea how. I knew keeping him alive, even if it meant he hated me, was my only option. I was willing to do whatever it took.
“Whatever it took…” turned out to be a realization that I did not have the training to give my son all of the positive skills he needed to survive. This left me questioning what I had done wrong. I knew the only way he would make it in this world is if he had 24 hour supervision, something I was unable to give him. The decision to send him to a full-time psychiatric facility caused me physical pain. Why couldn’t I give my son what he needed? How could I send him away?
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a list of statements for people that care for loved ones with a mental illness. One of the statements on the list that resonated with me was “If you don’t care for yourself, you can’t care for another.” I recognized that I could not care for my son all of the time. I had to allow others to help him seek out independence and positive coping skills and guide him on a road to healing.
My heart broke when my son went away. I was overwhelmed with guilt and embarrassment, but I knew life could not continue in the direction it had been moving. It took a great deal of time for me to forgive myself for not being the mother I believed I was supposed to be.
Many months went by before my son was able to make any progress. With the help of trained counselors and physicians he navigated his way toward a healthier life. The shift was a slow process spanning several years and encompassing many “bumps” along the way, but it did happen. I watched as my son progressed from a depressed, self-loathing, and suicidal youth to a confident, caring young man. My son’s life opened up in front of him to a place where he could swing his metaphoric racquet and the tennis ball was not always flat.
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Florida native Theresa Larsen graduated from Florida State University with a degree in elementary education and a minor in psychology. She taught school in England and Wales while living in the United Kingdom for twelve years. Her writing credits include a Welsh children’s book with English translation, an educational article published in the Cardiff Advisory Service for Education, and her memoir “Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother.” She has a daughter and a son and resides in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband and German shepherd.
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