Guest appearance alert!
ICYMI: I was honored to join Robyn Tamanaha on her podcast Open Mind Night. Robyn is a marriage and family therapist (MFT) talking about important issues, all things related to mental health and wellness.
Highlights of this episode include couples therapy, children with a mental health diagnosis, communication, and breaking patterns.
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Starting out, it was just really important to me that my daughter not feel like we were singling her out, you know? So that was really the impetus as we got into treatment because she was getting treatment and we were in family therapy, too, but my husband and I were often not on the same page about what was happening with her, what was happening between us, what we thought we should be doing about it, what the professionals thought we should be doing about it. And it was identified fairly early on by everyone who was working with us. Like, you guys are not doing well together as a dyad.
And she was struggling severely. She was speaking openly about not wanting to be alive. These are very traumatic things for parents and everyone in a family, and we weren’t handling it well. So that was the impetus for the two of us to get into treatment and try to find common ground about what was happening. Or at least if we couldn’t actually find common ground try to present as the parents who were a united front. Because our ultimate goal was the same, which was to help our daughter. We did have the same goal. We just weren’t necessarily in line about how we were trying to get there.
Hi everyone. Welcome to Open Mind Night, a show that talks about everything mental health and mental illness related. I am your host, Robyn Tamanaha, licensed marriage and family therapist. Joining me on this episode is my guest, Tracey Yokas. Tracey creates stuff when she isn’t writing about mental health and wellness, she can be found playing with paint, glitter, and glue. Art fuels her passion for connection in the community. A former entertainment industry professional, she has an affinity for color coded art supplies. She is the author of the book, Bloodlines: A Memoir of Self-Harm and Healing Generational Trauma, which is coming out in 2024. Tracey shares about her family’s journey with mental illness, so others will know that they are not alone and that hope is real. She earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology from California Lutheran University, and lives in Newberry Park, California with her family, cats and Fish. Hi Tracey.
Hi, Robin. Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you for being on. I’m so excited to have you. I know we chatted a little bit ago about this, so glad we’re able to do the recording and talk about a bunch of things. So I know you know, initially when we touched base we were talking about the experience of a couples therapy, but not just couples therapy, couples therapy within the perspective of the parents and what it’s like for parents having a child that is living with a mental health diagnosis. So could you share a little bit about your experience with that and we’ll delve deeper?
I’d love to. I love every opportunity I get to talk about this stuff because luckily I’m very happy to be able to say that my daughter totally understands my passion for de-stigmatizing all conversations about mental health, but particularly parents talking about their child’s mental health diagnosis. Because that in and of itself has an its own sort of stigma. Parents saying anything about their kid, especially as a writer I write about our experiences. I’ve received a fair amount of blow back for what people consider outing my kid, which on one hand I totally understand, but on the other hand, we cannot continue to live in silence like this because the silence is what kills. Health includes our heads, it includes our brains, it includes how we think about things, especially if the way we think about things is suboptimal and those thoughts are hurting us.
When my daughter was 13 years old, she got diagnosed with an eating disorder and soon thereafter she also received the additional diagnosis of severe depression. This came only weeks after the sudden death of my mother with whom she was close. But it wasn’t clear starting out if the death was a trigger or not. And it took a long time to figure out that it was. But regardless, three weeks after my mother’s death my daughter woke up one day and she wasn’t that hungry anymore. And soon that spiraled into not really wanting to eat at all. And not having proper nutrition affects us regardless of whatever else might be going on. So it was a real struggle with the eating starting out, which several months later transitioned into self harm in a variety of ways. So that is what was really the D-day, if you will.
I’m a little biased because I’m a therapist and I do this podcast, but I’m all about decreasing stigma and really openly talking about things. And I think you bring up a really interesting point in the parents’ perspective and talking about their child’s mental health and mental illness. I’m a marriage and family therapist, that’s my background. So I know the impact of the family system and of understandably everyone’s going to be affected, including the parents. When I think back to when I used to do a ton of family therapy I would always include the family because that was part of it. And everyone’s going be affected by it in different ways and how can we come together? How did that lead to couples therapy?
That’s an excellent question and I just want to reiterate that I agree completely. I’m not a therapist, but I do have my master’s degree in counseling psychology, and I’m a system person, too. We don’t grow up in and we aren’t families in a void. We’re family members together in an environment. And so we’re constantly playing off one another and starting out, it was just important to me that my daughter not feel, even though it’s hard because we sort of were, but I didn’t want her to feel like we were singling her out. So that was really the impetus as we got into treatment because she was getting her treatment and we too were in family therapy, but my husband and I were often not on the same page about what was happening with her, what was happening between us, what we thought we should be doing about it, what the professionals thought we should be doing about it.
It was identified fairly early on by everyone who was working with us. Like, you guys are not doing well together as a dyad. And she was struggling severely. She was speaking openly about not wanting to be alive. And of course these are very traumatic things for parents and everyone in a family and we weren’t handling it well. So that was the impetus for the two of us to get into treatment and try to find common ground about what was happening. Or at least if we couldn’t actually find common ground try to present as a united front. Because our ultimate goal was of course the same, which was to help our daughter.
So, we did have the same goal, we just weren’t necessarily in line about how we were trying to get there.–Me
I love that you explain it that way because, and for the listeners too, I think when people think couples therapy, they think maybe specific things like infidelity or those other types of struggles, which is true. But there are so many other reasons to go to couples therapy, which can be super helpful. Even if it’s for coming together or figuring out how to navigate this together given what’s happened with the child. So being that we’re both systems perspective here, I’m curious if you’d be open to sharing when I think of attachment or I think about the family perspective, parents, grandparents, that kind of stuff, how did your parents handle mental health and was it similar? Was it different or what did you pick up on?
I really appreciate you asking that question because as you mentioned, that’s partly why I’m writing my book. Because we learn how to be from the minute we’re born into our family. So before we even have enough wherewithal to understand what we’re learning, we’ve already learned it. We’ve already learned everything that’s going on in our family. We just don’t have the mental capacity as babies to understand that and by the time we start having language, we’ve already learned how we’re going to communicate, what we’re going to say, what things are okay to say, what things aren’t. And when I was two years old I was supposed to have a sister and my mother was eight months pregnant and the baby was still born. The death was never discussed. Ever. Most of the time I didn’t even remember I was supposed to have a sister because I guess that’s how they handled things back then.
It was better just to not talk about it, just move on, get over it. There’s nothing you can do. So the unresolved trauma and grief that was playing itself out within my family, there was only the three of us, that I didn’t know or understand. I was two, like I said, I didn’t even remember 99.9% of the time that I was supposed to have a sister. But it was the beginning of the end of my parents’ marriage, even though they didn’t actually get divorced for 20 more years. It just played into every aspect of our lives and was never discussed. So my mother was depressed, my father was depressed. They exhibited those symptoms in different ways. My mother was very withdrawn, which I took as a child to be about myself because that’s what kids do. So I took blame for that.
My father was over-invested in me because I didn’t have a sibling and things weren’t going well in the marriage, so he was over-connected to me. So there was that whole situation going on. And none of this was ever discussed until I was an adult. And even then, by the time I actually had enough knowledge to start really having thoughts and conscious understanding of what was going on, they were both dead. So it was too late to be able to go back and try to unpack some of that with them. The point of all of that is to say that because this was unconscious, it was unconscious with my daughter, too. I was raising her the way I was raised, and we talked about things that we talked about and we didn’t talk about things that we didn’t talk about. If you don’t know the difference, you don’t know what it is you’re not talking about, if that makes sense.
You’re repeating the patterns you learned because this is how you learn. So I wasn’t talking about things that maybe needed to be talked about with my daughter because I wasn’t conscious to those things early on. So a lot relative to the specifics of my daughter’s illnesses, especially an eating disorder, I have struggled my entire life with my weight and eating and eating too much and using food to numb and all of these things, which I was fully aware of because my mom and my pediatrician put me on a diet when I was 11. So I’d been on a diet at the time my daughter was born for 20 years basically and reacted by wanting to do the opposite with my daughter. So not talking about things like not wanting to make her body the focus of every conversation because I had known what that had done to me as a kid growing up so insecure about who I was.
And the only thing that mattered when I was a kid was how I looked and becoming an overachiever as a way to strive for that perfectionism as a way to control that discomfort. If I can do my job perfectly or if I can get straight A’s, which I was never able to achieve, but I tried these things then I could ameliorate some of that pain and suffering. But again, it’s about not consciously understanding what’s going on and we’re just behaving how we behave. So those things with my daughter, I may have handled something oppositely, but it actually that’s not making a conscious choice. That’s just reacting in the opposite, which is also suboptimal. None of this started becoming conscious to me until after her diagnosis and until going through treatment. She was in treatment. I was in my own individual therapy. My husband and I were in therapy. There was a lot of therapy and there still is. For a lot of years there was a lot of therapy trying to support her and ourselves to create healthier dynamics within the family.
And I’m happy to say 10 years later, certainly it’s not perfect, but we have made amazing strides. My daughter still struggles sometimes. She’s 23 now, soon to be 24. And it’s not like she just woke up one day and was cured, so this managing ourselves and moving in healthier directions for all of us is not a one and done. We have to continuously work on it.
Yeah. And using multiple modalities, which is so helpful. Thankfully, there’s couples and family and individual. Even group for some, so using all the resources, which it definitely sounds like you did. And I think that’s huge coming from the messages you picked up on growing up. Then there’s this moment where your daughter receives a diagnosis, and I always tell people like, it’s tough, but it’s also like an opportunity. How am I going to respond to this? And it sounds like for you, you did something different than what you were raised to do, which I think is huge. What motivated you, like, this is my daughter, so I’m going to do this?
I appreciate you pointing that out because it’s true, but I also want to make clear that it didn’t happen right away. It was definitely a process. So it was a process of us trying at first to be like, I mean we all have problems, but you know, we’re going to get her in individual therapy. This is going to help her. Everything will go back to normal, and every next step that didn’t happen. And in fact, she got sicker instead of better. So it became, I was going to fix this problem. I was going to learn enough because that’s what I do. I’m going to learn enough, I’m going to figure out how to fix this. And as we continued on day after day after day, and she was able to go to school and then she wasn’t. Individual therapy wasn’t enough.
So we did an outpatient program after school six days a week, and then that wasn’t enough. So she had to get pulled out of school and then she started self-harming severely and we became terrified that even if she wasn’t trying to kill herself on purpose, it might happen by accident. I was finding her blood. I mean, it was very terrifying, stressful. For anyone who’s listening, I just want you to know you’re not alone. If this is happening in your household, I can guarantee you 100% for sure as terrified and as alone as you feel you aren’t. But for my purposes and the growth that I was experiencing we had gone all the way to residential treatment with her trying to get the help that she needed.
And we ended up in the emergency room in the middle of the night one night. And it was one of those rock bottom moments for me. One of those lost night of the souls or whatever they call it, where I just had to, I was forced through the magnitude of my suffering at being unable to help her get well. That all that was left to me at that moment was acceptance. Accepting the situation for what it was. That doesn’t mean giving up, it means I’d been fighting against reality so hard for so long and it wasn’t working that I was stripped bare and there was nothing left but accepting reality. Then it took several more months for me. She was in a different residential facility than the first one. We were doing a group therapy exercise where we were all doing this thing called a whole person wheel.
It was all very innocent. It’s split into six pieces. I’ve seen different versions of it, but it’s your spiritual life, your physical life, your mental health and you look at it, and we had our crappy broken crayons and we were supposed to color in each part of the wheel, from zero to a hundred percent, how we were coming along in those aspects of our life. My daughter was sick, everything was failing. I was failing. That’s how I felt. My wheel was mostly white. I was honest and I didn’t color it in because I’m like, if I were doing better, if I were better, if I were a better person this wouldn’t be happening.
And so I colored my wheel in accordingly. They didn’t tell us we were going to have to go around and say all of our stuff out loud, parents and kids. So everybody starts going around the room talking about their wheel, and they’re like, oh no, I’m 80%, 90% in this, this, and this. And, maybe they had one or two where they felt they could do more work, but I was like the only person whose wheel was mostly white. And then I look over and my daughter’s was the same as mine. And that was by far the moment where I said to myself, if I don’t figure out how to take care of myself, I will never be able to show her by my actions how she can take care of herself. And subsequent to that, this is going back many years ago, this happened back in 2013.
So subsequent to that, what I have learned is that in addition to that,
But I am living proof in my own mind, that’s really all that matters, (laughs) I’m living proof in my own mind that change is possible.
My relationship with my daughter is better than it’s ever been. My relationship with my husband, communication is better. My relationships with my friends. I used to have trouble maintaining friendships. Everything has changed. From understanding the work that I wanted to do to become the person I wanted to be, that was really the only gift I could offer. The only way I could help her was to become the person I truly wanted to be. To show her that it’s possible. She has her own journey. I’m not in control of that, which was very hard, and still is sometimes. It was a very painful lesson to learn because we’re parents. We love our children more than anything on this earth. And I would take her symptoms and everything on myself in a second if I could, but I can’t. So the only thing I could do was to help myself, which in a way sounds selfish. I mean, that’s a core belief I uncovered, that I’m a very selfish person. But actually taking care of ourselves is the ultimate gift to the people we love.
Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. Going back to what you said, too, in the beginning that you mentioned acceptance. And I like how you said it’s not that things are right or wrong or shouldn’t be a certain way. And when you describe the six different components that the group had you do, it reminds me of ACT, which is acceptance and commitment therapy, which I use a lot. And we talk about acceptance, even what happened during the pandemic. This is happening, so this is occurring. I’m acknowledging that this is actually happening. That’s the acceptance. And now that I know that, what am I going to do? How am I going to respond? Am I going to respond differently or the same as usual? We know the same as usual, where that road goes, but you know, how can I respond differently so that the outcome is more towards what I’d like it to be or this relationship to be or where I would like to be within this whole struggle. And it sounds like they might have done some ACT stuff, which is really cool and empowering and very action oriented too, in a way. So that’s wonderful.
Yeah. And you know, people think of the word surrender, which is sort of a synonym I guess. It doesn’t mean you agree, it doesn’t mean you’re happy about it. All it means is that you accept what’s happening and it sounds so simple, but it’s so hard. It’s hard.
It doesn’t mean you’re giving up. What I’ve discovered is when you’re so busy fighting against it, there’s no room for anything else. Physically, literally, emotionally, spiritually. Every bit of you is wrapped up in the fighting against it. So there’s no space to afford even the thought process to begin to figure out what your other choices might be. You’ve gotta stop fighting against everything to even have a moment where you can say, okay, maybe I have to think about this in a different way. Not fighting against it is a step in opening up that space.
Yeah, I love that. Is there anything I didn’t bring up or I didn’t ask about that you want the listeners to know?
Oh I could sit here for 10 days talking about all this stuff, but getting back to couples therapy, I guess I do want to say that that was a really important component for us. I hate to reduce things to it worked or it didn’t work because that’s such an oversimplification related to really complex issues. But I have to say that I think especially at the beginning stages, if you are someone listening and you and your spouse or your significant other are having a child that’s struggling, having both of you either together or individually get into your own therapy, if it’s in any way affordable, manageable, there’s clinics that have sliding scales, it’s so critical because every human being is going to look at it from their own perspective.
We can’t take the goggles of our life off. It’s how we were raised. So getting into therapy is how you begin to see other perspectives, get ideas about other ways of handling things. And yes, maybe you have to hear some difficult things about how what you might be doing isn’t optimal to helping the situation. But in all the teaching I’ve done, I’ve done a lot of volunteer work and teaching for NAMI and I think that not only is there the pain and suffering of seeing someone you love hurting, but then not being on the same page about what to do. The family’s in chaos that affects everyone in the household. If there’s other siblings, everyone’s in disarray. Formulating a plan that works for your family is as individual as the family is.
Everyone getting help they need so that they can feel seen and feel heard, feel accepted is an important step in the process of coming to grips with how the whole family is going to move forward without anyone being left behind. It’s never going to be perfect. Nothing is. But I would say that couples was an important part of both of us waking up to the fact that we had our own struggles that were going on in addition to what was obvious about what was happening.
Thanks for mentioning those, including NAMI. NAMI is wonderful. So I’ll put some resources in the show notes so people can click on it. I know one of the things I’ve heard and I understand on my end is being in the system it’s kind of challenging to navigate sometimes. Where to go and all that.
Thanks Robyn. It was a pleasure.
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