Ten years ago, I was a single mom of two children, 2 years and 11 months. I was in treatment for bipolar disorder but I was isolating myself, a warning sign of depression. My therapist recommended that I come to a clubhouse at a program called Employment Options.
Coming to the club helped me make friends and get to know other people with mental health problems. But soon after, I was investigated by child protective services. I felt I was surviving but CPS saw that I wasn’t taking medication and I lost custody of my sons.
A Friend’s Support
When I told the clubhouse staff what happened, they put me in their Family Project. I did not trust the program at first. I thought, “What do I let them know? Are they going to report me?” But I came to see my worker, Shannon, as a friend.
Shannon focused on the positive in my life and in my parenting skills, and she trusted me. She saw that, although I had my challenges, I had made a promise that my kids wouldn’t live the life I had lived as a child growing up in foster care.
The Family Project staff went to court with me, took me to appointments and supervised my visits. I’d had to go to the CPS office for supervised visits but Family Project began supervising community visits, so I could take my boys to a playground or to McDonalds.
Shannon saw that my care plans were confusing me. There was one plan for my mental health, one for my sons, and a family plan. It was too chaotic. Family Project had all of the providers come to a meeting and said, “We can’t have three different plans, we need one plan.”
Within six months, I got custody back, but my CPS case was open for two years. I had to go to parenting classes, therapy and family therapy, and I could not be alone with my children. If my husband went to work, my kids had to go to a sitter. He worked from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. some days, so it was really difficult.
Bias and Fear
Then I became pregnant with my third child. He was removed from the hospital when he was 3 days old. I had gone off medication while pregnant so it wouldn’t harm my child. CPS said that I should have attended my psychiatry appointments anyway.
My son was 2 weeks old by the time CPS returned him. It hurt so much that I couldn’t breastfeed him and that my newborn and I had to spend long hours apart because I still could not be alone with my kids.
I didn’t understand CPS’ fear and I still don’t nine years later. I had a long mental health history—I grew up in state custody and was in residential treatment centers and hospitals with bipolar and PTSD. But I had never harmed my children. I feel that I was separated from my children just because I have a diagnosis.
When my CPS case ended, I joined another program at the clubhouse, Family Options. My team supports my sons and me when I’m in crisis or when they are, because my sons have all been diagnosed with mental illnesses, too.
What’s unique is that I’m now on staff at Family Options 10 hours a week. As a Parent Peer Counselor, I visit two families a week and do whatever the parents need. We’ll go for a walk, go shopping, make sure the bills are paid, or clean the house. I help the parents get out of the house and have fun with their children.
I had to tell one parent, “You might not realize it, but I’m seeing warning signs for you.” We looked at her list of signs of depression and checked it off together. I said, “You need to make a decision for yourself and your children. I’m here for you.”
The mom started crying and said, “I need extra help,” so we called her team and got her family involved.
My Own Blindness
This past year, I was surprised to find that I needed my team, too. I was hospitalized because of my illness for the first time since I was 18.
At first, I didn’t realize how depressed and isolated I’d become. It was like I closed my eyes for a week. I didn’t leave the house. I unplugged the phone. I even struggled to get to the supermarket. I just wanted to be alone. I think everyone is blind when they get sick. You don’t realize that you’re in a hole and you don’t know how to use the resources that you have.
I realized that I was unwell when I heard my sons having a secret conversation about me. One of my sons was crying. He said, “Something’s wrong with Mommy, she won’t get out of bed. I’ve never seen Mom like this.”
My oldest said, “Mom gets sick like us; she just never shows it.”
Getting and Giving
I felt really bad. That night, I told my sons, “Mommy isn’t feeling good. I am going to get help the way I get help for you.” The next morning I called my team. I went to the club and made an agreement that I would go to the hospital for a week.
With my illness, I’m always going to have ups and downs. It helps me to go to the club every day, and I feel good helping someone else in need like me.