Mental Health Illnesses Stole the Outdoors from my Family

I cannot keep silent anymore. It’s been going for too long and it’s driving me nuts. Mental health illnesses are wreaking havoc in my family and I’m feeling sad, angry, hurt and frustrated. My youngest, age 13, suffers from anorexia. My oldest, age 15, suffers from school phobia. Both conditions appeared this year, though the school phobia has been going on for longer. Both conditions have affected all four of us deeply, as well as everything that surrounds us – school, activities, friends, relationships. It sucks. It really, really sucks and I feel like I’m hitting a brick wall.

Swinley Forest

This is the lovely forest I had picked for today’s family hike on a Sunday. Yesterday, my youngest asked if she could prepare picnic lunches for all four of us. We said, sure, it would be great. She took her Kawaii Bento book out, made sushi rice, colored it blue and shaped it into cute animals with seaweed cut-outs. This morning, I checked travel times by train, the itinerary, the weather. It was meant to be a nice day for a walk. My husband and I both went to our girls’ bedrooms to wake them up.

“Morning, it’s time to get up.”

Teenage Anorexia

Only my youngest didn’t get up for very long. She came to the kitchen, looked at the lunch boxes and went back to her bedroom to lie down.

“I’m not feeling well,” she said. “I cannot come.”

She looked so pale, so fragile. Curled up in foetal position, she looked miserable inside and outside her body. I wanted to hug her, to make her feel better, but she didn’t want to be touched.

“I’m not feeling well.”

That’s a sentence we’ve heard regularly since the summer and the fact is, she didn’t look well at all. Initially, we attributed it to tiredness from school. Tiredness from being too much on screens. It’s ironic for us, used to enjoy the outdoors during every weekend and vacation, that we now spend our weekends hoping and praying that one of our girls will be upbeat enough to join us outside. The truth is, my husband and I have been going outside by ourselves as of late, leaving the girls at home. Its not a bad thing per se, except the absence of my daughters when we’re outside is a cruel reminder of their poor mental state.

I cannot share my plant discoveries with my youngest anymore.

I cannot play imaginary games on the trail with her anymore.

I cannot discuss school friends with my oldest anymore.

I cannot share a squirrel sighting or a river crossing with them anymore.

They’ve slowly but surely stopped going outside.

And yet, my youngest loves going outside. At least, she did. For Christmas 2017, she asked a one-person tent with LED-lit poles. For her birthday, she asked for a thermal sleep sack and a new camping stove. When we walk to her school together, we plan backpacking trips in our heads and discuss the pros and cons of such mountains as well as the perfect dehydrated camping menus.

But anorexia is sucking the life out of her. Her energy levels are way down. She weighs only 38kg / 83 lbs to 1.60m / 5″2′. She regularly comes back from school nauseated, refusing to go to her art class or refusing to do her homework.

“What have you had for lunch?” I ask.

“Boiled potatoes and a fruit,” she replies.

It’s a lie.

I didn’t know it was a lie until this week, when the school counsellor called me. My daughter had skipped lunch three days in a row. She also hadn’t had breakfast, which made dinner her only meal of the day, only she would eat three cookies after school and say she wasn’t hungry for dinner.

My daughter suffers from anorexia and I want her to be happy but I don’t know how to do it.

The outdoors used to make us happy.

The outdoors was our go-to Sunday activity.

The outdoors has become a luxury, something we do when on vacation because it’s planned.

Teenage School Phobia

However, our slow withdrawal from the outdoors started with my oldest’ school phobia a couple of years ago. If you don’t know what school phobia is, it’s also known as school refusal and it’s a severe anxiety that manifests itself, for my daughter, in crippling abdominal pains and headaches. Often, she would start stressing over school on the Saturday, feeling worse and stay in bed on the Sunday, to be in a miserable state on Monday morning. Monday came and went, Tuesday came and went and on Wednesday, she started feeling better.

I cannot tell you the number of hikes and trips we cancelled at the last minute.The number of hours I spent studying maps, looking for interesting places to go, only to shelf the idea for a brighter day when everybody would be feeling fine. The joy of anticipating these great adventures following by the extreme disappointment of cancelling a day out, followed by anger and frustration, not to mention the fact that I don’t understand how to make things better.

Believe me, I try, but trying’s not good enough.

Though neither my husband nor I suffer from mental health diseases, we both suffer the side-effects of metal health diseases. Each bad day for our girls is a blow to our mental. Each time I hear or see my girls lying in bed and suffering inside their heads, it breaks my heart into a million pieces. Each time I see their eyes looking away and retreating to dark thoughts, I want to shake the sadness out of them. I want to find the culprit, kick it hard in the butt, tell it never to come back and eradicate it from out lives. I want to take this shitty anorexia or anxiety and burn it to ashes.

I want our life back.

I want my girls happy to live again.

I don’t want to smile when deep inside I’m crying.

Road to Recovery

My eldest daughter now sees a psychologist every week. It helps. She’s much better and she’s improved her school attendance as well as her general mood. She keeps singing with her singing teacher and her choir, something that makes us all very happy.

Ironically, now that my oldest’s situation has improved, my youngest suffering from anorexia. That’s pretty twisted.

I don’t know how to fight anorexia but I will find a way. We all will. We need to, for my daughter’s sake. She’s a bright kid, she’s got a bright future ahead of her if only she would love herself and find her confidence.

Talking about Mental Health

Mental health illnesses have been ruining our lives and we need to talk about the mental health of our kids. They may seem happy on the outside when they’re really dark inside.

I’m sharing this in hopes that it will start a conversation. Neither of my girls know that I’m writing this and they’re probably going to be pissed but I can’t pretend that we’re all a happy family when we’re not. Yes, we go places, we do stuff, but we’re a broken family right now.

Mental health is a taboo in our society. It’s terrible and destructive, but it needs to be addressed as much as physical health.

The outdoors is supposed to be good for mental health, right? It’s supposed to heal and soothe, calm your mind, brighten your spirits. Only what do you do when you can’t bring mental health sufferers to the outdoors?

This is wrong.

I look forward to the day when we can all go back to the outdoors as a family with a bento box and blue sushi rice pandas, without worrying about what tomorrow will bring.

In the meantime, I’ll keep fighting with a heavy heart.

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

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5 Responses to “Mental Health Illnesses Stole the Outdoors from my Family”

  1. December 03, 2018 at 6:49 am, Beth said:

    Hugs, Laure

    Reply

  2. December 03, 2018 at 8:46 am, Alex Totic said:

    So sorry to read this. I’ve been reading your blog for years. The elaborate adventures were a nice escape from the fact that my own 3 kids have little appetite for active trips.

    I have some experience with school phobia.

    In the 5th grade, my oldest boy started getting stomach pains, and throwing up multiple times a day. He missed last 3 months of the 5th grade. No physical cause was ever found, in spite of battery of tests. He even got his stomach scoped, and there was a crazy episode of dementia when he came out of anesthesia, where he did not know whom I was, and was seeing aliens. We also tried hypnotherapist, and some PTSD related therapy whose name I do not remember. We spent summer between 5th and 6th just recovering, and his stomachaches went away.

    In the 6th grade, first 2 months were ok, but then he got hit by panic attacks. They’d start at night, and go on for hours, he’d be screaming, bouncing off the bed, sometimes he’d speak in this weird posessed voice. Super scary. We scrambled to the therapy circuit again…..

    At the same time, I saw a counselor for myself at JCC in Palo Alto, and I described boy’s symptoms to her. She said that description did not sound like a real panic attack, it was an act. I did not believe it, but was desperate. She instructed me on how to behave for the next attack, (ignore him). It turned out she was right, it was a crazy night where we ignored him, and witnessed every symptom from the last 3 years acted out.

    After this, I decided to trust the counselor fully. She thought me lots of little things about how we related to our son that made a big difference. The rest of the 6th grade things got better, but not great, there were still occasional minor relapses. Oh, and none of this involved getting son into therapy (waiting list for one we wanted was long).

    Summer of 6th grade was good, kid took some tutoring to catch up on missed schoolwork. We had a good time for two weeks on a beach in France, while he spent a good part of those 2 weeks doing what he loves most, playing Fortnite. Well, actually, he did develop a stomachache while we were on a trip, which freaked me out He did swim almost every day…

    Now, in 7th grade, there have been no health scares, and kid is doing well in school. He is also in counseling, the spot has finally opened up, and he really likes it. I am like, you do not need to go, you are doing great, and he is, like, I like going there dad, we talk about interesting stuff. I am cautiously optimistic that the crazy times are behind us.

    I wrote this to let you know that things can get better, as a payback to all those virtual trips you’ve let me take. Our family was definitely not the only one dealing with these matters. In spite of these problems being relatively common, finding solutions is not trivial. I am still not sure what did it for us, it was lots of small adjustments in my behavior, and guiding my son in the right direction.

    Reply

  3. December 04, 2018 at 8:33 am, Laure Latham said:

    Alex, thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing your experience. It must have very, very tough. My oldest daughter’s therapy has indeed helped a lot for it only started this September and she’s been having symptoms for the past 3 years. I am totally new to the world of mental illnesses and like a new parent, I’m learning as I go. It seems like there’s a crazy number of kids out there who are suffering and I wonder why that is. I honestly wonder. When I grew up, either I was oblivious to everything going on around me (a real possibility, kids are very self absorbed) or the world functioned differently. I wouldn’t blame internet and social media for all of it but certainly, it has an impact. Anyhow. I am glad that your son is doing better now, really glad in fact, and wish him all the best in his studies, hobbies and friends. Friends are important. Thanks for your support, Alex.

    Reply

  4. December 05, 2018 at 1:58 am, Amy said:

    So sorry to hear your girls are battling these issues! As someone who has had serious bouts of depression and anxiety I know finding the right medication can make so much of a difference so I hope your family is trying that as well as therapy. I have a few friends that have battled anorexia and I’ve seen it can be terribly difficult to overcome. I’m glad you have recognized it in your daughter early and I hope she can break the destructive patterns before they are ingrained. For my friends, residential programs were needed. It’s a big shake up in life. I hope you can get back to focusing on doing the things you love soon.Thanks for being honest and open about what your family is going through.

    Reply

  5. December 05, 2018 at 6:33 am, Heather said:

    Laure, I only just now read this now, and I feel your pain. I’m so sorry!

    My son also has severe anxiety and depression around school, so much so that we moved him to a new school over an hour’s drive away two years ago, then moved him to another new school closer to home this year because the drive was killing us, and now are preparing to move him back to the far away school because he is miserable at the new one. He will take the train and use a car service this time.

    Stomach aches, head aches, anger, frustration, he would hide under his bed and cry, saying he was scared to go to school (three schools back). All the while not learning what he should for a kid his age who is as intelligent as he is.

    This year our daughter, too, is having trouble with anxiety based around testing at school. Both kids are going to see therapists and tutors, and I am trying my best to buoy them (and myself) up.

    There is a lot of stress on our kids at school – bullying, shaming, lots of bad stuff that isn’t just perpetrated by other students, but often by teachers and classmates’ parents as well. I don’t like it and it is very difficult to counteract.

    You’re absolutely right that mental health is as important as physical health, and it has not gotten the attention it needs. As for the stress, frustration and sadness of working to help your daughters, please know that you are not alone!

    Reply

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