The Perfect Child

by Maedon Coburn

The definition of Perfect: Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics.  As good as it is possible to be.

How lucky could I get?   That is exactly what my then husband and I brought into the world just over 30 years ago.  We named him Brett and he did everything right.  He slept through the night within a few weeks, he walked at 10 months, and by 3 he could read words.

He was a straight A student through elementary school and got through junior high without opening a book. How proud was I when he tested at college levels for high school placements.  When he was placed in the honors program at Leominster High School, I increased his college savings knowing this kid was going places.

His academic success coupled with his artistic and musical abilities was a joy to watch. I thought it nothing more than teenage defiance when his grades were so low, he had to go to summer school every year to graduate in 2005.  To this day, he calls it the “class of August”… I don’t know why I didn’t look deeper and differently at the downturn of grades other than, I had done everything to ensure that my children were not touched by “issues”.

I use the word issues because mental health was not even a part of my vocabulary. I sent them to Christian summer camp, I hired tutors for math, and I bought the house on the right-side of town, and remained close friends and co parenter with their father.  My kids were “struggle proofed”!

When Brett was less than a month into his first year at MWCC, he stopped going. The metal core band he had played with for years, was going to tour.  How I ever waved good bye to my son as he got into the van they all had chipped in to purchase, is beyond me.  They put the mattress over the holes in the floorboard, raided my cupboards for snacks, and they were off. If not my vision for him, I was still proud and happy to see him grab for life with such passion.  I was confident he would be fine, he was the kid with the X on his hand at concerts, indicating he was drug free.

When they returned a month later, I knew Brett looked thin, but assumed they had not eaten well on the road. He asked me if he could move home for a few months to save money for another tour.  That tour never happened…

When your 20 year old son is knocking on your bedroom door at 6:00 in the morning, you know something is not ok. With tears running down his face, Brett said “Mom, I need help.  I am taking every drug I can get my hands on and I want to die every day”.  If you are a parent, I don’t have to try and explain the breaking of my heart.  If you are not a parent, there is no way to explain what happens to you both physically and emotionally when your child is in danger.

My personality is to fix it, so that is what I set about doing. Doctor’s appointments, drug counseling, healthy foods, and a lot of cheerleading.  It felt like Brett just wasn’t trying hard enough to straighten up.  I reminded him daily of how he was raised and how he would behave if he was living in my home.  I was used to calling the shots and making the plan, his sleeping for 30 hours at a time and not showering for days was not part of that plan.

After several months of counseling, Brett was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder and started on a regiment of meds to keep him from driving to Tennessee on a whim, or laying on the kitchen floor in a sobbing puddle. The bouts of mania into the perils of depression were often overwhelming. It was like Brett was a human roller coaster and I was his front seat passenger.  I was consumed by his illness and unable to accept, I could not make this different.

The road out of enmeshment was rocky. We were both learning how to live in a new normal.  He remains compliant with his medication even though he is acutely aware of the dullness in his brain.  In the past when I have spoken to groups about my son, I say he narrowly escaped addiction and we felt blessed.  That was before 2012 and the desire to feel anything but what he felt was bigger than he was.

Brett was addicted to pain pills. I had not stared addiction in the face before, and I was, no matter what I told myself and the world, completely unprepared for the havoc and heartache of this disease.  I made more rules, he broke them.  I drew personal boundaries, he defied them.  How did I lose control?  Why wasn’t Brett heeding the sound advice of his mother?  Learning that once again, I was not what was going to change this, took a very long year.

Brett entered rehab in September of 2014, and I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted. I would know for the first time in 8 weeks since I had asked Brett to leave my home, where he was sleeping and that he was sober and safe.

Brett did 30 days in rehab and came out looking and acting healthy. Rare is the one and done, but I was rooting for my son.  He had the tools and support to move forward.  There have been relapses and Brett continues to struggle with the constant calling of drugs, but his family will be forever grateful for the lessons learned at Spectrum.

This journey is Brett’s, this journey is mine, this journey is his younger brother’s, who at 27 continues to vacillate between love and understanding, and anger towards Brett for not getting it together and at me for not having all the answers and not always doing it right. It can’t be easy to watch the big brother you spent years looking up to, sometimes struggle to complete the simplest (to us) of daily tasks.

This journey is his father’s, his grandmother’s, his aunt and uncle’s, and to some degree, this journey is yours. Whether it is your own child, a sibling, parent or friend, we all are touched by the issues of mental health.

Brett’s bipolar disorder has changed me. Sometimes I am so angry and tired, I want to put my head back in the sand and rest.  Most of the time, I am thankful for the lessons in love and acceptance.  Not once in 10 years have I thought if only the man on the street would get a job.  Not once have I looked away from someone asking me for help.  Not once have I judged your child.  Never again will I question your parenting skills.  Never will I stop trying to make a difference for those affected.  This cannot be an illness surrounded by judgment and fear.  The stigma is sometimes almost as damaging as the illness, we need to come together with love and understanding.

Brett was born with this chemical imbalance. It was there when he took his first steps and read his first words.  His illness was there when he placed into the HS honors program, it was there when he traveled with his band and it was there when he took his first pain pill.  Brett is still smart and musical and funny and artistic.  It is my hope that he does not let this illness define him.  Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness that must be managed and attended to.  However, with proper care, Brett is so capable and I remain a cheerleader for his success.

I pray for better medications and treatment, and I encourage all of us to show love and compassion to individuals and families who suffer. That would be just a wonderful step towards everyone knowing, they are “as good as it is possible to be”.

Thank you for allowing me to share part of my story with you.