It seemed to happen overnight. Just like that, a tidal wave swept through our lives and all the light drained from his eyes, that little boy was gone, a soulless being was left in its wake. I’ll never know when or how it happened, just that it did and we’ll forever deal with the fallout.I first met Travis when he was 8 years old. He was slightly sullen but happy, eager to make his parents proud. He immediately took to me and me to him. We had shared interests, video games, a good story, music and food. His blue eyes sparkled whenever we did something he enjoyed. He wanted to be so many things, a musician, a teacher and a soldier. Those career choices would all suit him well, his personality was that of a protector and an entertainer. If he wasn’t sticking up for those he thought were being wronged, he was making them laugh. That was Travis until the age of 12.
“Travis was never this way, I just don’t understand”, his father would say this so often that it became a mantra. It was said through tears, through frustration and finally anger with a situation we could no longer control. No matter how many times I heard it, it didn’t change the truth, he’s this way now.
Mental illness doesn’t just abruptly start, I should know. My earliest childhood memories are of undiagnosed anxiety attacks and depression. I could see the signs, I knew them well. His life began to resemble a checklist out of my old Psychology textbook.
Lack of interest.
Devoid of all emotion.
We attributed the behavior to a million excuses. He’s just adjusting to a blended family. It’s just growing pains or he’s just a bully. At the time, he was doing fine in school. As long as he was just aggressive at home and we could contain it, we were happy. Looking back now, just writing that sentence makes me cringe. Containing him meant always being around. Never leaving him alone with the kids. I lived in fear of letting my guard down.
Every evening brought the same ritual, kisses goodnight and kids tucked into bed. Once the house quieted down, I’d listen, sometimes for hours. Did I just hear a creak on the stairs? Is he up? Why is he up? There were times it was just the house settling. Other times, it would be him, walking around the house at night. I would ask him why he was up and get a blank stare as a response. I was afraid for the other children sleeping in the next room, what if I didn’t hear him next time?
It didn’t take long before his behavior made its way to school, he started failing everything and eventually, we received the call we were dreading. He had threatened to kill another child and tried to make good on his threat but was intercepted. I went into mama bear mode, I had to protect the other children. I could see the change in him and it scared me. News headlines began to flash through my head, no one ever thinks this could happen in their home.
Finally, I reached the point where I knew we could no longer live like that. I removed us all from the situation. I couldn’t risk dropping my guard and giving him the opportunity to do what he was surely capable of doing. The decision to protect them was and always will be a no brainer, the decision to leave the man I love to do so, not so much. The adage between a rock and a hard place couldn’t even begin to describe how I felt or how he felt. There were nights I held on to my sleeping children and wept for my loss that was their gain. We would never have the family we desired but they were safe.
They are safe.
While Travis continued to spiral down, he finally got a diagnosis. All of our suspicions were confirmed but confirmation isn’t very comforting. Knowing your child or stepchild is severely mentally ill doesn’t make the situation any easier. Instead, it brings with it fears of the future, what will it hold?
His father and I have managed to put the pieces back together and with Travis in a group home, it helps. No parent wants to send their kid away. The decision wasn’t an easy one for him. There were and are many sleepless nights. We assuage the guilt by repeating to ourselves, we have to keep the other kids in the house safe. We have to keep your kid safe. We have to protect him from himself for as long as we can. Safety often comes with a price. The price is what we carry and what his father carries every day in the form of what if and the answers that never come.
*names have been changed.