Our Mental Health System Gets an "F!"
Jennifer (now known as Ava), hit the ground running. She adored her big brother, Carl, at their first meeting in the hospital when she was born. Carl watched his baby sister raise up on her two palms and turned her head from side to side as if telling everyone to turn off the bright lights! He was so tickled by this that he ran into the recovery room to report to me. His eyes gleamed as he told all about what she looked like as if I hadn’t seen the baby at all!
Carl loved to fish better than anything and Ava loved her brother more. Here’s Carl with his prized catfish!
Carl and Jennifer laughed and screamed and played like two puppies…joyful as if to have found each other again during their first eighteen months as siblings. Everything started to unravel the day Carl’s step-father attended a meeting at the school. Carl was not the cookie cutter kid. He didn’t fit a mold for many reasons and the DeKalb County school system wanted to test him every year he was in their system but couldn’t find anything “wrong” with him.
In the seventh grade, a very “special” county worker tested Carl and reported to me that Carl just didn’t fit in at school. She reported he dressed too nicely, had his hair cut too short and was known as “preacher” because he carried his Bible to school.
My blue-eyed baby…Carl around age 8.
Outraged by the audacity of this county employee, I shared this report with Carl’s step-father. He went berserk and demanded a meeting with the Principal. Fool that I was, I thought he was finally being supportive and acting like the father he should have been these last two years and a half years.
After their meeting that fateful Thursday, Carl’s step-father decided Carl should go to military school on Sunday in the spring of his twelfth year. His step-father totally failed to understand Carl’s sensitivity and artistic brilliance.
Carl about the time his step-father decided he needed military school.
I had dated boys who had attended military school and thought the disciplinary training might be good for Carl even though my heart was broken over this outrageous unilateral decision. And, although I was known to be a strong, independent woman, I felt powerless to stop him. I’d never lived with a man other than my father and older brothers and didn’t have a clue on how to usurp my own authority over a man much less a husband. All I knew to do was pray the Lord would slam the doors shut to prevent my determined husband’s decision, confident he could never come up with the money necessary to carry out his plan. Even years of therapy didn’t give me the tools I needed for this nightmare. So, on the third day, Carl and his step father flew to the Florida winter camp of the military school designated to train and mold him for the next three months and twenty days.
Carl called me often…crying from the terrible hazing and unfairness of the system. As soon as the boys relocated to Georgia, Jennifer and I would drive to spend every visitors day with Carl trying to encourage him to learn from the experience and be his cheerleader assuring him he would be back home. It was after one of those visits that I came back home knowing things were getting ready to change. I had my spine back and wasn’t going to be bullied by her husband any more.
But, it was too late for Carl. He came home an angry, bitter thirteen year old. Sadly, military school had taught Carl about hazing, abandonment, drinking and drugs. Not a single therapy session gave me the tools to handle this conundrum. I ended the ruse of a marriage to save my children but Carl’s psychological damage was done and Jennifer’s was just beginning to show at a whole new level.
In those days, there were no resources readily available like today. Everything learned was done by hundreds of hours spent on the phone begging strangers for help, resources and/or funds. My fight for the mental health Carl needed over the next six years included therapists, psychiatrists, counselors, attorneys, psychological testing, law suits against local School Board, numerous unproductive meetings and red knees from praying but every single time I thought I had the answer, a tragedy would strike from outer space and topple all the hard work into ashes. Hope was hard to come by but it was all I had. Carl’s drug exploration continued until the day he disappeared when he was just two months past his eighteenth birthday in 1984 when there were no resources for missing young adults.
Jennifer was six years old the last time she saw Carl. He was celebrating his eighteenth birthday at their grandmother’s house. He was getting his driver’s license, a car and his freedom. There was a big fight and he got into his car.
The last picture taken of the three of us in March, 1984. Twenty-eight years later, Ava was gone too in that same month.
Jennifer ran outside to tell him she loved him but hesitated. He drove off not knowing he was leaving the six-year-old forever blaming herself for his disappearance sure that if she had told him how much she loved him as she intended to do, he would have stayed and been safe. No amount of words, therapy or assurances ever convinced her otherwise.
The only thing consistent about Jennifer’s father was his absence…emotional and physical. Jennifer’s losses were coupled with challenges she had from birth. Days old, she began displaying severe separation anxiety. When I tried to take a shower or do anything without Jennifer glued to my hip, she would cry so hard she would hyperventilate. This little one was presenting challenges the pediatricians would categorize as spoiling her. They didn’t know anything about mental health…only physical.
Washing her hair was like pure torture to her. She screamed so loudly the first time I washed her hair that the neighbors came running to see what was wrong with her. They saw me holding her closely while she was on the kitchen counter next to the sink, my hand gently messaging her head while the water trickled. I was as stunned as they were. I didn’t know until after her death that this is one of the symptoms of Asperger Syndrome in children!
Dropping Jennifer off at pre-K was always a traumatic experience to her. She would stand at the windows watching as I drove off as if it was going to be the last time she ever going to see me.
Out of compassion and understanding of this child’s challenges, I spent all my non-working time with her trying to give her the love and support she needed. But, Jennifer’s need for love was insatiable. There was no way I could fill the void Jennifer’s father and brother left behind but I sure tried to give her lots of love and stability because I discovered early on that her brain didn’t process like most and I didn’t know anything else to do.
From past experience, I knew the public school system didn’t know how to deal with an intelligent child who couldn’t “fit” into a box so I moved back into Mom’s so Jennifer could attend the private Christian school affiliated with our church. I kept waiting for Jennifer to settle into the school but even these teachers weren’t trained to know how to deal with a child who didn’t fit into the mold.
The therapist Jennifer had been seeing since age ten was seeing wasn’t any help either. I withdrew her before the seventh grade and home schooled this hormonal hellcat for the next year. As Jennifer progressed through puberty, she resented her body changes…willing it not to happen. She told me she didn’t want to be a woman. It was during those pre-teen years that she started talking about suicide. Jennifer’s psychiatrist didn’t know what to do with her either never giving a hint of treatment or diagnosis.
In the hope of getting Jennifer outside of herself, I had kept her enrolled in many activities from modeling, modern dance to ballet to competitive ice skating since she was two years old. It was one of Jennifer’s older friends at the ice skating rink when Jennifer was eleven years old who mentioned to me that she, herself, had a chemical imbalance and that it might just be what was wrong with Jennifer. I didn’t know what that meant and, in 1990, there wasn’t much available about it…no internet or resources at the public library about this brain malfunction. What I did learn was it was possible for the brain to fail to produce the right chemicals for the brain to process information properly. That sure sounded like it might be the answer but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just drugging Jennifer as none of her therapists ever mentioned this disorder. Drugging my daughter for everyone else’s convenience wasn’t going to happen. I wanted to make sure that Jennifer’s demanding, narcissistic, clingy tendencies weren’t due to me needing to be more or do more.
The summer of 1991 was tragic. Jennifer was involved with an unitarian youth group who allowed the thirteen-year-old Jennifer to associate with an eighteen-year-old pedophile. After the pedophile raped her, Jennifer dissociated for the first time. She became more outwardly angry at me and more inward in her behavior until she attempted suicide just six days before my father died. Knowing how much Jennifer hated doctors and needles, I was sure the Emergency Room visit would surely jerk her out of her strange behavior. Strangely, it fed the monster which always needed more and more attention. I now know that she was exhibiting symptoms of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
It was time. Medication was in order. First the doctors tried Prozac but to no avail; they doubled and tripled it but nothing helped her chronic, severe depression. They tried every anti-depressant available but nothing worked. In fact, her depression got worse.
It was 1992 when I purchased our first home (with no job, no money or reliable income) through an elderly gentleman who owned hundreds of rental houses. I did all the paperwork for a seller finance and presented it to him; I could because I had been in the real estate legal business for many years. The owner was very happy to help us realize our dream. However, being in this house would mean Jennifer would have to attend public school. The good news, as I told her, was she could start off with a clean slate. No one knew she’d been raped or knew any of her past. It would be up to her to share what she wanted. She could just be fourteen years old and try out for team sports at the new high school while the doctors played with her meds. They gave her Zoloft which is now (20 years later) said to cause suicidal and even homicidal episodes in teens.
Public school proved to be a disaster for Jennifer as it was for Carl. During the summer of 1992, Jennifer started acting strangely aggressive and defensive. I asked her to sit down and talk with me about what she was going through. We realized she was steeling herself for going back to the public school. I couldn’t put her through it. I searched our new community for a private school to put her in and there was one. All I needed was six thousand dollars. It might as well have been six million as I was still self-employed. Somehow, I made it happen and everything rocked along for the next school year and summer until the wheels started falling off the wagon again.
I registered her for the private school again because I had no direction from any of her therapists, the school or my counselors. Plus, I needed to find work. I couldn’t keep this up no matter how much I wanted to be home for her. In March, 1993, I went back to work full-time. In May, Jennifer called me to say she was going to kill someone at school and then herself. I walked out of work without even telling anyone what had happened.
When I got home, she was sitting in her room holding a knife totally dissociated. I couldn’t reach her at all. I cried and phoned everyone I knew to call…therapists, doctors, family, school. Finally, my only choice was to call the police. Here I was again but, this time with my daughter. I hadn’t had any good experiences with getting help from the police before so I didn’t have any good expectations with this scene either.
I hadn’t had any good experiences with getting help from the police before so I didn’t have any good expectations with this scene either. She was on large doses of Zoloft. She was now sixteen years old. The most amazing thing happened when the police came. They were wonderful! They spent hours talking with her, helping her reconnect with reality. We dodged another bullet but not for long.
By the time she was seventeen, I had gone as far as I could go without having another nervous breakdown. I was drowning. I had to keep my own head above water if I wanted to help this strong-willed, independent, recalcitrant, self-destructive, narcissistic, chronically depressed, drop out teen. She thought she had all the answers and, by now, was wanting emancipation. I felt I had done all I could do and the world would have to finish raising her.
Every weekend for six weeks, I sold everything in our home. I rented the house out and moved in with a friend. She asked what she was supposed to do and I told her to call her father because I didn’t have any more answers to her questions. For the first time in her life, her father was there for her even if it was for selfish reasons. His mother had recently died and he needed someone to pack up her belongings and label the boxes. She could move into her other grandmother’s house if she was willing to do the work. Jennifer moved in and turned that quiet neighborhood on it’s ears with her tattooed friends and late night partying. After a respite, I could give her a helping hand up as long as she was helping herself.
Jennifer and I with Santa - our annual tradition - for the last time, 1994
It was late 1994 when I heard her sing opera aria for the first time as we packed her up to move. I couldn’t believe my ears. She was blessed! She needed to be learning music. It had always been her passion from birth. It was the only thing that would calm her down as a fretful baby or as a disturbed teen. She delved herself into all kinds of music. She never discriminated…heavy metal bands, hair bands of the 80’s, Mozart, big band sounds, opera, jazz, blues…everything. It was then that I told her I would provide for her living expenses (except for gas, car insurance and spending cash) as long as she obtained her GED and registered for a full schedule at the community college toward a degree…any degree. She now had a dream and her private lessons started immediately as she obtained her GED and moved forward with her college goals.
Ava (formerly known as Jennifer) was chosen to work with Ben Vereen in her theater class in 2006!
The next ten years were wrought with name changes (to Ava), psychiatrists sleeping through sessions, group therapy, medications, breakdowns, suicide attempts, failed treatments, successes, failures, highs, lows, research into what was wrong with her and, finally, marriage to the wrong guy.
It was a therapist who finally diagnosed Ava right before her marriage (in 2006) as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). She has a diary full of documented moods, thoughts and fears. She was very fearful…of everything and nothing. It is one of the most prevalent common denominator of this brain malfunction. When she was diagnosed, there wasn’t much research about this condition.
In the meantime, her psychiatrist was treating her for Bipolar Disorder with antidepressants and not even addressing her prior diagnosis at all. I have several family members in the mental health care industry in a range of jobs from admissions to certified therapists to college professors. They all say the same thing. Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis is one that has no chemical treatment and, until recently, little therapy treatments with any substantial result. The “professionals” appear to all have the attitude there is absolutely nothing which can be done to help people with this disorder.
There is hope, however, due to an ever-increasing diagnosis of this brain malfunction. There is a treatment called “Dialectical Treatment” which helps. It doesn’t have to end the way Ava chose to.
Ava was an opera singer in Las Vegas (an unforgiving town) married to the wrong person. She was bullied at work by her co-workers and at home by her estranged husband. She was exhausted from a grueling two year, accelerated college schedule trying to finish her degree in vocal performance so she could have financial freedom and all that would mean for her future.
She chose, however, to take advantage of the perfect storm. All her closest support members were in the Emergency Room dealing with life threatening issues. Friends in Vegas were oblivious of her despair or intentions as is customary with BPD.
Ava's 2011 headshot taken in Austria while studying at an opera workshop.
Ava took her life on the night of March 23, 2012. Since then, I’ve been caught up in a tsunami of grief and work.
It was during my drive back to Vegas just a few short weeks after her death to attend to Ava’s final affairs that I was “told” to create a website to help others. Not having any experience in such matters caused me great confusion about the directive. I argued and negotiated. I was “told” to “just ask.” So I did. I asked all her friends in Vegas and they immediately responded “YES!”
At that time, I didn’t know that the suicide rate in Las Vegas was fifty percent higher than the national average.
With the help of Ava’s closest friends I now call my chirrens and through nothing short of many miracles, AvasCorner.org (AvasCorner.net and AvasCorner.com) was kicked off on December 2, 2012, just in time for the holidays…the month that has the highest suicide rate of the year.
I designed it and professional volunteers put the vision into action. Ava’s Corner, Inc. is a Georgia corporation with 501(c)3 non-profit public charity status with the IRS. We are a grassroots project to change lives giving them new ways of thinking about therapy through Art, Music, Yoga, Massage and more. We want to help our visitors find hope. The mental health industry may have given up on our loved ones with brain malfunctions, but AvasCorner.org (.net & .com) hasn’t. We’re here for them.