When my eldest daughter Felicity was a teenager, she could be moody and sullen and emotional. She was very hard to live with. I thought she was a ‘normal’ teenager.
We tend to judge other people’s experiences by what we know, what we have experienced ourselves. Most people label teenagers as difficult. Felicity was our first child. Of course her behaviour was typical of a child her age, or so I thought.
I tried to put myself into Felicity’s shoes, to think back to when I was her age. I remembered being sullen myself. I’d withdraw into a mood and refuse to be enticed back to happiness by my very patient mother. It was my way of responding to those hard years of being almost grown up but not being allowed the freedom or trust I felt I was ready for. I was drifting between childhood and adulthood and yes, it was difficult. I assumed Felicity was going through a similar experience.
Some days Felicity was ‘normal’. I’d watch her carefully when she got up in the morning. Was this going to be a bad day or a good one? When she smiled and was chatty, I sighed with relief. On those days we’d sit around the table sipping coffee and talking about all sorts of things. Felicity was very open and our conversations were deep and satisfying. She was delightful company and I thought, “If only all days were like this one.”
Sometimes Felicity would be in a good mood but then all of a sudden I’d realise she was slipping away into her moody world. When I talked to her she responded in short curt sentences. I could feel her emotions becoming cooler and more remote. At these moments my heart sank. I did everything I could to draw her back into our warm and loving world where we could communicate properly. I’d smile and offer love, say nice things. I’d ask her if she’d like to do something special with me. Felicity would shrug her shoulders and I’d find myself driving her to town so we could have mother-daughter time in a café. After ordering coffee and huge cakes (which she didn’t need but I was willing to buy if it helped), I’d try to talk to Felicity and keep her engaged. My efforts didn’t often work.
There were many days when I ended up frustrated. I’d shout such things as, “I spend so much time with you. I try so hard and you refuse to respond. Do you realise everyone is going to get fed up with you if you continue like this? What more can I do?”
The huge amount of time I gave to Felicity was time I didn’t give to our other children. I resented this, especially as my efforts didn’t seem to be appreciated.
Felicity is a talented person. She is musical. She can write. She can draw. And she is clever in so many other ways. During her teenage years she played the piano and clarinet, and she sang.
Sometimes when Felicity was practising the piano, I’d walk by and as soon as she realised I was there, her hand would jerk and a book would disappear out of sight. She’d resume her practice instantly as if she’d been playing all along and not reading the first book that came to hand. “Felicity’s lazy. She has no commitment,” I’d say with frustration. “Haven’t I taught her to be hard working? We’ve paid for all those lessons. She wants to study music at the conservatorium but she’d rather read than work hard. She’ll never make it.”
Felicity didn’t make it to the conservatorium. Her confidence seeped away. Her commitment disappeared. Even her ability seemed to desert her. I listened to her practising the piano the day before a big exam. She made so many silly mistakes over and over again. In the end she asked if she could miss the exam. We agreed. It was a relief for all of us.
But there were times when Felicity’s ability and confidence were awe-inspiring. When she was in the examination room doing her 6th grade clarinet exam, she discovered her teacher hadn’t prepared her to play enough of the set pieces. She was one piece short. The examiner pointed out an appropriate piece of music in her book and asked her to give it a try even though she hadn’t worked on it. Felicity came home with a triumphant look on her face, and a grade A result.
And there were many times when Felicity stood up in front of hundreds of people at Mass and sang solo so beautifully. Yes, I thought God had given her extraordinary talents. I was afraid she was wasting them due to a lack of self-discipline.
So Felicity changed her mind about studying music at the conservatorium. What was she to do instead? I tried to help her by making some suggestions. Could she do a Bachelor of Arts degree and study writing? She’d always enjoyed writing and was good at it. She’d completed a few Open University units and achieved high distinctions and distinctions. I knew Felicity would be able to cope with the work.
Somehow we found ourselves talking about a TAFE horticulture course. It wasn’t necessary to get high grades to be accepted on this course. I thought Felicity was aiming too low. She had the talent to achieve so much more. It wasn’t as if she had shown a passion for plants either. But after Felicity began talking about making a career out of being a check-out assistant in a supermarket, I said, “Find out the course details.”
Felicity never did enrol in that course. She continued to cry, “What shall I do? I just don’t know.”
“You don’t have to decide right now,” I replied. “You’re young. There’s plenty of time to make a decision.” But this didn’t help. Felicity seemed to have a real need to know what she was expected to do right then and there. And I couldn’t help her.
While all this was going on Felicity worked as a casual at a supermarket. She got the job with the aim of saving money and buying herself a better clarinet, and for a time her savings grew. Then she started frittering her money away. Before all her money disappeared I dragged her down to the music shop and we bought the clarinet. I don’t think she ever used it.
One thing she did want to buy was lollies and chocolate, family sized packets which she ate by herself. We’d find the lolly wrappers hidden away under her bed. Rather, her super-spy sisters would find the evidence. I guess our family started to divide, with Felicity on one side and us on the other. No one else would consider eating a big packet of lollies on their own. Why did she? I suggested she bought sweet treats openly and share them around.But this wouldn’t have satisfied her need, the need we didn’t understand.
Of course, Felicity’s weight steadily increased. I began to worry about this. I tried to talk to her about it. It wasn’t healthy. She’d
regret it later when she realised she’d have to diet. She should exercise more. I’d say, “Come on, we’re going for a walk.” Felicity would reluctantly put down her book and follow me outside. She walked behind me, her head down, barely lifting her feet off the ground. However slowly I walked, she could go slower. In the end, I’d shout at her and head for home: “You are impossible to help!”
There were times when Felicity cried, “I have no friends!” Her crying was always dramatic and noisy, with tears rolling down her face in torrents. Actually Felicity had more friends than her siblings have ever had. We’d take her to every possible homeschooling gathering. She invited friends over for sleep-overs. She visited her friends in return.
During her homeschooling years, I said, “Do you want to go to school? You’d see a lot of people there. You could make some new friends.” But just like every other suggestion I made, this one was rejected. It was as if I could never help her however hard I tried. I thought she wanted to complain but wasn’t really interested in finding a solution. And so I got frustrated. I can remember many times when I gave up and my mood of trying to help turned into one of anger. I’d yell. We’d both yell. I’d leave her, slamming the door on the way out. A moment later, I’d return wanting to say more. Didn’t Felicity know how difficult she was making my life?
I could tell you so many more stories of those years. I could write an individual post about every paragraph of this post. But perhaps I have recorded enough.
I thought Felicity was a normal teenager exhibiting normal teenage behaviour. She had good days. She had bad days. Very bad days. I thought she was sullen and moody, lazy and undisciplined.
I tried to help but got so frustrated when I thought Felicity wouldn’t let herself be helped. I yelled and got frustrated and wanted to give up. I invaded her privacy. I didn’t trust her. I didn’t show her unconditional love. I didn’t parent her at all in an unschooling kind of way.
Do you think that would have made any difference? Maybe it would have alerted me to the fact that she was suffering from more than the need for respect and trust. It might have made me realise she wasn’t a ‘normal’ teenager, but one with special needs. And even if I’d never worked it out, doesn’t everyone deserve to be treated with kindness, respect and love?
Felicity had a very difficult time as a teenager. She didn’t understand why. I didn’t understand. We both didn’t know.
If you’d like to read Felicity’s post it can be found on her blog Felicity’s Felicity. It is called The Mentally Ill Teen and Other Memories.
Reading Felicity’s post, the words that stand out for me are these:
“I also took my rising desire to prove myself as individual, to have different looks and hobbies and interests to my mum’s, as a very bad thing. I felt guilty about wanting to be different, so I would take any criticism of my appearance or interests very badly.”
Maybe I can explore that in another post.
Image: A happy day, cooking with Andy. Did I ever tell you Felicity is a fantastic cook?