Caroline’s story was featured on Beyond Blue’s podcast, Not Alone. You can listen to her episode here.
It’s a night Caroline will never forget.
She woke up at around 2am and decided to get out of bed. Walking past the room of her 12-year old son, James, she noticed his light was on.
“I saw him sitting at his desk, which was an odd place to be at that time of night,” she said.
“I asked him what was wrong and he said that he was feeling something that he didn’t understand and that it made him scared. He couldn’t explain it beyond the feeling of fear that it was coming from his own mind.”
Caroline knew her son had been struggling. Always a bright, animated character, James had begun to withdraw from aspects of life that he’d previously enjoyed. Activities, such as schooling, social events, even soccer.
But in that moment, looking into his frightened eyes in the middle of the night, a new reality set in.
“I realised what could hurt my child wasn’t necessarily something external,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily something physical. It was in his own mind. I didn’t know what to do with that.”
Even greater than the sense of fear, panic and confusion, Caroline and her husband felt an enormous sense of responsibility to find the solution. They questioned whether their parenting had in some way played a role.
“One of the horrible things about loving someone with a mental illness is that, as a parent, you second guess your skills all the time,” she said.
James’ distress reached a point where he couldn’t summon the energy to complete a whole day at school. Caroline would drop him off in the morning, only to receive a call an hour later to come and pick him up.
She enlisted professional help, starting with a GP. James soon began the first of many sessions with a psychologist.
“I was hoping that they would fix the problem,” she recalled.
Over the months and years that followed, another challenging reality settled in Caroline’s mind. This was no quick fix. And while James felt less agitated immediately following the sessions, the effect wasn’t lasting.
Then Caroline noticed something that she could never have imagined.
James was self-harming.
“The idea that I had to protect him from his mind was just life-changing,” she said. “I just loved him so much and I didn’t want him to hurt.”
For years, Caroline and her husband had searched for a solution to James’ pain. But solutions weren’t forthcoming.
“There’s a lot of stuff that, as a parent of someone who is experiencing mental distress you have to live with – accepting it and not trying to fix it,” Caroline said.
“Our horror at the self-harming wasn’t doing any good. It added to his shame.”
They made a decision. In spite of the anguish they felt, they would create an environment centred on love and affection.
It became known as the Love Bomb Strategy.
Instead of trying to fix James’ distress, Caroline and their family put their energy into reinforcing two simple notions. The first - that they were there. Always. And they would never give up on James, no matter how agitated he was.
The second was that they loved him more than he might ever imagine. If his mind was telling him he was worthless and alone, their mission was to reinforce exactly the opposite.
“This was our thing – when we least felt like hugging him, we knew he had to have one. When he was at his most angry or miserable, or just nasty, we were like, I don’t feel like hugging him but I’ve got to love this kid – I've got to dial it up to 10’.”
Caroline recalls, that paradoxically, “His behaviours might be the source of my distress, but he was also the source of my comfort.”
Caroline also pulled out her old watercolours out and drew affirmations on A3 sized paper, sticking them up around the house. They would say things like, Forgive yourself for what you didn’t do today and try again tomorrow, and even statements as simple as, You’re enough.
Another aspect central to the Love Bomb Strategy was to celebrate the wins. Whatever they were. Even if it was simply making it through the month.
“Forget VCE and celebrating your ATAR score, this kid hasn’t self-harmed for a week, two weeks, three months, six months... that is the big deal,” Caroline said.
Dumplings for dinner was a particular favourite.
These celebrations not only brought the family together – they gave James a sense of accomplishment.
And slowly, engulfed in love and support, his mental health improved. He was seeing progress with the therapy sessions and was able to engage with his schooling again.
“We went to a year 12 celebration, which we never thought we’d ever get to do,” Caroline said.
James felt a new sense of hope. He couldn’t wait to see what his next chapter held. After graduating from high school, he went to California to work as a summer camp counsellor, before heading to rural Mexico to teach English.
Upon his return, Caroline noticed a fresh bunch of tattoos. One in particular caught her eye.
Surrounded by roses, three bold letters. The word, MUM.
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