Jeanne Clark hopes her daughter, Maya, can come home for Mother’s Day.
Clark, 63, has outlived two husbands and all three of her natural-born children. Maya came into her life nine years ago when Clark was serving as a foster parent. Maya’s mother had been heavily addicted to drugs, and Maya was born with alcohol and drugs coursing through her bloodstream. Clark took her in when she was three days old, full-term but weighing just 4 pounds.
Clark knew she had chosen something big when she adopted Maya two years later.
“She hit every milestone, but she never slept,” Clark said. “She took 20-minute power naps.”
It took a few years before Maya’s first diagnosis came: fetal alcohol syndrome. At age 7 came another one: bipolar disorder.
For Clark, and Wanda White and Deirdre Stubel and other Denton County families touched by mental illness, Mother’s Day can be as unpredictable as their daily lives. But the love and connection they share is no different than what other families experience.
It was the manic episodes that kept Clark on her toes when Maya was a preschooler. She had high pain thresholds. Maya would climb up on the kitchen counter and walk right off as if she could walk on air. When she started kindergarten, she didn’t sleep for a week. Her power naps dwindled to 15 seconds long. That meant no sleep for Clark that week.
“You have to watch her,” Clark said. “But when she’s awake, she’s not going to let you sleep either.”
Maya, now 9, also had severe pica, a disorder that includes a drive to eat generally non-nutritive items. Clark had learned to keep certain items, such as medicines and cleaning fluids, secured.
“You could never set anything down — either it was in my hands or locked up,” Clark said, adding, “The people at poison control knew my voice.”
As Maya has gotten older, the depressive episodes have become more pronounced. Some have required hospitalization. Clark said that since she and Maya moved to Denton from Azle last year, she has been able to line up more resources nearby and that has helped.
The first time Maya needed hospitalization, it was difficult finding a bed. Clark scrambled to find something, anything, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“They were all filled and none had a bed for a young child,” Clark said. After a day and a half, she finally found a spot for her at Timberlawn Mental Health System in South Dallas.
The doctors adjusted her medicine and she had been doing better until last week.
When she came home from school Wednesday, Maya told her mother she tried to swallow tacks. When she tried to walk in front of a car a little later that day, Clark took her to Denton County MHMR’s new psychiatric triage clinic, and employees there were able to help Maya find a hospital bed.
School is hard for Maya, but the teachers and district personnel are wonderful, “and I volunteer like crazy up there,” Clark said.
She knows the prognosis for one diagnosed with bipolar disorder so young isn’t good, but Clark hunts up community resources wherever she can. Nationwide, Texas ranks 49th in per capita expenditures for mental health, according to an analysis by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Recently, Clark found social skills training that she thinks will help Maya learn what she needs for school and for life. She also tries to help Maya be mindful of her illness and to learn to take care of herself, remembering to get enough sleep and to take her medicine.
Earlier last week, during her time with an occupational therapist, Maya wove a butterfly in purple and pink beads for a Mother’s Day gift. Sometimes they celebrate special days by going to McDonald’s, but for now, Clark must wait for her daughter to be well enough to come home.
She hopes people won’t jump to the conclusion that adopting a child with special needs is too much of a burden.
“You get so much more than you give,” Clark said. “I’m just thankful I have Maya. I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
Denton resident Wanda White was reluctant to attend support group meetings with the National Alliance on Mental Illness after her son was first diagnosed with mental illness two decades ago. The stories that some of the other parents were sharing were a lot to absorb, she said.
“I didn’t want to hear it,” White said.
Her only son was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was in his early 20s. He spent two years at a state hospital, a decision White alternately questions and accepts.
“We have to learn however is the best way for us to learn,” White said.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a national, nonprofit organization that advocates for better services, treatment and community awareness of the mentally ill. The Denton County chapter meets every Monday in Double Oak and has fostered the start of many friendships, members say.
White said she hasn’t found it difficult to get care when her son is in crisis, especially when he recognizes that he’s in trouble and needs help. However, she has realized over the years that no hospital seems to keep psychiatric patients long enough to teach them habits that can help them live with their illness.
“The psychiatric hospitals have after-care programs — that’s key — but most people need to be in-patient longer,” White said.
Over the years, her family’s history has filled up with stories similar to those that she couldn’t bear to hear years ago. Still, the connection between her and her son remains, she said. He remembers occasions like her birthday and Mother’s Day sometimes, but not always.
She looks to God’s love as a model, and gives herself credit for picking up lots of good tools along the way.
“Anger begets anger,” White said. “Calm begets calm.”
And so, she is spending her weekend at Dallas’ Fair Park, in a walk that benefits NAMI. She was among the top five individual fundraisers for the annual event.
Deirdre Stubel calls her son, Jack, her sweet one.
She looks back now and realizes they may have missed warning signs when he was younger, trying to treat his attention-deficit disorder and depression instead of uncovering what was likely the early seeds of schizophrenia.
He had always struggled to stay organized. His first semester of college was his last. He didn’t go to class. He tried trade school, but at the beginning of the second semester he called his parents to bring him back home to Flower Mound. He was scared. They saw he was in real trouble.
“It’s common for people with mental illness to self-medicate,” Stubel said.
They took him to a rehab hospital to get clean and sober, but the hallucinations and delusions didn’t go away, she said. Jack hears voices. Most are positive. Some aren’t. But he finds all of them annoying.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he’s going through,” Stubel said.
As his mother, knowing when to help, and when not to, confounds her at times.
“He’s a 24-year-old man. He wants to be independent,” Stubel said, adding, “We all have a hard time with insurance companies.”
The family worked for a few years to help Jack find a solid footing with his medication. But last year, when Jack was searching for a new psychiatrist because his was retiring, he started having trouble again. Stubel and her husband knew they could call the police to get Jack to emergency care, if it came to that.
One night, Jack insisted he wanted to go out and needed his mother’s car keys. They knew Jack was in no shape to drive and refused him. There was enough of a scuffle between Jack and his father that they decided to call police.
Instead of taking Jack to a mental health crisis center, police arrested him for assault, Stubel said.
Two days before what was to be the final disposition in the case, Stubel and her husband awoke to the sound of Jack downstairs crying out in pain.
He had drunk drain cleaner.
The first 10 days were touch-and-go, Stubel said.
When it became clear he would survive, the real battle began. He couldn’t eat. There was too much scar tissue forming for him to swallow. A small hole in his esophagus meant he couldn’t drink water either. For four months, all his nutrition came via IV.
At first, he received little psychiatric care. Even though it was only a floor away at one hospital where he was recuperating, they refused to treat Jack there. The psychiatric staff wasn’t trained to handle his physical needs and vice versa.
“He was on hold,” Stubel said. “We spent the summer watching him get worse.”
He was assigned, in essence, a baby sitter simply to make sure he wouldn’t try suicide again.
One day, Stubel overheard the nurses talking. Jack knew it was time for his painkiller and had buzzed them. One nurse told the other there was no need to hurry, Stubel recalled, because “he had done this to himself.”
Eventually, Jack recovered enough that a surgeon was able to remove most of his damaged esophagus and build a new one from his stomach. Recovering from that surgery was difficult. Stubel said that she came to the quiet realization that they wouldn’t have had Jack go through the reconstruction if they didn’t think he had a good chance mentally and physically.
The gastroenterologist has helped Jack’s whole care, Stubel said. Scar tissue still grows aggressively and Jack has to have his throat stretched about once a month in order to be able to swallow his food.
One recent treatment didn’t take. The doctor broke the news as Jack awoke from the anesthesia. Stubel was stunned to hear her son apologizing to him. The doctor was surprised, too, and went about setting such talk aside.
“He told him, ‘Everyone deserves a second chance,’” Stubel said.
When her daughter, Jack’s older sister, came home from graduate school to celebrate Christmas this past winter, Stubel bought tickets for the three of them to go to a comedy club in Dallas. She realizes now that she had done it for herself. It had been a tough year and she wanted to see Jack smile and laugh again.
He did laugh a few times, but for the most part, he had to work hard to sit in that dark, crowded theater that night. As the evening rolled on, she could see he wasn’t enjoying himself, but he was determined to quietly stick it out.
“I realize now that he did it for me,” Stubel said.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.