When my stepson Evan was 8 years-old, he was having a lot of problems in school. This wasn’t really anything new–he has always had self-control issues. But because Eliza kept them away from us, we knew little about how severe his problems in school really were.
We suspected that he had a mental illness one random weekend when Eliza allowed the boys to spend the night. Evan arrived with a tiny blue pill in his hand. She had instructed Ethan to make sure he took it with dinner. When I noticed it I inquired about it. Ethan only ten at the time, couldn’t accurately articulate why he had to take the pill. He basically stated that it was because Evan “was acting bad in school and getting suspended a whole lot.” We were both alarmed. We had to wait for Eliza to pick the boys up before inquiring about the pill. At this time she did not allow us to have her phone number and only contacted us when it benefited her. When my husband attempted to ask her about it she told him that she would call him about it but never did.
Evan started second grade with us on a good note. However, three days into the school year, Evan was suspended for biting a classmate. A few weeks later we attended a skating party hosted by his school. None of Evan’s classmates would interact with him. Ethan confided in me later that several of the kids had approached him saying how scared of Evan they were! That was only the beginning.
My husband works over 45 minutes away from Evan’s school. And because my job is a lot closer, it was me who had to pick him up from school when he was suspended. Kid you not I left work at the minimum of three times per week to get him. Sometimes I would be fortunate enough that the call or email came at the tail end of the day. Evan’s school is dismissed at 2:00pm and ours at 2:45pm. I was saved by the bell many times by generous co-workers who knew of our situation. Often someone would cover my seventh period class so that I could leave.
I used to dread when my classroom phone rang beacuse it was usually the secretary informing me that my son’s school was on the line. The first time it happened it I felt a surge of fear. I thought something had happened to Nicholas. Afterall, I only had one “son.” After that I received so many calls from his school that I became embarassed. Surely the office staff would start to gossip about my “bad”child.
The majority of the time the calls came right before my lunch time. I would make a mad dash to grab him and drop him off at the sitter’s, sometimes sliding through my classroom door right before the minute bell rang. This went on for months. We had tried paying a child care service to pick him up when he was sent home for the day. This worked for a few weeks before the daycare provider grew tired of picking him up so frequently. She felt that it was taking away from her other clients. I was livid about what Evan was putting us through. I even secretly gave him a nickname: Crazy 8’s. Evan was obviously acting very “crazy,” he was 8 years-old, and he was a game aficionado. In fact, one time he was sent home for hitting the teacher because he could not finish playing the game.
Once while presenting at a writing conference I received “the call.” Unable to leave my husband had to pick him up. Eventually my husband learned that he was eligible for FMLA and his job would be protected when he needed to leave. However, this was a drain on our finances. My sister and aunt would pick Evan up when neither him or I could leave work. But at least we were fortunate enough that we had family who was willing to help us. I knew a woman who wasn’t so lucky.
I worked with Lisa my first year of teaching. I really didn’t know much about her other than that she was divorced and had a son. Shortly I discovered more about her when she started being absent 3-4 times a week. At first, we all thought she was ill and had no problems following the contingency plan that Ms. Johnson had established. The plan was that each English teacher had to take 5-8 of Lisa’s students each day that she was absent. Remember, this is high school, so that meant we would see an extra 25-40 students per day. And because her absences were not planned, there were no lesson plans that came along with her unruly bunch. It got old really fast. We were all annoyed about having to take on her responsibility in addition to our own.
One day we were all sitting around in the English office discussing Lisa and her absences. By then it had already leaked out that she was absent so frequently due to her young son, Austin who suffered from bipolar disorder, ADHD, and ODD. We were all beyond feeling empathy for her even though we knew that she was a single parent and that her extended family lived in Florida. Lisa was carrying the load all by herself. A few times she had even brought Austin to school as a last resort. I saw him a couple of times in the English office playing quietly. He was a cute little boy and seemed to have a sweet personality. In other words, he didn’t “look” like anything was wrong with him.
Honestly then I was ignorant about mental illness. I knew that bipolar disorder was a type of mental illness and what the other acronyms stood for but that was the sum of my knowledge. Everyone had opinions about what she should do, myself included. I made a comment wondering if Austin was truly bipolar and the room got quiet. Lisa had entered the area. If a hole would have opened up in the floor I would have hurled myself into it. I felt soooo bad.
To her credit, she did not indicate that she knew what we were discussing her life. But I am sure that she knew. At the end of the year she was let go due to her poor attendance. Shortly after that she moved back to her home state in order to get the support she needed.
Today I think about Lisa a lot because I am now walking in her shoes. Now I see what a journey it is. She would have a been a good resource for me to brainstorm with. I see Austin in Evan. On the surface, he looks peaceful, too. But what lies underneath is a very troubled child. I used to wonder if God was punishing me for my lack of understanding. But now I know that He is using Evan to teach me endurance, faith, and true compassion.
Evan’s behavior became so volatile and unpredictable that he was eventually placed in an alternative school for students with behavior problems. His behavior did not improve there, it actually worsened to the point that we finally relented to our last resort, residential treatment.
I have learned many things since Evan has been in our home. I have learned about the devastating toll that mental illness can take on a family. I learned what it really means to love unconditionally when you are pushed to the limit. I’ve learned to leave the judging up to God. Sometimes we don’t know what others are going through based solely on our superficial observances that we deem to be the gospel.