His Core Is Not Broken ~ The Challenges of Parenting a Super Feeler

How did we end up here? This is a common refrain parents of children with complex mental health and addiction challenges ask themselves. “Here” being both literal — emergency rooms, police stations, rehab, support groups, parole offices, mental health facilities, jail, dodgy neighbourhoods and countless other bewildering locations and situations — and metaphorical — lost, desperate, despairing.

I can’t possibly sum up the drama of the last two decades in a blog post, but the broad strokes are this: 22 years ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Sam who just spent his birthday in the psych ward of a hospital. No parent gazing upon their newborn sees this coming, it’s just not part of the parenting plan. 

As a child, Sam was very busy and curious about the world. He’d spend hours in a frog pond studying the small things in life like water bugs, minnows and newts. He noticed details to a depth that eludes most of us and he had endless questions about how the world worked. But mostly he was curious about people, he would share keen observations about the human condition with us and he was constantly preoccupied with how everyone around him was feeling. It was as if he absorbed other peoples’ emotions into his own body, often to his own detriment. He still does this. 

Sam is unique, and as a result, he has legions of “Sam Fans,” the name I’ve given to those outside the family who have gone out of their way to tell me that they have a special place in their heart for my sweet, inquisitive boy.

What is a Super Feeler?

According to Tom Boyce’s book, The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Sensitive Children Face Challenges and How All Can Thrive, a ‘dandelion child’ is biologically resilient. No matter the conditions surrounding them — soil, sun, rain — they will thrive because their genes protect them from environmental assault, they can even grow in a crack in the concrete. He argues that four-fifths of children appear to be ‘dandelions’, but the remaining fifth are ‘orchids’, children who are more exquisite, and unusual, and have a higher potential than dandelions — but for this to be realized they require a particular environment and careful gardening.

I have two younger children who are dandelions, but Sam is my oldest, so I was not attuned to his super sensitivity until he was diagnosed with severe ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and anxiety at nine years old. The diagnosis of ADHD threw me off because he did not seem to fit the stereotypical profile of a kid with ADHD as I understood it. Sam was often in his own head and still is — I call it “Sam Land” — nor was he disruptive at school.  He was the quiet, withdrawn kid in the corner of the classroom, but at home, he would have big meltdowns. Over the years I have come to understand ADHD better, but I can’t help but think that a more accurate label for Sam would be ADID (Attention Deficit Impulsive Disorder). Why is there nothing in the DSM-5 named that? 

Sam’s challenges have continued to evolve and over the last year, it feels like there might be more than just ADHD going on. There have been lots of attempts to nail down a new diagnosis, but the outcome has been shockingly inconsistent. I know that it is important to put a label on him so that we can move forward with a treatment plan and the proper medication, but none of the current theories seem to address the heart of the issue: my beautiful boy’s core self that once shone so brightly has become disturbingly dark.

It is hard as a parent to allow oneself grace and not bear the full brunt of the responsibility for this. I look back and there are at least a thousand things I would do over if I could go back in time, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. As Maya Angelou famously said, “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Hope is a Place

Sam’s super sensitivity combined with his anxiety, impulsivity, distrust of medication and lack of therapeutic buy-in, created some pretty challenging situations until he made the brave decision to attend Pine River Institute (PRI) a month shy of his 17th birthday.   

Pine River’s motto is ‘Hope is a Place’, and it was more than a place, it was a Godsend. 

PRI is an intensive treatment program near Shelburne, Ontario for youth aged 13 to 19 who are experiencing a profound failure to thrive. For prospective students at PRI, school and relationships have been a massive struggle, most have had run-ins with the law, attempted suicide, had multiple hospital visits for their mental health and have struggled with addiction. 

Pine River is not a band-aid solution. The stay at PRI is a year and a half on average and it could best be described as a therapeutic boarding school with a wilderness therapy component. But most amazing of all, it is a publicly funded program with just a few private beds; in other words, the cost is not a barrier to entry. 

I can not underscore enough what a game-changer Pine River was for all of us. When a student enters Pine River it is expected that the parents will engage in their “parallel process” program where they do their own work to figure out how we all ended up there. 

My personal growth during this period was enormous. When Sam entered Pine River I believed it was a shameful step back, but now I look back on this time with nostalgia because I honestly believe Pine River was the best thing that ever happened to me individually and to us as a family. By this time my marriage had ended and I had to attend workshops with my ex-husband and his new partner where we all learned how to work together towards the same goal as a reconstructed family unit. Alongside other students and their families, we thrived in this incredibly caring community where everyone was engaged in a struggle that felt real, vulnerable, and important.

Puzzle Pieces 

Dropping Sam off at Pine River felt like dumping a huge jigsaw of tiny puzzle pieces on the floor and asking them to help us put it together. Suffice it to say, during that year and eight months many pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Although it was hard work and Sam chafed at the lack of autonomy, the time he spent at PRI contains some of his happiest memories and is the only time in the past decade when he has truly thrived. When Sam left Pine River three years ago he was full of self-confidence and ready to take on the world. We all were. 

But life is a complex puzzle that I suspect is best solved backwards. The past few years have been a slow, steady, backslide to the emotional space we were in before Pine River. Not surprisingly, COVID did not help. 

Reflecting back on it there are lots of reasons why we were set up for failure, but principal among them is this: Pine River was a safe container, life is not.

Pine River’s aftercare has greatly improved since we left the program, but when Sam left it was optional, and Sam opted out. That was his prerogative, but I wish his father and I had been given the option to continue aftercare without him. During the months following Sam’s transition home from Pine River, I felt totally out of my depth, especially when the honeymoon phase was over and familiar dysfunctional family patterns started up again which included, for Sam, going off of prescribed medication and self-medicating with cannabis

A lot has happened, and not happened, in the past few years, but to sum it up Sam ended up languishing in my basement and it felt like we had all given up on him. 

When things hit yet another crisis point and living with him became unsustainable, I started doing research to see if there wasn’t another program that would offer him the same safe container for his emotions that Pine River did, but meet him where he is at now; a little older and wiser, but in need of structure while maintaining some autonomy over his life. 

I believe I did find the (almost) perfect program at the John Volken Academy (JVA) in Surrey, BC. JVA is a therapeutic community for adults aged 19-44 that is peer mentor led with additional support from professional therapists. It is a two-year program that not only addresses the source of addiction and the complex mental health reasons for it but also establishes work placements for its students and allows them the opportunity to continue with their education. Students leave JVA armed with a new sense of self and valuable skill sets that they can carry forward throughout life. There is transitional housing on the campus where graduates can live in their own subsidized bachelor pad for up to another year. It is also heavily subsidized and has a one-time entrance fee of $5,000. The only thing I would change about it would be to take it off a busy suburban street in Surrey and move it to a farm in Ontario. 

But since that is impossible, and nothing equivalent exists in Ontario, on a wing and a prayer Sam and I flew out to BC last September to check out the John Volken Academy.

Magical Thinking

In hindsight, neither of us got on that plane with a covert agenda, but both of our plans involved a healthy dose of magical thinking. My agenda was to get Sam to walk through the doors of the John Volken Academy, his was to have some autonomy and get a fresh start in a province that he had been told was beautiful. 

I knew he wasn’t completely sold on the idea of JVA, he told me as much, but amazingly Sam did walk through their door! I was so grateful for yet another game-changer opportunity. I envisioned his life full of newfound promise and possibility but this time I felt better prepared for the aftercare. 

Unfortunately, he lasted just one night.  

The next day Sam called me from The John Volken Academy to say that he flew out to Vancouver to give the program a try, but he just wasn’t ready yet so he was going to check himself into a local homeless shelter. I had mentally prepared myself for this possibility and I had my response ready. I told him I respected his decision and I trusted that he would figure it out, hung up, and had a good cry.

Flying home without Sam was one of the hardest things I will ever have to do, but one of the biggest lessons Sam’s father and I learned through the parallel process at Pine River was that rescuing him was not just crazy-making for us, it was a huge disservice to him. It was clear that we were stuck in a very codependent relationship that needed shifting. 

Over the years I feel like we tried everything in our power to course correct, but we were doing all “the work” and all our rescuing did was make his rock bottom softer, and lower, and cause him to lose faith in his ability to rescue himself. Somehow, someway, we had to lovingly disengage from the drama and give Sam back ownership of his own life. Ultimately the only thing left to do was to put up some healthy boundaries around ourselves and let him go. 

Letting Go

They say that letting go takes love, but mostly it means accepting that we are powerless over someone else’s journey. Truthfully I had thought he would bottom out quickly in the shelter system, three weeks tops, and then return to JVA for help. But Sam is far more resourceful and resilient than I gave him credit for and he lasted eight long, mentally gruelling months, homeless on the streets of BC while I had to learn how to get comfortable with uncomfortable emotions and let go on a level that I didn’t know was possible to endure. 

In the end, neither of us got the outcome we had hoped for. Living in shelters and various seedy places didn’t exactly live up to the bumper sticker promise of ‘Beautiful BC’, and as time went on he became increasingly closed-minded and strident about attending JVA. In May, just days before his 22nd birthday, he checked himself into the hospital because he felt like he had become a danger to himself.

Rescue Mission

I still have to figure out when being supportive becomes enabling, when to let go, and when to hold on tight. It is possible that we rescued him again at the exact rock bottom moment when we shouldn’t have, but the message had become abundantly clear: Sam was never going to take advantage of the opportunity that was being presented to him so we need to come up with a compromise, something in the middle of where he’s at now and where we’d like him to be.

Super long story short, a few weeks ago Sam’s father flew out to BC to perform a rescue mission. Flying home was not an option because Sam is not vaccinated so they rented a car and drove back to Ontario. The plan was for Sam to stay with his dad for a few weeks while we figured out a new course of action, one that would allow us to hold our new boundaries but get him on a better path. 

Unfortunately, the drive did not go well and Sam is currently in a mental health facility in Orillia. 

The other day Sam called me from the hospital sounding incredibly clear and lucid. He said that he didn’t want to attend the John Volken Academy because the pace was too hectic for him and it’s located in the heart of a busy city, not like the rural peacefulness of Pine River which was such a healing environment for him years ago. What he really thinks he needs is to live on a farm where he can milk cows and plant crops, he said if he had that to keep him busy it would be so therapeutic that he wouldn’t even need to smoke cannabis to cope. 

My mind was blown. 

Sam knows nothing about Eli’s Place and my involvement in it, he still doesn’t because it doesn’t exist yet, but I couldn’t help but be amazed at how closely what Sam feels he needs to heal and move forward with his life aligns with the vision for Eli’s Place. 

And I couldn’t help but feel gutted that Eli’s Place is not open yet. 

From Surviving to Thriving

I don’t know where any of this is going, but this is what I do know: Sam’s core is not broken.  

I want my beautiful boy back, and I know that if he can find his way back to rediscovering his core self — that sweet, lovable, super-feeler of a boy, my orchid — then mental illness can become mental health, and his super sensitivity will be transformed into a superpower. 

With every fibre of my being, I believe that Sam can become a wildflower in a field of dandelions, different, but beautiful, and just as resilient. 

However, I don’t see how it can be done without an intervention like Eli’s Place. Eli’s Place is built around a therapeutic model which believes that the way back to one’s self is by becoming through belonging. Eli’s Place can become a unique therapeutic community that will transform young adult mental healthcare in Canada, a place where hope not only grows but nurtures our most vulnerable young adults back to health so they can thrive. 

I just hope Eli’s Place is built in time for Sam and the other young adults who need it. 

Eli’s Place will be a rural, residential treatment program for young adults with serious mental illness. To learn more about our mission and our proven-effective model click here.

Sara Moore | Eli’s Place Volunteer

Sara Moore is keen to see Eli’s Place open its doors and volunteers on the communications committee where she has used her skills as a graphic designer. Recently she started a glamping business in northern Ontario called Deer Lake Wilderness Retreat. She’s looking forward to Phase II which will involve hosting workshops around the theme of mental health. 

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