Liza Long looks to her son
as a mentor.
In the third week of September 16 years ago, I met my second son for the first time. A difficult pregnancy with preterm labor and several long, tedious weeks of bed rest concluded anticlimactically with an apparently healthy baby born on his due date, a relatively easy two-hour labor. He was loud about announcing his arrival into the world but quieted quickly when the doctor placed him in my arms.
Any mother and most fathers can tell you about “The Gaze,” that first moment when your newborn child fixes his or her eyes on you and makes him/herself the center of your world. Michael was a master of The Gaze. As I stared into his endless midnight-blue eyes, I was possessed by a sudden strange thought:
This soul is much older than I am.
The moment stayed with me through my son’s agonizing marathon toddler tantrums that grew into inexplicable preschool rages, continuing right up until he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 13.
I was and am his caregiver. But I have always felt an ancient wisdom when I’ve looked in his still-deep blue eyes, a sense of timelessness that transcends our relationship and his illness. Michael is an old soul.
I’m not even really like that. I’m the science girl, not the New Age one. I read quantitative studies and consider outcomes and sample sizes and effects, not the ineffable but undeniable power of my child’s mind.
But now that he is celebrating his 16th birthday, I think about everything he has had to overcome in his brief life: the night terrors, the paranoia, the overwhelming sensory swamp, the dysgraphia, the bullying from peers, the teachers and principals who have said, “He has so much potential. Why does he act this way?”
I think of his four stays in juvenile detention, his three hospitalizations. I think of the keen loss he experienced when he was separated from his siblings for several months. I think of the hole in his heart created when his father left him.
This second son of mine has fought so much harder for happiness than most of us ever have to.
September 2016 – Heroic Pose
The thing is, he’s winning. Despite the illness, despite the odds, Michael is winning. Maybe not every day, but slowly, bit by bit, his resilience, my son’s old soul, that ageless wisdom, that precocious sense of humor, keeps him from the abyss that rocks below every cradle, but especially below the cradles of our children who have mental illness.
I am his caregiver, his mother. But he has taught me lessons about humility and strength, about perseverance, and about forgiveness. His experiences with his own “different” brain have taught him to be so much more tolerant of others’ differences, and he has taught me by example.
Mental health is important to all of us. But people with mental illness have to work so much harder at it. My son is my hero. As I watch him claim the life he deserves, I remember that day when we first met, when he caught me in the power of The Gaze. This is a young man who will go far in life. This is a young man who can teach me a few things. I look forward to learning more from him than I already have.
Photos: Liza Long
This post was originally featured on The Anarchist Soccer Mom