Like most parents, Melissa Espinoza is happy to show off cell-phone snapshots of her youngest son, Ethan. Him, with cupcake in hand at his recent zombie-themed 13th birthday party. The two of them at Steak 'n Shake, his favorite these days.
"He's having growth spurts," the 39-year-old says with a smile. "He's taller than me now."
The growing hasn't been limited to his height, though. During the past four years, the two have been challenged over and over again as they've learned to navigate Ethan's mental illness.
For the first two years, Espinoza did the work on her own. It was when a friend introduced her to the Colorado Springs chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness that things shifted in a big way.
Today, she says, "I think NAMI has been the reason that we can live through this and have peace."
When Ethan was 9, their family moved back to Colorado from Texas. Espinoza believes that was "the trigger that kind of set him into motion."
Ethan started having problems at school, and extreme mood changes at home. It seemed, she says, that he would get mad about the smallest things, and his anger would exceed a normal response. His rages would last sometimes up to an hour.
"I started to see a cycle," she explains. "He would get angry and frustrated, try to knock things over and get aggressive, and then after — he would burn all that energy out after a rage — he would go into the, 'I'm sorry Mom, I don't know why I act like this. What's wrong with me?'
"For a 9-year-old to cry and ask you what's wrong with him, is just heartbreaking."
A school psychologist told her that she needed to take Ethan's behavior seriously. He recommended psychiatric inpatient care at Cedar Springs Hospital, and since she didn't know what else to do, they went. Staff diagnosed him with a mood disorder (at the time, possible early-onset bipolar), anxiety and ADHD, and started him on medications during a four-day stay.
"It started to sink in, and at first it was just hard to accept. And I felt like maybe there was another reason that he was acting the way that he was," Espinoza says. "I wanted to find him help, of course, but thinking about him being on medications and being hospitalized, I just didn't want to do that to my son, but I felt like there was no other choice at that point."
Medications and meetings with counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists — and struggles with his school district to get him the help he needed — filled the following months. Espinoza was missing a lot of work trying to respond to everything, and the day-to-day was wearing on her. A co-worker who'd had similar issues with her own son told her about NAMI-Colorado Springs.
"I signed up for the Visions class, and that was the first time I met people that were going through exactly what I was going through," says Espinoza. "That was the first time I felt like that was our norm. And that was the first time I felt supported, not only in dealing with my son's behaviors, but in what I was feeling and what I was going through on this road."
Visions works specifically with parents and caregivers of younger children with a mental illness, but NAMI also offers Family-to-Family, for loved ones of adults with mental illness, and Peer-to-Peer, a class taught by those who, executive director Lori Jarvis-Steinwert says, are "stable and working hard to manage their own illness" for others struggling with the same issues.
"Oftentimes people come in here never really having talked about their illness outside of their immediate family," Jarvis-Steinwert says, and even then sometimes people haven't had much of a chance to talk about what they're dealing with."
All of NAMI's programs are free, and intentionally kept small (between 10 and 25 people depending on the group) so participants feel comfortable.
"If you think you could benefit from one of NAMI's programs, you probably can," Jarvis-Steinwert adds. "When I took Family to Family in 2010, I had no idea it existed. And so that's one of the big things we're trying to do, is make sure people know about us, so that when they need us, they know who we are and they know we're here. Because for too long people have not known that this resource exists."
Today Ethan's moods are stable through the help of medication and his family. And Espinoza shares her experiences with other parents as a co-leader for the Visions class and its ongoing monthly support group.
"One of the biggest reasons I became involved with NAMI is because I did not want to raise my son to be ashamed of something he has no control over. And I've seen that happen with others. I've seen them reject help. I've seen them reject stability and go the other direction, and I don't want that for my son.
"I think that's what pushed me the most," she continues, "because I want him to know that what he has is an illness. It's not his fault. And if other people judge him for that, that's on them, that's not on him."
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