Ep. 27 | Ann Douglas – Finding Strength In The Storm
- Navigating mental health crisis as a family
- Working through grief as a family
- The choices with medication
In this episode, author and parenting specialist Ann Douglas describes the inescapable whirlwind of a mental health crisis. Through personal experience, Ann recognizes the challenge of finding harbours of safety when these winds of challenge blow through family life. Her 2015 bestseller Parenting Through The Storm is a compass for finding well placed harbours as we navigate our way through chaos to calmer waters. Join our conversation, as Ann shares with candor, kindness and compassion.
Ann DouglasAnn Douglas’s bestselling book series - “The Mother of All,” created the launch for what is now over 30 beloved literary guides for parents navigating the complicated waters of child growth and development. Many of her most influential books grew out of her own need to process and understand challenges within her own family life.
Through her books and speaking, Ann shares from her childhood and her mother’s frightening struggle with the hallucinations of Bipolar Disorder, and how that legacy of mental health continues with her own mental health challenges - and those of her (now adult) children. In addition to her acclaimed writing, Ann is also the weekend parenting columnist for CBC radio offering parents resources, support and hope.
Ann Douglas: Official Website
Ann Douglas: LinkedIn Profile
Transcript: Episode 27 | Ann Douglas – Finding Strength In The Storm
Rachel Cram – OK. Well, do you feel ready to go?
Ann Douglas – Definitely.
Rachel Cram – OK! Well today we are with author and parenting specialist, Ann Douglas and where I’d love to start is even just looking at the reasons why you write books because you have what, 30 books now?
Ann Douglas – About that. You know it’s funny because I have editions in Canada and the U.S. and internationally and sometimes I’ve done multiple editions of the same book. So I can’t keep track because I don’t know. Like this book, I may have literally written six times.
Rachel Cram – You’re a hard working woman.
Ann Douglas – I am
Rachel Cram – For the sake this interview I want to focus mainly on your last two books; Parenting Through The Storm which focuses on Mental Health; navigating that bumpy road as parents and as a family, and your newest book, Happy Parents Happy Kids, an invitation and endorsement for our self care as parents. Is that ok with you?
Ann Douglas – Yeah, that’s totally fine.
Rachel Cram – You are a wise and persuasive advocate for the importance of self care for parents and I realize that is informed by both your extensive research as well as your own personal experience. So, to begin, I really want to pick up on this one line that you have from Parenting Through The Storm where you say, “I hope I can help you to avoid spiraling downward to the same extent that I did when my children were struggling. I ended up nose diving into a three year long depression and gaining 100 pounds. So if I seem to preach self care a little too enthusiastically in this book it’s for good reason. I’m a pretty passionate convert.”
So Ann, with all your writing, you definitely always reflect your desire to support others through your extensive research of course but also through your own personal experience and discovery.
Ann Douglas – It’s funny because when you’ve been writing books for a while people will approach you with all kinds of different topics and in order to put the energy and passion that goes into literally spending years researching and writing and promoting a book, I have to care passionately about that subject. And often what has drawn me to writing about a particular topic has been a deeply personal experience.
I’m thinking back to one of my earlier books, which I’ll just touch upon briefly, it was called Trying Again and it was a guide to pregnancy after miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death. And it was the experience of going through stillbirth myself, that made me realize I want to talk to other people, other families who’ve been through this and how they came through the other side of that experience. And Parenting Through the Storm is in that same category. Having gone through the mill with my four kids over a very long and wearying six to ten years. And as you alluded, me getting completely physically and emotionally depleted.
Oh, it would’ve been so much easier if I’d known about self compassion. So that’s really why I want to write this book. I wanted to give people a message of hope that, yes things are really hard right now, and yes they can get a lot better.
And also you can take care of yourself in the meantime.
Rachel Cram – Well often as you’re leading into having children, you’re thinking about the baby room, the nursery, the wallpaper, the Ivory Snow detergent that you’re going to use.
Ann Douglas – That lovely smell.
Rachel Cram – Yes! And that’s wonderful to think about. And there’s really no way of preparing yourself for what the reality is. And not just on your own sense of identity but also your relationship with your partner.
Ann Douglas – Yeah. I think the intensity of the emotional experience of being a parent and how suddenly you’re reallocating some serious amounts of emotional energy in a different direction. And when children are very young, like if you just brought home a baby, that little human needs a huge amount of attention just to survive. That’s a fact of life. So you can’t avoid doing that. But I think that what you want to think over the longer term is, how can I maintain this sense of connection, and a lot of the couple’s research just boils down to a couple of simple things. Like, letting that person know that the relationship still really matters to you. Having a sense of humor. Laughing about the fact that every time you sit on the couch and things start to get a little bit romantic, of course the baby is going to wake up and start crying. It’s the way it always plays out. And not seeing that is something to be frustrated or angry about,
Rachel Cram – Or resentful.
Ann Douglas – Yeah. Just to say, that’s just the way it is right now and it won’t be that way forever. And looking for little opportunities to invest in the relationship. When I was a new mom I used to hate it when people would say something like one size fits all advice. Like, “It’s easy! Leave somebody with the baby for three hours.
Rachel Cram – Have a date night.
Ann Douglas – Yeah exactly. But what if the baby’s breastfeeding every 20 minutes right now? So, I think just figuring out what’s going to work for us right now and know that can evolve over time if you can just maintain that sense of connection and spark. And there will be rough times! I mean, I think that the things I’ve fought about with Neal the most over our 42 years as a couple, a lot of that is parenting related.
Rachel Cram – Well, and of course the intensities of your family life, and the power of that potential disconnect, is somewhat affected by the realities of who your children are.
Ann Douglas – Yeah. And the number of them and the spacing and the intensity.
Rachel Cram – And that kind of can even lead into where I’d like to go to day, of what happens when mental health realities come into your family life. There’s a Buddhist tenet that says, ‘Life is difficult.” And I think often when you’re starting into family you don’t want to be reminding people of that. But all these things are realities that make living a beautiful, rich, complex experience. But they’re not the hallmark cards of baby announcements.
Ann Douglas – No.
Rachel Cram – From reading your books and listening to your radio shows Ann, I know your Mom really struggled with her mental health and your Dad was amazing in his efforts to compensate and support, and yet, as our childhood experience does, this affects how you’ve moved forth in your own journey as a parent and as an individual.
Ann Douglas – It does.
Rachel Cram – Can you talk about that?
Ann Douglas – Yes. So when I was still a young child my mom experienced a really debilitating case of postpartum depression. And I think none of us really understood what was going on.
Rachel Cram – Was that even really a known term?
Ann Douglas – It wasn’t even really talked about. Probably it was a clinical thing that doctors knew about but often people would just trivialize it by saying, “Oh, it’s the baby blues. Everybody’s just a little emotional in the days after the birth.” Which was totally underestimating the magnitude because my mom had a really hard time. And then around the time I was a young teenager, she started to struggle in a massive way.
Rachel Cram – From your books I know she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in her case, Bipolar 1, which means what?
Ann Douglas – Which means that you’re not just having mood swings but you’re actually having hallucinations or losing touch with reality. It’s a really scary thing to witness from the standpoint of the child of that person. My mother is saying stuff that makes no sense. If there’s anybody listening to this who’s ever been terrified by fake news, where somebody is saying something and pretending it’s the truth and it’s not the truth. How you think, “But wait. Somebody has to challenge that.” Imagine being a young child, vulnerable in that situation and
Rachel Cram – And your mom is putting forth this fake news
Ann Douglas – That’s exactly what it felt like.
Rachel Cram – How old were you at that point?
Ann Douglas – I would have been actually 16 I think.
Rachel Cram – And those years have their own turmoil,
Ann Douglas – Oh totally
Rachel Cram – And then adding that on top.
Ann Douglas – Yeah. Because here I am a teenager with my own built in mood swings trying to make sense of who I am in the world. And then the reality is shifting. So that was a really difficult time for our family. And it’s funny I’ve stayed in touch with my Grade 6 teacher and she said even then, everybody recognized that something was off
Rachel Cram – In your family?
Ann Douglas – Yeah, but nobody knew what to say or what to do or how to help. And so having that conversation with her a couple of years ago was so validating. It was off enough that other people could notice. It wasn’t just me imagining things. Because when you’re trying to reconstruct memories after the fact, some of it seems really nebulous. And at the same time you think, “How off was it?” Off enough that other people noticed.
Rachel Cram – Well, so often in those situations you don’t know what’s normal and what’s not normal anymore. It’s hard to determine because you’re living it all the time.
Ann Douglas – Exactly.
Rachel Cram – Now this is the time in our history where there was limited information on mental health. Can you bring the story to your own life now, because as they do for most of us, those mental health concerns from your family of origin carry on into your own adult life and then into your children’s lives. Describe your family’s experience, perhaps as a genetic fallout?
Ann Douglas – Yeah. For sure yeah. You know, you take a recipe of family genes, you throw in all kinds of interesting characters and traits, and you stir, and wow! So in my generation all of my sisters and I have struggled with anxiety, depression, in my case I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar two disorder. It is a kind of bipolar disorder with the mood swings but not the accompanying hallucinations.
Rachel Cram – So clearly this could have derailed your life, and yet it hasn’t. You’re a very successful parenting educator, a very successful author. How have you navigated all of that? You had 4 children, Julie, Scott, Eric and Ian. How did your family’s legacy of mental health affect them?
Ann Douglas – In all kinds of different ways. And I usually like to talk a little bit about what things were like when they were all struggling and things were at their worst for our family, and then pivot to how much better things got. You know, it’s sort of like, “Spoiler alert. Things did get a lot better. But let me tell what we figured out along the way.”
So starting with Julie. At the time when things were at their worst for our family, she was around fourteen going into Grade nine. And the wheels really fell off the bus. She was having trouble with a mood disorder. At the time it was diagnosed as bipolar two, but it’s since been reclassified to be the quiet and attentive kind of ADHD. And that’s the diagnosis that she feels is the best fit for her as a young adult. But it took till she was 25 to actually get that figured out. But in the meantime she was struggling. She was doing all the things she could to manage feelings that were huge and cascading. And she had an eating disorder and she just was really unhappy. And when things were at their worst, she decided that she had to numb her pain in some way. So while I was out one evening for coffee with a friend, she took two handfuls of Extra Strength Tylenol and came dangerously close to ending her life. In the end she was fine. But what a terrifying thing to go through as a family.
So that’s what was going on with Julie. And, I should say, I had my first three kids in rapid succession. They were born at nineteen month intervals. So while Julie was having all her struggles, Scott has ADHD and he’s also very very bright; both fantastically interesting and exhausting. He could think of ten thousand ways to get into trouble in the blink of an eye.
Rachel Cram – I think I recall you saying that almost on a monthly basis, different ones for your kids were getting suspended from school.
Rachel Cram – Yes exactly. Scott and Eric we’re kind of a tag team and Eric not only has ADHD but he also has a learning disability. I remember at one point he brought some homework home and he showed it to me and I looked in it and I’m reading this assignment and I realize this is a kid that’s had grade five grade six and doesn’t understand capital letters and punctuation. And I remember trying to explain some of these building blocks of language to him and just there was no understanding of it. And I got really scared. I thought, “How is he going to get through school? How is he going to learn to function in the world?”
And because he was struggling so much he started really acting out at school because he was frustrated. He was anxious. And you know, sometimes goofing around is a good way to distract the teacher and your classmates if you’re having a hard time.
Rachel Cram – Which was leading to the aforementioned suspensions.
Ann Douglas – Right.
Rachel Cram – So, all this is going on with your three oldest children and then you had Ian starting school as well.
Ann Douglas – Yes. So at the time that these guys were in older public school, Ian was in Grade 1. And when I think about grade one, I always think of it like it’s a magical time. You go to school and you love your teacher and your teacher loves you back. And there was not a lot of love around Ian at school. He was suspended six times in grade one for all kinds of behavioural issues. And it would take another three schools before we found a school that could actually cope with him and recognise his many gifts. It also took until he was ten before we had a diagnosis. And at that point we found out he had what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome but now is referred to as an autism spectrum disorder. And on top of that he also has bipolar two and a learning disability as well. So lots of layers of stuff going on.
Rachel Cram – And in the midst of that you had a stillbirth.
Ann Douglas – Yes. It was actually a little a few years earlier than that. We were still working through the grief as a family. And once I was brave enough to take the lid off that grief, wow! It was like a cascade
Rachel Cram – So Ann, you’ve painted a picture that I think demonstrates the depth of your experience with mental health. And through your writings, your interviews, your work on the radio, I know you to be a very wise and learned woman. And I think that it’s so important that we recognize these difficulties aren’t a result of lack of knowledge, lack of experience, lack of wisdom,
Ann Douglas – Lack of love.
Rachel Cram – Lack of love. These are some of the complexities and realities of family life. And as we walk into them it can seem so chaotic, so overwhelming and through your books you give access to a path forward. So I want to jump back into your books. In your book Parenting Through The Storm, you begin with three terms that describe mental health disorders. It seems like there’s three categories. You say, “We can struggle with mental health, neurodevelopmental or behavioral challenges.”
Do those three categories expand to give the full range of what we might experience mental health wise?
Ann Douglas – I don’t think there’s a consensus even in the mental health community on what to put into what bucket. So I figured the best way to handle that was to string all three terms together. Some people would see ADHD as being in the mental health category, others would put it in neurodevelopmental, others would see it as a behavioral issue, some might use a couple of those things. So I just wanted to acknowledge, this is not narrowly a book about what we think of as mental health. It’s much broader. So it’s talking about ADHD. It’s talking about Autism Spectrum Disorders and all the other things that can temporarily feel like they’re causing storm clouds to float over your family while you figure out what it is that you’re dealing with, because I think there’s such commonality.
When I think of what we went through with Julie with her depression, that’s not that different than what we went through with Ian with his Asperger’s syndrome. That feeling like, “How are we going to figure this out? How are we going to make things better for this kid? And, what can we do within our parenting to support this child? And how can we take care of ourselves?”
So many questions spiral out of that inquiry.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. I think that, even having heard you say with Julie, that her diagnosis started off as bipolar but then moved into ADHD, there’s such fluidity in our understanding right now. And that’s part of what makes it scary as well.
Ann Douglas – It does. And also I think it’s really important to not get angry if the diagnosis changes over time. Because I think some people feel like, “Oh, the clinicians got it wrong.” Not necessarily. It’s an information gathering process and kids are constantly changing. Like, you’ve got a drop of mercury on a cookie sheet and it’s moving around and you’re trying to describe it. It’s changing in shape and location constantly.
So when you’re looking at a fifteen year old who’s acting out, is that one part teenager-ness and 90 percent something else? Or, what is that? And sometimes you don’t know until there’s a progression over time.
And what I love about Julie is the fact that she was the one in her early 20s who said, “I don’t think some of these earlier diagnoses were accurate.” So she went back to the doctor and had a conversation about what she was noticing in herself. And they made a decision; well let’s do a trial of a medication and see if that helps. Because sometimes that’s the best way to figure out what actually is going on with the person. And she made the choice to go on the medication and she said it was life changing. It was like, suddenly she understood how, quote unquote, normal people could follow a thought through from beginning to conclusion and not have twenty other thoughts doing cartwheels on top of that other thought. She could slow things down. She could organize. She could plan.
Being her mother all through this time, I wasn’t aware of all that chaos and noise going on in her head.
Rachel Cram – Well, and how would she even start to describe that to you, right? When there is no internal baseline for her comparison. Plus, during teen years that kind of conversation is even more complicated sometimes.
Ann Douglas – Right. And when she was 15 she was at the peak of not liking parental input on things. That’s probably a very mild way of saying it. But really resistant. Like, I remember one time we took her for counselling and she wore a T-shirt that said “My problem is you.” That was her message for the counselors. It’s like, “I’m here but not a willing participant.”
Rachel Cram – I’m wondering where do you start when you begin to realize or wonder if a mental health factor is what you’re seeing or experiencing with someone you care about; your child or your partner because I think it can feel like a really lonely journey.
Ann Douglas – It can. And I think a big thing is to trust your knowledge of this person. And if you suddenly see worrisome or marked changes in their day to day living, like they don’t want to go to bed or they want to sleep all the time. Or they don’t want to eat, or they want to eat all the time. Or they’re really social and they never were before. Or vice versa. Like the social kid just wants to hang out in their room 24/7. Then a little worry bell goes off in your head. And you pay attention to that. And you check with them to see if they can give you a little bit more information about what’s going on. And if you’re still not sure or you’re feeling like this could be an emergency situation, you reach out and get a second opinion and start moving the wheels forward.
And sometimes parents will say to me, “Well, what if I do that and I’m wrong? My child is perfectly healthy.”
Well, I would much rather be in that situation of having the doctor say, “You know, actually we don’t think there’s cause for concern.” then to think, “Oh, it’s probably OK,” and then see the symptoms cascade upward and then suddenly you’re in a full blown crisis.
Rachel Cram – Go with your gut.
Ann Douglas – Yeah. If your gut instinct says, “I’m worried about this child,” then make that phone call. Set up that appointment
Rachel Cram – I think one of the worries that goes through parents minds is a worry of your child being labeled. What do you say about that?
Ann Douglas – Yeah. Well you know what? Unfortunately people are already labeling your kid and the label they’re giving your kid is, “Bad kid.”
I remember back when Ian was in grade one, he came home and told me one day he had to have lunch in the staff room with all the other quote unquote, “Bad kids.” It’s like, you’re six years old and you’re already feeling that you’ve been labeled a bad kid? So I think that in the absence of a diagnosis, sometimes that’s where adults will pivot to and where kids will pivot to as well.
So, a diagnosis doesn’t have to be limiting. It’s just the best working theory we have right now of what’s going on with your child, which then opens up a world of strategies and supports. Your child may be entitled to extra help in the school system or counseling or any number of other things. So I think that rather than being terrified of that, welcome it as information that you can use.
But also, don’t just leave your child to make sense of this diagnosis on their own. You’re there in their court. There are strategies that they can learn to make things better. It won’t always be this hard. And if they look around them in the community, there are so many examples of people they know, love, respect, who are dealing with maybe not the exact same issue but similar struggles and we’re having perfectly great lives.
So I think we have to have those kinds of conversations and help our kids to see, ‘Yes, it’s a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be a life limiting challenge. And it doesn’t mean you’re defective.’
I remember at one point Ian actually saying, “I guess I’m your most defective kid.”
And we had to say, “That’s not it at all. It’s just a case of learning strategies to manage what you’re living with. Just like I as the parent with a mental health challenge, have had to learn strategies to manage my moods.”
Rachel Cram – I think beyond worry of a label, there’s a thought around medication and do we want to do that or not. And the side effects of that.
Ann Douglas – Yeah. And it’s never a conversation or a decision that parents make easily. It’s very individual. And sometimes you put a child on a medication and it’s not helpful and you reverse that decision and in other cases it can be life changing. and sometimes you don’t know until you work through that process. Look at the severity of the impact on the child’s life. Is there possibly more to gain than to lose by trying this thing? You know, if the child’s being suspended or you know
Rachel Cram – Or they’re thinking they’re a bad kid.
Rachel Cram – Yeah or having really dark thoughts. Maybe it’s worth trying this. We had a really great pediatrician and she would say, “Don’t think about this as forever. This is our strategy for the next three months or six months and then we’re going to re-evaluate that.” And she would say that to the kids. And with the boys, she encouraged them to consider whether they wanted to take a medication vacation over the summer. Do you want to go off your medication all summer long and see how well you can manage without it before school starts again? And then we can re-evaluate. And sometimes they said, “Yes,” and sometimes they said “No”, but I just loved the way that she helped them to see that there were always choices. It’s not forever. Because sometimes I think where people make things harder for themselves is, they borrow all a lifetime of worry associated with something and they think, “Will my child be forty-seven and still having to take this medication?”
Maybe they won’t even need it beyond thirteen. Who knows. So we take it one day at a time with the best information and make the best decisions we can as parents in that moment. And know, sometimes we’re going to get it wrong. Because, spoiler alert! We’re human.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. How complicated is it to find your way to that good pediatrician? It can be a series of steps.
Ann Douglas – It can be. And so I think start with the family doctor or somebody you have a trusted relationship with and ask them for their best recommendation of who that person might be. Because, I think sometimes, when you hear stories of ADHD in the news, even now, there’s a lot of stigma and judgment and misinformation. Like, you know, “ADHD is just an excuse for bad parenting or being a bad kid.” And it’s not that at all.
So you need somebody who gets that and who will help your child to see that there are actually some wonderful gifts to having an ADHD brain. It’s like that random collision of ideas. That’s creativity!
Rachel Cram – Yeah. Many of the most creative artists that we know, that’s part of their story.
Ann Douglas – Yeah
Rachel Cram – I’m just thinking of the loneliness of starting to discover that something’s going on with your child. Just as you were talking I paired it in my mind with; if I buy a white Honda all of a sudden I’m seeing white Hondas everywhere. But I didn’t even know they existed before I owned my own white Honda. And I think that when we start to go down the path of discovery with our child, when we find a pediatrician, but even maybe more so when we start to find a community of people out there who have children that are struggling with their own mental health realities, that’s where the loneliness starts to dissipate. And that’s where you can gather so much information about what’s working for other people. What’s not working. Because the system can be very difficult to navigate on your own.
Ann Douglas – It can. And I mean, a lot of the parents who are amazing advocates, they do end up becoming like ‘resource clearing hubs’ for other parents who are following in their footsteps. And it’s not just a gift to those other families. It helps to create meaning out of your own experience. Like, “Yeah, I learned this through the school of hard knocks and let me save you a little bit of hard work.”
So having friends who are maybe a little further on in the journey is such a gift. I have my cousin Karen who also has two boys on the autism spectrum, and so she was able to help me figure out, what does this even mean? Where do you find help? What is a legit treatment and what is pseudoscience? And how do I navigate when I’m in panic mode?
Step one, don’t be in panic mode. Story of my life. I think I should get a tattoo.