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Running Through It: Davina + Childhood Mental Illness

Davina, coming in strong and happy during her first marathon.

[[Today on the Running Through It series, Davina, a Colorado-based #motherrunner, chronicles the journey of her 12-year-old son's mental illness + her first marathon.]]

I woke up that morning and did what I do most mornings: laced up my shoes and went for a run.

But unlike other mornings, what came to follow is part of a long journey that we have been walking through with our son. After a quick stretch, a long drink of NUUN Energy, a shower, and definitely not a big enough breakfast, my husband and I drove to a juvenile detention center to discharge our 12-yr-old son after a very long three-month stay. We then flew him to Atlanta to check him into a residential treatment facility that specializes in Autism, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, PTSD, anxiety and depression—just to name a few of my son’s struggles.

Three days before Mother’s Day this year, our son was taken from our home by police escort and admitted into a psychiatric hospital. The months leading up to this event had been filled with several inpatient and outpatient hospital stays, monitoring his constant obsessions over suicide, death and all things dark.

A bike-run with my son in April.

Our weeks had revolved around therapy and watching him around the clock to keep him safe. Intense is not a big enough word to describe the turmoil and daily battle we were living then—and honestly had been living for years. By May, we had found that we could no longer keep him safe: safe for himself and safe to others.

Ironically enough, the week after my son was removed from our home, my marathon training plan began. Over the last 20 years, I have run countless half-marathons yet have struggled to go further due to undiagnosed Lupus, pain and lingering injuries.

Last year when my BRF suggested we try the Galloway Walk/Run method for long runs, I jumped right on board. For my body, the Galloway Method has revolutionized my running; the recovery has been night and day, and with the new addition of correct medications for Lupus, I am training to run my very first marathon in September.

The miles I have run in the last three months have been therapeutic to say the least. They have been filled with lots of prayer, tears, listening to podcasts (AMR, a constant companion), and self-care. Long runs with BRF’s have provided necessary and appreciated verbal processing, comfort, encouragement, and laughter.

I have learned the importance of making my health and mental state a priority. I have taken advantage of insurance-covered massages ($21!) and chiropractic visits and find that extra yoga stretching and foam rolling is a great excuse to binge watch favorite TV shows.

My parents are part of my strong support system, and they make an amazing aide station as well-complete with dark chocolate, bananas, signage and cowbell.

I have always said that running makes me a better mom, wife and productive human being and I stand by that belief now, more than ever.

Parenting children is not for the faint of heart, especially those with special needs and the siblings of those with special needs. My 10-year-old daughter is in desperate need of my undivided love and attention. I tried to give her special experiences over the summer: just her and me, incorporating her into my exercise routine-yoga, bike while I run, paddle boarding, swimming laps and so on. So far, she does not enjoy running, but I won’t give up hope!

I have also learned that as a parent you are your child’s #1 advocate when it comes to mental health. Running has gotten me out of bed in the morning, cleared out the cobwebs of brain fog, and given me the endorphins that I need to fight for my son who would otherwise get dropped through the cracks of a judicial system, one that is not equipped to support adolescents with mental health struggles.

A person must have grit and tenacity to be a long-distance runner. To run through fatigue, pain and self-doubt takes guts and incredible courage. You need perseverance and creativity to keep going when you just want to quit; or to change strategies when injuries pop up, schedules unexpectedly change, and weather just wants to rain on your parade.

I have found that my personality as a runner has transferred to my parent advocacy. My mother-in-law calls me a Tiger Mama, describing the tenacity, never-giving-up, perseverant attitude and attention that I must pour into helping my son. I do not give up easily and I absolutely hate the phrase “I quit.” (I will also make endless loops in a parking lot at the end of a run just to make the exact needed mileage. Yes, a Type A personality.)

Celebrating with my BRF after the marathon!

Because Colorado does not have a state-run mental health institution of any kind for long-term rehabilitation, I have spent the better part of the last 3 months researching and filling out applications for residential facilities across the nation. Advocacy has become an entire job in itself, but one I will never regret as I battle for my son’s health and future.

Currently, I am in the last 5 weeks of my marathon training plan (Train Like a Mother Go the Distance) and I see the end in sight. My life of parenting is like marathon training, yet without a race on the horizon. I cannot see what the future holds for either of my children. Some days are super long and tough, some days offer rest and relief. Some days are filled with hope and clarity, some days you just slog through with fatigue, heartache and pain.

Yet the journey is worth the challenge. I hope to one day be at their “finish lines” of life and celebrate with them their victories. And as tough as parenting can be, I would not trade my children for the world; they are worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears I may shed in this race of life I run.

A birthday visit.

Mid-October: Update
After United Health Care and Medicaid denied further residential level of treatment (after only 2 months) we had to bring him home from Atlanta. Thankfully the county has agreed to pay for 90 days of residential treatment at a facility in Denver, but after 90 days we face the very real possibility of paying the county child support to keep him there. My son is doing well and being safe and making good decisions. However, as we know with mental health, no one changes in 3 months, and his "cognitive distortions" may take months to years to change.

I ran my first marathon on a very hot, Colorado day in September. I met my A Goals: to finish without throwing up and/or passing out, and come in under 4:30. Finish time was 4:28, and because it was a small, local race I placed 2nd in my age group! I now have my sights now set on the Colfax Marathon in Denver next May, and Twin Cities Marathon in October.

Have you Run Through It—a challenging situation or stage in life—at some point? We want to hear from you!

Write up your essay (no more than 1,200 words, please), then email it to us. We'll be in touch when we can publish it. Thanks!

14 responses to “Running Through It: Davina + Childhood Mental Illness

  1. Thank you for writing your story. The sampling of first comments here is evidence of the impact it will have, not just for those who are also parents of a child with special needs, but also those of us who need to better understand, reach out to help and speak up for resources to support families like yours. I love Another Mother Runner as a source of information and “virtual aid station” for all things in women’s lives. You have a short phrase in your post that underscores the value of being a Mother Runner-“AMR, a constant companion”. I hope you feel the love of the tribe and remember you are not alone.

  2. Ladies, I am so deeply moved by your comments. Thank you for your words of encouragement. And for those who are Running Through a similar journey know you are not alone, and that you are stronger and braver than you think.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. Our 14 yr old son was transported 2 months ago to his 23 in-patient stay, and unfortunately he is in Michigan because Colorado does not have a facility that can handle all of his diagnoses and behaviors. I have had to fight to get treatment for him, including calling a Colorado senator. Running has helped me reset myself in so many ways. I have told people that our son has multiple disabilities, but that doesn’t seem to truly capture the 24/7 supervision to keep him safe, our other two children safe, our pets safe, our selves safe. And so I run…

  4. Thank you for sharing this message and reducing the stigma of mental illness. Your statement that “you are your child’s #1 advocate” gave me the courage this morning to step up and get my daughter some help. People have told me that oh, it’s ok, it’s normal, but to me it is impacting her life and I need to help her navigate these challenges. Thank you for empowering another half marathon running mom out there. 🙂

  5. Thank you for sharing your story, Davina. We have been working through some serious problems with one of our children that have led to mental illness diagnosis and treatment. The process is exhausting and isolating. Running definitely helps with this tiring, yet crucial journey. I am so glad your son is responding well to his current care, and I hope it gets easier to figure out how to continue that. And, congratulations on completing your marathon!

  6. Davina, your story resonated with me in so many ways. I am also a mother to a son with childhood mental illness – pediatric bipolar disorder, adhd, and autistic tendencies. After 2 acute inpatient stays, he is in a residential treatment center hours from home. This life is not for the weak. And thank goodness for running! It is one of the ways I cope with my son’s disorders as well as my own mental health issues. Please feel free to reach out if you ever need to chat with someone who understands! ❤️

  7. Davina, kudos to you for all you have done for your family and yourself given enormous challenges. I also have children with mental illness struggles. Have you heard of Dr. Daniel Amen? I urge you to do some research on him. He offers a different approach to mental health management through brain imaging. This is a short youtube video that you may find interesting. Good luck and God bless.

  8. Davina, what a wonderful mom and advocate you are. This is such a great article because not only does it speak to how tirelessly you are working on your children’s behalf, but also how you have recognized that to be the best mom and advocate you can be, you need time to yourself and running is that for you. So good for you for taking self care in the form of running and setting big goals even in the midst of big trials. Congrats on an amazing first marathon and I will be praying for your family.

  9. Davina, thank you for this honest look into how caring for a child with mental illness touches the whole family. You are one strong advocate for your family. Congratulations on your marathon.

  10. You have an indomitable spirit that is an inspiration to all of us! Best wishes for the best possible futures for you and your family.

  11. Davina, you did an excellent job of presenting a glimpse into the life of someone parenting a child with mental illness issues. The inability to rest from advocating and caring for the child is one of the top things people just can’t understand unless they have lived it themselves. I, too, have spent years caring for and advocating for a child with mental illness, and understand the 24 hours per day watch for safety, hours of researching, frustration with insurance plans, and creativity required to make it through a day. I actually thought of submitting a piece about this topic as well, because running has also been a huge part of my own wellbeing during the most challenging times! You have my support, and I only wish the best for your son, you, and your family. Congratulations for being able to reach your goals despite it all.

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