My daughter Jenna is one of the bravest and most resilient human beings I know. She is the youngest of my three children. Michael was my first born, Benjamin came next and Jenna was my beautiful Braveheart baby girl. She spent her entire life being in the shadow of a brother who was mentally ill. From the moment she arrived in the world, everything revolved around her brother Ben. She had to fight for herself in ways that no child should have to. Ben’s mental illness permeated our home until his death in 2009 to suicide. As a family we suffered with the stigma of mental illness and had little to no resources to support our family to navigate the inherent challenges of Ben’s OCD, anxiety and outbursts that lead to extreme shame and embarrassment for our family. We lived inside what felt like a fishbowl where the whole world could see our pain and problems. Jenna was usually the focus of Ben’s controlling behavior. When she was little, he would, often, when he was within reach of her, have his arm around her neck. As much as we tried to get him to stop, he was obsessed. This was one of many of his obsessive-compulsive behaviors that were impossible to control.
Over the years, Jenna found ways to cope with her brothers out of control patterns. She slowly learned she had to unplug from him rather than fight against him. To fight against him only made him stronger. She could not win. And so often had to give up what she needed or wanted just so he could shift. As much as Jenna struggled with her brother, she also loved him to the core. Ben was sweet as pie, had a heart of gold and a mentally challenged brain that made life so hard for him and the people around him. When they grew into teens and Ben had major shifts through a combination of traditional and holistic support systems for his OCD, they became friends and hung out with the same kids in their home and school community. She knew how to push his buttons, but she also knew how to be his friend, for she too, has a heart of gold. We had come along way to cope with Ben’s mental health by the time he was in high school. Our lives had normalized, and we could finally breath both individually and collectively as a family.
On April 16th 2009, Jenna was faced with a trauma that no human being, let alone a teenage girl, should have to experience. She found a suicide note from her brother Ben after a problem in school that led to him being suspended and withheld from his junior prom. Knowing that Ben was still highly impulsive when he was emotionally triggered, she feared the worst. She was the one to find him in our garage that fateful day with me right behind her. Witnessing my daughter find her brother was horrifying. It is a scene that will be etched in my mind forever.
After Ben’s death, my beautiful girl plummeted into a giant downward spiral. I cannot even imagine the pain she felt as a young girl being faced with such a violent end to a long life of challenge that directly impacted her from day one. She began to douse her tiny body with alcohol, marijuana and a long line of abusive boys and men for the next ten years. To add insult to injury, she lost two aunts, her grandmother, her horse trainer and her five-year-old daughter who she babysat to a fire and several friends from high school to addiction. Everything around her fell apart, including her parent’s marriage and the home, as dysfunctional as it was, that she always knew, completely shattering before her. My daughter saw more loss in the six years following her brother’s death then most adults must face throughout their entire lives. As her mother, I felt helpless, inadequate, and devastated for her. I prayed every night that somehow, she would come through and find other ways to deal with the immense pain from her losses. My daughter is a fighter, and perhaps all the years of fighting against Ben gave her the strength to fight her own pain and suffering. After ten years, she finally chose to become sober. She has been free of alcohol now for over a year and has found her life work with animals and her peace in the mountains, and through nature and art. She has grown into a strong, brave, courageous, beautiful, amazing, gifted, artistic, compassionate young woman and come through the other side. Through a willingness to heal, self-reflect, except help from others, take accountability and learn to love and trust herself more and more each day, my daughter has become the champion of her own life. Through adversity and intense life training she is a warrior, a BRAVEHEART, and a force for good. She is a role model for others like her that you can not only survive loss, trauma, and addiction, but come through the other side and thrive, one day, one breath at a time.