by Ann Wilkinson
Eight years ago, my daughter Jenn and I both embarked on very different journeys that would change our lives forever.
Jenn started college at the University of Delaware where she lived in the dorms and began to follow her childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian.
Having held it together to guide her on this next step, I got her all settled, made sure she had everything she needed, went home, and decided my job was done. There was no one I had to worry about anymore. Somehow, there was this great kid, an ‘A’ student, a blossoming young woman who was on her path and no longer needed me to walk alongside her. So I gave up. I was so tired. I was done. I no longer had purpose.
I won’t go in to the details of my long stay in a psych ward or how I ended up in a homeless shelter in South Jersey. It is not a pretty story and most of it is a blur. The first thing I remember from that time is that I wrote Jenn a long dramatic letter. The second is Jenn visiting me in the hospital when she should have been sitting in her first semester freshmen classes. She sat in my lap, even though she was taller than me, trying to hold back the tears. Much of that conversation is hazy, but I can still hear her say “Ma, if you kill yourself I will hate you for the rest of MY life and that’s going to be a lot longer than yours!” Well, that declaration is what has gotten me through. No matter how bad things get, I still hear her voice and it keeps me going.
The next couple of years, I traveled my journey, some of it good, some of it bad, but Jenn and I still spoke every day. We gave each other advice, we cried together, and visited whenever possible. Being my little girl who always had to be different, she decided being a veterinarian was not for her. The summer before senior year, Jenn said “PSYCH! I want to be a doctor”
Here I was, back in New York attending Fountain House, working really hard to pull myself together and she still needed me! But the more she needed me, the more I needed to fight to figure out who the “healthy me” was. Jenn spent the summer studying for the MCAT every waking minute. Of course, she scored high enough and was accepted to Medical School.
In August of 2014 she made her way to Portsmouth, Dominica, home of Ross University School of Medicine in the West Indies. Jenn picked the accelerated course and completed 24 months of classroom learning in 18 months. While she was there we were able to Facetime once a week crying, and dragging it out as long as possible. Once a month I would send her a box of special things, cereal, candy, anything I could think of. It would take two weeks to get there but she always waited eagerly for them.
After that she came back to the US and completed her schooling in multiple hospitals, in multiple states. During that time she decided she definitely wanted to specialize in psychiatry.
During these years, Jenn and I have remained closer than most mothers and daughters. She is my rock and I am her “Maaa”. Anyone who knows me has seen countless pictures and heard hundreds of stories of my pride and joy.
I cried as I watched her walk in the graduation processional. I waited eagerly to see her rise and begin that walk to the platform. As she stepped on stage and I heard her name as she received her diploma, the overwhelming pride I felt made the world fade away.
Despite society’s and, at times, my own common misconception of people living with mental illness, not only had my baby girl become a doctor, but she smiled up at me with sincere thanks as she received her medical degree. I want other parents to know that regardless of our personal situations, our kids can succeed. Sometimes we forget how important we are in their lives, and how, regardless of our diagnosis, we can still be there to support them.
Jenn constantly shows me that she credits much of her success to her mother, but what she does not know is that she is the reason I am still here and can share our story.