One time my mom tried to kill me.
She chased me with a knife, cackling like a witch. It was hide-and-seek—but it wasn’t, it wasn’t a game. I trembled in a dark corner of the basement, which terrified me, but I was more terrified of her finding me. It was hours down there, in the dark.
She sometimes heard voices, and sometimes those voices would tell her to do very bad things.
But as a child, it’s just the two of you, hard to make sense of what is what, and this is the person you love most, admire most and still do.
And that time with the knife, she later told me, the demonic voices were telling her to kill me. That is when she had to banish them.
That is how I lived. It wasn’t like that every day, and I love my moms, of course—but there were these episodes. You come home and all your stuffed animals are burning in a pile in the backyard—they were talking to your mom, they were evil, so she burned them. The cross that hung over your bed disappeared, it’s a sign, you rush out of the house and stay in hotel for a night.
She self-medicated. She drank, but she would never take medication. A proud Black woman, she would say she’d “never be a slave to a drug.” So she never took any drugs that might have helped her.
She would binge-drink and once I understood the symptoms of being drunk, I would scour the house and pour what alcohol I found down the drain. Thankfully she wasn’t a mad drunk and she never came after me, but I would pour every drop of alcohol out because she would drink it if I didn’t.
Her health got worse and eventually she was completely disabled. Life got worse for me too, struggling with where to sleep, among other struggles.
Thing is, nobody ever knew. About any of this. Nobody at school. Really nobody. I was good at just keeping it all in. Telling people my mom was “at the hospital” when they asked where she was, since she obviously wasn’t at the house I was often sleeping in. She worked in health care, so I wasn’t lying, but they just assumed she was working.
Many children live in a similar world of insecurity or fear, with their protector haunted by demons. But that is the only world you have as a child—or at least it is better than your other choices. And you learn early on to keep that world private and invisible to the outside world. Even though I was active and well-known at school, I was very alone, like so many children living through the mental health or substance challenges of their parents. Desperately trying not to attract any attention. Holding those secrets close.
One of my coaches pulled me aside once and tried to talk about my escalating drug use. Really gently, he talked about how his own child had a disability and he would have hated to have done something to be responsible. Even as a teen I understood the message. He had heard something and he cared enough to just talk to me. I appreciated that. I didn’t stop using drugs, and it didn’t relieve any of the underlying issues, but it mattered and I felt a little less alone. That was the closest any adult got to me.
Every educator likely has kids whose parents have serious mental health challenges and/or substance abuse issues. Chances are, they also have young people facing down their own mental health demons.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of adults live with a mental illness and 1 in 25 have serious mental illnesses. These numbers vary by race and other factors, as does the likelihood of getting treatments. And half of all chronic mental health issues materialize before age 14. Furthermore, roughly 1 in 10 Americans over 12 needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
I studied psychology in college, because I wanted to understand if I was having mental health issues. Instead, I ended up in education. I don’t have the answers here, but I do have some simple advice for other educators, which is…you just don’t know.
You don’t know what some or many of your students are struggling through, things that might literally be life or death, or the more subtle wearing down of a kid’s psychological defenses. You really don’t. And you probably won’t.
But you can create environments where children are physically and psychologically safe. Where they will be known and cared for. Where basic needs are always met and more complex ones are increasingly met.
There is an invisible world educators interact with every day, because as children we learn to hide things from the world. I know there are things that I should but will never know about my students, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t act. We need to support that invisible plane that students sometimes exist on, even without seeing it, but knowing it is always there.
And I have also learned that persistent caring matters, just being there enough, asking for the 100th time how a child is doing even if they said “fine” 99 times. Just showing that I care for their well-being consistently in bigger or smaller ways. And sometimes kids will talk, and share, and that can help.
Whether children are struggling with their parent’s demons or their own, nobody wants to face them alone.