“January First” is a father’s account of his daughter’s early childhood and their family’s journey through the maze of mental illness. Author Michael Schofield and his wife Susan have two children, January (who goes by Jani) and Bodhi. Much of Schofield’s book describes three daily challenges — meeting Jani’s need for constant stimulation, keeping baby brother Bodi and the family pet safe, and searching for solutions for Jani’s frequent rages.
Jani is a lovable little girl with a genius I.Q. whose parents take her early imaginings for signs of giftedness. It’s a common reaction with parents whose children seem odd or eccentric, but the denial that something deeper is at work can be dangerous. While embracing her high intelligence, Schofield recognizes there’s more to Jani’s cadre of imaginary rats than your typical pretend play. Still, he resists after Susan drives Jani to the hospital one day insisting they admit her for psychiatric evaluation.
We all want to believe we’re imbued as parents with everything we need to help our children through tough times. We want to trust professionals who proffer answers too simple for complex challenges. We want to believe that children are a blank slate, that we can write their lives as beautiful stories through the sheer power of love and positive parenting. We rarely consider the role of genetic roulette until the wheel fails to spin in our favor.
No one imagines, while holding a newborn in their arms, that their precious child will one day need intramuscular injections of antipsychotic medication or find her social stride only with other children admitted for inpatient psychiatric care. For most parents, child-proofing means covering the electrical outlets, not removing all the knives from their kitchen or hiding objects that might become projectiles during a child’s massive mood swings.
Most parents fret over much simpler fare like choosing a birthday party theme or deciding where to take their next vacation. But Schofield and his family live in a wholly different world. Jani’s illness, which sometimes overshadows the lovliest parts of the little girl they love so well, transforms their marriage into a 24/7 exercise in hypervigilence. Friends disappear as Jani’s symptoms escalate. Babysitters aren’t up for the challenge, and most teachers don’t get it.
Families living with mental illness have to fight each day to enjoy even fleeting encounters with the experiences other parents take for granted. Mental health experts note that one in ten children are likely to experience a mental illness severe enough to significantly interfere with school, friends and family life — which means that each and every one of us knows families who are struggling.
Parenting a child with mental illness is an isolating experience, truly understood only by those traversing the same trek. Those who read Schofield’s book will get a glimmer of what life is like for families facing mental illness. The unpredictability of each day. The physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. The brutality of stigma that blames and shames parents for brain disorders beyond their control.
What you take from “January First” may depend on your own experiences with mental illness. Those who’ve never faced it will find the compelling tale of parents pushed to the limit by a devastating disease. Those whose children have symptoms of mental illness will find the solace of knowing they’re not alone. Those farther along in the journey of parenting a child with mental illness may find themselves swept back into the pain of previous trauma.
Schofield is a gifted writer whose book makes several things clear. Every child is unique and wonderful. The bulk of mental illness isn’t born of bad parenting. Schools need better supports for students facing mental illness. Prompt and proper diagnosis and treatment leads to better outcomes. Parents in all situations need support and understanding.
Schofield opens “January First” by comparing mental illness to cancer. Exploring similarities from a public policy perspective is outside the scope of this book, but worth considering. Parenting Jani makes holding a traditional job impossible, and costs for her medical care (like those for other children with chronic illness) are exorbitant. We need to do more for families facing this dual dilemma.
The title “January First” reflects Schofield’s commitment to putting his daughter first — above marriage, career, friendships and personal fulfillment. But also the fact that Jani is a person not defined solely by her disease. Hence I’m puzzled by his descriptions of Jani as “schizophrenic,” which feels a bit like calling a child living with leukemia “cancerous.” Still, it’s not for me to judge. Listen more, judge less — it’s something we should all aspire to.
Reading “January First” is like taking a master class in empathy. I hope every parent reads it, and feels moved to take action. Despite progress made in furthering racial equality and recognizing gay rights, families living with mental illness continue to live in the shadows. Shame on us if we let it continue.
Note: You can follow January’s journey by clicking here to read Schofield’s blog. Click here to learn more about mental illness in children and teens, here to find programs for families living with mental illness, here to find books by one of my favorite authors on the topic of childhood mental illness and here to explore examples of “people first” language.
Coming up: A Vatican tale, Once upon a mural