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My family moved 11 times during the 12 years my dad was in the Marine Corps. After he left active duty, we returned to the civilian world, settling in the Baltimore area. Life after the military was supposed to be calm and predictable. Unfortunately, my dad began struggling with post-traumatic stress and an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury.
My mom immediately stepped up as his caregiver. As the oldest child, I was her assistant. Separated from the understanding and support of the Marine Corps community, life became difficult and lonely. At 12 years old, I was completely overwhelmed, and I began to think that my parents would be better off without me.
As a young kid, I remember my dad as fun and energetic. Life at home was filled with fake wrestling matches and tickle fights. However, after he was hit by a violent explosion in Afghanistan, my dad became a different person. He was often confused, irritable and forgetful. Migraines would keep him in bed for days. Worst of all, he no longer seemed interested in being around me, my younger sisters or little brother.
Every day was tense. I would constantly monitor my dad’s moods. If he seemed upset, or on edge, I would stay out of his way and try to keep my siblings quiet. As I got older, I took on more responsibilities. When my mom would run errands, I helped my dad get out of bed, take his medications and make something to eat. I was terrified that he would hurt himself while my mom was out. Even on good days, I could not shake the feeling that something terrible was about to happen.
The stress at home only grew. I began having panic attacks and locking myself in the bathroom, so I was often late for school. In class, I had trouble concentrating. Some days, I might be worrying about how my dad had been stuck in bed for the last two days, or why he was starting to lose consciousness in the middle of conversations. From a lack of awareness and understanding, some school officials began labeling my behavior as troublemaking and problematic, which only increased my parents’ worries.
Not yet a teenager, I broke down. I shut myself in my room and attempted to take my own life. Fortunately, I stopped just before it was too late.
Our nation is beginning to understand that experiences like mine are common among the children of wounded veterans. In November, I attended a Joining Forces event at the White House, representing the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Wounded Warrior Project’s Hidden Helpers campaign for military caregiver kids. The foundation was releasing the results of the first nationwide study of kids like me, which found that 2.3 million young people live in a home with a wounded or ill member of the military or veteran. An alarming number of these young people manage adult-sized responsibilities, suffer high rates of anxiety and depression, and feel misunderstood by the communities around them.
My dad will likely always struggle with his symptoms, but he is getting better at learning to live with them, and we have a good relationship. And I have recovered from my hardest moments thanks to my family and the resources in Baltimore City, including Kennedy Krieger Institute, Headstrong of Maryland and Sheppard Pratt. At the same time, there are more opportunities to make Baltimore a supportive community for caregiver kids.
Teachers, school administrators and youth coaches could be more flexible with deadlines and schedules for young people caring for a loved one at home. Medical professionals and mental health practitioners could be more aware of the struggles faced by caregiver kids and be better prepared to talk to them about their experiences. Additionally, local governments and nonprofit organizations could look for ways to adapt current services to meet the needs of caregiver families. These families suffer elevated rates of unemployment, underemployment, legal troubles and relationship problems. Addressing these issues would help caregivers with their hardest challenges and create a more stable home life for their kids.
Overall, our community could better support caregiver families if more people understood the lifelong sacrifices we make. Feeling recognized would go a long way in reducing our isolation and anxiety. Most importantly, it would let caregiver kids feel supported in their struggles and assure them that they do not face these challenges alone.
Kristopher Rotenberry is a high school senior in Baltimore County.
Service members and veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.
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