On October 10th I was honoured to be a guest speaker on The Joy of Retirement at an alumni luncheon for former employees of Coca-Cola Canada Ltd. in Toronto. I was preceded by a former employee of Coca-Cola, Debbie Sands, who had written a book about her family’s challenges with their second daughter, Amy. A Moth To The Flame is the story of Amy’s struggles with what was most likely Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental illness that Amy seemed to display from the time she was a baby but went undiagnosed.
How does a parent cope when they do all the right things and their best efforts are met with extreme anger, defiance, antisocial and destructive behaviours? How could a beautiful little baby grow into such a troubled adult? Debbie Sands and her husband Ed struggled with these questions from the time Amy was born until she died tragically at the age of 27. And they still struggle with the what ifs, hows and whys.
Amy Sands was a sweet baby but prone to unprovoked and intense temper tantrums. She would have periods of calm but they were only temporary and as she grew, the problems also grew. In elementary school she was bullied for being overweight. A couple of years in a closely monitored private school helped but when she returned to the public system, the wheels fell off. Before long she was running with the wild crowd, neglecting her school work and despite being bright, funny and talented in music and dance, the demons ruled.
Before she finished high school, Amy was involved in drugs, drinking and assorted antisocial behaviours. She had also blossomed into a beautiful young woman with little resemblance to the awkward young girl she had once been. With her family’s support she managed to graduate high school but because of her self-destructive habits was unable to hold down a job or attend college successfully. She was a pathological liar who turned her accusers into enemies and was soon involved in a series of abusive relationships and criminal activity.
Debbie Sands was constantly searching for answers and solutions to work through her daughter’s problems. She read books, consulted with teachers, other parents and tried every resource at her disposal to try and help Amy live a normal life. Naturally, Amy’s aberrant behaviour affected the entire family including an older daughter, Stephanie and a younger brother, Michael. All the love in the world can’t fix certain problems. As parents, Debbie and Ed Sands expended extraordinary amounts of time, emotional energy and money trying to help Amy function in a normal way. But she fought, defied and abused them constantly, only to retreat, apologize, then begin the whole cycle over again.
After hearing Debbie’s presentation at the Coca-Cola luncheon I thought I was familiar enough with Amy’s story that I didn’t need to read the book, but when I picked it up one evening and started reading I couldn’t put it down. It’s educational, heartbreaking and yet redemptive, a must read for any parent who is having trouble with a son or daughter who has fallen off the rails.
The panelists on CTV’s The Social recently discussed a 13-year-old boy who had been an ongoing problem for his parents. He’d stolen the family car (not the first time) to go visit his girlfriend, after first disengaging the home security system and internet/phone system. His mother was criticized for taking his bedroom door off its hinges, grounding him indefinitely and actually taking off her belt to hit him when she caught up with him. While it’s tempting to condemn her for using physical force, it’s easy to understand her frustration and lack of options. This was not an isolated incident and parents of difficult teens are frequently stretched beyond normal boundaries.
Mental illness is chronically under-diagnosed in many young people and parents are often unaware of the root of the problem and the resources available to help families with these struggles. I commend Debbie Sands for writing this book and encourage you to read it or pick it up for someone you know who has similar problems in their family. It has already helped parents with daughters like Amy and will not doubt resonate with others who read it in the future.