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Take A Break – Before You Breakdown



By now you’ve probably heard the heartbreaking story of a mother who drove her van into the Hudson River in New York with herself and her four children inside. One of the children, a ten-year-old boy called LaShaun, scrambled out of the van and survived and it is from him we are learning the harrowing details of that night. Family and friends say 25-year-old LaShanda Armstrong had been acting strangely over the past couple of weeks but didn’t know, and obviously couldn’t comprehend, that she would commit such a desperate act.

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Can you imagine the horrors LaShaun has seen? The idea that his mother, who was supposed to love and protect him and his siblings was so distraught, overwhelmed in her life that she thought her only escape was death? I cannot fathom how this little guy is going to get past this or what his life will be like from here.

Then yesterday, People magazine reported that actress, wife and mother Catherine Zeta Jones had checked herself into a mental health facility to get treatment for bipolar disorder, something she has apparently struggled with in the past. I was surprised, I guess because like many others, I didn’t know she had been struggling with mental illness. But I was also impressed that she chose to be so open and forthcoming about it. Two women, two different lives, two very different outcomes. But in reading them both I realized there’s something for all of us, as women and mothers to take from them.

YOU CANNOT DO IT ALL: And anyone who expects you to be able to doesn’t understand the limitations of time but more importantly, energy. Those who think you can pull together a business plan while the baby is napping are not living your life.

LEARN TO SAY NO: One of my favorite sayings is people take kindness for weakness. And when you’re running around trying to please everyone, trying not to make waves, trying to go along to get along, people just dump on you. Just.Say.No.

IT’S OKAY TO BE AWAY FROM YOUR KIDS: One of the troubling aspects of LaShanda Armstrong’s story is the quote from people who said she was a good mother because she was never away from her kids. That’s not necessarily the measure of a good mother and I think does damage because it presupposes that wanting to be away from them makes you a bad mother.

In order to effectively care for others, you have to care for yourself too. It’s totally okay for you to say to your kids, “I love you but I need to be away from you.” They will grow to understand that their mother loved them enough to take care of herself.

IT’S OKAY TO SAY I ‘M HAVING TROUBLE COPING: I am so saddened by the fact that LaShanda Armstrong felt so overwhelmed and despite family and friends, so alone, that she thought death was her only option. There’s ALWAYS a way, always someone who will listen. You just have to keep talking until you find one.

I remember a year ago being in that horrible dark and lonely place and felt like I couldn’t tell anyone because I’m Rene Syler. I’m the one holding it together for everyone else. I’m the one empowering mothers and women. But everyday as Buff would go off to work I knew he was worried about me; hell I was worried about myself. I would take the kids to school, still in my pajamas, then climb back in the bed, where I would stay for seven hours until it was time to pick them up. I was in mental and physical pain. I remember going to the doctor for a cold one day and no sooner had he walked in the exam room, I broke down; I literally couldn’t take it anymore. While I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to hurt anymore.  Together we devised a plan to get me mentally healthy again.

Today as we’re all going about our day, thinking about LaShaun and the horrors he’s seen and Catherine Zeta Jones and her struggle to get healthy, let’s not forget about ourselves. Promise to treat yourself with the same kindness you do others.

I know we’re all busy but take a moment to really connect with those around you. Is there someone you sense is struggling? Don’t worry about how to say it or embarrassing yourself, just reach out before they slip under.

Have you ever been in that dark place? Did you feel you were able to tell someone? How did you get through that time…?



  1. 2Serenity

    April 14, 2011 at 11:41 am

    12 years ago, someone made a comment to me saying how can I help others if I cannot help myself. That comment was so profound to me in so many ways because as women I believe we are taught to do so much for others but we forget to BREATHE in the process. I appreciate you sharing your personal journey as a mother, wife, friend and just being you. Your voice helps so much, Rene! Thank you.

  2. April Brucker

    April 14, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Wonderful article. I saw that story and it broke my heart. Nervous breakdowns are real. I nearly had one a few years ago because I was dealing with a stalker situation due to a breakup. While I was not a mother coping with raising children alone, I understand stress and what it does to a person well. I wasn’t eating, I was drinking too much, living on diet pills and way out of control. Thank God there were help lines and counselors. People are afraid to talk when they are sad or in trouble. They think it makes them look weak. Really you are only as sick as your secrets. In reality, there is nothing wrong with asking for help. Had this woman asked for help she and her children may have been alive today. As a society we need to tell people it is okay to ask for help. It doesnt make you look weak. It may actually save your own life.

  3. Cassie

    April 14, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Rene, after my son was born five years ago and even up until just two years ago, I found myself in a dark place. I just didn’t know what exactly was wrong with me. Like you I suffered with mental and physical pain. I found myself running to the doctor several times a week thinking something was wrong with me physically. Finally, my doctor told me that I seemed to be suffering from anxiety and under a great deal a stress. Slowly, I began to put my life back in order. But the first thing I had to tell myself is that I can’t do it all. Although my husband and family told me repeatedly but I felt like a failure if I asked for help from anyone. I thought I should be able to have a career, be a mother, wife and be the go to person with my family.

    I’ll be the first to admit even after learning to say no, I still struggle with the same issue LaShaunda had and that is knowing that its ok to be away from my child. I would not go to the gym and workout or anything else because it took me away from my son. I’m better now, but I still have to tell myself that I spa day is ok, girls happy hour or just time sitting quietly at home. As women we live under so much pressure. My heart really goes out to the family left putting the pieces together of that tragic end and the child left behind wondering why. It’s time to ask for help and become selfish with our own well-being.

  4. Rene Syler

    April 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    @April: thank you for sharing this. Your line,” People are afraid to talk when they are sad or in trouble.” is so true. I knew my husband was tired of me, hell I was tired of myself. But I wasn’t sure where to go or who to turn to. When the doctor walked in I just couldn’t keep the facade up any longer and that’s when I let go. But it makes what makes me sad about LaShanda’s situation is that there were people in her life who, after the fact, said they noticed signs. Why they didn’t take more aggressive action is something they will wonder until they die. Sad

  5. Colleen

    April 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    This was wonderful to read. It is very true that one MUST take care of themselves in order to be a good mother, wife and person. It is wrong to always put yourself first but it is damaging to always put yourself last. The only criticism I have is telling the kids “I need to be away from you.” As a child therapist I can say that many kids would interpret that as meaning that they have done something wrong, that they cause mom too much stress. I would suggest saying, Sometimes moms go on vacations to be with their friends just like you like having sleepovers with your friends or Mom and Dad need special time for just the two of us, it is important. It depends on the age of the kid but I think you know what I mean.

  6. Rene Syler

    April 14, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    @Colleen: thanks.. Of course I was being blunt. But the fact is it needs to be conveyed to them, however you choose to do it without damaging their self esteem, that in order for you to be a better mother, you need time to recharge. I use a lot of humor so when I deliver that line they know what I mean. Along the same lines, I am quick to tell them I need to be with them. Thanks for the input!

  7. Rene Syler

    April 14, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    @Cassie: I so relate to how you are feel! If it makes it any easier, think about how much more effective a parent you will be when you are rested and recharged. That way you can give your child your absolute all. Your child will sense when you are physically present but mentally checked out. You know the other thing that helped me a lot? I realized that my kids needed time away from me too! And that they are going to learn from all the adults in their life. Good luck and thanks for sharing this!

  8. Alison

    April 14, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Wonderful Article. I live in Newburgh, NY and although I didn’t know the mother and the kids, this just broke my heart. I’ve been crying on and off since I heard about it. I’m not angry at her like some are. Just incredibly sad that she didn’t reach out before it got to this point.

  9. Irene

    April 14, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Whew….always seem to get what I need her at G.e.m….I saw the story about the mom…Something like this always brings me back to the story of Susan Smith who drowned those 2 beautiful boys…she should be in prison for what she has done but I often wonder if we could really get the truth out of her how she could help others.

    The past couple months I have felt the overload…I have the life I love, the job I want, family and good friends…love social networking…but I will be honest there is no way I can multi-task all that 24/7….so I told everyone….it is bubble baths and a break for me…we all need it sometime.

    And, listen to Rene when she talks about moms having time away from the house…last fall, I left home for a week in a rental car with a friend. It had been 18 years since I had done that…guess what? The house was still there when I got back…the kids may have ate take out most nights but what is wrong with a splurge….and my hubbie got to see the other side….the side that is good for men to see!

    I hope this child can rise above all this. I cannot even imagine…and for Catherine Zeta Jones good for her…she has had a heck of a battle with her hubbie being sick….(i think he is sick right???)

    Go G.e.m.s…

  10. Rene Syler

    April 14, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    @Irene: Best line: uess what? The house was still there when I got back…the kids may have ate take out most nights but what is wrong with a splurge….and my hubbie got to see the other side” My point exactly. If they have to eat cereal for 6 nights, so be it, they’ll be fine when you get back. But time away is CRUCIAL for your sanity!

  11. Nikki Newman

    April 15, 2011 at 2:46 am

    Tragic story and yes, why why why didn’t someone take action when they saw the signs? I think by the time you’re that ill reaching out seems virtually impossible. I have long felt that if there was more openess about the various signs and symptoms of mental illness/ breakdown then so many of these awful outcomes could be avoided. It’s such a scary place to be that you think you’re the only one to have ever been there and if you open up you might just get locked away in a padded cell. When actually, that’s what mental illness is – just a downright cruel joke that flips the person you know you are in on itself so you don’t recognise yourself anymore. People must know that, as you say, Rene, they can and must talk until they find the right person and solution to help them to recovery. Opening up to one or two loved ones in the process is essential, they are our link and our connection back to normality and wellbeing. They are our reason when all else seems pointless.

    Wishing Catherine Zeta well in her recovery.

    Emotive and important piece, Rene. Much love x

  12. Susan (5 Minutes for Mom)

    April 15, 2011 at 3:36 am

    Thank you for sharing this tragic but important story.

  13. m.e. johnson

    April 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Such a tragedy. But maybe someone had already threatened to ‘put her away’. That would do it for me, especially if I had small children. It’s a frightening concept. And mental records follow you forever. Maybe she knew that.

    Good for CZJ for taking care of herself. She will maintain her popularity. I just hope she doesn’t lose her acting edge. Sort of like your witty, fun, happy drinker who sobers up, then isn’t fun to be around anymore. Or the lady who loses a lot of weight then finds out her husband preferred her ‘curves’.

  14. Cathi

    April 15, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Learning to say No and letting go of outside responsibilities can be difficult. I learned to say No and put my me & my family first when my only daughter was 5 years old and was diagnosed with a non-curable neurological disease. She was hospitalized for 5 weeks and I learned then and there that PTA, Cub Scouts, School Site Council and everything else could carry on and function without me. I learned what I could do without letting me or my family suffer.
    My heart goes out to little LaShaun and his family. They have a long road ahead and we should not judge. How can we if we haven’t walked in another’s shoes? This story is simply heartbreaking.

  15. m.e. johnson

    April 15, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    It may be on other sites but there is a lot of new info about this lady and her fam here:

  16. Good Grief!

    April 18, 2011 at 6:05 am

    I’m sorry, but to compare the woman drowning her children to Catherine Zeta’s situation is irresponsible. Catherine has a household full of staff. I know because she’s talked about it in interviews. Her children have nannies and she’s got a staff that runs their many residences and even books their food. So, theorhetically, she CAN do it all. While the other mother was struggling and in an abusive relationships.

    I have no idea if the Black mother was bi-polar, but Catherine is and has access to lots of resources. While the other mother did not.

    Let’s be fair before we go comparing apples and oranges.

  17. Rene Syler

    April 18, 2011 at 6:52 am

    @Good Grief: I was not comparing them. I used two stories of two different women in the news on the same day to make a point about how most of us run ragged. That was all. BTW, none of us really knows how much CZJ with her household of staff could do. Maybe she didn’t delegate it all. Maybe her mental illness made it difficult to cope. It’s never looks the same to those of us on the outside.

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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