The information and photography in this post is shared with permission from Preston Blackburne. It is our hope to continue to spread the message that Life Gets Better.
Yesterday, I watched my 16 year-old son, Preston, accept his Scholastic Art Award, a Silver Key, that he won for his photo “Into the Digital Age.” The ceremony was held in the Pickney Hall on the campus at Central Oregon Community College in a large auditorium with several hundred people. He stood amongst his schoolmates, while his photography teacher and mentor, Mr. Fox, handed out each award. I struggled to hold back tears. No one knows Preston’s story like I do…
In the fall of his freshman year, he fell into the black hole of a “severe depressive episode”. I learned of how broken he was when he exhibited dangerous behavior and admitted to suicidal ideation that required immediate emergency intervention. He spent several days at our local hospital on a one-to-one psych hold, waiting for an inpatient room to become available in Portland, 4 hours away. Fortunately, time has allowed some of the painful details to fade and the memories are no longer so vivid. I do recall that I kept telling him how much I loved him and I wasn’t upset with him. There was no judgement from me and frankly I was proud of him for being brave enough to save his own life. All of a sudden parts of my own dark, depressed past shifted into place and I knew what to say, when to shut up and how to make the hard decisions to get him the help he needed.
His psychiatrist is an incredible man. Previously, I was personally resistant to using medications for depression and anxiety. During our decision making progress about which modalities to use for Preston, Dr C made a great analogy. He said to me, “If someone is drowning, do you just hand them a life-jacket and hope for the best? Or, do you give them the life-jacket, throw them a life-ring, call the Coast Guard and others with expertise to help?” Obviously the latter. He started medication, which has been modified as the crisis episode passed, that he still has chosen to continue to take. The mundane details of his inpatient hospital stays, he had two of them, aren’t important. Just believe me when I say I’ve seen this kid at his lowest points. One noteworthy moment is when he came out to me as bisexual. I said “So?” It was such a nonissue for me. I want my kids to know love and I don’t care what parts their partner has. I honestly could NOT care less. Despite all the emotions Preston was experiencing, he slowly began to believe, with some testing, that I do love him unconditionally.
At the end of Thanksgiving weekend in 2013, he showed again that he was in crisis and when we met with Dr C on Monday morning, Preston asked to go to residential treatment. That isn’t something you say “No” to. It was overwhelming and took a lot of work to arrange but we did just that and he had to wait, as an inpatient, for the bed to become available. Going to the Children’s Farm Home run by Trillium Family Services in Albany was what Preston needed. I drove the several hundred miles at least twice a week, once to visit and once to participate in family therapy. Through this process, I learned what expectations I had set and behavior that I had shown, that was damaging to Preston’s spirit. I took responsibility. I apologized. I committed to changing. (Other people in his life were unable to take less ownership of their negative contributions and those relationships have suffered.) I rarely yell now and I’ve changed my expectations about school success. Preston knows that we expect him to go to school every day, do his best by completing assignments. We no longer press about getting a specific letter grade. Instead, we encourage him to develop good behaviors and habits that will help him be successful in life.
He has really embraced the life he is building for himself. Preston has a diverse group of friends and shows them the same love and acceptance that I showed him. As a family, we have moved away from concerning ourselves with the gender binary and often have open discussions about the LGBTQ community. Life is open and honest and Preston knows he can show us all of himself. I’ve told him time and time again that I am not scared of his truth. I will be here for him no matter what.
Due to his hospital stays, he ended up without credit for the first semester of his freshman year. It was a difficult hole to dig out of, but within the last two weeks, he has completed the last credit recovery classes and is caught up!!!!
As Preston has grown into his own person, he has started sharing his artistic talent with the world. His artful expression that gets the most energy is his photography. He has some incredible photos that you can see on his website gallery https://prestonblackburne.wix.com/preston-blackburne#!photos/c1zeq . It’s a work-in-progress, but his site shows he is getting his feet wet.
He has some incredible photography mentors that include, but are not limited to; Doug H., Brian Z., and An V. With the encouragement of his photography teacher, Mr. Fox, he entered three photos into the Scholastic Art and Writing Contest for 2016. There were 300,000 entrants nationwide in grades 7-12. His photo, shown here, won a Silver Key. The accomplishment of winning a Silver is admirable in it’s own right. However, when you know where this young man has come from, overcoming the obstacle of major depression and suicidal ideation, it means even more. Just two short years ago, at this time, he was just going back to school after missing 2.5 months of school. Preston was able to go into a grocery store and get our shopping done, without having to rush back to the car in a panic. He’d only just started sleeping in his own bed, alone in his own room. Life gets better. Fast forward to yesterday, he wove through the crowd in the gallery, with his girlfriend of 15 months, to see his own photo hanging on the wall with the rest of the Silver Key, Gold Key and Honorable Mention winners. He was relaxed and seemed 100% comfortable in his own skin. As he told me, artists can dress the way they want so he was wearing jeans and one of his two Millenium Falcon t-shirts. His best accessory was his easy smile. I tried really hard not to be all mushy and cry. I failed. As I sat in the college auditorium, with his younger brother, Logan and my parents down the row, I felt overwhelmed by the feeling that he had ARRIVED! Life has gotten better.
I know that thinking “what if?”, is usually a useless past time. However, I can’t help but thinking what Preston, and the rest of the world, would have missed out on, if he hadn’t made the commitment to save his own life. Regardless of my decisions, which medical providers or facilities he went to, his success at life is because of the pain he walked through, that he faced and dealt with.
I’m so grateful that he has shared his talent and made his photography publicly available. I share his story so that other hurting people can have hope that life gets better.
“Into the Digital Age.” Photo by Preston Blackburne, Age 16, Scholastic Art Silver Key Award Winner 2106.