‘I felt like I was in a race against the world.’
“My second child tried to commit suicide on May 16, 2019. I took her to Southside Hospital. They wanted to know why. She informed them she was being bullied. Everybody says bullying is typical, every kid has been bullied. I didn’t really think it was that serious until she told me who was bullying her, that specific teachers were bullying her.
“I was devastated. We send our kids to school, we trust them, we think they’re going to guide them and make sure they are successful. That didn’t happen for my child. They literally destroyed her. She was never able to go back to school for a full day. She ended up with anxiety, depression. It just never was the same for her.
“I felt like I was in a race against the world. I was trying to find help, trying to find resources. I know firsthand what it is to go down the mental health journey as a parent. I couldn’t get an appointment. They wouldn’t see her. They didn’t take my insurance. I had to go through 16 counselors. I didn’t know anything about that.
“I knew from the start my daughter was different. At not even two weeks, she stopped breathing. She went into the hospital; she was hooked up to all these machines. It turns out she had really bad acid reflux. She couldn’t lay down for a long period of time. She never really cared for school. School was not her friend, she used to cry all the time.
“In third grade, they wanted me to take her for a follow-up because she failed her eye exam. You believe as a parent that your child is seeing, until this doctor tells me she should have been wearing glasses as a newborn. I guess that was the first sign of her having trouble in school. She just learned different.
“We placed her in special education. That was not the best decision. Everybody kept saying she was learning disabled. When she was in sixth grade, I found out she was dyslexic. In the midst of all that, I had a set of beautiful twin girls. That really shook things up. How I was going to cater to my second child and newborn twins? I was juggling the whole world.”
I see myself doing this for the rest of my life. What happens if moms don’t know the system, if moms don’t know the resources? I want everybody to remember Bernice.
“We tried to get some type of normalcy, but then Bernice’s behavior changed. I don’t know what happened — 90-degree weather, she was wearing a sweatshirt. That was the first time I knew my daughter was self-harming. She was having such a hard time. She wanted a tattoo, a green ribbon that says, ‘I’m still here.’ And she wanted me to get one, too. That’s the day I became a warrior mom, the day I survived that self-harm with her. She knew I was on that journey with her. She called me her fierce fighter.
“We were in such a good place mentally. We had a counselor who understood her. And then she passed. She had a pulmonary embolism. It was July 19, 2020. Even before my daughter died, I was an advocate for other kids. They would call me ‘Moms.’ If they needed food, if they were having a hard time, my daughters would say, ‘My mom’s coming.’
“I never want there to be another Bernice. Not every kid has a mom like me, that’s able to listen and understand. I told them my job is to move mountains and earth for you.
“I never thought this would be my role in life. I was going to be a mom, a wife. I went to Albany to change how we treat our children. I really wanted a mental health bill. If our kids go into a hospital for mental treatment and we put them back in schools, the teachers are not equipped to deal with that. One little thing can send these kids over the edge.
“I remember going to Senator Monica Martinez’s office. I had asked her to support a bill, but there was a similar bill. I said we need to have a mental health panel, and she didn’t hesitate. That panel just happened. We had some really good questions. It was good to see other parents having the same issues.
“I see myself doing this for the rest of my life. What happens if moms don’t know the system, if moms don’t know the resources? I want everybody to remember Bernice. Everything that I do now revolves around how I’m going to honor her, because part of me does feel like I failed her. I’m a little late, but I’m starting a podcast called ‘The Warrior Mom.’ A lot of people don’t understand being a parent is so hard. It doesn’t come with a manual.”
Interviewed by Barbara Schuler