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Hearts & Minds


Posted on March 20, 2017

Beloved children's entertainer Francie Dillon opens up about the pain and loss of parenting a child with mental illness.

Photography by Ryan Angel Meza

Francie Dillon is the definition of indefatigable. Bright-eyed and vivacious, she is a dynamo. Her sister, Catherine Hedge, once wrote, “Francie isn’t someone you meet. She’s someone you experience.” For more than two decades, Francie worked as a children’s entertainer, performing tirelessly in front of thousands of children across the Sacramento region and garnering awards for her talents.

Francie has also suffered her share of setbacks. A divorce after 16 years of marriage. A neurological disorder that capsized her career. The subsequent loss of her home. Bankruptcy. But all of those trials seem trivial compared to the grievous loss she experienced in March 2016: the death of her eldest daughter.

Erin Mackenzie Dillon, who was known by her nickname, Kenzie, shared many of her mother’s traits: an indomitable spirit, a deep capacity for compassion, a “lioness heart,” as her mother puts it. “She had a very strong sense of independence about her from the get-go,” says Francie. “She was very strong-willed, engaged, present. She had a very physical presence about her.”

Kenzie had lived—and suffered—with mental illness most of her life. As early as first or second grade, she was “hypersensitive to criticism and feeling judged,” says her mother. As a young teen, she experienced difficulty sleeping and concentrating in school. Seemingly insignificant slights could erupt into volatile incidents, only to blow over moments later. “It’d make you kind of stand back and say, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’ It was that explosive,” recalls Francie.

By 15, Kenzie was cutting herself. Then came a suicide attempt, at age 19, marking the first of several hospital stays to help Kenzie manage dramatic mood swings and stave off full-blown depressive episodes. Kenzie’s adulthood was marked by periods of instability and drug abuse, and also a dogged persistence to find a treatment that would improve her quality of life. She was a fighter.

Kenzie’s illness and death have taken Francie on a painful years-long journey that no parent anticipates and many never recover from. It has pulled her into emotionally dark places where shame, fear, doubt and heartbreak dwell. And yet her unsinkable spirit remains intact. In fact, it has emboldened Francie to speak candidly about her family’s experience with mental illness in the fervent hope that their story might somehow help others.

She is resolute: “I will be raw. I will be vulnerable. I will be honest with anybody who wants to ask me anything about this.”

Like most parents, Francie Dillon found herself fundamentally altered by parenthood. “Becoming a mom was completely transformative,” she says. She had enjoyed a successful career in marketing and advertising prior to having Kenzie in 1989 and assumed that she would continue on that path after giving birth.

But she soon changed her mind. “When Kenzie was born, I knew that there was no way I could go back to caring about what a potato looks like on a brochure. I just couldn’t.”

When Kenzie was 9 months old, Francie became pregnant with her second daughter, Lindsey, and dreamed up a job that would allow her to control her work schedule so that she could maximize her time with her children. “I felt like I needed to be an engaged, present mom. It was something that was in my fiber,” explains Francie. Ever resourceful, she founded a business called Jazz Babies, teaching music appreciation in preschools. The classes soon led to performing for private events and, eventually, a successful career as an educator, songwriter and recording artist.

Francie found a certain contentment in caring for her young family. She recounts stories of going to the park with the girls, “using nature for our entertainment,” and creating imaginative scenes on the floor of her living room by laying down green and brown bath towels as a make-believe landscape. “I would say—and I think that the girls would agree—that it was a free-flowing, experiential environment, with structure around mealtime and naptime,” says Francie. “I loved being a mom. It was difficult at times, but I personally got great joy out of it.”

At the same time that Francie was embracing motherhood and a new career, her marriage was crumbling. She and her husband divorced in 2000, when the girls were 10 and 9. Moving between two households proved difficult for the children, especially Kenzie. Francie remembers her calling from her father’s home one day. There had been an argument and Kenzie had locked herself in the bathroom. She was crying, begging her mother to retrieve her. “I stayed on the phone with her but I didn’t come get her,” says Francie. “It’s a turning point that we talked about years later. At that moment, she felt that she had lost her safety net. All of a sudden she felt abandoned. At age 10.”

Ilustration by Kyle Smart
Illustration by Kyle Smart

By the time Kenzie was 13, the struggles seemed to intensify. There were explosive outbursts, anger, frustration all around. “The conflict with her and her dad seemed to be so strong that we went in for counseling. That was when the counselor told me that she thought Kenzie might be dealing with depression. It was the first time I had ever heard of someone that age having depression. I was stunned and I was in denial,” says Francie.

It was around that time that Kenzie ran away from her father’s house. “Thank God for my friend, whose response was, ‘She must have been so unhappy.’ My first response was going to be the punishment route. Instead, she started living with me full time, and I did everything I could to keep that connection going.”

The new arrangement gave Kenzie’s father an opportunity to “be what he really was good at, which was taking them on adventures.” Francie, meanwhile, focused on “being the primary support person”—and finding help for Kenzie.

It was a trying period. “When you have a child with mental illness, you get pushed in every emotional direction you can imagine. You try having a nice family outing, not being sure if she’ll be able to participate. There is fighting, tempers flaring, walking on eggshells. And you wonder, how much of what’s going on is parenting? How much is the child? You don’t know until things continue to unfold, and that is so painful.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 live with a mental-health condition. In 2015, an estimated 12.5 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Are American teens in the throes of a collective mental-health crisis, or is this simply what typical teen angst looks like in today’s world? The answer is not clear-cut.

“We are understanding mental illness more, so instead of just blaming kids for being lazy or unmotivated, we’re understanding that they might be depressed or they might have learning problems or ADHD,” says Dr. Dawn DiRaimondo, a Sacramento-based clinical psychologist who has worked with adolescents and their families in her private practice since 2003. “But also, life has become so stressful and so overwhelming for everyone, parents included.”

Anyone who has survived the teen years knows what a tumultuous period it can be. It’s also a time when mental illness often first rears its head. According to NIMH, 50 percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24.

“The onset of puberty is when your brain goes through a whole restructuring. The emotional brain really starts getting developed in these years. I tell parents that it’s not uncommon for your 12- or 13-year-old to remind you of behaviors they had when they were 2 or 3,” explains DiRaimondo. “Also, the onset of puberty can magnify things. If there’s a predisposition to bipolar or depression or anxiety, adolescence is often when it really comes out.”

Distinguishing between the ordinary moodiness that most teenagers experience and a mental-health condition isn’t always easy. Most experts believe that parents should take action if they observe symptoms such as increased moodiness or tearfulness; expressions of feeling overwhelmed; increased anger or irritability; more emotionality; or a child who becomes withdrawn or simply doesn’t enjoy the things they once enjoyed.

DiRaimondo says that a few days of tearfulness or irritability probably isn’t a big concern, but longer bouts are problematic. “If we’re looking at two or three months of this type of behavior, then it’s probably time to call a professional,” she advises. “Usually with mental illness, it’s more of a pervasive thing. It’s not something that comes and goes. It feels chronic, as though they always have that dark cloud over them. They often look unhappy or upset; they don’t smile much or engage as much. Something seems off.”

More urgent action should be taken if a parent observes self-harm, such as self-cutting or -burning, or if a child expresses suicidal thoughts. “Certainly if they’re talking about what’s the point of life or expressing passive wishes to die or having suicidal thoughts, you have to take it seriously,” says DiRaimondo.

Kenzie was 19 when she first started taking antidepressant medication. She had been taking the pills for about three weeks when she asked Francie if she could go over to her father’s house. He was out of town, and she wanted some quiet time to hang out at his place and use the computer.

At 1:30 in the morning, she called Francie. “The first words out of her mouth were, ‘Mom, I love you.’ And then she started crying and said, ‘I took pills.’ That’s all I remember her saying,” recalls Francie, who tried to remain calm. “Immediately I told her, ‘I want you to go downstairs and unlock the door and wait. An ambulance will be there soon and I will be there, too. I’m calling 911 right now.’”

Dr. Dawn DiRaimondo
Dr. Dawn DiRaimondo, a Sacramento psychologist who works with adolescents

It wasn’t until Francie saw her daughter hooked up to a breathing machine in the emergency room that she grasped the severity of her daughter’s illness. It was also the first time she noticed that Kenzie had been cutting herself. “She was lying in the hospital bed, and I saw these markings on her legs and the insides of both her ankles,” says Francie, who learned then that her daughter had been cutting for years. “I saw her in swimsuits, she was with me full time, and I never knew she was cutting.”

Francie still questions whether she understood the fragility of Kenzie’s condition as well as she could have during those years. “I can’t help but wonder how tuned in I was,” she says. “I’m not saying this because I don’t think I was a good mom. I think I was a very good mom, and even then I didn’t see it.”

Driving Kenzie home from the hospital after the suicide attempt, Francie was overcome with doubt and fear about how to move forward, how to help protect her daughter. “I pulled over and I said, ‘I don’t know how to navigate this. All I know is that I love you so much. Can we start with a pinky swear that if you feel you are in such pain that you may attempt suicide again, you’ll trust me and you’ll let me know?’ So we did this pinky swear over a McDonald’s milkshake, with her promising that she won’t kill herself.”

Kenzie never did attempt suicide again, but she did admit herself to the hospital on other occasions when she felt herself sliding. “She could feel the darkness settling in and she would get worried,” says Francie, “so she would go back in. She would catch herself.”

For Francie, parenting a child with mental illness was often isolating. “I remember when Kenzie had come home from the hospital after her second or third time there, I looked around the house and it was so quiet,” recalls Francie. “There were no cards, there were no flowers. The refrigerator wasn’t full of food. I had the realization that for families dealing with mental illness, we’re not on somebody’s meal list.”

In her 20s, Kenzie continued to undergo treatment while experiencing a string of successes and setbacks with regard to her education, jobs and relationships. “The effect of the medications she was on made it difficult for her to navigate day-to-day life,” says Francie. “All the things that we would consider normal participation—getting out of bed, proper care of her own nutrition and physical health, getting her laundry done—were hard for her.”

Keeping up appearances seemed to drain Kenzie of energy. “I know that for the most part when she was out of the house she did a great job of functioning pretty damn normally so that people wouldn’t know,” says Francie. “But when she came home, she would let her guard down and I could see that she really needed to crash.”

Kenzie was ultimately diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder and borderline personality disorder, a condition that is often characterized by severe mood swings, an intense fear of abandonment, impulsive behaviors and a distorted self-image.

“People with borderline personality disorder often have a hard time feeling like people connect with them or relate to them in a meaningful way. Relationships are very hard for them to navigate,” says Curtis Buzanski, a licensed therapist and addiction counselor based in Fair Oaks.

Francie fiercely admires how hard Kenzie fought to find and adhere to a treatment plan that could help her function and feel better. “It takes so much courage to take all those meds with the plethora of side effects they bring on. But she kept trying. Talk about courageous.”

Desperate, Kenzie also tried self-medicating with heroin on and off during her 20s. “Kenzie would tell me that she did not get high off of heroin. She felt normal on heroin. That is the drug that made her feel normal. In a way, heroin gave her something that she didn’t have.”

In fact, Buzanski says that it’s not uncommon for people suffering from mental illnesses like anxiety disorder or depression to feel a sense of normalcy or relief when first using heroin. “The very experience of opiates on the brain of someone [with those diagnoses] affects almost all the areas that are disregulated,” he explains.

Eventually the heroin use caught up with Kenzie. She entered a treatment center in Palo Alto and managed to stay clean for an extended period. After that point, things finally started coming together for her. “She was holding down a job, she was in her first open same-sex relationship, she was really showing happiness,” says Francie.

It was while Kenzie was on a road trip to Southern California with her girlfriend that things fell apart, however. Kenzie had secretly started using drugs again. Her girlfriend found her slumped over in a chair while they were staying at a friend’s house and frantically administered CPR. She was rushed to the hospital where she was put on life support.

“The minute I walked into the ER, I saw how widely dilated her eyes were. I could still feel a sense of spirit about her, but I knew that she wasn’t going to make it,” says Francie.

The medical team was able to keep Kenzie alive until her father arrived. Arrangements were made to donate Kenzie’s organs, ultimately helping five people lead a fuller life. She was 26.

Overcome with grief, Francie struggled to find hope. “When she was up in the ICU and we knew that she was going to die, I was on the third floor of the hospital looking out at the traffic going by, and this tune came into my head, that song that goes, ‘Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?’” recalls Francie, singing the lyrics.

“I almost started singing it out loud when suddenly I looked down and saw this hummingbird sitting on this enormous tree, just doing its thing. And I remember thinking, ‘It’s not the end of the world.’ This hummingbird was showing me it had a job to do: It had to keep getting the nectar. I knew then that there is still beauty in the world and life has to go on. I never expected the world to stop for everyone, even though it did for me,” she continues.

“If I hadn’t seen that little hummingbird, I could have gone down that path of anger and wanting to blame the world,” says Francie. “But I saw that bird and it just stopped me. I knew that everyone faces struggles, and that the world wouldn’t shine as bright for me, but that it will go on.”

A year later, Francie is still raw with pain. She thinks of Kenzie daily and has written candidly about her loss on social media as a way to heal and to prevent others from suffering the same fate. She laments the silence and stigma that too often surrounds mental illness. “We’re just now starting to find our language around this so that it becomes as commonplace as talking about breast cancer,” says Francie.

“Right now, there are neighborhoods where on the same street there are multiple families dealing with this, but nobody’s talking about it and it creates this very isolated experience,” says Buzanski. “So many people are touched by addiction and mental health, and if we’d talk about it more and discuss what’s working and what’s not working, it would be easier for them to know they can get help.”

Francie has a lot she wants to tell families struggling to care for a loved one with mental illness. For starters, get help—from family, friends and professionals. “I couldn’t do it all alone,” she says. “It wasn’t until she attempted suicide that I knew this was beyond me—way beyond me. Reach out and be willing to accept help.”

Family Photo
Francie Dillon remembers Kenzie as "very strong willed, engaged, present. She had a very physical presence about her."

DiRaimondo echoes this refrain, adding that parents need to build a support system for themselves, too, in order to help their child. “You care about your kids more than you care about anything, so to watch them struggle and go through all the feelings that come up can be difficult,” she says. “There is a grief around understanding that ‘this isn’t the child I imagined that I would have. These aren’t the issues that I thought I’d be dealing with.’ There needs to be support around that.”

Unfortunately, there are significant hurdles to accessing quality mental health care. “I was educated and I had resources, and even then I felt powerless navigating the system,” says Francie.

First, there aren’t enough practitioners who treat teens, so many patients experience delays getting into treatment. And because many therapists do not take insurance, the cost prevents many individuals from getting the help they need. Finally, the system of care for mental health can be frustratingly disjointed. Francie noted, for example, that at one point Kenzie’s therapist and her psychiatrist (the physician prescribing her medications) weren’t even in communication with one another to coordinate her care.

Every parent will have different reactions to having a child with mental illness. “Some people completely collapse and give in to the illness and become completely useless, in a way. Others turn to anger and blame,” she says. For Francie, gathering information and learning acceptance were important steps toward moving forward.

“As we gained more knowledge, we also gained more compassion for Kenzie. We knew not to take it personally, that it wasn’t something she was doing to us,” explains Francie. “When I was fully able to accept it as mental illness, there was peace around the home because I didn’t have unrealistic expectations for her. Acceptance is the only place from which you can function.”

Francie, although she loved Kenzie fiercely, cautions that love is not enough to overcome mental illness. “My love for her, no matter how strong, never-ending and unconditional, could not cure her mental illness. She needed more. It took me years to understand that. I thought that if I showed her how much I loved her, then she would be happy. It was a mistake thinking that was all she needed.”

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