Recovering perfectionist writes memoir to help others dealing with mental health needs
Two things are weighing heavily on Valerie Cantella’s mind this month — teen mental wellness and Ukraine — and while they seem very disconnected, they each have a unique connection to her.
She writes about them in her recently published memoir, “off-script: a mom’s journey through adoption, a husband’s alcoholism and special needs parenting” (Recovering Perfectionist Press, $12.99).
“With the pandemic, mental health needs have increased exponentially for youth, and I want to bring attention to the topic. When parenting my teens struggling with mental wellness, I felt isolated and didn’t know where to turn for support, “ said Ms. Cantella, the mother of Nick, her biological son; Katie, her adopted daughter; and Adam, a bonus son by marriage. She and her husband, Tom, live in Santa Barbara.
“Second, the war in Ukraine is heartbreaking, and it feels a touch closer because I’ve had some experience with Vladimir Putin. Back in 1999, when we were in the adoption process, he stopped U.S. adoptions because ‘rich Americans were stealing their children.’
“However, under his regime, children were starving in orphanages. There was limited access to birth control to prevent unplanned pregnancies (Katie was the fourth live birth of her mother’s seven pregnancies). In another instance, he ordered the heat turned off in the orphanages in the Vladivostok region, where Katie lived, in the middle of winter when it was 27 degrees below zero with the windchill factor just to get his way.
“Katie only weighed 15 pounds at 16 months. There was no body fat to keep her tiny body warm. Now, Putin’s madness is playing out horrifically on a much larger stage, and I’m heartbroken for the people in Ukraine and the Russians who live under this malicious ruler,” said Ms. Cantella, 52.
The 1988 graduate of San Marcos High School, who was born near Wheaton, Ill., came to Santa Barbara at the age of 14 when her father, Ron Cronk, became vice president of Westmont College.
Even though she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of 10, she said she had a wonderful, active life in a loving family with her mother Jan and younger brother Brian.
“I was active in school, church and community. It was an idyllic time,” Ms. Cantella told the News-Press during a phone interview from her home.
Then, in her senior year at Westmont, where she earned her political science degree, she was diagnosed with kidney disease.
“I was told I needed a kidney transplant. It was the first hint that the perfect life that I envisioned was not going to be as planned,” said Ms. Cantella, describing herself as a “recovering perfectionist.”
After graduation from Westmont, she had a variety of jobs in communications and consulting, and when she was 24, she married Paul, and the couple soon became parents of Nick, who is now 24.
“We were living the American dream in this beautiful community,” she said. “Paul was working for a high tech company in Goleta. I was working on consulting from home.”
When Nick was a year old, the couple decided to adopt a child.
“I had been told that because of my kidney disease I probably wouldn’t be able to have more than one child. We chose Russia because Paul’s family was Russian. We were also willing to adopt a child with special needs,” said Ms. Cantella.
As it turned out, Katie’s special needs were more serious than they anticipated. Her most serious problem was reactive attachment disorder, a condition where a child doesn’t form healthy emotional bonds with their parents often because of emotional neglect or abuse at an early age.
“We tried everything to bond with her. The Tri-Counties Regional Center provided therapy five days a week, but there was no bonding. We were muddling along. We looked like the ideal family of four, but it was all a facade,” said Ms. Cantella, who was president of the Goleta Union School District Board and public information officer for the city of Goleta.
Then one day, she was called from Goleta Valley Junior High School who informed her that Katie was not at school.
“My first thought was that she had been abducted, but we found out she had gone to Noah’s Anchorage Youth Shelter for youth in crisis. That was the start of a whole trajectory. Things were worse than we thought. Her problems were very complex and didn’t fit into a box. There were suicide attempts,” Ms. Cantella said.
The couple sent her to facilities out of state. She lived with four different families in four years.
Ms. Cantella’s coping mechanism to deal with the stress was to be perfect.
Her husband’s solution was alcohol.
“He was able to keep working because he was a functioning alcoholic,” she said.
In 2014, the couple divorced.
“I learned that perfectionism wasn’t the answer. I could only control my attitudes and behaviors. Through Al-Anon, I learned to be authentic instead of perfect. Perfectionism is intimidating and off-putting,” said Ms. Cantella.
In 2018, she remarried and became the wife of Tom and stepmother of Adam, now 18, and a high school student in Pasadena.
“Now, my life is amazing. Nick is thriving as a carpenter and surfer in Santa Cruz, and Katie lives in a group home in Riverside. Since January, I have had a communications consulting business in our home. I have created a life that I love,” said Ms. Cantella, who wrote the book because “I wish I had something similar when I was going through the hardest days of my journey. Raising a special needs child is a lonely and isolating experience.
“If there is one takeaway from the book, it’s that there is no script for a perfect life. Perfection is not my goal. An authentic life is my goal. The phrase that guides my life is: Look forward. Trust God. Today is a new day.”