DEATH LOOMS all around us.
“We have to talk,” he says. “Follow me. “
We walk through the maze of pods in the ER. He moves quickly, walks in front of me. He knows where he’s going; I don’t. I stare at his back.
I don’t want to look around too much because it makes me dizzy and it feels rude to stare at the other people. So it’s like I have blinders on—self-inflicted ones.
I can’t figure out where the hell I am or how I’ll get back to the room where my daughter lies, hooked up to incessantly beeping machines.
I wonder if he’ll come back with me? Does he care enough to make sure I get back?
I feel wrong leaving her, but she has a watcher in there. An aide of some kind who sits at a desk and basically stares at her, jotting notes on papers about once every few minutes.
It all looks the same here, in the hospital. It’s so confusing. It’s a blur of homogeneity, but in these rooms, each family is dealing with a separate, private hell.
I can see many elderly people, lying pale on the beds. I see the elderly children of these elderly patients, sitting in the uncomfortable bedside chairs, knitting or wringing their hands.
“In here,” he says, holding open a heavy door that’s at the end of the circle of pods.
He is dressed all in black. Black shirt. Black pants. Like an undertaker. Or Pit Bull. He is bald, too, like Pit Bull. I can’t tell if it’s natural baldness or purposeful, if he was losing his hair anyway and just said, “Fuck it, I’ll shave it all off. That’ll look badass as opposed to sad.”
He wears sunglasses inside. They have lavender lenses and wraparound frames.
It is winter. It is dark out.
Pit Bull, as I call him in my mind, is of an indeterminate age. Sort of like me. I don’t try to be cool, as I assume he’s trying, but I also don’t dress like an old lady, or like a too-young one. I wear what I want. Like he does, I suppose. But the difference is that I don’t try to dress like a rock star.
He also wears chains wrapped around his wrist. Industrial jewelry?
“That guy has probably had a hard life,” my husband will say later, when I point out Pit Bull’s interesting accessories. I just shrug in response. That’s one way to look at it.
When I first started thinking about Pit Bull’s accoutrements, that old TLC show “What Not to Wear” flashed in my mind. I remembered a middle-aged woman who used to wear a felt tail (like the kind from Pin the Tail on the Donkey) safety-pinned to the ass of her jeans. This was, of course, before Stacy London and what’s-his-name set her straight and told her it looked psycho. It was giving people the wrong impression.
Wrong. Whatever “wrong” means.
“It’s really cold in here,” Pit Bull explains as we enter the room he has led me to, a room actually called the Counseling Room. “It’s cold because it’s over the morgue. Which is basically a giant refrigerator.”
I chuckle a little. Not really. It’s forced, polite, “that wasn’t actually funny but I feel awkward so I will just automatically respond in an inappropriate way” chuckling.
It is very cold in the counseling room. It is deathly cold. Bone chilling. It’s the sort of depressing, bleak place that almost makes you wish you were dead so you never have to sit in there.
There are two small couches, hard as rocks, like stone benches upholstered in non-staining pleather. The couches face each other across the five-foot-wide room. Pit Bull takes one. I take the other.
I pull my jacket around myself, tightly.
How apropos, perhaps, to have the counseling room here, above the morgue. It’s the after-a-loved-one’s-death room, mostly. It’s not a place you want to hang out or ever see. Maybe they don’t want you to stay long. No one enjoys these types of talks.
My 13-year-old daughter tried to kill herself at dawn this morning. We could be having this meeting because she is dead, although she is not.
Thank you, God.
But she wants to be dead. She has drawn many pictures of death. A body, bleeding out in a bathtub. A girl with angel wings floating up to heaven.
Pills, knives, razors, flames.
Morbid song lyrics. Her personal brand of poetry. Suicide notes to friends. Not to me or to her father or her sister. No relations.
When I clean her room later, I will find looseleaf pages with ominous words written in bubble letters, in triple layers of colored pencil script.
Kill people, burn shit, fuck school. That was even a Facebook tagline for a while, what you saw just after her name.
I freaked when I first read that. “What the hell is this?” I think I shouted.
It is, it turns out, not her personal manifesto but the title of a popular rap song.
“I don’t care if it’s a song! You can’t put that on your Facebook wall! It looks really bad. Don’t you care how it looks?”
“I hate you,” I think she said. “Stop stalking my Facebook!”
She has blocked me on Facebook, had me blocked for months or even years, but every once in a while I see things. I am crafty like that. I am just a concerned parent. I’d be a bad mom if I didn’t check her Facebook.
She did not take killpeopleburnshitfuckschool down. I don’t have her Facebook password, so I can’t do it myself.
So fuck you, Mark Zuckerberg. Fuck you. I’d like to slap your shiny, freckled face.
You have ruined our lives. Ruined so many lives. Do you know this? Do you care?
I can’t delete my kid’s Facebook. I can’t even delete my own. It comes back, like an insidious weed. Pernicious. Not to be destroyed.
If you want to delete FB, you have to, as a computer-geek friend of mine advised, “Go deep.” You must spend hours painstakingly deleting every post, every picture.
But even then, it pops back up if anyone uses your computer to check his or her own Facebook page. It pops back up if you visit a web site that affiliates with Facebook (as most do).
You can’t get rid of Facebook. You can only wish that it would die.
“Your daughter could have died today,” says Pit Bull.
I nod, vigorously. I thought she was going to die when I saw all that blood. When I found the empty pill bottles. When I saw her lips shaking.
I thought she might die. I can’t think about that anymore right now. It is too real, too fresh.
Now, I keep my eyes locked on Pit Bull’s lavender sunglasses. He doesn’t really look at me, as far as I can tell. He is looking around the tight, beige room. Maybe he wears those lavender shades because his eyes are shifty and beady. Maybe he wears them to protect himself from eye contact with the grieving.
The constant eye contact has to be emotionally draining.
The room Pit Bull’s eyes keep exploring (probably a room he knows well) is beige. Beige is the color of death, I always think. Beige is the default color, the paint color people use when they don’t want to put thought into decorating. I refuse to use beige, to wear beige. Beige is also, ironically, the color of the universe.
“A suicide attempt—and I don’t give a shit that all those cuts were superficial; there were, like, 80 of them—is a cry for help,” he says.
I keep nodding. I know this. There were pools of blood. Her father and I were screaming. There was so much blood I pushed her into the shower. I couldn’t tell if she was bleeding to death. We needed to wash away the blood. Start over. Start clean. Figure out what was going on. Make the bleeding stop.
“So we have to help her,” he says. “That means…a hospital. For at least a few weeks. Get her stable.”
“No,” I tell him. “No mental hospital. Not again.”
“Again?” he asks.
I think back to five months ago.
I got a call from her guidance counselor. I could hear my daughter in the background, crying.
Turns out she had cut herself. She had slashes everywhere on her arms. A teacher noticed.
My daughter lied and said the cat did it.
The cat did it. The oldest cutter’s lie in the book. But then, I knew nothing about cutting. I only knew that I did not understand it. Not at all.
“I will come and get you,” I told her, on the phone. “Do you want to be homeschooled? Is school the problem?”
“Yes!” my daughter sobbed.
Still, the next day, she insisted on going back to school. Back into the lion’s den.
“Every time I come here, someone is getting beaten up,” I told the guidance counselor later, after a few more months of issues at school.
When I said this, the guidance counselor looked peeved, as in, “Yeah, lady, we do the best we can. These kids are animals!” He didn’t say that, but he didn’t have to. The school is an urban public middle school. It might as well be a holding pen for incorrigibles of every variety.
One time, I had to run back into the school building to tell the secretaries to call the police. Some little kid, some small boy, was getting pushed and punched outside the cafeteria. A huge circle of kids surrounded the fight, cheering and snapping pictures with their smart phones.
“Do something!” I yelled at all of them. “A little kid is getting beaten up! Would you please do something?”
The women just looked at me, confused. They stood up as if to confront me because I was crazed and shouting, but otherwise, they did not move.
I ran back outside. I’d do something myself. I would push my way through that circle of adolescents and stop the fight, if I could.
But now the cafeteria ladies were there. “Break it up,” they said in bored voices. “Go back inside.” How long had they looked through the windows and watched the fight, I wondered?
This must happen a lot, I thought to myself. That poor kid. I wondered if his parents knew what fresh hell awaited him each day at school.
But a parent can’t know unless the kid says something. And the kids hardly ever say anything. Why is that?
How can we help if we don’t know? Why did it take me so long to realize that the spots of blood on my daughter’s sheets—splotches of blood, actually—were not from her scratching her legs, as she claimed? That they couldn’t be from that? Why was I so blind?
I was blind because I couldn’t imagine, at that point, that my firstborn, my baby, would deliberately slice her long, strong limbs and her flat, porcelain stomach with a 10-inch knife or a razor.
Who would do that? Aren’t we, as humans, hardwired to avoid pain? Why would someone deliberately seek it out? How does that make sense?
Cutting is, however, trendy now. The stars do it. Many of the girls do it. But no one, it seems, does it as much as my kid.
I would never have cut myself as a teenager, even though yes, I pierced my own ear. More than once. I also used to get drunk, at a rather alarmingly young age, and my kid doesn’t drink (no, really). I got so stoned, so often, that I actually forgot my own phone number. But still, this cutting thing—that, I can barely understand.
Pit Bull asks, “How did this happen today?”
I say, “My husband got a text message…at five a.m. From one of her friends. We ran to her. I brought her to the hospital.”
“What meds is she on?”
I tell Pit Bull.
“Are they working?”
“What do you think?” I ask this, but nicely.
“You know, I hate your p-doc,” says Pit Bull, flipping through a pile of papers I’ve filled out.
A p-doc is a psychiatrist.
I agree. He is useless. I mutter this.
“Not just useless. An asshole. There’s no communication between him and anyone else. You need a better p-doc. But all the good ones are spendy,” says Pit Bull, rubbing his fingertips together in the way that means “expensive.”
I nod again. I am a poor teacher. Seriously. I tell Pit Bull this. Now, he nods.
I work seven days a week, teaching at three different schools. Tutoring every spare moment. I hate to pass up money, but after all this time, all this energy, what do I have to show for it?
A kid I should have been home with. A kid who declares, in angry sputters, that she wants nothing to do with me. This is a kid who wouldn’t stop nursing for (wait for it) five years. A kid who was terrified to sleep in a room alone until just last year.
She is now a kid who often won’t leave her room at all.
What happened to my beautiful, high-achieving, perfect daughter? The one with the 4.0 average, the excellent runner, the Angelina Jolie look-alike that people would honestly stop on the street and say, “Honey. My God! You are gorgeous!” (She didn’t really like that, though; it made her self-conscious. What I didn’t realize then was that she was already punishing herself and refusing to acknowledge her good points. I was proud of her for not wanting to be defined by her looks, but still, I hoped she’d take advantage of her beauty. Even superficial qualities can open doors…)
So how did her self-destruction happen? How did it happen so fast?
It’s a blur. I can barely recall its beginning. My daughter became suddenly, obnoxiously bratty in the beginning of the summer after sixth grade. Typical teenage stuff, we thought. We were firm with her. We threatened her with grounding. Then, after a couple of months, we realized that the belligerence belied depression.
“Your daughter is profoundly depressed,” an art therapist finally told me, showing me the self-evaluation chart my kid had filled out, marking 10 for depression, 10 for self-harm, 10 for suicidal ideation. “Get her on some meds.”
We did. But they were low-dose. Way too low dose. (This was the doing of the asshole p-doc.) The inefficient medication problem went on for months; we kept waiting for relief, but the meds did nothing to help. We took our daughter to therapy several times a week.
When the dose was finally raised, my daughter went manic. As in, full-on embarrassing, crazy manic. As in, so embarrassing I don’t even want to explain it.
“Ah, classic bi-polar,” the p-doc said at that point. Bipolar only becomes obvious, sometimes, after a manic reaction to SSRI antidepressants. The p-doc put her on a mood stabilizer. It was way too low dose. It did basically nothing. And the depression persisted.
The mania continued, as well, but now it wasn’t embarrassing. It was scary. I used to hide the knives, and not because I thought my daughter was using them to cut herself.
The cutting began after some idiot boy in the seventh grade, a boy who’d been leading my daughter on via Facebook, broke her heart by going out, quite suddenly, with someone else. Not that he and my daughter had ever dated or done anything. It was all just flirty banter, but apparently, it meant something to my kid. She had hopes. And they were crushed.
When the new couple announced their relationship status, my daughter was upset, and she and this boy bickered on Facebook.
“You just jelly,” he told my daughter (as I read on her FB page).
I later understood “jelly” means “jealous.” (And I still think “jelly” is a stupid term.)
He went on: “You should have asked me out. I might have said yes. But now I’m with a WAAYYY SEXXXY gf, way more beautiful than you!”
My daughter told him (and this is verbatim) that he was a big-headed ass who had led her on and that she wouldn’t go out with him now if he were the last guy on Earth. “You’d say anything to get fucked,” she told him.
Apart from being alarmed by her precocity here, as she was just barely on the other side of 12, I was impressed by her probably-quite-accurate assessment of the situation.
“Yeah, I’m a guy, so I probably would,” the boy responded. “But you’re a useless whore. Everyone thinks so. They all call you whore. Even your friends call you whore. I wish you’d die.”
And that’s when she cut herself to ribbons. Never mind that those two words—“useless” and “whore”—did not apply to my child in any way, shape, or form. Never mind that they were random, cruel adjectives merely flung at her as a way to end an annoying conversation.
It took me several months to find these messages, to figure out the situation. I have never met the kid who called my daughter a “useless whore” (ironic, since she’d never even had a boyfriend at that point), but if I ever do, someone will probably need to hold me back.
If that kid ends up ruining or indirectly ending my daughter’s life, I will not be able to forgive that.
Someone should have taught him how to treat girls. Someone needs to teach him that words have consequences. Someone needs to check his use of Facebook.
For right now, the only thing that keeps me from going after this kid is the very real possibility that I’d humiliate my daughter if I did so. Sometimes, it is better not to let other people (especially the assholes) know how much they have hurt us.
I am not supposed to know what actually happened between my daughter and this terrible boy, anyway; I cannot admit to reading their exchange on Facebook. I have to play it cool. Meanwhile, I remind my daughter, “Weren’t you happier before Facebook? What about taking a break? Remove yourself from the drama. Facebook isn’t healthy.”
But now there’s Ask.fm. It’s much worse than Facebook. I e-mail articles to my daughter, articles about kids who killed themselves because of cyberbullies on Ask.fm. She does not acknowledge receiving the articles, but every chance I get, I troll through the questions she’s received and I delete the ones I think would trigger a relapse of her depression and self-injury.
One morning, I saw twelve questions to her, one after another: Do you cut? Do you cut? Do you cut?
I deleted, deleted, deleted.
“Doesn’t really matter what it costs in the end,” says Pit Bull, and I realize he is still talking about the p-doc and my need to find a new one, “if you only see the psychiatrist once every few months. At least if you spend $300, you’ll get an hour of the p-doc’s time. Not the five minutes your kid probably gets.”
Pit Bull insists, right now, on hospitalization for my daughter.
“I don’t get why you don’t want to agree,” he tells me, looking at me like I am a shitty mother. “This is a life-and-death situation, and you have to do something. You have to know that you did all you could. But understand that even if you won’t do anything, we will code her…your kid is going to the hospital whether you like it or not, and if you don’t sign the papers, she’ll go to the county hospital and trust me, you do not want that.”
I sigh. Pit Bull knows he’s got me. Of course I’ll sign the papers. I won’t send her to the county Cuckoo’s Nest. Not in the abysmal county we live in. I’ve seen that hospital; people specifically drive many miles to avoid it.
My refusal to ship off my daughter is, right now, more of a show. I am playing this role for her. She will likely never forgive me for the first hospitalization she endured, so now, I want her to know that it’s not my idea to send her back. Especially since I am quite sure that the first hospital experience just made her worse.
I don’t have much faith that the hospital will do anything at all. What is the point of the behavioral health hospital? It is basically 24/7 suicide watch until the worst is over. But studies show that the “worst,” the riskiest time for suicide, is after release from a hospital. And people still kill themselves in hospitals all the time.
The hospital is also where the kids learn how best to cut themselves, or kill themselves. They learn this in group therapy, which I’ve decided may be the ultimate bullshit; it reinforces certain behaviors and gives kids new ideas and a sense of competition. It’s also easy and cheap for the hospitals or clinics to run.
When she returned from the hospital the first time, my daughter sat in her room in the dark. In silence. We had taken away the computer and the phone. This was not meant as punishment, but as protection. We were trying to keep her well. All the isolation did, however, was make her more upset, more depressed.
We checked on our daughter every 10 minutes. She would not speak to us for weeks. She blamed us, blamed teachers, blamed everyone for “sending her away.”
None of that was true, of course. We destruct ourselves; we create our own hells. We always have a choice how we can respond to a situation.
Hardly anyone has figured this out, of course. It is a mark of wisdom and maturity to realize that we can control things by the way we choose to react, to think, to feel.
I have not exactly figured it out myself. So I avoid. I stay away from things I know will upset me. This usually seems to work. It’s not perfect; it’s not foolproof, but it helps me get by.
“What’s your plan?” Pit Bull asks my daughter, after he speaks to me in the icebox. He means, what is your plan to kill yourself? How would you do it? Please explain in precise, painstaking detail.
I hate that question. I cringe every time I hear it, and I have heard it many times by now.
It is a question I do not think I could ever bring myself to ask. Even though you are supposed to ask it.
How can you ask that most personal and emotional of questions and not seem like an unfeeling robot? And how could a parent deal with hearing the answer?
“What’s your plan [for killing yourself]?” is a cold, clinical question. I don’t feel as if those words could come out of my mouth. Not directed to my child.
But if you don’t ask, the experts say, it’s tantamount to not caring. Get over yourself and ask the damn question!
The therapists can ask it. Eventually, I will get there, but this is still too fresh.
They do ask the question. Constantly. Automatically. It still makes me nervous.
You’re not suggesting suicide when you ask about a plan; you’re just ascertaining how serious the threat is, they say.
Pit Bull asks my daughter again, “What’s your plan?”
“Stuff,” she says, cagily.
Pit Bull nods. His expression is inscrutable, nonexistent. I cannot gauge what he’s thinking. He scribbles something in a folder.
“Yeah,” he says simply. He sounds tired. “What’s the other plan?”
Many hours later—I sit in the ER for 14 hours on this day—Pit Bull comes back into my daughter’s room.
“Can we leave yet? I want to leave,” says my daughter. I know she is dying to check her Facebook, and there is no WiFi in this hospital.
“You can’t leave,” says Pit Bull.
He keeps reminding me that he has a private practice, and I consider calling him later to see if he’ll do therapy with my kid. His “tough love” approach might work. The other way hasn’t. But he will never return my calls.
My husband is, right now, packing a duffel bag for our daughter. It is not an easy task because there are so many rules: no drawstrings, no shoelaces, no spirals from notebooks, no pencils or pens. The toiletry restrictions are worse than the airlines’. I have little faith that he’s going to do a good job of this packing. In fact, I am worried sick about it. My shoulders are tensed; my whole body is killing me. I feel a migraine coming on. This migraine will last for three solid days.
When I was in the hospital with a shattered leg and I needed my things, I asked my husband to bring me pajamas and underwear, and the underwear that he packed was underwear I never wear. It is underwear not fit for actual use (e.g., fancy and uncomfortable and embarrassing and impractical), especially in the hospital.
I remember crying in utter frustration about the underwear. It was, in retrospect, so stupid, but at the time, the lack of proper underwear felt like the biggest problem in the world.
“What?” my husband had asked. He didn’t get it. He would never get it. At that moment, underwear had literally ruined my life. Sometimes, the smallest things seem like insurmountable obstacles. When things are already feeling shitty, if something trips us up, we can’t see around the problem; it just makes us sob.
After I sign the papers for the hospital and Pit Bull starts packing up his folder, he suddenly wheels around.
“Did she just call me evil?” Pit Bull actually seems upset, despite his veneer of unflappable cool.
“No, she just gave you the finger,“ I say, because I can’t ignore the question, and Pit Bull kind of deserves the finger. He could be warmer and more empathetic. His bedside manner blows.
Actually, my daughter flipped him the middle finger of both hands and grunted something that may or may not have been a curse. But I don’t explain this.
I feel secretly proud of her even as I say, “Hey, come on, that’s rude. He’s just doing his job and trying to help you.”
But is he trying to help? Or is this all about Liability?
My favorite scene from any movie, one that has stayed with me forever, is when Bud Cort, as Harold in Harold and Maude, leans out the window of his Jaguar-hearse while Cat Stevens’ “Trouble” plays on the soundtrack. Harold lets the rain spatter his face. He is despondent, about to drive off a cliff. His lover has died. He cannot go on.
And then he does. The car goes off the cliff, but—surprise!—it crashes without him. He has hopped out, unseen, with a banjo. He walks away from the wreck plucking out, “If you want to sing out, sing out…”
Moods are like that. We go with them. We ride the moods. They blow up and change, waft away. We decide when we are done being morose and when we want to survive.
Hope that tomorrow will be better is really all that we have, as my daughter has learned in therapy. But I wonder if she remembers it, truly.
She makes signs, reminders for her wall. Hang On Pain Ends. Hope.
Yet this is what we cannot see when we are young—that tomorrow will feel any different than the hell of right now. Today.
When I was a reporter, I once did a story on a bereavement group. The group members were all grim-faced. Pained. They were all trying to deal with the holidays—oh, those hellish holidays!—after the deaths of their loved ones.
I heard something in that group that will always stick with me: “No matter how bad today is, know that the sun will rise and it will set and then it will be over,” the group leader said.
If Christmas or Thanksgiving sucks and makes you feel lonely and miserable, go to bed early. Check out. Don’t even deal. When you wake up, Christmas or Thanksgiving will be over.
Just go to bed.
And when you feel like killing yourself, force yourself to wait two days. In two days’ time, you will undoubtedly be (mostly) over the urge.
I know these things. I have read these things, felt these things. I have waited two days myself.
And yet, if I say these things to my daughter, she will not listen. She will not believe me. She will not be convinced that I can, in any meaningful way, understand. We never listen to or believe our parents.
The wisdom I’ve read is “go to bed,” but now I can barely get my own kid out of bed.
Is bed good or bad?
“She has to be out of bed,” one therapist said. “Bed is only for when you are sick. Don’t let her stay in bed.”
It’s hard to know what to think, what to do.
My daughter asked me to buy her fuzzy pajama pants that read, in big black letters punctuated with a heart, I [love] my bed. Sometimes, she wears them to therapy sessions.
It could be worse.
Meanwhile, the suicide watch continues. Every day, I worry. Every day, I am on guard. Every single day, I am paranoid that maybe my daughter left school or left the house, went down to the train station and knelt on the tracks.
We have locked up every sharp item in the house, from chef’s knives to oyster knives to nail scissors. Even plastic scissors. Every medication we own is in another safe. I never realized, before all of this, how many times a day I need either a sharp item or some kind of pill. I feel like I spend half my life now punching in combinations.
Despite all the precautions we have taken or can take, ultimately our daughter’s life is out of our hands. “This is MY life,” she says. And, of course, it’s her body. She will do what she wants; I cannot do much but remind her she is loved.
So now she wants blue hair? I let her get it. Why not? If it makes her happy, I will do it. A little bit of freedom can feel like the world sometimes.
I find a note she wrote that reads, “I was born to die.”
We were all born to die, I suppose. But I leave Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning where she might find it. I have annotated the book.
There is a purpose to everyone’s life. Our task in living is to find it. What is my purpose? I’d sound like a jerk if I ventured a public guess.
This ER has a good nurse. An angel. “Honey, now you have to help other people who feel just the way you do,” she tells my daughter, as she bandages my child’s sliced-up arm. “You know. You’ve been there. So now you use that. You help.”
My daughter looks as though she may be listening. For a minute. For a second.
The nurse tells me later that her brother was bipolar and that he called her to him as he held a sword to his throat. “Tell Mom I love her,” he said. Then he cut his own head off. Right in front of his sister, this nurse.
“Take care of your child,” the nurse reminds me, patting my arm. Then she walks away.
My daughter tells me soon after this that she plans to become a therapist. I am inordinately grateful that she is thinking of any future plans.
It’s possible that she wants to do this work because of the bowls of candy in most therapy rooms, but whatever. At this point, I will take any little bit of hope and run with it.
Meanwhile, we just need to get her through the seventh grade. I remember hating seventh grade, seriously hating it. It was, for me, the worst grade out of any grade. But that was only because I had braces and a shiny nose and boys didn’t like me (not that I ever really saw any, since I attended an all-girls school).
My daughter’s school situation is undoubtedly worse. I pray about it. “Should I make her go back to school?” I ask. My daughter never wants to go to school. It is hell, she insists. Unbearable.
I imagine that I hear a voice of wisdom: “Don’t make her go back.” So I don’t. I don’t care about school right now. The truancy officer can fuck off. Let them send me to jail if they press the issue, and I become suddenly guilty of Contempt of Court. What I care about, all I care about, is keeping my daughter alive.
There is only so much I can do, however. And that is the worst part—the helplessness, the surrendering to fate or moods or despair. How can I help her?
“Just love her,” I am told. And of course I do. When she will let me.
Now when I cry, it is for a big reason, a good one. I would not let myself cry before. But any emotion is better than no emotion.
I paint a picture of a girl with blue hair. My daughter gets a boyfriend. A nice kid with a probation officer and an absurdly early court-mandated curfew.
At one time, this development might have made my head explode. But now, I am thrilled. Seriously. This boy is getting his life together. In a strange way, he could be a good example for my daughter. And maybe they can help each other? I pray that they don’t break up, as long as she is feeling happy about him. I pray that he never calls her a whore.
So everyday brings something. Some bit of hope. I am taking things not day-by-day but hour–by-hour.
Hang on, I remind myself, daily. Pain ends.
“Mom, look up the Semicolon Project,” my daughter just told me. This is possibly the first thing she’s said to me in I-don’t-know-how-long.
“I want to get a tattoo of a semicolon on my arm,” she says. She points to the most scarred up section of her soft white flesh.
Normally, I would be utterly opposed to this idea, but in her case, it would be better than the obvious, red slashes, and perhaps it would serve as a reminder not to cut.
I take a breath. I have actually thought about this already. “If you get a tattoo, I will bring you,” I say. “It will be an excellent tattoo. A really good one, done at the very best tattoo place, by a serious artist. But why do you want a semicolon?”
I have to ask this, because most of my college students have no freaking idea how to use one, and I rather doubt that my child does, either.
“Look it up,” she says. “Semicolon and the number 416.”
I do a Google search, later that night. At first, I see weird images of machine guns. Oh, Jesus, I think to myself. But then, there it is—it’s not an automatic weapons club at all.
It’s a survivor’s club. The Semicolon Project: for those who have seriously contemplated suicide and decided to go on with their lives.
Thank you for this essay. Amazing. Awful. Inspiring.
Devastating and amazingly well-written.
Truly breathtaking. God, how I wish I knew how to make all this better, but like everyone else, I guess all I can do is hope that your daughter finds that thing that makes it all click into place.
Thank you for sharing this.
Thanks for your comments. It’s day-by-day, some days good, some bad. But isn’t everything like that? What’s floored me about all of this is how LONG the experience has been…I hope it’s not years; I hope something suddenly makes her better because watching your child suffer is the worst. I appreciate your kind notes. Anne
‘Devastating’ indeed. I haven’t read anything so profoundly deep for a long time.
I wish all the best to you and your daughter.
P.S. Your writing remind me that sometimes being shallow and look away is a crime. Thank you.
I couldn’t stop reading this. Firstly, because it’s good, straightforward, compelling writing. Secondly, because I am someone who has twice attempted suicide and I am also someone’s daughter.
Your daughter and I are not the same, of course. We share certain problems and certain experiences, though. And my mother could likely write some version of this piece.
One day your daughter will understand the hell that she went through was a hell that you went through too.
Thanks so much for your reads.
If you’ve been through something similar, as you have, Marni, please (if you don’t mind) tell me when or how it gets better. Does something suddenly click, or does something new take the place of the suicidal urges? I keep hoping that one day she will wake up and it will be in the past, but even when it feels “past” there is always this looming threat that the urges will return.
Best to you.
I’m not sure that things suddenly get better. Certainly, they didn’t for me. I think they just gradually get less shitty. And then, suddenly, you realize that you didn’t think about killing yourself all day. And then it’s a week. And then, when you do think about it- which you do- it’s not as urgent as before.
The right drugs help. Though finding that is a process. Therapy helps, I think. Even when it mostly seems like it doesn’t.
I’m skeptical where psychiatry is concerned. It seems much more guesswork than one would like. But to me, it’s the best game out there.
If your daughter wants to talk, I’d be more than happy to listen. Let me know and I’ll give you my contact info-
Thank you for sharing, your story touched my heart deeply.
Hope the best for you and your daughter.
Thanks for reading and hang on; pain ends–or so we/I will keep repeating until it comes true.
It does get better. Depression is a painful process that in the beginning, comes on with little or no notice and can stay like a bad penny. When I was young like your daughter I was far more covert – make sure to pay attention. My parents had no clue how bad it was. Therapy is helpful if you have the right person. Everyone is not equal when it comes to counseling. It will not go away forever, but you get better at seeing the signs when it tries to return. You will learn techniques to combat the creeping grey that covers your life. You will learn when it’s time to start taking medication before it gets worse. Sometimes you will go for very long stretches without your sullen friend coming for a visit. Other times it seems like there is more of a frequent flyer situation. But it will get better. Your daughter has acknowledged that she sees the semicolon, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanza and Solstice. Value the small steps for they prepare you for the big ones.
Thank you so much for sharing this! Your daughter’s story brought tears to my eyes. And also thank you for sharing about the semicolon project – I’ll have to look them up. I’d already known about To Write Love on Her Arms (another awesome support group that has a presence at my college), but more support groups never hurts. Having a tattoo of a semicolon over where I cut actually sounds like an awesome idea, as a reminder that my book is not yet written, so to speak.
It’s incredibly tough, trying to get through all that – in middle school especially, most days it felt like it’d be easier to climb Mt Everest without oxygen than to get through yet another day of bullying piled on top of mental health issues. I mostly use my dog (animals are the world’s best therapists) and music to help me get through the tougher times – Lullaby, F**ckin Perfect, Only Human, etc – but, yeah, there’s really no substitute for good meds and a good doctor (I’ve found that Nurse Practitioners are actually MUCH better than ‘official’ psychiatrists – they’re less arrogant, more likely to listen, far nicer, and often actually more qualified because while they have less years in medical school, they typically have more experience. Having my psychiatrist tell me “you sure complain a lot” when I told him what I was going through kinda threw me off his ilk for life.)
Facebook and other social media sites can be affirming in some ways – they can be a great way to connect with a huge support group (the aforementioned To Write Love on Her Arms has a pretty large FB group) – but yeah they’re all too prone to trolling and cyber-bullying.
Thanks for telling me about To Write Love…sounds interesting. And thank you to all the Everyday Feminist readers! I appreciate the feedback. Where was the link to this essay? Best, Anne
thank you for writing this. I wish your daughter strength to get through high school. I am 39 and when I was 13 depression hit me like a freight train. I grew up in the deep south in a conservative, Baptist family and depression was seen as something that could be prayed away. I was hospitalized during my 9th grade year after an apparent suicide attempt (I actually do not remember most of my adolescence). I was given ECT (shock therapy) from 9th grade until 12th grade. I do not agree with shock therapy and it has taken me years of therapy to let go of the anger. But I know my parents did they best they could. What I would like to say is that I agree with what Adie says. I am now able to identify when a depression may be coming on. I know what works for me now, and what works for me is exercise (running and weight lifting.) Exercise is my prozac. Throughout my adult life, I’ve gone through several depressions and I know when to get back into therapy. I am a successful, happy young woman. It is possible to live a happy successful life and still have bouts of depression. I now know that depression isn’t permanent. I know there is a way out of the hole. That hope is what gets me through. Hang On. Pain Ends.
Wonderful article–beautifully written and so honest. A friend has been going through a similar situation with her daughter for a few years now (self harm + anorexia) and it seems so hard for them to find a way out. The only thing I can see in hindsight is that maybe a more supportive group of friends would have helped, and perhaps a team sport–there are studies showing that girls who are involved in a team sport (all girls I think) have much, much better self esteem than those who don’t.
I also found your article affirming of my own situation. After a long period of my son being very depressed and hating school, last year I offered home school as an option and he jumped at it. I had no experience, and it meant giving up my part-time job and income. But it felt like the right decision. It was more important for him to survive adolescence than anything else. Whether (self-directed) homeschooling is a success or complete failure, I still feel there is a much better chance of him surviving. And it shows him that I take his feelings seriously.
He’s a different person now–so much happier and more settled. Many people have remarked on it.
So far, so good.
I appreciate your note here. We are going to try cyber school (as my daughter doesn’t seem to want me teaching her, although I certainly could). I hope my daughter has the motivation to handle this; it takes self-discipline, and the depression seems to have robbed her of that. Perhaps we will see a great turnaround. I agree about the team sport; the problem in our area is that the schools are large and urban and not everyone can play the sport (only the older kids; everyone else is cut, not even benched). My favorite kids are always the XC runners, so I wish she would do that (she did, for a while); I also think running is meditative and generally a great life-coping skill and outlet. I’m so glad to hear that your son is getting better. Yes, getting through adolescence is basically what I care about for my daughter….Anne
There are many homeschooling networks, both online and in real life, that you could tap into if you wish. Both for advice and for social interaction.
We decided on self-directed learning for my son (called unschooling in the US), as he had so many negative associations with school and being taught. He also went through a fairly long period of ‘deschooling’ before he started to feel motivated to learn again.
Now, he spends his time largely as he wishes, and I facilitate his projects. He writes music, makes short films and movies (quite complex ones with music and credits etc), cooks, reads, does woodwork, runs an ‘army’ of his local friends and many other things. I trust that he will gravitate towards what he needs to learn, and that seems to be working well. There are also so many incidental learning opportunities, either during his projects, or just while we are living. SO many opportunities to talk about life, how people relate, bits of science, maths, geography etc etc.
Also, I have read that a motivated child can cover a full year’s syllabus in a subject in 3 months quite easily at home. I know home schooled children who have done this too. Knowing that took the pressure off me early on when I was still worried that my son might be getting behind his old classmates. He has different knowledge, and his learning is uneven, but what he learns really sticks since it’s what he wants to do.
It might take some time for you and your daughter to find out what works for her (and you) and she might need a deschooling period too (the rule of thumb is one month for every year of school attended, although ours was not that long).
I wish you well on your journey together.
I found this posted by Everyday Feminism on Facebook.
I tried to kill myself when I was 13 as well – I overdosed. And it was also over a boy (seemingly). I was head over heels for this kid, I would do anything for him, and then him and my best friend got together. The next day was the 8th grade dance and they were going together. I already knew I wasn’t going for that reason, but I couldn’t bear to think about lying to each and every person who would ask what was wrong. I couldn’t imagine seeing photos of him and her on Facebook afterwards. Not to mention, I also had an Ask.fm where people would constantly bash me and ask if I cut (I did, regularly).
So I wrote a little note to my best online friend and took a bottle and a half of pills that I had been saving up (which meant I wasn’t taking them). It was a LOT of pills. Apparently not enough to kill me, as I found out the next morning. I was disappointed.
I still have a video on my iPod of me getting milk that next morning. I had an incredibly terrible migraine. My entire body was shaking. I was weak. I could barely get up, but I made my way to the kitchen and got myself a glass of… milk. I guess. I don’t actually remember that at all, I just remember the video. I know I stopped many times to pause and hold my head while my world spun around me. I didn’t tell anyone about this experience for a long time afterwards.
I really, really loved that boy. In fact, I still do. But in all honesty, it was so much more than that situation itself. I had a long history of trauma; I had endured years of sexual, physical and emotional abuse. I had two neglectful parents. I had a bratty step-sister and step-mom who didn’t accept me as a part of their family. I had been bullied at school for a large part of my life. I had been beaten up before. I not only didn’t feel wanted, but I explicitly felt unwanted. I didn’t feel like I had anyone at all, besides that one online friend – I had a couple at my school, but they were intertwined with that boy and my “best friend.”
I will be 17 next month. Honestly, things have not gotten better. Since then I have been raped, manipulated, victim-blamed and abused. I’ve been isolated, used drugs and I’ve even gotten pregnant and had a child. My life is still circling the drain, but at least now I have some sort of aspirations – I want to be a doctor, some sort of neuroscientist. Sometimes I contemplate trying to kill myself again; the only reason I don’t is because of my daughter. And that doesn’t make me feel better – it only makes me feel more trapped. Sometimes I really, really wish I had never been born.
I wish I could give you some sort of helpful advice, as someone who’s been in a similar place as your daughter. I don’t want to die, so I’m trying to find ways to help myself. I went to Sweetser and got evaluated. I’m going into therapy (again) and getting on medication. I’m resisting every urge to self-harm/use drugs, which honestly just further exhausts me. I think that I will continue to spiral down until I have a real, stable person in my life. I don’t have any friends at all and I don’t get along with my family.
If I were to give you one piece of advice, I would tell you to bring your daughter out to breakfast. Go to the movies. Pick apples. Do fun things that get her out of the house and make her feel special and wanted and loved. Don’t try to pry her feelings out of her – let them come out on their own. Maybe over your Denny’s breakfast she’ll nonchalantly bring up a problem she’s having with a friend – this is big. Don’t overreact, just be a friend and offer advice. Don’t dig deeper if she’s not offering you certain information. She might slowly start to let you in to her own painful world, and that might be just what she needs.
That might have been more than one piece of advice. Anyway, I truly hope that it helps. I’m glad to hear that she has aspirations to become a therapist; it’s important to have hopes and goals for the future. I like the semicolon idea. Maybe I’ll get that tattooed over my scars, too.
Thank you for sharing your story. I’m hoping for the best for your family and thinking of you.
Thanks for your message, Kera. I wish you the best and hope that boy becomes a distant memory at some point. I know that everything these days (or since the past few years) is harder for teenagers because of social media. At least when I was growing up, we didn’t always have to see when other people were talking about us. It’s excruciating now.
I appreciate your advice. I will certainly try to take it, but my daughter doesn’t want to do anything with me (or so she says). But I will keep inviting and trying to engage her.
Thank you so much for this essay. I am 46 and have suffered from cycles of depression every 4-6 months since I was 7 years old. I can’t begin to tell you how this has affected my mother and my sister who have loved me through it all these years. I have been lucky to have them, even though there were times when I felt like I didn’t deserve that love and I ran from them. Once I lived on the street for two weeks because I was afraid to go back home and continue putting them through the hell I was living. I couldn’t see at the time that I was terrifying them even further when I disappeared.
I, too, have had my share of inadequate psychiatrists, therapists and psych-hospitals. It wasn’t until my late thirties that I finally found a therapist who got me a caseworker with an organization that helps people with mental illness to navigate the social services system. Before that my mother had spent thousands of dollars on my medication and medical care, because I had been unable to work for years.
Three years ago, my therapist recommended a new medication to my psychiatrist for me, and I started on it. I have been a new person ever since. I still cannot work. You can’t go through 40 years of depression and not emerge undamaged. But today I am content. I am useful. I am happy.
So what kept me alive all those years? Well, first was knowing that tomorrow I would find something to laugh about, and that was something worth waiting for.
Then there was “getting out of myself” and helping others–even if it was just walking around the block and bringing people’s empty garbage cans back in from the curb for them–anything to feel useful and good about myself.
Then there was my sister. She doesn’t say much, but I know she loves me, no matter what.
Also, a friend of mine committed suicide about 20 years ago, and for a while, when I was really struggling, I would go and lay my hand on her cold grave stone. The reality of it always snapped me back to the pain of losing her and what I would be putting my family through if I succumbed.
Last and most important, I believe God had his hand on me through everything. I had the opportunity to be trained as a peer counselor in college which gave me the tools I needed to talk myself out of suicide! The one suicide note I actually wrote turned into a gratitude list. I have had the honor of talking three other people out of suicide and comforting many others through periods of depression.
It has been a difficult road, and I have missed out on much because of it, but it is my story and I am proud of myself for having faced hell and battled through for so many years. And now, the summer of my life has just begun.
It’s wonderful to hear that you have such a positive outlook and inclination to give back and help others, Sharon. I appreciated reading your story. Do you mind my asking what that new medication is?
My therapist noticed that my depression came in waves like that of a bi-polar person, only I didn’t experience the manic highs. She thought that a mood stabilizer might work, so she recommended Lamictal to my psychiatrist. It has worked wonders in my life. I am also still on Zoloft, Topamax and Abilify because they were all prescribed for different purposes, and my doctors are afraid to disturb the status quo by taking me off anything after I’ve been through so much. I have been weaned down to only 5 mg of Abilify from 20, without any problems, so that’s a start.
My daughter was taking Lamictal with Zoloft. I think the Lamictal stabilized her mood, but it didn’t have any profound effect. She was still suicidal and cutting. A hospital switched her to Tegretol–which was awful. She became a zombie and couldn’t get out of bed at all. Gained weight (and she’s always been thin). Got more depressed. Got her off Tegretol and now she’s just on Prozac (generic) with some Xanax for sleep.
I’m so sorry. I know at one point I had an entire paper shopping bag filled with medications they had put me on and taken me off of all within about an 8 month period. It took decades to find the right medication. I know you don’t want to hear that.
For me, it became about learning to sing in the belly of the whale. It’s not easy as an adolescent when everything is so intense to slow down and learn to really experience the little things that make life living.
I used to try to surround myself, on good days, with encouraging people. I’d write down what they said about me on index cards and put them into little photo books. Things like: “You are so powerful!” –Jan Then when I was depressed I would flip through them. I also kept copies of the lyrics to uplifting songs with me, and I would find a place to be alone and sing them at the top of my lungs. Always I kept a journal, and always I was honest with God. I would yell at him, curse at him, tell him I didn’t want to believe in him anymore… He just kept his hand on me and brought me through to another day.
I think the best things you can do for your daughter right now–besides getting her good medical care–are to listen deeply, let her know you’re listening by saying, “That sounds overwhelming” or “That would have made me angry”. Validate her feelings. Give her time. No one can heal her all at once.
You also need to surround yourself with people who love you and will listen to you and carry you through this without giving you platitudes. If you ever need to talk, feel free to write to me. I’ll be happy to return your emails.
I love that the project gave your daughter hope and many others. I just want you all to know that the project is not what it created for anymore. I was one of the people behind the project and the project got in the wrong hands. My partner within the project turned against me and told me to kill myself and had people threatening to kill me. Since this partner was in the UK nothing could be done. Please know that this project is now nothing more than a breeding ground for my old partner to take advantage of the weak and gain money off of someone else’s hard work. If anyone needs help or encouragement please come to the new site created: http://www.facebook.com/savingsemicolons. You are all loved and worth so much.
Sorry the correct link is http://www.facebook.com/semicolonmovement. The project is called Saving Semicolons.
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