Trigger Warning: Mental health struggles and suicidal thoughts can be difficult to process. If you might be triggered, please skip this post.
When I talk about our mental health struggles with anybody, I get a number of questions and responses…
- How did this all happen so fast?
- But your daughter is so happy and fun!
- Was she abused? Bullied?
- What event put all this in motion? Did someone die?
Nope, not of that. Yes, she is a beautiful, happy girl. Her daddy and I have been married to each other for 23 years. We are best friends. I teach my kids at home, we love Jesus, we throw big birthday parties, and we go on fun vacations. She has loving grandparents and lots of friends. She is not glued to a phone, and she doesn’t play violent video games all day. Nothing happened. Nobody died. She was not bullied.
How our mental health crisis snowballed so fast, actually in a matter of weeks, remains a mystery. One day, I seemed to have life pretty figured out, and we were rocking right along like “normal” people do. The next day, I’m seeing tics and repetitive behaviors. The week after that, she is crying and screaming at me. Then the next week, she is seeing evil things. A month later, I find evidence of her having cut herself. And ultimately, I learn that she had a plan to kill herself.
We woke up in a real live nightmare.
First, I called an emergency room doctor I know. Should I take her? What will happen? What will they do to her? Can they fix it? I called her nurse practitioner who recommended a diagnostician. We waited 3 months for an appointment with a neuropsychologist and spent $2,500 to have her diagnosed (they don’t take insurance). A visit to a sleep specialist yielded a clean night-time bill of health but also the “Tourettes” diagnosis. It would be another 3 months before we could get in to see a therapist in person. We finally got in, and it was a disaster. Ultimately, we found online therapy, and two online therapists later, we settled in.
In the meantime, she was happy and totally herself…until she wasn’t. She smiled at dance class and laughed with her friends some nights, then ran out of the room overcome with anxiety on others. We sat in the kitchen floor of my studio and did breathing exercises holding hands, counting, singing, reciting verses, tracing each other’s fingertips, whatever it took. She spent the night with a friend, giggled, rode horses, put on make-up, bopped around to her favorite music…until she didn’t. She slept with us or she didn’t sleep, we had long (crying!) talks, we put away every gun, knife, pair of scissors, safety pin, loose paperclip.
We went to restaurants but no sooner than we got our food, we were packing it up to go because the restaurant was too loud, and she was having a panic attack. Our whole family would get up and move around, switching seats or positions in a Waffle House booth when her OCD wouldn’t allow her to sit next to the door, a wall, or another person. Objects and people to her immediate right agitated her. She could not get up out of a chair without proceeding to walk starting with a certain foot.
She saw a “Slender Man” (a horror villain) in her room at night and was too paralyzed with fear to call us or get out of bed and come downstairs. There was a short, Leprechaun-looking gargoyle guy she saw standing at the corner on our Courthouse square every time we passed. She saw a scary monster crouched behind her bathroom door. (She says he’s still there.) Her fear of walking down the hallway to our bedroom increased.
She told us about her thoughts, thankfully. Her thoughts told her there was no point in living. Why was she here? What was her role? Why was she important? Why did the world even need her? Her thoughts told her to hurt herself.
Let me stop and say this…my world is pretty shiny. I’m optimistic and sunny by nature. I don’t watch horror films, I sing with the radio, I can recite Robert Louis Stevenson poetry by heart. I was the artsy, creative, go-to-fun places, paint-with-watercolors, use-fuzzballs-to-teach-math mom. I have never heard such tragic, terrible filth from a child’s mouth in my life. To listen and not be completely sick was an effort in futility. I often was. To listen and believe any of this could be coming out the mouth of my precious girl was near to impossible. Who was this child, and how did we get here? How did my beautiful angel get here?
I immediately bought books. I internet searched. I read every word of everything I could find. This was legit and possible and real I learned (regretfully), and we were in it. I started her on supplements as per my research to offset any deficiencies that could cause brain fogs and chemical imbalances. I learned coping mechanisms and practiced them with her daily. When I found that she had cut herself, I learned about cutting and why kids do it. (It’s complicated and real. I get it now.) After hearing she wanted to hurt herself, all bets were off. I wouldn’t leave her alone, and I wanted to handcuff her to me (and I seriously considered it). Reluctantly, we asked to be prescribed medicine, and it helped (an ongoing work in progress).
Then the Blame Game started. Where did I go wrong? How did I ruin her? Why didn’t I know what to do? What drove her to this? How had I failed her? (I’ll cover the Blame Game later.) I quickly shoved my insecurities and responsibility aside, because I had to. I had a child to keep alive. God had a child to keep alive. He was all I had. He was all she had. I prayed often and fervently. I cried out, literally aloud, a lot. I asked “why” and said “please” more times than I can count.
Other days she smiled, made jokes, and we got snow cones.
As part of Suicide Prevention Month, I tell you all this for one, single, critical reason – you MUST listen to children. There was a time when she thought nobody believed her. There were times I questioned whether her behavior was stupid teenager habits and her emotions the result of common teenage angst. This happened in the midst of COVID, so I thought the world and it’s influences and all the fallout from sheltering in place, vaccines, and talk of illness was affecting her mental health. No to all of that.
Struggling kids need you to hear them. They need you to believe them and not make excuses or find reasons. They need treatment. They need safety. They need love. They need security and reassurance. When kids are in the weeds deeply, it is not the time to quibble over the why’s and the how’s. It’s time to go to work, keep them alive, and continually listen.
You MUST hear them. There is no “suck it up”. There is no “put down that phone”. There is no “but your life is so good”. There is only gentle listening with your mouth shut, your eyebrows down, and your eye on God. If you’re not a believer, I’m not judging at all, and I love you just the same. I just know that we needed Him, we are thankful He was (is) always with us, and that He sustained us through it.
As I wrap up this post in the series, I urge you to pray for kids who are struggling and parents who are struggling. I urge you to listen to your own kids, carefully and deliberately. I urge you to avoid making excuses, dismissing behavior, or assigning blame. Just pray. Just be there. Please listen.
The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline can be accessed by calling 988 (or texting).