Teen Mental Illness: My Kid Was Happy Once, Too

by Tye Larabee
Originally Published: 
A toddler boy in a white shirt and blue denim jeans standing next to a river with his back turned
Image via Shutterstock

I see you—the self-assured parent with the happy, carefree child. I see the look on your face change when I answer the question of why my kid is in the hospital. You think I don’t see it or notice it, but I do. It’s a mix of pity, concern and judgment. It’s a look that says, “This would never happen to my kid.” It’s a look I’ve gotten used to seeing over the past few months.

Truthfully, I never thought it would happen to my kid either. I was just like you, wondering what type of home life must have caused the issues and secretly believing that the parents are almost always, at least partially, to blame.

But, my kid was happy once, too. Just like yours.

And now, that same kid who lit up every room she ever walked into is in intensive residential care for an eating disorder and self-harm behavior that culminated into a full-blown suicide attempt.

I know—it’s easier to believe these are the things that only happen to other people’s children. Or that they only happen to people who do parenting wrong. It’s easier to believe there is a reason for this that can be remedied by simply being a good-enough parent, by loving enough, hugging enough, whatever enough. It’s easier to believe that, because it makes you feel safe. I get it. I believed it, too, for all the same reasons.

But, I’m a good mother. I listen to my kids. I let them be who they are. I don’t yell or scream or hit them. We laugh and joke and love loudly in this house. We are far from well-off, but we have enough. My kids don’t want for anything. We have food on the table, a nice apartment, comfortable beds and bookshelves stuffed full of books.

We cozy up in front of the fireplace and watch movies and television together, on occasion. We color and play games. We talk about our days and aren’t afraid of scary emotions like anger or sadness. We give each other space when we need it and hugs when they’re more appropriate. We have two cats that are loved and spoiled rotten by everyone in the home.

We do everything a normal family does. Everything a normal family should do.

My daughter has lots of friends, and all of them love her so much. She is part of an awesome, vibrant and hugely loving community. She is a straight-A student. She’s the kid every teacher wants in their class. Parent-teacher conferences are an hour filled with various teachers gushing about how much they adore my kid. She has played clarinet for six years and is learning guitar. Her voice is like an angel’s, and I swear she could have a record contract by this time next year if she really wanted it.

She’s funny, smart, polite and incredibly kind to everyone she meets. When she grows up, she wants to be a veterinarian, because she loves animals so much. She is a vegetarian for the same reason. If you met her right now, you wouldn’t notice anything different about her. From an outsider’s perspective, she’s much the same as your own kid, I’d bet.

And I feel like this is important, because I think we have a warped view of what mental illness really looks like and where it comes from. To see mental illness depicted in the media or in movies, it’s no wonder we have everything so backward.

We’ve been trained to believe that “real” mental illness is always obvious and usually dangerous to other people. We see mass shootings and abuse and murder tied to mental illness, but rarely do we see the everyday reality of it. Rarely, if ever, do we see an otherwise normal teenage girl starving herself, carving herself, or trying to die—at least not until it’s too late.

What you don’t see is the facade people put on to be OK in front of you, the fake smile and the insisting they’re fine, even when they aren’t. You don’t see the guilt and shame attached, or the way mental illness is minimized, rejected and ridiculed, even from well-meaning friends and family. You don’t hear the threats and the put-downs. The “you’re such an attention whore” and “just stop acting like that” and “you’re too high-maintenance” comments. You don’t hear about any of that, because those things don’t sell stories.

So, it’s no wonder you look at me like you do—like I’ve done something to cause this or could have done something more to prevent it. That’s the story you’ve been fed, I know, but I’m here to tell you it isn’t the whole truth. It’s not even a big part of the truth.

My kid was happy once, too. Just like yours.

Until she wasn’t.

When I realized I wasn’t equipped to handle the things my daughter was going through emotionally, I found her one of the best adolescent therapists I could find. I drove her to weekly visits and sat in the waiting room or my car while she talked through her feelings and came up with ways to get through her days.

When she asked to change to a queer-friendly therapist, I let her. When they said they thought medication might help, I signed the papers. When they wanted to try a different medication, I signed that form too.

When she told her therapist she wanted to die and planned on making it happen, I took her to the emergency room and let them put her in inpatient care. When she actually did try to make it happen, I drove her back to the emergency room, again, and let them put her into the same inpatient care, again, in the span of one month. And all the while, I reminded myself to stay calm, to not freak out, to not panic, to breathe.

When she completely stopped eating and came up with a list of rules around food to keep herself from getting “fat,” and the inpatient care team ignored all of it because they had to prioritize “crisis” (suicide attempt) over eating disorder, I raised hell until they listened to what she was trying to tell them: that her eating disorder and self-harm were the crisis. I raised hell until someone listened, and then I raised more hell until I got her a spot at one of the best eating disorder recovery centers in the area.

I didn’t ignore it, or write it off as normal teenage moodiness or attention-seeking behavior. I did everything I could from the moment I recognized a bigger problem. Everything everyone told me I needed to do, and then some, I have done. This system is not an easy one to navigate, and I will always question whether or not I did “the right thing” at every turn, but I damn sure have tried.

So, when you look at me, don’t look at me like a mother who must have done something wrong or like I didn’t do enough to stop or prevent this from happening. Look at me like a mother who is fighting like hell to save her child’s life, just like you would do for your own child. Change your attitude toward teen mental illness. Educate yourself. Take a stand against body-shaming. Listen to your kid and to your own inner voice when it tells you something is wrong.

Pity, concern and judgment are inert. This could happen to your child just as easily as it happened to mine. I hope to God it doesn’t, but it could.

And if it does, I will be right here with you, in solidarity, while you work to make sure your own kid comes out of this OK, just like I’m trying to do with my own.

All I ask is that you do the same for me now.

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