Trigger warning: discussion of suicide
We all can be pushed over the edge. As parents, we all feel emotionally fragile from time to time; it is only human. What happens when the person pushed over the edge is a teenager with mental health issues, who is trying very hard to brave the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty, a new school year, and the pandemic?
Our job is to protect our children, keep them safe, and remind them of their worth. My child recently lost himself in the fog of our reality, the fog of the pandemic, the quarantine, and everything else. His response to the stressors: “I want to kill myself,” he said, a dull knife tucked away in a secret place in his bedroom.
For the first time, “suicide” was something I had to say out loud about my child. In the pit of my stomach, when I heard those words, saw the tears streaming down his face, I knew. I played over and over in my head where I went wrong, where I failed him as his mom. As we stood face to face in his room, in those brief moments, I felt as low as he did.
I want those who are loving, caring for, and managing the ups and downs, ins and outs of raising a child — especially a teenager with mental health issues — to know this: You are not alone. We are not alone. We are in this together. I know over the years, I have felt like my family and I were living on a lonely island, holding our breath, fearful of what might (or might not) happen next, all of us experiencing the trauma of the angry outbursts, the impulsivity, puberty, the calls from school, the concern from summer camp staff — it all felt like too much, and in many ways, it is.
My family had each other, but we knew that we could not handle this alone and that we weren’t the answer for our child. He needed more than we could provide. We filled his schedule (and ours) with opportunities to engage his mind and develop his executive functioning, found a pediatrician who specialized in his particular diagnoses, and showed up to be present enough for whatever challenges arose along the way.
When the crisis counselor picked up the phone the following day, she told us just that. “This can be equally difficult, if not more so, on the parents. Do you guys have a support system?” she asked. We’d been asked this question before by our son’s pediatrician, so we explained to her the same: “Yes, we do.”
Raising a child is not an easy feat, even with a neurotypical child, but raising a child with mental health issues tests the strongest of families. It can break marriages apart. It can endanger other siblings. What I felt, more often than not, is like somewhere I missed something — somehow I failed my son — and in some way, there was no way to get off of this island. I felt shame. I felt empty. I felt worried for him, his future, and the emotional and mental health of our exhausted family.
The National Suicide Prevention hotline, or 211, was the number we were told to call. We didn’t know what to expect. We were nervous, fearful they’d want to hospitalize him, fearful that he needed to be hospitalized (he did not). We found ourselves on the phone with a stranger, all of us working to traverse — and reconcile, if we could — what had happened within the last 24 hours to our family. In the voice of the woman on the other end of the phone, we now had another kind of support system — a trained person ready to help us figure out what came next, which detour we would take.
What I was grateful for, as the two-hour conversation progressed and it was determined that our son wasn’t in any grave danger, was that he had not made a plan to harm himself. He did not attempt it, and he felt safe enough to tell us, all wins in my book. In those hours following the shocking conversation the night before, hearing the words “I want to kill myself,” we removed all objects from his reach that before hearing those five words, we felt comfortable leaving around, like the knives in our kitchen.
In a Child Trends report, what we know about males and the suicide rate among teens is this: “In 2017, among males, non-Hispanic black teens were less likely than their Hispanic and non-Hispanic white peers to report seriously considering suicide (7, 11, and 13 percent, respectively), but more likely to report attempting suicide (7, 6, and 5 percent, respectively).” We were not alone.
As parents with children working to live a more peaceful life, it is important to build your community of parents who also get it, who have perhaps been there themselves, who you can learn from. There are many Facebook groups for parents with kids with special needs; I’ve found this to be helpful from time to time. I’ve also found that being open and honest to people in my network about our son’s deficits opens up conversations and gives perspective from other parents in the same situation. It also helps to lessen the feelings of shame. There are over 30 Facebook groups for parents and a site called A Day In Our Shoes can point you in the right direction if you’re looking for additional support.
My family is not out of the woods yet. Given our newfound support in the mobile crisis hotline, we now have professionals to help us. For the next six weeks, we will have weekly phone calls with people who’ve seen more than I care to imagine and can provide us with the tools to get us all to a healthier place and a new psychiatric evaluation for our son. They will help us assemble a mental health team to help my son find the right medication combination, as this is our family’s chosen approach for the diagnoses we are dealing with: ADHD, Aspergers, anxiety, and perhaps something new that we are just now uncovering.
My partner and I are working through the emotions, leaning on one another more, and giving one another space to say what we are feeling. We knew parenting wasn’t going to be easy, but we never imagined we would be here.
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