“That Family”

My daughter was given a choice by the policemen who had climbed the stairs to where she was waiting in her room: she could go with them and willingly enter the ambulance waiting in our driveway, or they could “help” her down and into the ambulance if she preferred. From there she would be transported to the Emergency Room for an evaluation due to her threats of suicide.

As an officer came downstairs and relayed this to me, I was beyond relieved and somewhat surprised when he told me that she had agreed to go of her own volition. I didn’t ask what kind of “help” she would have received had she resisted. At that point I didn’t really care.

I only knew that for her own safety she was going to the Emergency Room whether she wanted to or not, and I welcomed any help or means to get her there.

ambulance

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I must clarify that the policemen in our home that day were kind and empathetic. I did not feel in any way that my daughter or I were being threatened, bullied, or coerced. (Trust me, if I had thought any of those tactics would have worked up to that point, I would likely have used them myself!) These gentle men were respectful and compassionate, and I will always be thankful for the calm and reassuring assistance they gave us.

I watched as my middle child came meekly down the stairs with her escorts in blue. By this time a few of the initial seven had dispersed (even though some had only waited in the hallway outside her bedroom), but I was struck by the timidity of her gait and demeanor.

I imagined what fear I would have felt had I been in her position, hearing and seeing a line of uniformed policemen who had come directly in response to her threats and anger. This made me both thankful and heartbroken for the passive end to her tumultuous fury.

As I’ve said before, I believe that although my daughter’s rage and wrath had escalated sharply over the past months, part of her was aching desperately for help. The larger part of her was loud, threatening, accusatory, and fond of obscenities and self harm. But undoubtedly she was still crying out to be rescued from the darkness engulfing her.

 help (google)

(Photo Source: Google Images)

Despite the trauma of a 911 call and the police officers gathered in our living room, as I watched my daughter quietly make her way to the front door I felt a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, we could finally get the help she needed. I allowed myself to wonder if perhaps soon she would be safe.

I quickly gathered my purse and a jacket and followed the line of all those going outside. The ambulance personnel carefully strapped my now submissive teen’s small frame to a gurney and lifted her into their medical room on wheels. I was directed to the front of the ambulance, where I was to ride next to the driver.

I was dazed and shaken as I climbed helplessly into the ambulance’s cab, heartbroken to leave my youngest daughter behind. She was in the good care of her step-sister, but it all felt so wrong and inconceivable to me.

Why could I not be in two places at one time? How could I choose between which of my children needed me most? I couldn’t. The choice was made for me, and had been building to this moment for so many long weeks, even months.

This couldn’t be real. We couldn’t be “that family”, the one that all the neighbors would now be talking about, recounting how many police cars had been parked in front of our house next to the ambulance, wondering and whispering about why they’d been summoned there in the first place.

 gossip

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I knew I was as helpless to quell any neighborhood gossip as I had been to help my daughter rise to the surface of her depression. It was another in a long line of things I simply had to let go of in order to concentrate on whatever was ahead.

None of us knew what would happen next, but it was more than clear that something had to change.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Semantics

I directed my ex-husband up the stairs to our daughter’s bedroom. “Turn right at the top of the stairs and go straight back.”  When he went in to talk with her, my step-daughter came downstairs to allow them privacy.

It seemed like hours, but it wasn’t. I went up after a bit to see if he’d been able to calm her down as he’d seemed sure he could. Admittedly, I was frustrated that he’d mistrusted my assessment of the situation, that he’d inferred I was overreacting, that he’d assumed he could step in and fix it all.

And I was angry with myself, that I’d basically allowed him to talk me out of trusting my gut, to think that I’d been misreading the darkening situation of the past few months. I hadn’t. I knew my daughter’s threat of suicide was very real.

I also knew that there was no space in this situation for annoyances between ex-spouses. Thankfully, the urgency I felt helped focus my attention on my daughter and getting her the help she needed. There was no room for growing irritation, only for ensuring her safety.

After a while of leaving them time together and checking in two or three times, there was no improvement in my daughter’s demeanor. I picked up the phone to call 911. My ex-husband still didn’t like the idea, but I announced my intention and felt there was no need for further conversation. By this time he simply said, “Okay.”

911 2

(Photo Source: Google Images)

“Do you need lights and sirens?” The 911 dispatcher’s question took me by surprise.

“What? No. She’s traumatized enough; there is absolutely no need for lights or sirens screaming through the neighborhood. Please don’t use them.”

“Well, is she safe? Like, can she pull out a weapon quickly and hurt herself?”

“She hasn’t been allowed to be alone for four days. There is someone with her all the time, right next to her, and there will be until you get here. So no, she hasn’t hidden a weapon she can pull out to kill herself. But we need some help here. Fast.”

I hung up the phone as the first police car arrived. I willed my mind and body to be calm, though I don’t know how well they cooperated. It all becomes rather relative when armed police officers begin filing through your front door.

I was first explaining the situation to the police, next directing them up the stairs, then busy answering their questions alongside my ex-husband. I still don’t know why  they needed to have my work address that day, but I’m sure they had their reasons. And I’m sure I almost got the address right. Almost.

“There were seven of them, Mom.” My younger daughter told me this later, well after the fact. “There were?” “Yes. Seven really big cops. With guns. Walking up our stairs to her room. I counted.”

I don’t doubt this.

My heart breaks even now as I recall my younger daughter that awful afternoon. She was, in my mind anyway, somewhat glued to my step-daughter’s side. I was thankful she had that place of safety. I knew my step-daughter was a wise and compassionate woman who would care well for her younger step-sister while the rest of us worked to intervene on behalf the older.

If I close my eyes now I can still see my younger daughter back then, somehow smaller than her real self, trembling and weeping as she wondered what would happen next. She, too, had witnessed her sister’s decline, at least in part. I had tried hard to shield her from what I could, and I had succeeded in part. But only in part.

At that moment, the trauma was overwhelming and far too real for a young girl who had turned fourteen only a few weeks earlier. She was keenly aware of much that her sister was experiencing. And while their relationship had been justifiably unstable in the prior months, her awareness of the gravity of the situation still saddens me to this day.

It’s hard enough to be a young teen with no memory of your parents’ marriage, only the weekly trade-off of time between two homes; to have a strong memory of watching your step-father die and seeing the world as you know it come to a screeching halt. It’s hard going to new schools, making new friends, trying to figure out who you are and what life is all about in the often confusing teenage years.

Add to that the fact that your sister, often mistaken for your twin, has mental health issues that are literally driving her to destruction and in many ways holding your family hostage. What’s left to do except count the number of really big cops marching up the stairs to haul away your suicidal sibling?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

(Photo Source: Google Images)

In all fairness, the police officers were of average size. They just looked terrifyingly large. And they were not there to haul anyone away. They were there to intervene and save a life. But in the midst of such overwhelming dread, those things are just semantics, details that grow exponentially in a mind filled with fear.

I know this because in my mind’s eye, those seven men may as well have been giants.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Say What?

The inside of the house still smells like a campfire today, which is fine by me. We had a lovely evening yesterday, grilling dinner and chatting around the fire in the backyard.  My kids were all here. At the same time, even.

My mom was here too. She brought The Best Three Bean Salad In The World, and she’s going to give me the recipe. Tastes just as good now as it did when I was a kid.

Eventually everyone left and I was alone. I sat in the darkness by the fire waiting for it to die down before dousing the last two crackling logs.

firepit at night

(Photo Source: Google Images)

It’s still hard for me; I admit it. There are times I feel very alone.

Ironically, alone feels most alone after having been around people, after shared laughter and lingering good-bye hugs.

Maybe that’s why I am less social than I was before my husband died. Sometimes it’s by choice, and sometimes it’s simply by default. People have lives, and they expect you to get on with yours. Their obligations and marriages haven’t ended. They just don’t understand what you’re dealing with because, thankfully, they’ve not experienced it.

They might not realize that when you do go out and partake in life, the fun may just be followed by deep exhaustion of every conceivable kind. They don’t get that sometimes crowds are the loneliest place in the world.

If you’ve never buried your spouse, please don’t presume to tell me that I haven’t moved on, that I shouldn’t be sad anymore, that I need to keep busy or be less busy, to simplify or find a hobby or go on a date.

And if you have buried your spouse, I don’t want to hear it from you, either.

There is a fine line the widowed must learn to walk, a line that involves rejoining the living, and learning – allowing for – happiness. But it also involves knowing that your loss will always be part of you, and knowing that somehow those things need to coexist. They can. It’s possible; it really is.

But please never make the mistake of telling us how to do that, how to integrate loss and life. Or that we’re not doing it right, that if we will “just _______” it would be better. For the rest of my life my husband will still be dead. And while I can and do experience happiness and fulfillment, that fact will always make me sad. There are some wounds that will never fully heal.

It seems that the ones most bothered by that are the ones without the wounds.

Those of us living it, it’s hard but we’re okay working to figure it out daily. Our sadness doesn’t scare us near as much as it seems to scare others. We have been handed the tricky task of learning to survive in a different universe than the one we thought we lived in. Sometimes, even years later, it’s still painful. Sometimes, even after finding a new love or a new life, it still stings.

It’s okay. Let us feel it. We need to. Don’t try to talk us out of our grief, even if you think it should have ended long ago. It doesn’t define us, but it’s still part of us, and we need you to allow for that. If you can’t, then it’s fine for you to keep your distance. Or at least keep quiet about it.

*****

Why oh why did I awake in such a melancholy mood today?!? I think it’s because I woke up sick. Achy. Congested. Sneezy. Dizzy. And whoever those other three dwarfs were. I woke up that way, feeling like one of them. My beard is fuller and I may even be shorter than I was yesterday, I think.

I’m so thankful we had our Memorial Day gathering an evening early because I have spent today sick in bed, except for loading the dishwasher from last night and seeing my mom who brought me a small tin of yummy pistachios, which I have already eaten. I hear they’re good for colds.

 pistachios

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I think my hearing is a bit off too. While watching mindless TV a bit ago, I heard an insurance commercial that started out like this: “Funerals are a very difficult thing for families to go through.”

But I didn’t hear funerals. I heard urinals. I’ve been through funerals, but never dealt much with urinals, especially as a family activity. It threw me for a quick minute, but then gave me a much-appreciated belly laugh, which I think is better for colds than even pistachios.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Point of No Return

I don’t know that anything in particular set her off . It’s just that, in general, she wanted to die.

That President’s Day is a blur in a lot of ways, but in others it’s marked indelibly on my mind. Parenting books simply don’t prepare you for calling 911 on your suicidal child.

We drove home from church that Monday afternoon after my two daughters and I had had a family picture taken for the church directory. And while I’d wanted to do nothing for four days except throw up from the anxiety of keeping a suicide watch on my 15-year-old daughter, what I was feeling surely couldn’t compare to her struggles.

My step-daughter had so kindly agreed to stay a third and final night with us. Her young family was waiting patiently for her to get back home, while we were just trying to get through another afternoon alive. Literally.

My older daughter was still not allowed to be alone. She was under strict orders to be with someone 24/7. It was the compromise she and her therapist had come to the Friday before, a last-ditch option to keep her from being hospitalized on a “3 day”, a 72-hour mental health hold.

clock-partial

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I had chosen to ignore the blaring voice in my head that had told me she should in fact go to the psych ward instead. I had chosen to take her home on Friday, even though I was more uncertain than certain that I could keep her safe.

For months I had watched depression, rage, and anxiety take the life from her eyes and replace it with a deep black void that defied definition. I had listened with fear and confusion as she told me that she hated to hear people tell her they loved her or supported her. She insisted this only made her feel more alone, more judged, more like a hate-filled failure who wanted to die.

I had bandaged her bloody arms, washed her blood-stained clothing, and tried to find any support or help from anyone I could.

It wasn’t working. I was afraid of her state of mind, afraid of what she would do.

I went up to her room late Monday afternoon, where her step-sister sat with her, and posed the questions I’d learned to ask on a semi-regular basis: Do you feel safe? Do you want to hurt yourself? Do you want to kill yourself?

“If you people would just leave me alone at all I would kill myself!” she screamed.

I’m sure there were a few other choice words thrown in, but the fact remained. Despite any and all interventions up to that point, despite a small respite of silly laughter only a couple of hours earlier, despite the availability of resources and people who loved and wanted to assist her, my daughter insisted that she wanted to die. And she was furious that we would not let her.

girl with noose

(Photo Source: Google Images)

She shrieked obscenities and hate in my direction that day, but more heartbreaking to me were the hate-filled accusations she hurled at her step-sister, who had known her for more than half her fifteen years. My step-daughter had loved and supported my children since meeting them, and she’d held them even more dearly since her father’s death less than two years earlier.

This fury was a sure sign that although my daughter was standing right in front of me, she was nowhere to be found.

The rage and darkness were palpable. Her threats and accusations hung in the air as the bottom dropped out of my world. This was the point of no return. At that moment, the tiniest shred of hope of keeping her safe within the walls of our home disappeared. I knew I had to call 911.

I decided that I would make a quick to call her dad first, as a courtesy. If the roles were reversed, I’d certainly want him to call me and let me know he was going to have an ambulance come for our daughter. It seemed the right thing to do.

“No, don’t do that. She’ll be okay. Just give her a chance to calm down,” he said. No matter how I’d tried, I had not seemed to be able to make him comprehend how she had been deteriorating the past months. She’d held herself together when she was with him, apparently, so to try to describe her increasing rages and despair to him had been a futile effort.

“She is not calming down. She’s getting worse as the day goes on. She has said outright that she wants us to leave her alone so that she can kill herself,” I insisted.

“Well, then I’ll come over and talk to her,” he replied, seemingly confident that I was mistaken in my assessment of the situation.

Not really knowing what to think, do, or feel anymore, frightened and too worn down on every side to say anything else, I responded with a resigned sigh. “Okay. Hurry.”

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Picture Day

The 24/7 vigil for my daughter’s safety continued. It was President’s Day weekend, just a few days past Valentine’s Day. My stepdaughter had been keeping up regularly with the goings-on at our house, and she offered to return home with us after Saturday night’s family dinner celebrating her grandfather’s birthday.

She left her two small children in the care of her more-than-kind husband, and came to offer her support, wisdom, and insight. I will forever be grateful for that gesture of love and caring.

I took advantage of her presence and went in to work for a few hours on Sunday, knowing that the week ahead was unpredictable at best. I could not neglect my work duties, though I could not even guess at what the next days might hold.

President’s Day arrived on Monday and my daughters and I prepared for a scheduled appointment of pictures for the church directory. No one but my stepdaughter, my two daughters, and I knew the incongruous events that were unfolding: self harm and suicidal ideations resulting in a “homebound hospitalization” lockdown, punctuated by curling irons and mascara as we prepared to take a family portrait.

 mascara

(Photo Credit: Google Images)

My stomach was queasy with anxiety, and the whole thing was ironically laughable. But true to form and in imitation of her wonderful father, my stepdaughter brought moments of laughter and fun as we posed in front of the photographer in a corner of the church sanctuary.

She shared private jokes with my daughters under her breath, loud enough for only them to hear and respond with laughter just as the camera snapped. Her presence is a bright spot in the memory of an otherwise truly awful day.

The evening before the four of us had been sprawled in the family room watching a movie together. My “lockdown daughter” has always been an artist at heart. She spent many hours during her most depressed times drawing pictures that may have seemed innocent enough at first glance, but a closer look revealed a dark poem, morbid musings, or subtle death motifs. Other drawings were blatantly filled with death, torture, or self mutilation.

Another theme of her illustrations was the mix of seemingly innocent childhood objects like dolls, teddy bears, and hair bows, with gruesome symbols of death, blood, and suicide. I had been told that drawing those thoughts and images could be a good help for my daughter, that they could aid her in processing some of the difficult issues she was dealing with.

While that was likely true earlier in her struggles, by this time it seemed more of a prophetic sign than a helpful coping mechanism.

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(Photo Credit: http://fav.me/d28qt7c via Google Images)

As we watched TV that Sunday night before Monday’s picture day, my daughter worked intently in her sketchbook. After a while she leaned over and said matter-of-factly, “Here, Mom. Look.” She put in front of me a meticulous drawing she had just made of a young woman lying dead in a pool of blood. Was it a cry for help, or a blatant challenge?

My stepdaughter was preparing to leave and go back to her family after she helped us through our photo appointment early Monday afternoon, but she graciously offered to stay if I needed. I knew how badly she wanted to go home. I knew how badly her family wanted her home. I knew that asking for help even when I should is nearly impossible for me.

But this time, I did. “Please, can you stay just one more night? Just one more?” She agreed, of course, and it was the best thing I could have asked for. As it turns out, after our short drive home from church, all hell broke loose.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

House Arrest

As we drove home from the therapist, my mind raced frantically. I was supposed to take both of my daughters to a weekend conference for teen girls, and the first session was to start in a matter of hours. Not only had my older daughter been placed on a 72-hour hold in her own home, I had been too.

This left my younger daughter lost in the shuffle once again. I ached so deeply for her, for all that she was losing and missing while I fought to keep her older sister alive. There was no way she could or should have to understand everything that was happening. But I also felt she should not have to have her life put on hold in deference to her sister’s struggles.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

I made some calls so that my youngest would still be able to attend the weekend’s events. It was hard to ask for favors from friends who didn’t know our situation, and I didn’t want to dishonor my daughter by airing her dirty laundry for her, so to speak.

Additionally, I did not want to put my younger daughter in a position of having to explain or defend or even vilify her sister. (This brings up the subject of the stigma of shame surrounding mental health issues, which is another post for another time.)

Finally, I reached my step-son’s gracious and generous wife, who agreed to accompany my youngest to the event we’d all looked forward to. What a remarkable and kind woman she was and is, to willingly change her weekend plans so she could step in and help us in our deep need.

They did miss parts of the weekend, and it was difficult and sad for my younger daughter knowing what was going on back at home. Even so, how could a sibling not resent, at least in part, another whose life problems were growing to take over the whole family, leaving everyone and everything else in virtual and unpredictable ruin?

I learned quickly that when you have to keep watch on someone 24/7, you don’t get to shower. You don’t get to relax, much less get any decent sleep. And you have to take really fast bathroom breaks.

You don’t get a chance to let down and grieve the fact that the person you are keeping guard over would really rather be dead. You just keep going. You have no other choice.

By Saturday, the day after her therapist had set up the 24/7 arrangement to avoid a mental health hospitalization, my daughter was already tired of me and her anger had returned full force. She wanted to leave home to go see her father.

She had already tried to run away. We had gone outside at her request, just to get out of the house. As we stood on the driveway, she inched her way closer to the street, eyeing me defiantly as I asked her to please come back up the driveway closer to the house.

Finally she did a quick double take and began to sprint. I caught her quickly, and in full view of the neighbor across the street. I grabbed her around the waist, wrestling her back towards and part way up the driveway, as she railed and kicked, ending with a scream of, “I hate you, Mom!”

She then went limp as a rag doll, landing on the ground with my arms still around her. “Oh, honey, right now I hate you, too” was the only resigned response I could mutter, trying to hold back the tears. I hate so much that I said that.

Our bewildered neighbor, meanwhile, was in his garage, staring, power tools in hand, wondering what was going on with that house full of females across the street.

confused man

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I hauled my teenager up off the pavement where she had collapsed and took her back into the house. And I agreed wholeheartedly that it was a fine idea for her to spend a little time with her dad.

“I’ll have her back soon,” he said to me as he picked her up. “Oh, please,” I responded. “Take a little extra time. I would really love to just take a shower today.”  We had a preplanned family birthday dinner to attend that evening, and I was in need of a good scrubbing by then.

Clearly he had never been the lone officer on duty during a house arrest.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

A Friday in February

+++ SELF HARM TRIGGER WARNING+++

*****

“Can you step in to my office, please?” It wasn’t unusual for my daughter’s therapist to ask me back for the final part of the session, so I followed her. My daughter sat sadly in a leather chair, and I took my place next to her.

“She has something she needs to show you.” I was puzzled as my daughter stood part way and started to unzip her jeans. Still hunched over, she pulled down one leg of her jeans further than the other. I winced as my eyes began to water.

There, etched in large, crude letters covering most of her thigh, carved not with a pin but with the thick blunt end of large household scissors: FUCK

My hand instinctively went to my mouth in deep grief. My heart raced and my stomach began to churn with anxiety as my daughter quickly zipped her jeans and sat down.

She had not shown me this damage she had done to herself, and she had purposefully not cleaned the cuts.

I kept thinking how badly it must sting, to have tight denim on the open scrapes she had self-inflicted only the night before. She’d worn those jeans all day; I imagined how every time she’d moved or adjusted her pants, the wounds would have ruptured anew from the bond they’d made to the fabric.

girl in jeans

(Photo Source: Google Images)

Her self harm and self hatred had become unmanageable.

I wanted to scoop my daughter up, to take her home, to clean her wounds and make her pain disappear. But weeks’ worth of trying had made it abundantly clear that such a thing was beyond my capability. And on top of that, my daughter deeply and openly resented going to any type of mental health counseling.

Her stock was placed firmly in the peer group she had chosen, and any efforts to intercede for her safety were complained against. She went to therapy because I made her go, but her emotional loyalties were to those who had taught her about self harm and with whom she was dangerously emotionally enmeshed.

I believe that a small part of her was hoping desperately for help and rescue, though the larger and more visible part of her was resentful and angry at the intrusion of counseling appointments twice or more each week. But what choice does a parent have? It was soberingly clear this was not a phase she would outgrow.

“We’ve been talking,” said her counselor, “and while I think she is right on the cusp of needing to be hospitalized, we have come to a compromise.”

To the best of my understanding, while my daughter was saying she wanted to die, she did not have a specific plan to carry out that desire. And that’s how we ended up in the therapist’s office on a Friday afternoon in February, planning a long holiday weekend of what was basically house arrest.

jailcell door

(Photo Source: Google Images)

“She has to be with someone 24 hours a day. She must sleep, eat, and be in the same room with you all the time. She cannot be alone except for short bathroom breaks.”

My mind raced to take in all the information, envisioning how we would put the plan into action. I’m nothing if not a planner, but even I was overwhelmed by this. “We’ve agreed that if she will stick to this plan, she won’t have to go straight to the hospital when you leave here today.”

I nodded as I looked at my daughter’s therapist, trying to take in the details and instructions, but inside of me there was a thunderous voice of fear and uncertainty: “WHAT??? Are you nuts?!? I think she should be hospitalized! NOW! How can I do this? This is impossible! I cannot keep her safe!!!”

I looked over at my daughter, who had disappeared inside herself. She was definitely angry, but she was more frightened by the thought of actually having to go to the hospital on a mental health hold.

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(Photo Source: majed-ahmad, http://fav.me/d33oeft)

Despite my own fear, I chose to believe the part of her that was the frightened child, the part that felt trapped and afraid and just wanted to go home. So we went home with plans to return in four days.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Uncertain

+++ SELF HARM TRIGGER WARNING +++

*****

“She needs to have her medication changed.” These were the words of the therapist who had been seeing my daughter for a few weeks. “And I’d like to arrange for some testing, too.”

There were mornings when, in a panic, my daughter had had to leave school. Thankfully, on some of those days, I was able to miss work and take my daughter to an emergency therapy appointment. Her dad had even left work a time or two to pick her up and take her when I was unable. Oftentimes she calmed down and was able to return for part of the school day.

crowded high school hallway

(Photo Source: Google Images)

The steepness of her downward spiral was becoming painfully clear. Still, I worried that she was being rescued in an unhealthy way, unsure of what was in her control and what was not. I felt uncertain as to whether she was just manipulating me, or if the bulk of her actions were really symptomatic of things beyond her control.

Was she just trying to get out of classes she didn’t like? She was skipping so many of them anyway that maybe she was just using panic as an excuse. I looked forward to psychological testing, hoping it would provide some answers. I didn’t realize that it would not happen until months down the road.

The anxiety was believed to be caused by medication, thus the therapist’s advice to switch to something else.  The change was made from one SSRI antidepressant to another. The side effects were no different. Panic and anxiety grew. Physical ills plagued my daughter. Depression deepened to a place far beyond blackness. And I began to see more clearly that what she was experiencing was very, very real.

I felt that despite all my best efforts to provide stability after her dad had left years earlier, after my attempts to address and allow for grief following her stepdad’s death less than two years prior, I had failed. Miserably. I only knew that I was at my wit’s end. I had no more ideas, only a deepening panic. My heart broke for her struggle, but I felt powerless.

Anger and rage poured from my mild-mannered, fair-skinned, introverted middle child. Although she was at her dad’s at least pretty much every other weekend and then some, she saved her raging for me. She has come to tell me in the ensuing years that it was a safety issue to her, that she felt I was a safe place for her to unload her fury and frenzy.  At the time, I was simply bewildered and deeply hurt.

angry teen girl (google)

(Photo Source: Google Images)

She self harmed daily with much more than just a single cut. There were times when, after she cut, I would calmly clean and bandage her wounds. I would offer her my tears as a cleansing balm, hoping she would see the love I had for her, and that it would somehow fill the chasm of her need. Other times, I would remain detached and aloof, thinking that if I approached this matter-of-factly, the emotional dysfunction she was seeking to feed would instead be starved out.

Although she often cut while alone in her bed at night, I reminded her that she needed to be sure to clean her wounds to avoid a dangerous infection. (These types of conversations are not covered in parenting books, by the way.) After all, my late husband had succumbed to sepsis, his body unable to fight and overcome a serious infection, which had ultimately taken his life.

While she would at least sometimes attempt to sanitize a cutting instrument with a lighter, the concept of death by infection seemed to somehow intrigue her as she began to allude to her own demise. In fact, at least once she said she welcomed the idea of such a manner of death.

Her bed sheets and pillowcases became bloodstained. She left bloody tissues or clothing lying on the floor, evidence of the previous night’s anguish. I hated to go to bed every night, truly fearful that on any given morning I would find my daughter dead from one cut that had accidently gone too deep.

I remember wondering for a while if she was cutting on purpose, to manipulate me, to see how she could get me to react or what kind of sympathy she could garner. So sometimes I simply didn’t engage with her after she had self harmed. I told her to find the bandages and soap and take care of it herself.

And then there was the time I had just had enough. I was so fed up, so terrified, so OVER it. I was furious with panic and confusion. And I told her so. And that’s the time she remembers. Of course.

I can’t undo it, but it still feels shameful to me. I didn’t know then what I know now, and I try hard to see it as one incident in the scope of the whole journey. But I’m still embarrassed and deeply saddened by my behavior that evening.

(Source)

One memorable night she came downstairs to my room and showed me her arm. The fresh carvings were somewhat erratic and still bloody, so it took me a few seconds to decipher what I saw.

U  R  SHIT

There it was, on her arm, under my nose. Still wrestling with my own culpability in her struggles, and because she had presented herself to me for inspection, I asked her slowly and as gently as I could, “Um, who are you saying that to? Are you trying to say that to me?” Because if so, I would have much preferred she just declare it to me, not carve it into her body as a permanent reminder.

I remember the tears in her eyes.

“No, mom. It’s to me.”

And so we wept together as I silently begged for some kind of help to save my daughter from herself.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Do you have a teen who is self harming? Please see Responding to Your Teen’s Self Harm. Information regarding self-injury (cutting, burning, biting, bruising, etc.) can be found at  S.A.F.E. Alternatives, Self Injury Foundation and Self Injury Outreach and Support.

Theater 8, Addendum

I had the privilege of seeing family recently. It was a mini reunion of sorts, an unexpected and lovely surprise on a windy, sunny Sunday afternoon. A relative of my late husband was celebrating a milestone birthday, and we all got to gather for a time to celebrate her. I was and am honored to be included still in this family, even though my husband is no longer here. He remains my connection to these good people, and I am grateful.

Among the welcoming faces I saw was that of a young man, the son of my late husband’s cousin. He is on the local police force, as was his father before him. His girlfriend was there, a lovely and engaging young woman. She is also on the police force in our city.

So it was probably inevitable that talk would turn to the Aurora Theater shooting, now nearly ten months ago. He knew my girls had been there, and was eager to see how they are doing in the aftermath of the trauma that was that night.

aurora theater

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I have written before about my daughters’ time in Theater 8, about how they tried to leave but were stopped in the interest of their own safety. I shared how they left the theater parking lot just before it was locked down  and how we struggled to make sense of what had happened as the night hours wore on.

I also told of a story I’d read about a man who got up to lead two girls out of the theater, one of whom had been shot in the jaw as bullets came through the wall from the beginnings of the rampage in Theater 9 next door. As he started to lead them out to the lobby, he saw what he thought might be a gunman, so he retreated back into Theater 8, closed the door, and instructed someone to pull the emergency alarm.

This was the story I shared on that Sunday as this young relative, a member of the S.W.A.T. team, asked why my girls didn’t leave the theater right away. “They tried to go out the emergency exit, but someone thought they’d seen a gunman out there. And someone had already said they thought there was a gunman in the lobby. So they were hiding on the floor between rows of seats, not sure what was true or what was safe for them to do.”

“That was us,” he said. “That wasn’t the gunman that guy saw in the lobby. It was us. We got there three to four minutes after the call came in. When we arrived the gunman was still in Theater 9. We know that because people were coming out of there, and they’d been shot on the way out. It wasn’t the gunman he saw; it was us.” He went on to explain that they were armed and wearing gas masks.

“Well I think I would have shut the door on you, too!” I told him. I’ve never seen a S.W.A.T. team in action (and hope I never have cause to) except on TV or in the movies, but if I’d seen them approaching me, armed and in gas masks as I was trying to help someone who’d been mysteriously shot, I could very easily mistake them for gunmen on the loose, I’ve no doubt.

swat

(Photo Source: Google Images)

His girlfriend went on to explain that she had not been on duty that night, but she did what she could, calling the families of the officers she knew were on scene. She worked to assure them that their loved ones, the first responders we so often count on, were safe. They were doing their best to contain a nearly uncontainable situation, and had no time to contact their relatives who undoubtedly heard the story unfolding, feeling as confused and frightened as the rest of us.

We don’t often think of them, I imagine, of the families of the people we trust to step in, to run towards the danger every day. I have family members in more than one city and state who are on the force, so I have somewhat of a feel for how it is. But I don’t live it daily, knowing that just going to work could mean that someone I love is putting their life on the line.

I suppose we also don’t think much about what those first responders see, how it affects their lives, their jobs, and the people they love. I wonder if we often take the time to think of them as real people, with real lives, families, children, struggles, and emotions. Statistics do not bode well in regards to many things when it comes to these fine folks and their families. They live in a dichotomy that few of us could understand, much less be bothered to consider very often.

grieving fireman

(Photo Source: Google Images)

It’s a humbling thought. Yes, I know they choose to do that. Yes, I know it’s their job and they’re paid for it. I know that some people will choose to focus on the relatively few public servants who lack integrity and character. And I also know those who opt to be first responders are the minority, that most of us don’t make that choice, don’t decide on such a career.

I still say it’s humbling, and I’m thankful they were there to offer order on a night of terror, as they are so many other times that don’t happen to make the national, or even nightly, news.

“We probably passed each other as they left the theater,” said my girls’ step-cousin. “But they couldn’t have known it was me all suited up and wearing a gas mask.” I’m pretty sure he’s right on both counts. He didn’t elaborate much, but alluded to the terrible sights he and his team had seen in the theater in those early morning hours.

I was moved as these two officers told me that they haven’t been to a theater since the shooting. They don’t know when they will; they just know that they have no desire to for the time being.

“How are they now?” he asked me, wanting to know of any lingering effects of the night my girls might be having all these months later.

I told him that my older daughter loves to go to the movies. One day as we drove by the newly re-opened Aurora Theater, I asked her if she’d ever consider going back to see a movie there. “Sure,” she said. “I’d go.”

My younger daughter, I shared, has only been to one movie, and it was not at a traditional theater, but instead at one that serves dinner with the show. And that was enough. Other than that outing over four months ago, she has no desire to or plans to go to any theater.

“You just tell her,” he reassured, “not to worry about that. Tell her that those big, bad S.W.A.T. guys don’t want to go to the movies anytime soon either.”

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Searching For Help

I started January of that year searching for a therapist for my daughter. The family doctor had listened as she and I had talked openly of her pervasive sadness and increasing self injury. He prescribed an antidepressant for her, and made it clear that mental health counseling was essential.

Besides the constraints imposed by insurance, I wanted desperately to find a mental health professional close to home. I was, after all, still a widowed single mom with two daughters. I had intense and constant worry about my younger daughter, not only about her exposure to her sister’s maladaptive coping skills, but also about her  getting lost in the shuffle now that my older daughter’s issues were taking virtually all of my time and energy.

I had to fit in my daily work schedule as well as transporting both girls to and from two different schools at different times. Their dad, who had left more than ten years earlier, had given some lip service to helping transport them, but claimed that he really couldn’t help on a regular basis because of his work schedule.

This left most of it to me, except for those rare occasions when I could find someone willing to carpool on our schedule.  So for better or worse, proximity to home became a factor for hiring a therapist.

I finally located a counselor whose office was close to us. She was kind, professional, knowledgeable, and not a very good fit for my 15-year-old daughter. Still, I pressed my daughter to give her a try. “She’s not here to be your best friend. She’s here to offer her knowledge and help work some things out.”

angry girl in therapy (google)

(Photo Source: Google Images)

And this is where I must say, that is a terrible attitude to take into therapy. Imagine telling your deepest pains and fears to someone you just don’t click with, to someone who may be very nice but with whom you really feel no personal connection. I wouldn’t do it.

But I mistakenly expected my daughter to. I was wrong. I wanted her to do it because I was scared and exhausted and weary to the core, but I was still wrong. I didn’t know how to be two places at once, or how to keep my younger daughter from feeling forgotten and lost, but I was still wrong.

I have since referred other people to this therapist. I meant it when I said she was kind, professional, and knowledgeable. But I also meant it when I said she was not a good fit for my daughter at that particular time. Still, for a few weeks, we made regular trips to see her.

During those weeks, my daughter began to feel the effects of the antidepressant she had begun. She was exhausted, felt physically ill, experienced increased anxiety, and ironically fell deeper into depression. Many days I would take her to school, only to have her call me in a panic, unable to stay beyond even part of the morning. By this time, her self injury was increasing in both frequency and intensity, as was my fear.

Both carefully crosshatched as well as untamed cuts often covered her forearms, etched with safety pins, push pins, or blades taken from disposable razors. Her anger would spew out in screaming rages, in torrents of sobs neither she nor I could help her to control. What had happened to the loving, affectionate, self-assured girl who had been my daughter?

One moment she would curse me to the four winds, and the next she would fall into my arms for comfort and reassurance. Her terror was matched by my own, but I did not have the luxury of letting mine be known.

Her moods and tirades ruled our home, and I grasped desperately for ways to quell the unpredictable storms. I tried reason. I tried consequences. I tried being emotionally neutral or removed. I tried tough love. I tried empathy and understanding. Always I tried to convey my unconditional love for her.

In truth, the deeper she fell, the deeper my heart broke. The more she pushed me away, the more I longed for her to know the love and safety that were ready and waiting for her. It’s not that I could have loved her more than I already did. It was that I ached more deeply for her to know the love that was already hers.

TEEN-BEING-HELPED-BY-MOM-copy1

(Photo Source: Google Images)

There were many times when my daughter vented her anger that I simply laid down on the floor during our conversations so that she would not have any reason to feel threatened. I didn’t realize what I was doing until afterwards. I did it instinctively, recognizing that she felt susceptible to some deep, unnamed danger. What I failed to understand was that her biggest threat came from within.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013