That Kind of Breaking

The guidance counselor was kind and calm. Anyone who can maintain those two qualities while in the confines of a public middle school all day has my immediate respect. I sat and listened as he began to speak.

“Your daughter tells me things have been rough at home, that your family has had some pretty big challenges.”

“Yes. That’s true. We certainly have.”

It had been about two years since my husband’s traumatic and failed fight for his life, and though he was a stepfather to my children they loved and missed him deeply. I had returned to the workforce, my son had moved to his dad’s and his sisters didn’t often see him, we had made the transition from homeschooling to public school, and my older daughter had recently been released from a five-day stay at the psych ward.

Yup, I’d say those were some pretty big challenges.

“Well, she’s been having a tough time dealing with it all, as you can imagine.”

Teenage Problems, Social Issues and Bullying

This was the coming-to-life of some of my deepest held fears at the time. In all fairness, I had quite a few fears, pretty much all of which included my kids. I knew that my older daughter’s struggles and rages were traumatizing our family. I knew that her continuing self harm and relentless thoughts of suicide were more than taking their toll.

I knew that I tried so hard to protect my younger daughter from her sister’s struggles, even as I didn’t know how to define or predict what those struggles might be. I knew how frightened I was, and I could only imagine how terrifying it must feel to a 13-year-old girl whose world had been shattered long before her sister’s mental balance had.

I knew that my youngest was getting lost in the shuffle of psychiatric appointments. I knew she felt invisible and dispensable as so much of my time was spent talking her sister ‘off the ledge’, cleaning and bandaging her self-inflicted wounds, walking on eggshells, trying to find an answer, a balance, a cure.

I knew that the older often goaded the younger, then immediately wanted her sympathy and compassion. She showed us all macabre, dark drawings she’d made, somehow expecting us to praise the depictions of death and blood she produced.

I could make no sense of it as an adult. I certainly could never expect my youngest teen to have the ability to process and make peace with all that was going on. And yet I felt powerless to guide her. How can you teach someone to do what you are unable to do yourself?

And so here we were, in the school guidance counselor’s office. I was waiting for what I didn’t want to hear, but what I needed to know.

 Worried

My daughter had ended up there after having had a particularly rough day, and she’d thankfully confided in her counselor about the unfathomable mess that was our family. She’s always been one to think she can tough her way out of anything (I have vivid memories of a three-year-old determined to swim in the deep end of the pool, working hard to hide the panic on her face) and I was so glad to see that she’d taken the chance to share her confusion and pain with a trusted adult.

The counselor continued, gently breaking the news to me that my daughter – the one here with me, not the one (hopefully) waiting in the car – had been cutting herself as a way to deal with her distress and pain.

My stomach dropped then just as quickly threatened to jump up out of my throat. I was facing my daughter, whose eyes were filled with many things, including fear. I knew she’d seen me deal with her sister and that she’d seen me be both gentle and brusque in trying to stop the ongoing and escalating self harm. Of course she had to be nervous about what my reaction to this news would be.

Outwardly I pretty much held it together, meaning I didn’t curl up in the corner in a fetal position. I fought the sudden nausea I felt.

But inwardly I was breaking, as if there was a  tire screeching, metal crushing, glass shattering  75 car pileup, the kind where you know things are so out of control you are clueless as to where or how to start administering any kind of aid. The kind where you are the lone witness and all you have are Band-Aids and the phone lines are down so try as you might you can’t call for the 50-plus ambulances that you need.

That kind of breaking.

 Car pileup

Tears sprang to my eyes.

“Oh, sweetie.”

It was all I could say.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2014
https://www.facebook.com/HelpToHope
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A Tough Task

“Yes. I’m her mother. Can I help you?”

I got the call while I was sitting in the car outside my younger daughter’s middle school. I’d left work, picked my older daughter up at her high school, and driven to the middle school to park and wait for the day’s final bell. The interaction with my daughter sitting next to me was stilted and unnatural, as it so often was at the time.

 girl in car

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Her behavior after release from her first hospitalization for a mental health hold had been shaky. We’d had high hopes and bundles of nerves, and we were trying hard to make right something that we weren’t even able to completely identify.

In addition to obvious depression and unmanageable rages, she’d become involved with a boy at school who shared some of her struggles. He was a nice enough kid, but the dysfunctions they shared caused them worrisome co-dependence, especially when it came to their self harm behaviors.

teen couple

 Source

And while being together could be uncomfortable for both of us, I had serious concerns about leaving her unattended. She had alluded to running away on a number of occasions,  even trying to run off on that weekend before I’d had to call the ambulance. I knew that her thought processes were off-kilter enough that she could make some dangerous decisions.

My youngest daughter’s guidance counselor had called while we waited. “I have her here in the office with me. Is there any way you can meet with us before the school day is over?”

“I’m actually parked right outside. I can be right there,” I replied. The evasive, non-committal tone of the conversation made it clear to me that no good news was waiting inside.

I did the quick mental gymnastics: If I leave her here in the car while I go inside, will she be safe? Will she run? Will she be here when I get back? Should I make her go inside with me, feeding her insistence that I never trust or understand her?

I swallowed hard as I told her that I needed to go inside and speak with someone, and that I’d see her when I was done. She sat with her earphones on, black eyeliner encircling her downcast eyes, too cool and too annoyed to acknowledge much of anything. I put my car keys in my purse and walked to the school entrance.

Photo: D Sharon Pruitt

I signed in and was directed to the counselor’s office where my younger daughter peered up at me nervously from her seat. She was dressed like a typical middle-schooler, sporting a bulging backpack, carefully styled hair, colorful braces, and inches of plastic bracelets halfway to her elbows.

I tried to smile, to remain calm, to not read into the situation anything that wasn’t specifically presented. After all we’d been through as a family in the past years, that was a tough task to handle.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2014
https://www.facebook.com/HelpToHope
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We Couldn’t Have Known

He couldn’t have known. He was just being a good guy, a gracious manager who gave us permission to use the back room of the restaurant for a family gathering.

Of course a restaurant wants patrons, and large parties mean large tabs and tips (hopefully). But he was kind enough to let me come in a few hours early and set up for our celebration.

My son surprised me by wanting to help. He was 15 and life was challenging him in some very big ways at the time. But it was his idea. He asked.

“Mom, can I go with you? Can I help?”

How does a heart both break and soar at the same time? A mother’s heart knows how, and my delighted shattered heart welcomed his company. He couldn’t have known what a gift it was to me that he asked, that he wanted to join me.

And not just join me, but help me in staging a surprise for my husband, his stepdad, whom he loved with deep affection as well as deep pain for reasons I’m not sure any of us understood at the time.

We concocted a cover story. Well, actually I concocted the cover story. I coached him on the details. I should be embarrassed about how easy it was for me, but I’m not.

Off we went to pick up the balloons, the candy, the cake, the colors, and the mischievousness that frame a surprise party. There were Skittles and M&Ms strewn down the center of the long table, sweet edible confetti for anyone who chose to partake. There were balloons tied to chairs, and a general spreading of Technicolor merriment in anticipation of the celebration yet to come.

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We giggled and speculated and worked up a sweat, then went home after thanking the manager yet again for his kindness in allowing us this privilege. He could have made money off those tables while they sat there waiting for our crowd to arrive. But we were granted favor. And it was a last in a lifetime chance. He couldn’t have known.

We walked into the restaurant a while later and were told my step-daughter and her husband were already seated near the back, waiting for us to join them for a quick dinner before they had to head home. The hostess escorted us to our party room, where my husband took two steps in then turned around and almost left. He wasn’t angry, just overwhelmed.

He’d told me he didn’t want me to make a big deal of his birthday, just like he never wanted anyone to make a big deal over him. But it was a big deal birthday, one that ended in a zero.

And it had been less than a year since we’d received the news that he had an untreatable invader in his body, and had been given instructions to “go home and make the most of your life.” In fact, the doctors were more than a little surprised that he was still breathing.

But he’d told me I couldn’t make a big deal. So I didn’t. All I did was agree to be a partner in crime to my step-daughter. She gave me the gift of allowing me to point to her and say with a smile, “She did it. It was her idea.” So I was able to honor his wish while also honoring hers.

We all knew we might be living on borrowed time. But there was a determination that would not be denied, that of a grateful family wanting to honor this man who loved us all so well.  He couldn’t have known.

File:Birthday candles.jpg

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We laughed. We dined. We ate the cake and the sweet confetti. We took pictures in front of the birthday banner and tried to visit with everyone seated around that long table. It was a wonderful time with family ties four generations deep, and he said he’d had no idea it was coming. I’m pretty sure I believe him even now.

A year later he was lying in a hospital bed, fighting hard for his life. It was a fight he was soon to lose. And it made the memory of that celebration a treasure all the sweeter. We couldn’t have known.

** ** ** ** **

(Today’s post is in honor of what would have been my late husband’s birthday. We couldn’t have known that his son-in-law, one of many who helped with the birthday ruse at our neighborhood Macaroni Grill, would qualify to be – and insist on becoming – a live liver-donor for my husband.

It was his last, best chance. On his final birthday my husband underwent a surgery that we all hoped would save his life. He died two months later. But what a fantastic celebration of life we’d had only one short year earlier. I’ll always be grateful for that.)

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2014
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On Thin Ice

The weeks following my daughter’s release from her first mental health hold were a tenuous mix of hope and dread. I was hopeful the change of medication would help stabilize her, and at the same time I was terrified that the change of medication would not help stabilize her. Worse yet, I was afraid the change of medication would aggravate her already fragile demeanor.

It felt as if we were walking on thin ice, fearing a web of cracks with each step.

Walking_On_Thin_Ice_by_X_ample

(Photo Source)

My daughter returned to school, and it’s hard to say whose nerves were more frayed. Returning to classes and trying to explain to her peer group all that had happened could not have been easy for her.

I still had daily worries about her younger sister and the volatility within which we were all living. It was clear that, although the five days in the psych ward had helped to temporarily steady the crisis we were facing, our predicament was by no means resolved.

Soon enough the unpredictable and explosive episodes returned. The fragile and subdued girl who left the behavioral center after a psych eval was gone. In her place once again was a struggling teen unable to manage the emotional eruptions that plagued her.

There were necessary boundaries I was continuing to implement for her safety and my sanity, but I tried to allow my daughter time for friends. Though the dynamics of those friendships were not what I would have chosen (for any of them), I wanted to honor her need for her own identity and self-discovery. It seemed to be an integral part of the solution for her, but only if done in a healthy way.

I offered to drive them to the local ice skating rink or make our home available for their gatherings. All offers were declined, sometimes with a dismissive or angry attitude, sometimes with what seemed like abject hopelessness.

I tried to arrange my work schedule so that I could pick her up at school not too long after classes ended for the day. Getting in enough work hours could be difficult, and there were days she would call me filled with rage, demanding I pick her up right away.

on the phone

(Photo Source)

I wasn’t often able to leave early, though if I felt she was not emotionally safe, I would try to head out as soon as possible for the half hour drive. Memories and thoughts of her self inflicted wounds were never far from my mind.

It could be tough to know the right thing to do: Was she trying to manipulate me with her anger, expecting me to respond to her every whim? Or was she truly incapable of regulating her emotions, succumbing to the darkness that enveloped her like a cloud?

The answer to both questions was a resounding yes.

I was often confused by the seesaw of emotions I witnessed. She would insist that she wanted to stay after school to be with her friends, dramatically declaring that they were the only reason she went to school or kept herself alive. But her insistence about the importance of being with her peers was equally matched by her absolute loathing of them at times.

Life remained utterly unpredictable.

One thing that was relatively unsurprising was my daughter’s therapy sessions. As per the discharge paperwork from her hospitalization, she started seeing a new counselor. Unlike the previous therapist, this one was not located near our home. In all fairness, it wasn’t too terribly far; it just felt that way. The drives there and back were filled with heavy silence or forced, uncomfortable conversation.

What was not a surprise was the refusal from my daughter to fully engage in the help that was available to her. While she would talk on a superficial level with her counselor, she had in truth done nothing but reinforce the brick wall that surrounded her, the wall that she mistakenly felt would protect her from pain and struggle. At times she would even agree with insights her therapist offered, but by her own admission, she simply didn’t care.

Sometimes near the end of her sessions, I was brought into the office and the conversation. It was not unusual for me to watch my daughter sit in stony silence, her arms crossed tightly, her breathing heavy with anger. Her eyes would be filled with rage while she stared at a distant point, as if to will her bodily out of this universe and into one of her own making, one that would soothe her despair and anguish.

Sadly, she was unable to see that she was surrounded by people who truly wanted to help her reach a place of calm and peace. Her depression had convinced her that this was not a possibility for her.

Our lives continued to be lived in the shadow of her illness.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
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Work

My daughter’s stay in the psych ward (her first stay, at least) was five days. Yet it seemed interminable and exhausting to me. I can only imagine how it must have felt to her.

While my daughter was hospitalized, I worked. I worked to find the new therapist she needed. I worked to prepare my younger daughter for her sister’s return. I worked to prepare myself for her return as well. I worked at calming my nerves in anticipation of the unknown that lay ahead for us.

I worked at contacting personnel in my daughter’s high school to let them know why she’d missed school and was failing her core classes. I worked to advocate to her teachers on her behalf as depression, anxiety, and panic had interrupted class tests, make-up tests, and all manner of school work and homework in the preceding weeks.

I worked to make it clear to her teachers that I was not trying to excuse any behavior; I simply wanted my daughter to know she could walk into a classroom, take a test, and not let anxiety continue to drag her into a dark abyss leading to self harm and despair.

I worked to prepare the way to help my daughter find even a tiny but necessary victory.

I worked to release the frustration of not hearing back from several of her teachers. I worked to let go of the fear that they would judge me as “that mom”, the one who let her kid get away with anything, then made excuses.

mean-teacher

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I worked to remember that my goal was not to get my adolescent daughter to pass English, sing in choir, or even pass her freshman year. I worked to stay focused on helping her reach a place of mental wellness, health, and personal safety.

I worked, literally, to keep my daughter alive, to help her want to stay alive.

I worked to respond to the teachers who had kindly and compassionately replied after I contacted them to inform them of my daughter’s deep struggles. I worked to contain my tears, to thank these good people for seeing the inherent value in my 15-year-old, even though she could not see it in herself.

I worked to remind myself that they were bearing witness to the good in my daughter, and helping me hold onto hope, whether they realized it or not.

I worked at letting go of the frustration that I was the one having to do everything, with no help from my children’s father. I worked to not allow wasteful bitterness about that overtake me.

I worked to arrange my schedule so I could be where I had to be when I had to be there, whether taking my youngest to cheer practice, or visiting my older daughter in the psych ward.

I worked at pushing aside the grief I felt as a widow, the utter sorrow I felt at not having my husband to talk with at the end of an exhausting day. I worked at trying to think of the encouraging words I knew he would say to me.

I worked to recall the feel of his arms around me, the safest place I’d ever known. I worked to remember that, no matter how distant it now seemed, I hadn’t imagined him in the first place.

I worked at staying awake and focused despite little sleep. I worked at the dailies of life: carpool, laundry, dishes. And, of course, I worked at work.

I was tired.

 

(One of my favorite bands/songs/videos. Best when played at a loud volume.)

 

Saturday finally arrived. Though two days earlier my daughter had angrily demanded I pick her up “Saturday morning at 6!” I kept my word and arrived around 9:30 a.m. The requisite paperwork took a little while. And there were new friends she’d made to whom she wanted to say goodbye.

We left with a prescription and a plan, and I was hopeful they would work at the same time I was terrified they would fail.

One of the perks of a psych ward stay (who knew there was such a thing?) was that my daughter was able to continue as the patient of the psychiatrist who saw her during her days there.

While that may not seem like such a big deal, the truth is that finding a qualified psychiatrist can take more time than one might imagine. And after finally tracking someone down, it’s not unusual to have to wait up to two months (yes, TWO MONTHS – or more) for an available appointment.

This one not-so-small detail had now been taken care of. It’s not like the appointments would be close to home, but just to HAVE appointments for someone who could manage medication was a major hurdle crossed. I was very grateful.

sunny day

 (Source: Google Images) 

 

My daughter and I stepped out into a bright, sunny February morning in Colorado. She hadn’t had the freedom to be outside for several days. She seemed small and fragile, a combination of embarrassment, nervousness, and relief. I felt much the same as she.

I didn’t know the rules for what a parent is supposed to do when they pick their kid up from the psych ward. So we went to Jamba Juice. It seemed like a good idea. And it was.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
https://www.facebook.com/HelpToHope
https://twitter.com/HelpToHope

Curiouser and Curiouser

I tried hard to be a voice of reason to my daughter. But how does one reason where there is no willingness to receive it? It didn’t work for Alice after she fell down the rabbit’s hole, and it wasn’t working for me. Still, it seemed all I could do.

alice in wonderland confusing

(Source)

Tuesday night had seen a change to my daughter’s medication. The two SSRI anti-depressants she’d tried in the previous weeks had served only to take her deeper into rage, depression, and thoughts of suicide.

She was switched to a medication initially developed to treat seizures but used off-label to treat mood disorders. As those with mental health issues often find, medication is not an exact science. Not at all. But the aim at this point was to stabilize her, which (ironically) meant taking her off anti-depressants.

She soon found out that the term “72 hour hold” was a misnomer, more a guideline than a declaration. This was first a rumor she heard from other adolescents in the unit, and then she found out it was to be her reality.

I tried to explain the reasoning behind the need for her to stay in the psych ward longer. “They’ve switched your meds. The old ones obviously didn’t work well for you. They need to make sure you don’t have a bad reaction to this new medication. It’s a safety issue.”

Predictably, she was not receptive. For the record, I’m not so sure I would have been either if I’d been in her shoes. Also predictably, her anger flared. She was not allowed contact with any friends while she was hospitalized, and even if the support system she’d built for herself was terribly dysfunctional and harmful, all she knew was that it had been taken from her. And she was mad.

There were some curious things I realized about myself in those few days, difficult things that made me sad and confused.

 alice in wonderland sad

(Source)

I knew that I was afraid for my daughter to be released from the psych ward and sent home. I was fearful that she would quickly return to her previous behaviors and that I was just too worn down to be an effective parent anymore. I was scared that there would be no lasting changes resulting from this awful ordeal. And I was so out of ideas.

I knew that my goal was not to keep my daughter from getting angry nor was it to have her like me. My goal was to keep her safe, even if she came to hate me in the process.

I knew that I wanted to put up all kinds of roadblocks so that her choices were limited and she couldn’t make decisions that would be harmful. But I knew that would be a disservice to her, that it would mistakenly teach her that she could not be responsible for herself.

I knew that, in the bigger picture, I couldn’t and really didn’t want to control my daughter; I wanted her to learn to control herself.

I knew that  for that to happen there had to be boundaries and consequences in place, and that she had to choose her actions and thus her own outcomes. This was a source of great pain for me, because I knew some of the choices she would make and that their results would be very hard for all of us.

But I had to let that go. Even though I could see that she was not yet willing (or able?) to face some of her bigger issues, I had to let her choose for herself.

I will once more refer to an email I wrote to my small and trusted circle of support. This was yet another middle of the night message, a bit disjointed and bearing witness to my fears and frustrations. This was written on day three of my daughter’s stay at the behavioral center, the day she had mistakenly decided she was going to be released and sent home.

* * *

I had a meeting today with C and her dad and caseworker.  There was a chance for C to have her say and a chance for us to, then time for us parents to meet alone with the caseworker.  We were told early in the meeting that C would not be released until Saturday (day five of her “72 hour” hold). We really lost her at that point. She wants to come home NOW.

She was not forthcoming about some stuff she’s been lying about lately, nor about what might have been bothering her that led up her hospitalization. She’s been telling me for weeks about some things that are just driving her crazy, but she never even mentioned them in today’s meeting. I told her that I’d learned about some of her deceptions but she would not acknowledge anything, just said she had no idea what I was talking about.

I tried to prepare her for the fact that things will be very different when she gets back home, that boundaries will be tighter, and privileges will need to be earned back.  I don’t think she has any idea what that means or thinks it will really happen anyway.

I am feeling extremely overwhelmed at the thought of her return home.  The caseworker had all kinds of thoughts and ideas, and while some of them may be helpful, the work of it all feels like it will bury me.

When her dad and I walked out of our meeting with the caseworker, C came straight over and asked me why she couldn’t be released sooner.  She was very angry and confrontational and kept demanding answers that I couldn’t give her.  I gave her the only answer there was to give, but she wanted more and I told her that was all I had, I couldn’t make anything up to satisfy her.

She directed all her anger and frustration towards me. I don’t think she even made eye contact with her dad for that 5 to 10 minute conversation.  She made vague threats about not eating (that’s her choice if she wants to make it) and swore she was better and ready to come home.  It was really pretty awful.

She chose me to be the one to pick her up when she is released on Saturday. She told me she wants me there at 6 in the morning. I told her I’d be there between 9 and 10.

I know there are many strategies to deal with her in the days ahead; I just honestly feel like there is nothing left in me to do it – to learn what I need to learn as a parent, to find her a new psychologist (her request and the caseworker’s recommendation), to drive her across town how many times a week for those appointments, to find extra-curricular activities & get her enrolled & to the activities, to meet with her school counselor and teachers and try to help her not fail her freshman year.

I am just spent, which may be exactly where I need to be but it doesn’t make any sense to me and I can’t see how it’s all supposed to get done.

I did tell her dad that with these added commitments I cannot logistically do all that needs to be done for both girls during the week (always on ongoing battle for me), and he said he’d be available but the truth is that he works during the hours these things are going on. I will have to continue to change and arrange my work schedule to take care of things.

I don’t expect him to make any sizable contribution to handling those details because he hasn’t before. It would be helpful if he actually had some input or action of his own; I feel like it’s up to me to take the lead on these things because he simply will not and we are at a critical juncture where action must be taken.  He does not seem to accept the seriousness of the situation. (Caution: ex-wife frustrations are surfacing!)

Again, the ideas for help and change sound really good in theory but the reality of it feels nearly impossible to me. There just isn’t enough of me to go around.

The diagnosis the caseworker gave for C today was General Anxiety Disorder and Depressive Disorder.  I don’t know if a new therapist will reach a separate conclusion.  C says she hasn’t been suicidal for about a day and a half.  She says cutting is stupid and disgusting and she’ll never do it again (which she’s said before), and she swears that she has learned all she needs to know and will be fine.

She also says she wants to “help” her friends who cut to stop cutting, which basically translates to her taking responsibility for their actions – which scares me especially when she cannot take responsibility for her own.

After today, I cannot imagine a conversation with her that is not angry and confrontational and manipulative.

I do get that her choices are her own and that my job, after assuring her safety, is to allow her to deal with the consequences of her choices.  I know very well what some of those consequences could end up being, and I can honestly say I hate that.

Maybe that is where so much of my anxiety is coming from and I need to work towards what is acceptable and adequate, not what is perfect and guaranteed (those two options really don’t even exist).  But I selfishly look at those consequences, should they come – and I know some of them will – and I know that they will result in even more being put on my plate and I feel frustrated and angry about that.

Well so there it all is.  I am too tired to make this (or me) sound nice. I have no neat or tidy wrap up for this message; I’m just continuing to ask for and appreciate your prayers and hoping that my ranting and venting haven’t been too offensive.

In a few hours I start a very busy day, not only working on my taxes, etc., but also working out C’s discharge, contacting her school, trying to track down and interview therapists and stuff like that.  I appreciate your prayers and support.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
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His Sweatshirt

“Bring me his sweatshirt, mom. Please.”

“Of course, sweetie. Of course I will.”

My daughter was limited in the personal items she was allowed to have during her mental health hold. Hoodies – the staple of teen fashion – were okay, but drawstrings had to be removed. Favorite (imitation) Converse shoes? Fine, but no shoestrings allowed. The safety pins my daughter loved to use as fashion statements were absolutely forbidden.  I was forced to look at clothing, and much of life, in a whole new way.

But the thing my daughter wanted most was “his sweatshirt”, and there was no reason to deny her request.

When my husband had died almost two years earlier, I’d invited all three of his adult kids to go through his clothes, to pick out some favorite items they might want to keep for themselves or their own children.

I tried to also give them each special items, perhaps tokens of affection they or their children had given their dad that would now make their way back to the original gift givers. Or maybe an item that they had seen growing up in their childhood home that held special memories for them. It seemed only fitting to do this.

(Admittedly, there were a few things it took me time to be able to part with. Thankfully, my step kids are gracious and patient.)

I had also asked my own three adolescent children what they would like to have of their stepdad’s as special mementos. My older daughter had chosen an old sweatshirt that my husband used to wear often. He was great at coming home from a day of work and changing into comfy clothes, a signal that work was left behind and he was now present and available at home.

But this particular sweatshirt was one he often threw on early on a Saturday morning as he brewed coffee, read the paper, and prepared his favorite bagel for breakfast. It was a treasure on many levels and had become something of a security blanket to my daughter

 red sweatshirt

(Photo Source: Google Images)

In both the best and worst of times she slept nightly with the worn shirt close by. So often she had cried to me after his death about missing him and wanting him back. I understood at a deep level how she felt (and then some), and was not at all surprised that she wanted “his sweatshirt” now that she had been placed on a psychiatric hold for suicidal ideations.

It made perfect sense to me. To a frightened and unstable fifteen-year-old it was portable comfort, raveled and worn, in a place where comfort was difficult to find. I was happy to grant her request.

Visiting hours included Tuesdays, so I was returning less than 24 hours after I’d followed the ambulance across town and had her admitted. I took some approved clothes, the needed sweatshirt, my younger daughter, and an anxious heart, and drove us all through afternoon traffic for our first visit.

To call it uncomfortable would be an understatement. And incomplete. How else might I describe it? It was bewildering, sad, strange, surreal, terrifying, and with a few tendrils of hope that I tried to believe weren’t just taunting me.

There was one room where all visits took place simultaneously. All of the adolescents hospitalized there and all of the visitors who had come to see them were confined to this one very plain not-terribly-large space. Each group had their little gathering of chairs as segregated as possible from the others, with some people having to share their seat with another.

visiting room

(Photo Source: Google Images)

Some groups sat close together, speaking in hushed tones. Some seemed less eager to sit closely, or to even talk with one another. Some were loud and frustrated, others subdued and resigned.

I tried to (or not to?) catch glimpses of the others in the room while simultaneously trying to figure out how our family had ended up here, how my daughter was faring in the psych ward, and just exactly what the next step might be.

Add “disconcerting” to the list of adjectives.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
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Theater 8, Addendum

Originally posted May 5, 2013

*****

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 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.

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(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 still coming out of there, and they’d been shot on the way out.” 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.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

His girlfriend told me 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.

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(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 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.”

***

Mike Campbell

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(Above images courtesy of Google Images)

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… and this is my daughter’s personal memorial.

Content and personal photo © Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013.

Theater 8, Part 2

Read Theater 8, Part 1 here.

*****

My daughters were crouched on the floor between rows of seats at the Aurora Theater only 2.5 miles from our home. Our phone call had been cut short because it was simply too loud in there to continue. Movie dialogue and music, growing crowd noise, and the piercing of the emergency alarm had sabotaged our conversation.

I lay in bed thinking it was probably a gang shooting, sadly not an unknown occurrence in the area. I figured the theater staff would come in, explain, and calmly evacuate everyone, handing them their free movie passes on the way out or at least telling them when they could come back to get them.

I waited to hear back from my girls. Nothing.

After about 15 minutes, I sent a text to my older daughter, who had been very concerned about her sister’s rising anxiety. “If you have to,” I wrote, “find an employee and tell them your sister is having a panic attack and needs to be away from the crowd. Maybe in an office or something.” This was at 12:55 a.m.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

I pictured my younger daughter, shoulders heaving as they simultaneously tried to curl around and enclose her, breath catching, sobs racking the way these things happen when anxiety takes her into a place of full panic. Still, I did not yet grasp the enormity of the event. None of us did.

“Mom, I thought we were going to die. But I also thought that no matter what, I would do my best to make sure she got out of there alive, even if I didn’t. I had already decided that I would push people down, run them over, run past them, do whatever I had to do to just get her out of there.”

This is not the story that makes the news, but if you knew this girl, this big sister, and what she has endured in her 20 years, you would realize this protective determination was in itself a bit of a miracle. She took charge.

She led her panicked sister out with “We’re going. I’ve got you” as they joined a growing crowd finally exiting through the lobby.

They got to the doors leading outside when my younger daughter refused to exit the theater for fear of a gunman loose in the parking lot. “We are leaving and I am taking you home!” was the firm response from her sister.

So the younger, almost ever and always the leader in both mischief and fun, was taken by the usually more reserved elder out past the gathering throng of people, police cars, and emergency vehicles, loaded into the car, and driven the short route to home.

Granted, the younger cursed at the older pretty much the whole way. At the top of her lungs, it seems. But she had the grace to apologize a day or two later, after she left the confines of her locked basement bedroom where she hid for some time.

Unknown to me as I waited at home, the police blocked off the theater parking lot, putting it on lockdown just after my daughters drove out of it.

aurora theater parking lot

(Photo Source: www.transcriptionoutsourcing.org  via Google Images)

As I waited anxiously, having flashbacks of stories from Columbine High School (I’d had friends whose kids were there, who had hidden from the gunmen as best they could) and thinking my girls may still be crouched on the sticky theater floor, I was debating whether or not to call, to battle the piercingly loud emergency alarm, movie music, and people that had infiltrated and ended our previous conversation.

I was giving it “just five more minutes”, when suddenly there was pounding on my bedroom door.

“Mommy!” My 18-year-old threw herself onto my bed, onto my body, and sobbed in fear, anger, frustration and panic. I stroked her hair. She cannot be held when panic has hold of her, and even touching or standing close to her is normally off-limits until she feels she has regained some control. “It’s okay, honey. You can cry. It’s okay.”

Her older sister came into the room. We spoke a little bit, trying to piece together a clear picture in spite of all the confusion. “I don’t want to talk about it!” was all her younger sister would sob, eventually taking her refuge downstairs in the basement.

The next hours were spent online and in front of the television, trying to gather information, numb with the realization of what had actually happened and how close my children (young adults, yes – but my children nonetheless) had been to death and destruction.

aurora theater kusa tv

(Photo Source: www.scpr.org  via Google Images)

I remember the dawning thoughts of “Okay, wait. I think this is NATIONAL news. This is going to be everywhere. Oh, this is really bad.”

Thankfully, my daughters left the theater quickly enough to avoid the sight of carnage, damage, and bloodshed. They were spared what many were not. I am very grateful.

Even so, they were traumatized, adding yet another layer to what seem to be endless layers of challenge for our family. I don’t pretend to understand. I don’t pretend to be okay with it. I don’t pretend to think that the issues they were already facing will not be worsened and intensified by this experience; they probably will be.

But I will do my best to encourage them to face this head on, to allow for their grief and trauma to be processed (and my own as well), but not give it permission to control their lives.

These are ultimately choices they must make for themselves, and I don’t think we even yet fully understand what the entire impact of this experience will be. But I am not prepared to give up on their behalves.

One daughter is ready to head back to a movie theater, eager for the enjoyment she derives from films, toying with the idea of film production school.

The other is not yet ready to be on the light rail, or in a classroom, and especially not in a theater. These are the first steps and, faltering or not, they are necessary for all future steps.

“Mom, they’re calling it a massacre now.”

“Yes, I heard that.”

“I can’t believe we were there, Mom. I just can’t believe we were there.”

“I can’t either, sweetie. I’m so thankful you are home and safe, but I’m so sorry you were there. I’m so sorry you went through that.”

“Wow. Some day I’m going to be able to tell my kids this story, and that we were there.”

“Yup, you sure will.”

“I had a lot of friends at the movie; some were in our theater. Some were in Theater 9. But they all got out okay. None of them got hurt.”

“I’m so glad they got out okay. I’m so glad.”

“I just wanted to get her out of there, Mom, even if I couldn’t get out alive myself. I just wanted to make sure she was okay.”

“I know, and you did. You could not have made any better decisions than you made; you did everything right. Even if things had turned out differently, you did everything right, and I’m so proud of you.”

*****

Post Script written April, 2013:

It is now nearly nine months since the internationally publicized Aurora Theater Shooting.

My older daughter loves going to the movies, alone or with friends.

My younger daughter has been to one movie theater since July 20, 2012. It was one of those places that combines movies and dinner, where the seats are bigger, the aisles are wider, and the layout is not like that of a traditional theater. She was flanked by two trusted men, both members of the US Army, which was all by careful design. She knew what she needed, and she made sure she had it. I can learn a lot from that girl.

I am immeasurably proud of both of my daughters.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Theater 8, Part 1

July 18, 2013. It is now two days until the one year mark of the horrific tragedy that was the Aurora Theater shooting. Our city remains scarred but determined. I find that I can’t watch much of the local newscasts this week, though. And that’s okay.

In honor of those who lost their lives, those who survived their injuries, those who were “just” there at the Aurora Theater on July 19 & 20, 2012, and the families and friends of all the aforementioned: Please indulge me as I re-post (with a few updated revisions) the story of the time my daughters spent at the Aurora Theater that night.

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

This account is written in three parts. The next two parts will be posted July 19 and July 20.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There are several misconceptions that can result from sharing a story like ours. One that strikes me in particular is, knowing that our family has faced and overcome certain mental health issues, people assume we get to move forward without further crisis.

There may be a mistaken assumption that struggles are over, communication and relationships are flawless and forthcoming, and there is a big red bow tied around our lives, like those commercials where people give bow-topped new cars for Christmas gifts. (Just where is that universe anyway?!? I might like to live there.)

In families where teens are in an extended time of crisis, their parents and siblings can and often do develop issues and concerns of their own. We have certainly experienced that. And we have also learned the truth that no one gets a pass.

One trauma does not exclude anyone from the next. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. It’s simply life. Yes, it can be frustrating and feel unfair. But, as with everything, we get to choose how we approach, resolve, and integrate these circumstances that are life.

The following piece, split in to two posts, was penned on August 6, 2012 about two and a half weeks after what has since become internationally known as the Aurora Theater Shooting.

*****

“Mom, I thought we were going to die.” My daughter tells me this as I gently delve further into the as of yet not-fully-shared story about my girls’ time in Theater 8. Theater 9 was where the gunman began his rampage, and the pops and smoke my daughters and many others mistook for firecrackers were in fact bullets and chemical ‘smoke’ coming through the wall.

At first they were annoyed. “Oh leave it to some idiot at the Aurora Theater to shoot off firecrackers during the midnight Batman premiere. It figures.” But as some people began to get restless and others got up to leave, they were a little confused as well.

movie theater interior

(Photo Source: www.mlive.com via Google Images)

I read an online account of a young man who stopped to help a girl who was shot in the jaw by bullets and/or shrapnel from gunshots fired from the theater next door. I learned from his story that there was potential for so much more destruction.

I am paraphrasing from memory, but it seems this man got up to leave Theater 8 after the bullets came through the wall. He happened to pass a stranger, the girl who had been shot, and (his mother must be so incredibly proud) he was taking her and her friend out to find help.

They made their way to the doors leading out to the lobby, but when he started out, he saw what he thought might be the gunman in full regalia heading towards Theater 8. He closed the door, holding it shut, even against the sound of someone banging on the outside of it. (The gunman? Someone needing help or refuge? At the time he could not know, though he obviously believed it was someone who meant harm.)

At this point, the kind stranger tells another theater patron to pull the emergency alarm. The story I read did not tell the details of what else he did or how/when they finally got out, but they did. Or maybe it did tell, but I don’t remember. I had to stop reading and watching.

My daughters tell me that someone started yelling out to the moviegoers in Theater 8. “I don’t work here; I’m just a patron. But there has been a shooting, and there is a gunman in the lobby. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.”

I’m not sure if I would have believed it. It makes sense to me that it could have been the next part to a stupid prank that began with the ‘fireworks’ that sounded a few moments ago. Because really, it’s a midnight movie, not a battleground. Someone just has a sick sense of humor. I could have thought that had I been there. Definitely.

My girls made the decision to try the emergency exit. They and the others who wanted out were told, “I saw someone out there. It might be a shooter. Don’t go out there. It’s not safe.”

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

There was no way out. They were told that no escape option was safe. They made their way to seats near the front of the theater. “Some people scooted in for us, and we crouched down on the floor between the seats.”

This is when I got a phone call.

I had only been sleeping for about 20 minutes (curses on my night owl tendencies), so my mind was in that dizzy place between wake and sleep, and I recall stumbling across the bedroom to find my ringing cell phone sitting on the floor next to my purse.

“Mom! Someone set off fireworks in the theater or something! We were just trying to watch a movie and someone does something stupid, and now we …” I really can’t recall the rest. My youngest was having a panic attack, and became irritated because I was repeating her words back to her as I tried to make sense of them, and as I tried to awaken my half sleeping self.

She was fighting the anxiety as her voice strained and she held back the sobs that nearly always accompany her panic attacks. This made decoding her words even more challenging.

To try to calm her and stem her frustration with me, I said, “Sweetie, I am having a really hard time understanding what you’re saying. I’m just repeating back to you so I can try to make sense of it. I’m really not trying to anger you.”

“No, Mom. It’s me.” My other daughter was on the line now. Her sister had thrust the phone at her in frustration. She tells me some of the same things I’d already been told, and explains that they are crouched on the floor between rows of seats. What? This is something I cannot process. I simply cannot wrap my head around it.

Even the fear that starts within me is somewhat muted, somewhat confusing and surreal. I am thinking, “Why is there no theater staff in there taking charge? Why is some stranger saying there’s a gunman? Who knows what’s true here? They better refund those theater tickets or give them passes for a free movie after this.”

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(Photo Source: Google Images)

(Yup. Straight to the bottom line; that’s me. But I knew my girls had bought their tickets days earlier and had been waiting excitedly for this night. We had even bought Mountain Dew in the color changing Batman can! I was angry that some jerk had played a joke and ruined it for everyone. And I was slightly conscious of the fact that there really may be a gunman in the lobby.)

The movie was blaring in the background as we spoke. Dialogue and music swelled, but there was also an exceptionally loud sound my mind was trying to comprehend. They told me they were on the floor hiding between rows of seats, but this noise suggested they were outside instead.

“Are you standing next to an ambulance? It sounds like you’re standing next to an ambulance. What is that awful noise?”

“It’s the emergency alarm in the theater, Mom. It’s going off.”

“Oh. It sounds like you’re standing next to an ambulance.”

Very intelligent response, right?

Which led to the next comment, “Mom, it’s too loud in here to try to talk. I’m going to hang up now.”

This is the time, I later learn, when she was pretty sure they were going to die.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013