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
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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

Source

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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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