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

Source

 

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
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I Left Her There

The moment had come. They psych ward doors had opened, swallowing us into the unknown, shutting tightly and unnervingly behind us.

Once again, my daughter was given scrubs and non-skid socks to wear until I could return with “approved” clothes for her. I was grieved that she had no personal items to comfort her in this most frightening of places. (Shoestrings, drawstrings, belts, and other such items were strictly forbidden in the locked ward populated by adolescents who might use anything they could find to harm themselves or others.)

black hightops

(Photo Source: Google Images)

It was around midnight after a very long day.  I honestly don’t remember much except being in a small, dark room where the clothes of the adolescent residents were kept folded and stacked on shelves.

As I look back on that time, I’m surprised at the details I simply cannot recall. The emotion of the moment … that returns to me in a heartbeat, and even now I weep as my body responds to the memory of all that I felt in those difficult hours. I can feel it in an instant.

I left my daughter. I left her there. I left her in a psych ward on lockdown. I left her there because she was suicidal. I left her there because I could not keep her safe. I left her there because I loved her. I left her there with a trail of my tears and much of my heart.

Upon returning home, I sent an email out to my trusted group of friends, those I’d been sharing the journey with on many a late night when I was unable to sleep or bring any order to my world or mind.

I so missed the strong support of my husband. It had been less than two years since we’d watched him be removed from life support and take his last breath. How desperately I ached for his wisdom and comfort.

And so, my small but trusted band of friends had ‘listened’ faithfully as I’d regularly poured my heart out to them via email, lamenting my daughter’s depression, self harm, truancy, constant talk of blood and death, and all the other dark details that had been filling our lives for a number of months.

sad emailer

(Photo Source: Google Images)

There had been a few quick calls and texts to them during the daylight hours as we’d moved through the mental health crisis that had landed us in the emergency room. The following is part of the update message I sent to My Group after admitting my daughter to the psych ward for the first time. It’s a bit disjointed, though I tried to edit it to make it easier to follow.

It was sent on February 19, 2008 at 1:31 a.m.

* * * * *

Hello, friends.

I am just home from a very long night during which C was hospitalized for her own safety.  C’s dad came over to talk with her. He was very reluctant to admit her, but I am quite convinced it was the only safe option.

I did call 911 because C made it very clear that she would fight us if we tried to take her to the hospital.  So between the two squad cars, paramedics and ambulance, she went rather peacefully if not tearfully.  My heart just aches for her.

I had asked C earlier in the afternoon to rate her likelihood of suicide on a scale of 10 and she nearly yelled “10!” at me; I asked if she thought she actually would act on it and she said of course if everyone would just leave her alone (she used much more colorful language).  That was when it became glaringly apparent that she really needed to be admitted.

She had threatened to run away over the weekend and she and I even had a tussle in the driveway as she fell into a heap yelling about how much she hated me, much to the confusion of the man watching us from across the street.

We went to Children’s Hospital emergency room by ambulance about 6 p.m. Monday, and they had no empty beds so she was transported to [a freestanding behavioral center].

The supervisor I spoke with tonight said there is a decent likelihood she will be there more than 72 hours as there will likely be med changes they will have to monitor, but they don’t generally keep someone longer than 5 days.  He did tell me that last week they had 3 adolescents and in the past 24 – 36 hours they have admitted 15.  Wow.

Poor C may just be getting to sleep now (if she is lucky) and their days start at 6:15 and go until 9 or 10 at night.  When I said goodbye to her tonight she actually let me give her a kiss on the cheek and a good, long hug (which felt so good; I’ve really missed that).

I cannot describe to you her state of mind earlier today and over the past 4 days.  It’s been as if another person is living in her body, and this week I have been the trigger that has really set her off.  She told me, among many disturbing things, that she’s sick of people saying they love her and care about her and it just makes her want to kill herself when she hears it.

But she told me she loved me tonight so I felt free to return the favor.  I did tell her as I was leaving that she was going to be okay there and she agreed and said, “I know”, but in her real voice, not the unknown person she has been.  I think maybe, at least tonight, she might have even felt safer there than she did at home.

I spent about a half hour talking with the supervisor before I left and I feel like they are on top of things with the kids in their care; he even addressed issues before I had a chance to voice my concern about them.

This will, of course, take C way out of her comfort zone; that’s not a bad thing but I sure would appreciate your prayers for her.  I just want to scoop her up and cradle her in my arms and bring her home ~ which would defeat the purpose of everything we went out on a limb for today, but it just really hurt to see her like that.

Perhaps now that she is there the fear and anxiety of the unknown, and the threat of hospitalization (vs. the reality) will melt away and she can actually get to a safe place.  I know this may not be the last time we have to do this; I hope so, but I won’t be surprised if it isn’t.  There are so very many things going on concerning her treatment and the more people involved the more “options” are offered or brought up.

I feel very helpless to protect her, but I felt even more helpless when she was at home.  Now I believe she is in a safe place where she cannot hurt herself, and she can get some ongoing help, even if only for a few days.  I know it’s a long road ahead.  But I think I can get a few good nights worth of sleep, and I look forward to that.

K (sister, age 14) and J (brother, age 18) are both very upset.  I communicated with J several times by phone tonight and he was in tears.  K was here when all the uniforms and official vehicles arrived and that was very scary for her.  She was able to go to the hospital and see C before they moved her to another facility. I think that was good for both of them.

(My stepdaughter) went in to see her also and of course C apologized for the colorful tirade she let fly against her this afternoon.  As usual probably more details than you wanted, but as always I appreciate your prayers and concern.

C has not been able to tolerate any concern from others lately, and I don’t know if/how long that will continue.  But thanks for loving her with your prayers, even if it is from afar.

Monica

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

Care Enough

Her words left me speechless and heartbroken. I finally sputtered out a few things I’m sure were better left unsaid. I can do that when I’m not sure what to say. Not that I’m proud of it, it’s just what I do sometimes.

I had been asked to speak with a group of single moms, to share my story and offer my perspective on hope and beauty in the midst of struggle. That’s something every single mom wants to know exists. Every parent wants to know it. Every person wants to know it.

When I speak to groups, I don’t hold back much. I tell the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am a firm believer that we all need to know we are not in this mess and muck alone.

There are wounded and brave souls surrounding all of us, ready to help carry our burdens while still struggling to stand up under the weight of their own. It’s a wonder to witness. It’s a privilege to partake. We all have the capacity to become wounded healers if we are willing to accept the painfully glorious task that it is.

helping others

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I had told these women about the day I’d had to call 911 on my suicidal teenage daughter. She had spent months descending into a place of darkness and turmoil, and had reached the point where she no longer wanted to be there, to be here, to be alive.

I’d watched her beautiful self lose light and life and the will to live. I had tried, we had tried, so hard to make sense of it, to look ahead and see any glimmer of light, to swim to the top of the abyss and break the surface of the water for a deep breath of clean air.

It wasn’t working. She wasn’t living. Her deepening depression was killing her as I looked helplessly on. So I had called for help.

And I told these weary, heart-hungry moms about the seven armed policemen who had responded to my 911 call, how they walked up the stairway to my daughter’s room to intervene on behalf of life, of her life.

I shared that as terrifying as that moment was and as quickly as its memory brings me to ruin, it was necessary. It was the awful beauty that was needed in that very moment. It was a terrifying early step on the road to assuring my daughter’s safety. I loved her. I had no other choice.

There were plenty of other things I talked about that Saturday morning, but as I sat down to lunch one young mother approached me falteringly.

“I was your daughter,” she said. “I was just like her. Well, I didn’t cut myself like she did, but everything else you said about her, that was me. For a long time, when I was younger and living in my parents’ home, that was me.”

I nodded and smiled sadly, understanding the depth of pain that leads someone to such a place of despair.

“You told that story about all the policemen going up your stairs, you know? About when your daughter wasn’t okay and you knew it so you called 911 for help?”

She paused.

“I wish someone had cared enough to do that for me.”

* * * * *

If someone you know is in crisis, please do not deny or ignore the need. Please do not worry about how it might reflect on you as a parent, friend, family member, or partner. Please know that making a suicidal person mad at you is the least of everyone’s concerns. Do it. Call for help even if they get mad.

In the United States you or your loved one in crisis can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255).

suicide prevention lifeline

(Courtesy: www.afsp.org)

Many US cities offer community assistance by dialing 211. There you can find resources to help with substance abuse or addiction, self-harm, mental illness, and any number of situations, such as emergency shelter or help getting school supplies for your child.

Whether you live in the US or elsewhere, find and keep handy emergency numbers, as well as the information for your local mental health center. Here is a list of some international resources to get you started.

“Wait and see” is not an acceptable practice when someone’s life is at stake.

If you come upon a car accident, you don’t stop and wait to see if someone loses a limb before you call 911. If you are with someone experiencing chest pains and arm numbness, you don’t wait to see if a heart attack is really going to occur. You call at the first hint of need, as soon as you spot the crisis.

People dealing with mental health issues deserve the same consideration and assistance.

Care enough to give it.

 

© 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

In The Beginning

It began about sixteen months after my husband died.

He’d battled a rare liver disease for a few years, his diagnosis coming less than two years after we were wed. His final two months were spent in the hospital, save for a Valentine’s Day discharge home that lasted less than 72 hours. About five weeks later, we gathered around him, saying our final goodbyes as he lay unconscious. The nurses, by this time very dear to me, were kind enough to turn off the alarms that began sounding after life support measures were removed.

Hospital Monitor

(Photo Source: Google Images)

We had cried, we had prayed, we had sung, we had told him the things we felt were most important to say, many of us at the same time. It was a cacophony of loving sentiments and earnest anguish expressed in the most grievous of times. He breathed his last. We lingered a while.  And then we all went home.

My adult step-kids and their cousins left to return to their families. (I sure love all those “kids”.) My in-laws drove back home after the death of their firstborn. (I love them even now.) My dear mother, herself widowed a few short years earlier, left with what I imagine were difficult thoughts at best.

My son (age 16) was living with his dad, so while he departed to a separate destination, my two daughters and I walked into our darkened and forever-changed home. And while I rarely allowed them to sleep the night in my bed when they were little, we all piled under my comforter together in the cold March darkness. It didn’t matter that they were 12 and 13 years old. No one was going to sleep much anyway.

Life changed, of course. In drastic ways that could not be undone. Grief is an odd phenomenon for so many reasons, not the least of which is that everyone experiences it differently. But we could say the same about life, couldn’t we? Everyone experiences it differently. The triumphs and losses a family experiences together are processed and assimilated uniquely by each individual.

As I did my best to adjust to being a widow, an unexpectedly single mom for the second time, my kids did their best to adjust to life without the step-dad that they had known and loved for more than half their lives. The wound was deep.

My older daughter, a few months shy of her 14th birthday when my husband died, began to grapple with adolescence in more marked ways when she turned 15. It was subtle at first, not nearly as obvious or aggressive as it became in time. She had always been quiet and observant, even as a baby. Though introverted, she was affectionate, with a natural talent for words, music, and bold creativity. But as she prepared to enter high school, any sense of worth or identity she had possessed seemed to disappear into thin air.

When the kids were quite young (ages 7, 4, and 2½), their dad had made the choice to leave our family. Having been the child of divorced parents from years ago (before the divorce statistics were so high, when – unlike today – I didn’t know anyone else whose parents had split) I knew the potential for damage to my impressionable children. I took them to a counselor, and the most useful long-term piece of advice I received was that, as young children of divorced parents, they would most likely struggle more than normal during milestone transitions as they grew up.

This had absolutely seemed to be the case up to that point, so when my daughter started to act out with impatience, eye rolling, frustration, and withdrawal, I chalked it up to the cumulative losses we’d all been through, plus the hellishness that adolescence in general can be. And I reminded myself that the ride would likely get bumpier than most, but we’d get through it.

I saw her as I saw her brother and sister: capable, full of life, with so much to experience and to offer the world. I hoped that as she entered high school she would be able to try a myriad of new things, to find her niche. I expected the confidence in her many talents and abilities would only strengthen. I was wrong.

I am not so old that I don’t remember high school and what it takes to try to find your way socially. In fact, I went to three different high schools in three different states all within the final year and a half of high school. I remember well. But as I said, we all experience life differently, and my daughter’s experience was nothing any of us expected. Her sense of identity and worth were shaken to the core. The beautiful and talented girl I saw was nowhere in her view. While I tried to reassure us both that she would return to herself, she was spiraling into an abyss of confusion and despair.

It’s worth noting that I don’t think there is one particular reason we can point to for this. I believe it was the culmination of so many things, both genetic and environmental, that landed my daughter where she ended up, with peers who tended towards emotional dysfunction and physical self harm. Her black hair, black fingernail polish, and thick black eye liner didn’t concern me near as much as the darkening shadow in her heart. She was trying. She was trying so hard. But she was at a loss, and I was simply not fully aware of all she was wrestling with.

Goth makeup

(Photo Source: Google Images)

At first she tried to make excuses about the cuts I saw on her arms and wrists. At first I tried to believe her. In retrospect, I can see that she was initially reticent and even somewhat delicate with her self injury. But as time went on, as her darkness descended, the increasingly aggressive scratches, cuts, and gashes began to mirror the turmoil she felt inside.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013