A Mother’s Heartbreak

            Last Friday my husband and I drove my thirteen-year-old daughter to the ER after she expressed concern that she would take her life no matter what my husband or I did. Our daughter has been struggling with suicidal ideation for over a year, but when she said she could no longer trust herself to be safe at home, we had no choice but the hospital.

            A thin young doctor with thick, brown curly hair who had had far too many cups of coffee bounded in the room like a ringmaster at the circus. His body jolted into a series of awkward poses as he greeted us and offered to bring us water, soda, snacks. He was the consummate host minus the contortions.  I was grateful for the levity, though I had no appetite for the snacks.

            We then met a case manager—a more grounded, matronly woman who interviewed Keira and recommended we admit her due to her suicidal urges and her attempt three weeks ago (which we knew nothing about. Thankfully, her attempt consisted of taking two pills rather than her prescribed one pill and she engaged in some minor cutting, though not nearly enough to cause any damage). However, she was acting on those urges with a plan, which is serious.  

            I think back to my bubbly ball of energy, her contagious giggle and her infectious smile, that twinkle in her hazel eyes that could light me up for days and I wondered what happened to that little girl. I still see that little girl in my daughter from time to time, but she has faded over the years. That laughter softening, the smile no longer crinkling her eyes, the twinkle dimmed. I tried to keep her busy and involved to build her esteem and keep her connected to others (Dance, Swimming, Awana, Girl Scouts, Theatre, Band, Orchestra, Piano, Summer Camps—anything). As a high school teacher of fifteen years, I’ve seen the dangers of an idle mind and body so I encouraged whatever activities she desired as long as she did something. Enter hormones, depression, anxiety, loss of interest. Enter a global pandemic, causing more isolation and less connection. What’s the result?

            A child in the ER waiting to be admitted to a psych ward. Granted not all kids will end up in the hospital, but for kids who were already struggling, puberty and a pandemic can push them to this point. I’ve already been grieving the things we missed because of the pandemic, (e.g., the end of her fifth grade year, camp, graduation, a play, a Girls Scout trip, a Broadway show, middle school orientation—the list goes on). She had quit Orchestra, Girl Scouts, and theatre, which concerned us, but she agreed to join some clubs at school. With the pandemic, that opportunity hadn’t come. I took it all in stride, knowing that everyone is missing out and that’s just the nature of these things. I even took some comfort and reassurance in the fact that we were all in the same boat. Or so I thought.

            After a year and a half, school re-opened and most kids couldn’t wait to get back to school to see their friends and teachers. My daughter, however, wanted to remain home. Her anxiety had grown to the point that she didn’t want to go out in public. We knew isolating in her bedroom would only make her feel worse, so we encouraged her to return to in-person school and arranged to meet with the counselors to alert them to her anxiety and depression. We set up a support system at school and designed a 504 plan. We got her a therapist and started her on medication. We researched activities to get her involved, but they were few and far between as teachers had already been stretched so thin and didn’t have the time or energy to run the usual clubs. Despite her depression, she expressed interest in stage crew for the musical so we clung to that and looked forward to her getting back to her former passion.

            Due to the number of students who applied and a conflict she listed on her audition form, she wasn’t selected for stage crew. Ordinarily, this would not be a big deal. Lots of kids don’t get chosen for activities, but this was her one and only thing. And it didn’t pan out. I imagined her going to the posted list of crew members, searching for her name, and not finding it there. Seeing her friend’s name, but not hers. Already struggling with a low self-esteem, she plummeted further as she realized she’d have to wait another year to be a part of stage crew. I racked my brain wondering should I contact the person in charge? Will she understand how important this is for my daughter or just write me off as another overachieving, helicopter parent? Should I let it go knowing that my daughter needs to learn to handle disappointments like this? What do I do?

            I went back and forth for days and my husband and I decided to reach out to the director, explain the situation with my daughter’s mental health issues and special connection to theatre, and prayed she’d empathize and include my daughter on the crew. She didn’t. It broke my heart, but I didn’t want to take it any further and insist she be included as I feared retaliation and I didn’t want my daughter to be a potential target of a director who resented having to include her.

            We waited in that ER for 28 hours until a bed in the behavioral health unit was available. Before she sat down in the wheelchair, we hugged one last time. She even put both arms around me (she’s not a hugger). As they wheeled my daughter away from me, my heart dropped and my stomach clenched. Tears stung the back of my eyes as I smiled and told her how proud we were of her and how much we loved her. My daughter is my hero.

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