It made me mad. I’m ashamed to admit that. My first reaction to the knowledge that my oldest child, my 13-year old daughter, had tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills was anger. Frustration. I stood there staring at this child, her having just admitted that the empty pill bottles were in the bottom of her closet. I can’t remember my exact words, but I think I said something along the lines of “How could you do this to me?”
That’s shameful, but it’s the truth.
She was in the eighth grade. The middle school put all of the eighth graders on a bus that afternoon for a trip to the high school. There, they were assigned a “job” and a “salary” as part of a Reality Fair. They walked from table to table, paying “bills” and encountering unexpected factors like the birth of children or illnesses. Later, they were told about the various high school career tracks from which they could choose. For all but one of those eighth graders, their thoughts probably ran along the lines of, “Huh. I guess I do have to think about what I want to be when I grow up.” For my kid, her thought was, “I have to choose a career right now, and whatever I choose will have permanent implications on rest of my life. If I choose something high paying, then I’ll be unhappy. If I choose something fun, I’ll always be broke.” She was carrying a huge amount of pressure, and I had placed much of it on her young shoulders.
Careers had been a topic of discussion at our house for years. Both my husband and I work full-time jobs. We both graduated from college, and we had hopes that our kids would also find some kind of happy gainful employment as adults. Then we found out something wonderful and horrible. We were told that our kids were smart. Like, really smart. I know…all parents think their kids are smart, but we found out that external confirmation of that prideful suspicion can have a powerful effect. Suddenly, you start seeing all of these wonderful possibilities opening up before your kid, and you get so excited to tell them about all of the possibilities, secretly feeling like their smartness was probably a result of something you did, and that their future success would also partly belong to you. Then, you remember to tell them how hard they have to work to get there, and at some point, it all becomes less about teaching them how to dream and more of a finger-wagging, stress-inducing burden. At least that’s what happened to us. Our second child seems to be naturally more adept at wriggling out from under this pressure. The first-born, however, just soaked it all in and marinated in our lofty expectations for a few years. Until the night of Monday October 17, 2016.
I think I called the ambulance. It all happened at about 7 pm, just after we finished dinner. I rode in the front seat of the ambulance on the way to the hospital, with my husband and 12-year old son trailing in our car. The ambulance driver talked to me the entire way there, asking me what had led up to the attempt, and assuring me that this was more common than I thought. Her words helped in a way, but I remained numb and on auto-pilot. Our pastor and our friends Julie and Amy met us there. I had texted them from the ambulance. God bless Steve, Julie and Amy. CJ was placed in an exam room on the children’s side of the emergency room, with a hospital staffer planted in a chair right outside our room. “It’s standard procedure,” they said. “We have to have someone there at all times. And the curtains have to be kept open over the sliding glass door.” Did they think that I had tried to kill her? Or that I might? It made no sense but I didn’t have the energy to argue. I was in shock, and felt like I needed to do something to manage the situation, but I was powerless. We sat in that room for hours. I texted my parents, some friends, and my boss. I wouldn’t be at work tomorrow. The television was on The Disney Channel, and there was no remote control to be found. Neither CJ or I can remember what show was on, but she remembers it featuring someone in a skeleton morph suit, and that struck her as deeply, darkly funny. As the evening wore on, my shock and anger turned to realization of what had happened. And fear. Tears finally came for both of us, and we hugged. She said she was sorry. So was I.
The amount of pills she had ingested didn’t warrant them pumping her stomach. Thankfully, the bottle was only about half full, so it was a waiting game. She eventually threw up on her own and went to sleep. At about 2 am, when her vital signs were stable, they moved her to a room on the adult side of the ER. This was one of a handful of rooms for psychiatric patients. My husband had long since taken my son home by this point, and it was just me and CJ in that tiny, bare room. I think I slept less than an hour that night, sitting up in a chair by her bed. When Tuesday morning came, they started the paperwork to transfer her to an in-patient mental health facility in Atlanta, about 40 miles from our home.
Through it all, we did what CJ and I do best. We talked. Part of me was mystified that this could even happen, given how much we talk. How did I not see this coming? How dare she do something so selfish, given all the time and energy I had invested in her? It would be weeks before I realized the cause and effect relationship between my laser-like focus on her life and her desire to break free. It’s not unusual for a mother in a struggling marriage to shift her attention from her spouse to her children. To say that I had done just that is an understatement. For six years, I was a stay at home mom and my kids became my confidants. My emotional comforters. Small beings who were given an unspoken responsibility for an adult’s happiness. It was unfair and it was unhealthy.
My husband and I followed the transfer ambulance from the hospital to the in-patient facility. The two of us stopped at a Walmart and bought a few things on the list of suggested items. Slip on shoes with no laces. Sweatpants and sweatshirt with no pull string. Once we arrived, we were reunited with CJ in a small musty room with old doctor office furniture. It seemed like the three of us sat in that room forever, waiting for her to be processed. We did what we always do…we found humor in the situation. I was pacing to get Fitbit steps and to burn off nervous energy. We joked that whoever was watching us on the surveillance cameras probably thought I was the one being admitted. I silently wished I had the option of taking her place. Hours went by and I swallowed my impatience, knowing that a goodbye would follow the wait. The social worker came to get CJ and we were told that we could not follow her back into the adolescent unit. Something about HIPPA privacy and minors, so no one but the patients and medical staff could go back there. We said our goodbyes in the hallway and turned to walk out, dazed at what we were having to do. Once I hit the sidewalk, I broke down. How was I supposed to leave my child in this place full of crazy people? Crazy teenagers? Who was going to watch her and make sure that no one hurt her or touched her? I was more afraid of the other patients, than of what CJ might try to do to herself.
Visiting hours were Tuesday and Thursday nights from 7-8 pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 1-2 pm. Visitors couldn’t bring in anything…bags, cell phones, matches or cigarette lighters (understandable) or sharp objects (also understandable). The lobby was entertaining in a really heartbreaking kind of way. All kinds of people waiting to visit patients. Rich and poor. Old and young. My husband and I went together that first Thursday night. After that, I went by myself or with my friend Dot. God bless Dot. What a rock she was for me during those days. On Saturday, CJ asked me if I would bring her best friend Gracie to visitation the next day. I told her I would ask Gracie’s parents, but couldn’t promise they would agree. “Hey, can I take your kid to visit my kid at the mental hospital?,” is kind of a big ask. Todd and Julie agreed. I know Gracie was apprehensive about going, but that she also wanted desperately to see CJ. When we went back into the visitation room on the unit, Gracie and I sat in the corner on the weird modular furniture and waited for CJ to arrive. CJ trailed in with the other teenagers who had visitors. CJ and Gracie hugged. Gracie cried. I cried. CJ pulled out a small box, smiled, and said to Gracie, “These are like money in here!” Gracie’s eyes got wide, thinking CJ was holding a pack of cigarettes, but it was a box of playing cards. They still laugh about this, and CJ relishes telling people where she learned to shuffle cards.
CJ called me every night between 9-10 pm. That was when the kids could line up and use the phone in the unit. I laid in bed, waiting for my phone to ring. Some nights, it got close to 10 pm and I hadn’t heard from her, so I called the hospital and asked for the nurse on the adolescent unit. “She’s in line. She’ll call you in a minute,” they told me. Not being able to text her or call her was the worst part for me. Being isolated from her was unbearble. I couldn’t help but think about the permanent isolation we had skirted in her suicide attempt. What if I could never talk to her again? This child was part of my heart. More of a part of me, than a separate person, it seemed. The thought of how close I had come to losing her sank in over time. It settled in and pushed out my parental ambition. I cared less about what she did academically or who she said she was. I just wanted her here, in my life. Riding in the car with me, singing along to Hamilton. Telling me stories about her friends. Hugging me. Rolling her eyes at me. Anything, so long as she’s here.
The hospital called and scheduled a family meeting with a social worker. My husband and I drove there, unsure what to expect. The social worker met with just us first, before CJ was brought in. She talked about CJ’s diagnosis and “triggers” (for lack of a better word), and how we could support her moving forward. She coached us on what to tell the school and her teachers in advance of her return. When CJ arrived, she composed a plan, outlining what she would do if she ever had the impulse to hurt herself again. She listed things she could do to cope with anxiety at school. She listed things that she could do to prevent those feelings: be better organized, talk to her teachers, talk to the school counselor. She listed the three people she could turn to: me, her therapist, and her literature teacher, Ms. Woodall. God bless Ms. Woodall, and all the teachers who become such a powerful lifeline for their students, that they are listed as a top three go-to if the crap hits the fan.
CJ was released on Tuesday October 25, 2016. I signed all the papers and we walked to the car, her carrying her things in a large brown paper bag. She had left some things behind that the other kids could use. That was what they did, she said. They shared what little they had with the new kids, and left behind that they didn’t need. She asked if I would take her to McDonald’s. Of course, I would. We drove home and I listened to her stories about the other kids in her unit. She talked about them with a mix of wonder and comradery. No one had hurt her, she said when I asked. They were all mixed up, hurting teens like her, she said. The pathological liar who claimed to know everyone else’s tragic back stories. The girl who wished her mom wouldn’t show up for every visitation, but she did. The lesbian, Lori (not her real name), who smoked cigarettes, talked about missing her girlfriend, and constantly argued with the unit nurse, Claire (also not her real name). One day in group therapy, they were told to write one of their problems on a piece of paper. Something that caused them pain. Claire wasn’t leading group therapy that day, but Lori wrote “CLAIRE” on her piece of paper anyway. They didn’t have time to go through everyone’s slips of paper that day, so they continued the next day with Claire then leading the group. She opened Lori’s paper, saw her own name, closed it up and said, “Moving on…” CJ rolled laughing as she remembered this recently, and laughed too. But, God bless Claire.
As terrifying as it had been to leave her there, that was where she needed to be. Those broken kids made her feel less alone. I also think they made her feel a little bit bad-ass-by-association, and that can be a good thing when you’re 13 and scared.
The weeks that followed her homecoming were a new kind of difficult. There was no way to suicide-proof our house. We couldn’t get rid of all of our shoelaces, belts, and sharp objects. I didn’t want her bedroom door shut. Ever. We battled over that. I bought locking tool boxes to store all of the medicine in the house. I slept with the keys beside my bed (and still do). I checked on her a million times a day. For months, we didn’t let her stay at home without an adult. Our friend Beth, who was going through breast cancer treatment at the time, insisted on picking up both our kids from school and bringing them to her house every day until we got home. She said she had struggled at CJ’s age, too, and just wanted to help. God bless Beth.
It turns out that the mental hospital won’t let you leave until you have a follow up appointment scheduled with a licensed psychiatrist. We found one in our provider directory and made the appointment. At the first appointment, we discovered that the provider directory was out of date, and the doctor was out of network. I started calling other doctors in the directory. Not accepting new patients. First available appointment in three months. Disconnected phone number. I was at my wits end. No one would see my child and give her the help she needed.
My parents started seeing doctors at Emory University shortly after they moved from Virginia to Georgia in 1994. Mom was in remission from breast cancer, so she went to Emory for her screenings. Later on, she was successfully treated there for colon cancer and bladder cancer, too. Mom and Dad started donating a little money each year to the Winship Cancer Institute, as a form of gratitude for the care Mom had received. We joked that Emory had them confused with another set of big time donors, because they treated them like royalty. Personal phone calls. Concierge service for making doctor appointments. Complimentary valet parking. We all knew that Emory had a vested financial interest in being nice to Mom and Dad, but it still felt like genuine caring. They seemed to be really good at making people feel appreciated.
In the midst of our psychiatrist crisis, my Dad asked if I’d like for him to call his contact in the Emory Development office. I said sure, knowing that I had already called Emory’s Child and Adolescent Mood Disorder Program, and was told that not only were they were out of network, but the first available appointment was months away. Dad called Maggie, and within 24 hours, I had the personal cell phone number for Dr. Edward Craighead, the J. Rex Fuqua Endowed Chair and Vice Chair of Child, Adolescent, and Young Adult Programs for Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. I was told that Dr. Craighead was expecting me to call him at my convenience. When I did, he offered to begin treating CJ immediately, under the care of both a psychiatrist who would oversee her medication, and a counselor who would meet with her for cognitive behavioral therapy sessions. My sweet, precious Dad said he would help us pay whatever insurance didn’t cover. He also offered to drive from his home in Covington to pick her up at school in Hiram, drive her to Emory, drive her back home to Hiram, then back to his home in Covington. Every week, if needed. Above everyone else, God bless my amazing Dad. His love knows no bounds and he is incapable of holding anything he holds back from his family.
Here we are, a year later. We talked about doing something to commemorate her suicide-versary. “We could go to Sky Zone, the trampoline park,” she laughed. “Yeah,” I said, “And when they’re like, ‘Is it someone’s birthday?’ you can say ‘No, it’s the anniversary of my suicide attempt!’ and the place will get completely silent.”
And we laughed, because laughing at really dark things is kind of a family tradition. It’s how we have survived.
The four of us will probably just go to dinner together as a family to commemorate our survival. We’ll talk about mundane things. CJ might retell more stories from the mental hospital. Without a doubt, we will all be silently grateful to stand in a better place than we did last October.
CJ still goes to Emory, but her appointments are less frequent. After some debilitating side effects and a terrifying Halloween night back in the ER, we got her medication worked out and up to what her doctors now feel is an “optimal therapeutic dosage.” Most people who know her would never guess that she’s been through all of this. She’s quietly thriving in her freshman year of high school: straight A’s in her honors classes, secretary of the freshman class, and a Model UN delegate. Next semester she will take AP Human Geography and her long-awaited elective drama class. She’s dreaming about various colleges and a career in some sector of politics. Maybe law school. Maybe not. That’s a long way off and there’s a lot of life to be lived before that decision is made.
Every night at bedtime, I get her medicine out of the lock box, give it to her, and lock the box up again. In some ways, our lives have been forever changed. The medicine will always be locked up. I no longer care what she becomes when she grows up, because I already treasure who she is. CJ is a wickedly funny person who cares deeply about justice and giving the underdog a chance. She wants everyone to be treated fairly. She loves Broadway musicals, high fashion, politics, the Georgia Bulldogs, rock music, and the Old testament story of Esther. She’s made of the same granite that her Grandma and her Aunt Doris were made of. A real steel magnolia. She loves kids and babies. She loves dogs more than people. And she loves her friends like nobody’s business. Her algebra teacher told me that the day she returned to school last October, she walked into the classroom and her friends jumped up and nearly tackled her at the door. They drive each other crazy at times, like teenagers do, but they are so down to earth and incredibly lucky to have each other.
I have stopped worrying about her grades. CJ worries enough about that for both of us, and it’s her life now. She’s driving the bus. I’m just sitting behind her in the front seat, being the music DJ and her life’s cheerleader. I can’t wait to see where she goes.