A NOTE TO OUR READERS:
This piece discusses suicide and suicidal thoughts. If you or a loved one struggles with thoughts of suicide, please seek help. For U.S. residents, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 988.
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It had been only a month since you were able to return to normalcy. And I, naive though I may have been, assumed that throwing you back into “normalcy” after fourteen months of isolation from the world would go as planned. You would rejoin the middle school you had only attended for one semester, before the world as we all knew it seemed to disappear. And surely a sense of normal would return along with the normal schedule and you’d be happy. That was the plan, but you know what they say about best-laid plans.
You have always been a creature of habit, a trait passed down and ingrained in your DNA from two parents who seem to deal with their own set of needs for routine and control. Each dealing with long lineages of disconnection, abuse, alcoholism, and chaotic childhoods. Each holding trauma in their bodies, pretending to be whole. No one could blame you for building routines to find your sense of security in an otherwise unstable upbringing. I know the need for it all too well and found my own ways to cope through my formative years.
When I was pregnant with you I would rub my belly over and over again asking God to break our family's generational curse and free you, my firstborn, my firstborn. I touched my pregnant belly begging that your story would be different. As I write this my throat feels as though it may shut altogether. My throat is where I hold my anger, that is when it's not spilling out of me uncontrollably. But right now, writing this, I can feel myself holding the anger in my esophagus realizing now that most of my anger stems from feeling like God didn’t hold up his end of the bargain—as if my pleas for change meant nothing. Because here you are and it feels like my past is repeating through you after I asked all along for you to never know it. You, the one person I wished to save from it all, I can’t seem to build enough routines in the world to barricade you in.
The district had the students come back a month before school would break again, this time for summer—a month that I thought would feel like a respite before once again going our separate ways from the other human beings in our city. I thought that month would bring you back, but there I was, watching you slip even further away. I feel so anxious, I’m not able to eat at school, you said. It’s like your body forgot that community and connection could be easily built around a meal. Nourishment of soul tied to the nourishment of the body. But for the last fourteen months, you’ve mostly eaten meals alone in your room staring into the unrelenting hours of screen time they called school. The lunch bell that used to signal a thirty-minute break now signals thirty minutes of panic. Your brain was forced to forge a path away from connecting with peers, away from face-to-face conversation, away from being you in front of others, away from how to just . . . be.
So I make the call for what I think will be a decently easy doctor's appointment.
I know the drill well, the questions almost by heart—the self-harm, and depression checklist—and if all goes as planned, the small white square of paper with the name of some unpronounceable drug that might help make it better. That was the plan, but you know what they say about best-laid plans.
The doctor asked me to leave the room so she could talk to you privately and a sense of panic came over me, not because I wanted you to lie, but because I finally realized that it may be as bad as I was pretending it wasn’t. And I knew then that what came next wouldn’t be as simple as a square of white paper. The door opened and I could see that your eyes were wet. The doctor explained to me that you couldn’t come home. You had disclosed that you had a plan, and they have a legal duty to place you into psychiatric care.
A plan. You were thirteen years old. You should have been planning a summer bucket list, planning your hopes and dreams for the future, not ruminating on ways to make sure all plans are canceled. But I know how you felt all too well. When I was a teenager I, too, had a plan—one that I followed through on a month after my sixteenth birthday. A plan that failed, but not before I was rushed to the ER, stomach pumped, and kept for observation.
I thought back to all my talks with God, rubbing the belly I wished I could keep you in because at least in there I could keep you safe. You, connected to me in my innermost being, safe and secure, lacking nothing. My mind jumped back to the day you were born, and I longed for that cord tying the two of us together to miraculously be restored.
I stood in the examination room holding all the anger in my throat again, not at you but for you—for all you’d been through, for all I’d put you through, and for all I couldn’t save you from. The anger burned like coals for the previous fourteen months and for all the years I’d failed you. It burned for the isolation, for your need for all the routine and normalcy that had been completely upended, for the trauma you’d gone through, for all of it becoming too much for your tiny frame to carry any longer. I held it in my throat—I hold it in my throat now. I didn’t allow it to spill out, not then. Instead, I put my hands on your shoulders, I told you the one thing I wanted you to know in your heart of hearts, I love you. I told you that it would be okay, and you begged me to let you come home, and I did what I had to do. I held back my tears, and I said it again: I love you; it will be okay. I didn’t promise when that day would come, instead, I did my best to transfer to you the hope I was trying to muster—faith that one day, it will all be okay again.
It’s been 365 days since that appointment. 365 days of choosing to face it all head-on. A year of learning about the importance of face-to-face human connection and what isolation can do to the adolescent soul. 365 days of ups and downs and answered prayers and watching God hold up his end of the bargain; rebuilding that cord, the one between a mother and her daughter that’s there after they cut us apart in the hospital room. The cord that seemed hopelessly frayed, now woven by him and through him, on its way to becoming as strong as he had always intended it to be, not perfect, but more fully aware; more fully connected.
Cover image by Esmee Batchelor.