UPDATE (20 January, 2021): My daughter is now employed in her first full-time ‘adult’ job, after finishing university. She is more able to talk about her struggles with mental illness in a way that invites others into the conversation. Late last year, she invited us to join her in celebrating twelve months of not having self-harmed. She still has her bad days and better days but also knows what she needs to do for good self-care. Things like taking her dog for a long walk; going camping and hiking in Australia’s wonderful national parks; watching old favourites on Netflix; having plenty of alone time. All these activities help her recharge. She remains in our prayers and I thank the many readers of this article for their prayers as well. Penny
It was an ordinary day. My 16-year-old daughter was in the front passenger seat and we were stopped at a red light. It was peak hour. Cars, buses, trucks, bikes streamed by, travelling fast with the green.
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“I just want to walk in front of that bus,” the voice beside me said.
Were these signs of what was to come?
I can’t remember what I said in response. Nine years have passed since that first spoken indication of a young woman articulating her desire for death. Too many conversations about not wanting to live. Sleepless nights. Helplessness. Worry. Fear. Love. Unconditional, unbearable, painful love cascading out of that constantly niggling fear of a precious loved one’s safety.
There is no obvious why. It used to distress my daughter that she could not articulate a reason why she felt the way she felt. Most of the mental health education at school always seemed to point to someone having experienced an event, a trauma, something that could explain why they constantly felt flat, sad, full of self-loathing. She seemed to hate herself more for not having a reason. It reinforced her belief that there was something wrong with her.
A perfectionist introvert, Molly* did not want anyone to know she was struggling. Nor did we as parents want her mental health struggles to impact her opportunities at school. She put on her super bubbly, smiling, helpful face and so did we.
But when the mask came off at home, the effort of all that false happiness having totally depleted her, the darkness would descend.
Looking back, maybe the signs were always there. Mental ill health is endemic in our society. The pressure for perfection is everywhere. We are bombarded with advertising, we are told to keep consuming because that seems to be the way we are defined. We are customers, avatars, prospects. As each of us is now viewed as a potential buyer, everything we do, purchase, say, especially in the online space, is helping define whether we are warm, cool or red hot advocates for that product as we travel down the online marketing funnel.
For those of us born with the perfectionist gene, this consumption-driven narcissistic environment must be sheer hell.
Molly is the youngest of three. She has two older brothers. As a pre-schooler Molly ruled the roost at home. Happy, boisterous, full of fun. Imagine our surprise when we went to our first parent/teacher interview – she was a four year old at kindergarten – to discover that Molly did not participate. She sat on the edge and observed. She did not engage in group discussion. She was very reserved. How could this be? This was not the girl we lived with.
The perfectionist gene became more obvious when homework was required. Trying to design a creative letter ‘G’ became a source of torture. Nothing was good enough. Page after page ripped out, screwed up and tossed on the floor.
Maths – normally done without a moment’s hesitation – when faced with a slightly more difficult question, stirred a flash of anger, a refusal to complete, tears, tantrum, slammed door. An hour later the same homework finished in five minutes.
Were these signs of what was to come?
Years later, Molly said that she felt she was at her best when she was ten. She wasn’t far off the research. Pre-pubescent girls are largely untroubled by life. They have the same degree of confidence as boys the same age. Sadly, this shifts dramatically as they move into puberty. Doubt springs up. That voice in the head takes over. No longer are they ready to take on the world. Suddenly they think they are ugly, unlikeable, stupid, fat, and the list goes on. And this negativity, often self-hatred, continues well into their twenties and thirties.
How does a parent hold their child through such dark thoughts?
Molly is no different to any other woman. Perhaps that negative voice is magnified for those who experience anxiety and depression. Certainly, that voice does not help! However, not every teenage girl wants to walk in front of a bus …. and certainly not regularly.
And how does a parent hold their child through such dark thoughts? And when do dark thoughts become suicide ideation (a weird descriptor, but in psychiatric parlance it means anything from thinking about taking one’s life to actually developing a detailed plan).
As a person who has known God and been loved by God my whole life, it is to him I turned for wisdom. I might add not always. And not nearly enough. There were many times I tried to do it in my own strength. Or the two of us together, husband and wife, talked despairingly into the night expressing our love and deep felt fear for our beautiful daughter.
There have been some serious heart-stopping moments on this journey. In my previous job I had two phones – a work phone and my personal mobile. It was just before Christmas 2011 or maybe 2012. I was working for a Christian organisation and we always held a staff Christmas service which included employee acknowledgements. I had been asked to do one of the Bible readings. I left the two phones in my office and was gone from my desk for about an hour and a half.
When I came back, one phone had 12 missed calls and the other 15. All from my daughter. And there was one text message. It said ‘Bye’.
Yep. That was my reaction too. My heart racing, I tried to call. No answer. Some deep breathing. What should I do? I called her older brother as he also lived at home. He answered. Hi. I calmly asked if he had seen Molly. Yes, came the response, she is right here beside me. And she’s okay? Sure.
Why the nearly 30 missed calls? Apparently, at that moment, Molly was gripped with a desire to walk in front of a different bus. Thankfully, the spontaneous urge passed, and she went home, her brother none the wiser. Me, on the other hand, a nervous wreck!
I think that ‘incident’ captures the struggles of a severely depressed teenager. They are more likely to succumb to what seems like a spontaneous decision. A moment of such blackness that the only logical way out for them seems to be to get out of life. For it to be over. To save everyone else from the burden that is them.
I cannot begin to explain the pain, the heart ache, of walking alongside someone you love so much, who does not want to be alive. How can this beautiful, intelligent, feisty, opinionated young woman hate life so much that she wants out more often than not? There is no logic to it. She cannot bear the thought of anything happening to those she loves but seems to put herself in an entirely different category.
Molly spent most of her time in the emergency department apologising to us for being such a problem.
Over these eight years we have had a few very memorable moments, such as an overdose of everyday paracetamol-based medication and a trip to the emergency department in the early hours of one morning.
Perhaps you were like me and do not know exactly how dangerous such medication can be when taken in high doses. If too many are taken and the person does not seek help promptly, the body starts to shut down and, by the time they have come to regret their decision, it is too late. The impact of the poison cannot be reversed and they die a slow painful death as their organs fail (about three days). Caught early enough, a blood test is taken to ascertain whether the levels are dangerously high and if so, the patient is administered charcoal to induce vomiting.
Molly spent most of her time in the emergency department apologising to us for being such a problem. The minute she took the pills, she regretted her decision, and woke me up. I am forever grateful!
She moved interstate for university. Her first two years were spent in college. While on a leadership course I received a call from the college dean. A friend of Molly’s had reported her concern to the college administration that she thought Molly was a suicide risk, as she was self-harming. Molly was cutting. They called a CATT team (Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team), which I suppose they had to do.
My heart sank. The dean told me that the college could not support suicidal students and if this should happen again she would need to leave.
The CATT team came at 8pm. By that time Molly was exhausted. They took it upon themselves to provide a diagnosis. I was totally stunned. And of course, once your child turns 18, they are an adult and the medical fraternity cannot, under law, give you any information about your offspring.
The college made a decision because of their legal obligations that is so much more complex for a parent. While Molly could, in her rational mind, understand why the college did what it did, she also felt betrayed. Her mental struggles were suddenly made public by this one decision. She had worked very hard to keep her anxiety and depression hidden from the world.
I, as her mother, understood this. I too, tried to keep it private. But my husband and I were trying to hold her together and hold ourselves together, with no expertise, constantly feeling like we were drowning. We loved her so much. We wanted to wave the magic wand and for it all to go away, but life isn’t like that.
What should I text?
Thankfully our relationship with our daughter is strong. It has never wavered. Molly and I text a lot.
Texts that might begin like this: I am an abomination and don’t deserve anything
Or I’m not cut out for this world. I’m not resilient enough
Or : I’m super ready to tap out of this life ma
But they aren’t always like that. They can be funny, teasing, worried about uni performances etc. Or even:
So I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo recently cause why not ya know, And I think it’s fate or something cause a place just opened up nearby so that’s totally a sign that I should go for it right?
My response: No comment on this one darling. Just think about why, what and where. Xxx
Molly: I am safe I promise.
What a privilege to be invited to be part of such conversations. However, a comment such as “I’m ready to tap out of this life” raises serious alarm bells. How do I respond to that in a text? Well, I dig deep, send up an arrow prayer for wisdom, hold back a tear or three and write:
Do I need to jump on a plane Molly? Are you safe? What made you send that message when you should have been sound asleep? I’m super ready to tap out of this life has a different meaning to I don’t want to be alive anymore. It sounds proactive. Are you starting to be more proactive in your desire for suicide? If so I need you to tell me as you need help. Xxx
M: I am safe I promise. Yes I would love to kill myself more than anything right now and it’s definitely concerning but I’m not going to do anything that would hurt you and dad, I promise. It’s just a low that is a bit more persistent than it should be
P: Please hang out with friends whom you trust. Feel their love and kindness. You are a beautiful human being and your life is significant. On this Good Friday remember another who died for the world. His name is Jesus and he is my reason for living and doing. Xx
P: Would you like some Bible verses to read?
M: Thanks Mum. No it’s okay, I have a lot of uni readings to do today.
That voice is a liar. Do not listen to it
I have always sought to affirm Molly, remind her of God’s love for her, to stress that at no point, ever, would her friends and family be relieved if she decided to take her own life. That she is loved, that we would never get over it if she did walk in front of the proverbial bus.
The conversations are clear. Look up Beyond Blue if you don’t know how to have such conversations with your own children. We talk about ‘are you safe?’ Find some language that is understood that enables you to check in.
Once they are an adult, they make their own decisions. Molly chooses to see both a local GP and a psychologist. She chose to go off her medication after eight years and no evidence of it helping her depression. She did this under medical supervision and we could not be more proud of her for taking such a courageous step. Her depression has not gone away, but at this moment she is grateful to be drug free.
Late last year Molly called me clearly distressed. She wanted me to know that she was suicidal. The call was a cry for help. I was in an Uber at the time. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, the driver drove with the radio off, totally respectful of what was clearly a very difficult call. The voice in her head was relentlessly telling her that she was worthless and everyone would be better off without her. She did not know how to turn off that voice.
I am so grateful that she knew she could call me.
After nearly nine years and the power of God’s loving wisdom, the concerned mother became the stern one. I addressed that voice. “Molly listen to me. That voice is lying. Are you listening to me? That voice is a liar. You need to know that no one will be better without you. If you do anything to yourself, your friends and family who love you, will never get over it. Do not listen to that voice. That voice is a liar.”
While I am talking to her, my brain is trying to process what I should do. What happens when I hang up? How can I guarantee she will be okay? I try to centre myself? I shoot up that arrow prayer.
What happens if I hang up and she goes through with her desire to end her life? She told me she doesn’t have a plan yet, but how can I be sure she won’t? But if I call the police or a CATT team, she will never forgive me. I will break her trust. But if I don’t do anything and she does suicide, I will never forgive myself.
I tell her I cannot hang up until she assures me she is safe. I also tell her she needs to call a friend and get them to come around. She doesn’t want to do that. I reinforce the need. I suggest a male friend who is not studying. She eventually agrees. I ask her to text me when she has done that. She agrees. We eventually hang up. She texts me. Her friend is coming around. I ask her to text me when he arrives. She does. I ask her to ask him to text me. He does.
Later Molly tells me that her psychologist told her that she showed great courage in reaching out. I am so grateful that she knew she could call me. She also told me she was glad I didn’t freak out. Thank you, God.
Things I have learned along the way
This is not the everyday. However, as parents of children with a mental illness understand, the black dog inhabits their child every day. And the anxiety about their wellbeing is always there. It never goes away. If they live away from home, as mine has done, I will do all I can to answer her phone call, no matter the hour or where I am.
There are days when we have long text conversations and others where I hear nothing. She has permission not to answer my call if she is not up to speaking. However, as you all know, if they choose not to answer or respond to texts, you start fearing for their safety. So we agreed that if she didn’t want to talk, she would send an emoji just so I knew she was in the land of the living.
I did a leadership coaching course a couple of years back, and one of the sessions asked us what do we carry around in our metaphorical backpack? What is the one thing, either at work or home, that is with us always? We carry it around wherever we go. That is my Molly. I carry her. God carries me and her. I have no choice. I have no control over her life. I have to surrender her to God. I pray that God will keep her safe.
The good news is … you’re not alone.
But I know there are no guarantees about her safety. And I have realised there is many a time when tears are not far from my surface. Don’t show me too much sympathy or empathy. I might not hold it together.
What advice might I have? After years of raising and loving children and being present through the teenage and adult years, I can only say there is no rule book. You can only do your best and sometimes not even that. It’s okay.
And don’t be afraid to ask others to pray. We need an army of both earthly and heavenly angels praying over our children.
If this story resonates with you, I want you to know that you are among friends. I have learned that it only takes two or three questions to discover that just about every parent of mid to late teens into mid-twenties has at least one child who is struggling with their mental health. It might be eating disorders. Drugs. Depression. Various mental disorders. Destructive behaviours. Social anxiety. Gender dysphoria. Self-harm. The list goes on.
And I suspect you, as the parent, feel frighteningly alone. The good news is … you’re not. The bad news is this is an epidemic that is engulfing our young ones.
What else have I learned through this?
- Keep praying. Ask for wisdom.
- This might be a lifelong struggle for my darling Molly.
- Stay connected with the other parent. If anything has happened to your partner – death, divorce, separation – find another person you can share this with.
- That I have no answers. I cannot solve this. I am not my daughter’s counsellor.
- That you can be with a person for 23.5 hours and if that person really doesn’t want to be alive, they can still find a way to end their life in the remaining 30 minutes. What I mean is, don’t beat yourself up. And please don’t accuse a person who is suicidal of being selfish. They cannot control those dark dark feelings.
- I am loved unconditionally by my Lord and Saviour. In the end all I can do is love my own child in that same way – unconditionally, without judgement and as much as is humanly possible, to always be available when required.
For this is the privilege of parenting. I would not wish away any of this journey. For all of these experiences, struggles, incredible anguish and wonderful highs, there are the joys and tears of being part of my daughter’s life.
She might want to wish them away, but that is not for me to say. For that is who she is, every single part of it. The dark, the light, the laughter and the tears. And I am so grateful that she has invited me to share a small part of it.
*Real name changed to protect identity. This article was written and published with her permission.
If any material in this story has disturbed you or relates to someone you know, please consider:
If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, Please contact Emergency Services on 000.
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 is a trusted source of information and support on suicide prevention. It provides information to people at risk of suicide or who have attempted to take their life with support options, and gives practical advice for people worried about someone they think might be suicidal on how to help.
Lifeline: 131 114 provides 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services.
Suicide callback service: 1300 659 467 provides free counselling for suicide prevention and mental health via telephone, online and video for anyone affected by suicidal thoughts, 24/7.