I cannot imagine living without my daughter. And she does not want to live
My daughter is sick, and I am partly responsible for it.
I am told to take her home and stay with her, for every single second, every minute of the next 40 hours. I am told to go home and count the knives. Photograph: iStock
What was the lowest point? When did I feel closest to breaking into a million pieces, completely unable to keep going, to sustain the unimaginable reality I was in, that my 16-year-old daughter wanted to kill herself?
It felt like I was fighting the world, fighting to keep her alive, fighting my ex, but here, in a city emergency department, a Friday night in July, all the fight had left me.
I’m hunkered on the floor beside a socket, charging my phone, my body shaking with uncontrollable crying. A single mother, there’s no comforting other than to rub my knotted shoulders, unfurl my clenched fists, do a coffee run. After hours of waiting, she’s finally seeing the psychiatrist I am praying will admit her, and I am spiralling, doing what I should not do, projecting into a future without her.
I cannot imagine living without her.
And she does not want to live.
Something in her has been extinguished, she is withdrawing from us, making her own slow spiral down to death. I see her slipping away from me as surely as I witnessed her pushing into the world, pulsing from me at birth, she is blank, white, absent. I beg the psychiatrists once her interview is over to admit her to a ward and keep her safe – because I, her mother, can’t.
They don’t take her in.
She’s 16, it’s the weekend, there are no inpatient facilities for 16-18 year olds in Ireland and they think an adult ward will terrify her. There are no beds anyway, and there are no consultants available over the weekend to see her.
She shouldn’t be here. She should be dead. No teenage girl should survive what she already did
Don’t have a health crisis on a Friday evening in Ireland. The first appointment she will get is Monday. I am told to take her home and stay with her, for every single second, every minute of the next 40 hours.
We leave Dublin, she keeps the window down and the warm night summer air rolls through the car. When we get home, I lock the door behind me and slip the key into my pocket. I do the same with the back door. The most innocuous daily tasks have momentous charge. We collapse on the couch and watch our go-to Netflix binge, Gossip Girl.
She’s quiet, but I sense something has shifted.
She shouldn’t be here. She should be dead. No teenage girl should survive what she already did.
A tough year
It’s been a tough year. Her father and I have been viciously opposed over holidays, money, custody, access. She sucks up the poison between us like a sponge and like a deadly virus, it has run riot through her system and brought her and us here. To a place where no one can deny anything anymore.
My daughter is sick, and I am partly responsible for it.
Through counselling, hers and my own, I learn a new language, a new way to parent. And ultimately this is what saves us.
She attended her first counsellor privately, as the waiting list for Camhs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) was too long and we could not wait. She had stopped going to school. There were plenty of triggers – being in TY, in a home that had very little money for ski trips and language exchanges. She decided in TY she wanted to do medicine. Once she discovered the realities involved, namely the HPat and the points she’d have to get, she had her first crisis. At the doctor’s the next day, he wrote her referral letter for Camhs, and gave me the number of the best counsellor around.
All the death and loss she had been through, the fact her parents were functioning but not completely present, had made her world unhinged and unmoored
I met the counsellor, gave her our family history. There was the separation, but also a slew of family deaths which had hammered us all. By far the worst for my daughter was my sister’s, of cancer at 41. Worst for two reasons – she was extremely close, my sister was more like her big sister. And it went completely unacknowledged by everyone outside the family. School, friends, no one could understand the depth of this loss to a young 13-year-old. And three years on, she was still absolutely broken.
It’s our natural instinct as parents to put things back together. Split knees, open hands, favourite toys. Repairing a child’s shattered self-esteem is not a quick fix. All the death and loss she had been through, the fact her parents were functioning but not completely present, had made her world unhinged and unmoored. Our family compass was wildly spinning, with no fixed points. And that was the first lesson I had to painfully learn.
To be present, always and actively listen to her, tune into her, hear her tell me things she wanted to change. And that’s incredibly tough as a single parent. Because you are everyone’s support system, and you have none. The kids and the house and work can batter you all day, wear you down with so many physical, mental and emotional demands that come 9 o’clock your tank is empty. And that’s when she would come, down the stairs, like a cat, sensing all was quiet and hit me again and again, repeatedly, until I was beyond empty.
The suicidal ideation got worse, and we turned to Pieta House. After an initial assessment, her risk was graded a 9/10.
She was granted 12 sessions – only we had to wait two weeks to get to see her therapist. Those weeks were horrific – she more or less stayed home from school, rising to eat or watch some TV, and instantly retreating back to bed. I tried to be home as much as humanly possible. I cannot depict the horror of leaving the house, doing necessary things and never knowing as I turned the key in the lock would I be coming home to my child alive or dead.
There was no dissolution of the raging fury between us, no softening of the vitriol and the hate
The day of the appointment came.
How is it that in our darkest times we meet the best people?
Is it a rebalancing of the universe, an adjustment of the scales of fairness – you are going through the worst, but here’s the best person to see you through it? Bright, fierce, intelligent, compassionate and funny, she helped me as much as she did my daughter. I discovered how the conflict between my ex and I was literally tearing her to pieces. I had to change, despite my justified grievances against him, for the sake of our children, I had to let things go. I made attempts to open up discussion again, but he was having none of it. There was no dissolution of the raging fury between us, no softening of the vitriol and the hate.
So things got worse. She went to a festival. I was on holidays, she was with her father, supposed to come to me after the festival. After a day of failing to get in touch with her and her dad, a friend of hers texted me to tell me something had happened.
My panic and fury knew no bounds as I put the other kids in the car and drove. My ex had her in A&E. When I got her back, the sessions with Camhs kicked in.
She is, above all, an intensely private person, and every time she had a session, she met someone new who asked her for her history
And this is where I utterly lost my patience with the system.
She is, above all, an intensely private person, and every time she had a session, she met someone new who asked her for her history. I looked pointedly at the bulging file sitting in front of them. It’s all in there, I would say acidly; on the fifth person I shouted, enraged, have you even read her damn notes?
She was traumatised, over and over again, by retelling her story to different people. She hated every minute of it, hated the public waiting rooms, hated running into other kids she knew.
Then came the Friday night in July, a bad relapse and our lowest point.
But it was also the turning point for us.
It was like she lifted her head and decided to rejoin the world again. A determination not to be defeated crystallised in her that summer, the night she spent in A&E, watching all the doctors made her decide to live, to fight, to strive towards what she wanted. Medicine is her goal, and you have never met a child more determined on her path. She dropped the phone that summer and started studying for the HPat. When school started in September, she brought a laser-like focus to her schoolwork.
Everything had changed
The idea for this article came, written with her consent, last June. Everything had changed for us. I had new, well-paid work, the financial stress was gone. She had two HPat courses done, and had got H1s in her summer exams, with no grinds or outside help. A year to the day of one of her worst crises a year earlier, she flew alone to France for a language course. I brought her to the airport and watched her go through the gates, almost in tears. How far we were from a year ago, how well she was, how capable, how hungry for life and how determined to live it. She has learned how to stop, pause and breathe. That crises pass, and perspective is everything.
Will she get what she wants?
Everyone knows what a gamble medicine is, how heartbreakingly close the best kids come. She’s working to the edge of her abilities, stretching herself in ways most of us will never come close to. She knows there’s one route to success in life – to never stop trying. She’s living. If we came through what we have done, I would say to anyone, hold on. Look after yourself. Have faith, and watch for the angels with invisible wings. Truly, the only thing which sustains us and pulls us through is each other; look for help, accept the help and do the work required of you.
Things can change, your world of anxiety and fear might become one of trust and hope.
The author’s name is known to the Health & Family Editor.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact:
Samaritans: freephone 116123, text 087-260 9090
Pieta House: freephone 1800-247247, or text HELP to 51444
Aware: freephone 1800-804848