It’s 5:34 am, my eyes fly open, my heart is racing, and I jump out of bed as quietly as possible, I quickly go down the hall to his room, the entire time praying “please be here, please be ok, please be breathing, please be breathing, please, please.” I open the door and go to his bed. The little snore I hear is a thing of beauty. Pure and absolute joy to a mother’s ears. I stand with tears of relief pouring down my face. Oh how I love him, my son Scotty.
This man-child of mine, my first baby, my 6’2” 300lb 16-year old teenager with a child’s heart, a love for history, sketching, and storytelling and a fear of becoming an adult is fighting a battle that is insidious.
Major Mom Guilt and the Start of the Suicide Watch
A few years ago, it was early morning, and I was walking down the stairs to make a cup of coffee. I have this odd sense about me, and I know something is wrong. I can’t pinpoint it, and I am too exhausted to try. I feel tingly and weird and in full adrenaline mode. I turn the coffee maker on and notice we need paper towels; I go to the garage to get the towels. I see my husband’s sailing ropes laying on the ground. They are tied. My groggy brain brushes this observation off, and I go back to the kitchen to the coffee maker and look out the window. That’s weird, Scotty (age 12) is sleeping out in the grass with our Labrador, Fudge. Why? Part of me knows something isn’t right and part of me can’t comprehend why. I go outside, and he wakes up. He said Fudge was barking so he went out there to be with him. I am a smart person, I am a very intuitive person, yet I bought it, hook, line, and sinker. If only I had drunk my coffee before going in the garage, maybe I would’ve been aware and awake enough to see the ropes for what they represented. Oh, the horrible should’ve-would’ve-could’ve thoughts of hindsight.
Six months or maybe a year-or-so later, he is now in counseling. His life for the past 2-years has been rough with bullies, sexual abuse, and deep-seated anger. He tells that he tried to hang himself a while back, but that our dog, Fudge, started barking and wouldn’t stop barking. Scotty said he knew God made Fudge bark so that he wouldn’t kill himself. My mind instantly jumps to that odd morning with the ropes in the garage and finding Scotty sleeping outside with Fudge. Serious kick in the gut. How?!! How did I not know the depth of his pain? How could I have been so distracted with life not to see it? Plus, Fudge NEVER ever barked, even when strangers came on the property. I should’ve caught on when that morning Scotty told me Fudge was barking that something more significant had happened. But I didn’t. So the guilt creeps in and takes hold, and I berate myself for all the lost time that we could’ve been helping him to heal and we didn’t. And he had been suffering silently. The guilt and pain of knowing your child has been suffering and realizing that you didn’t help is enormous. As an eternal optimist, I can't comprehend what would drive someone to commit suicide. I just don’t get it.
You are Murdering My Childhood
Between the ages of 9 and 12, Scotty’s life took a new path and no longer was he the carefree boy who would try anything without fear. No longer was he a dreamer of his future; instead he wanted to escape reality and live in Middle Earth. The blonde-haired, green-eyed boy with a heart and soul of kindness was angry, resentful, rebellious and putting on weight rapidly. We brushed it off as puberty, and I am sure part of it was, but I knew there was something deeper happening. I just didn’t understand it all. Why should I? I’ve never been depressed; I don’t understand the lure of that deep bottomless pit of despair. Instead, I live in the thought that the world is my oyster and full of possibilities. Why oh why did God give me children who see the world and life so differently from me? I don’t feel equipped. Now what?!
He goes through counseling and gets to the point that we all feel is safe. He begins developing a few solid friendships that are good for him. Yes, the weight keeps piling on and we know he is still in pain and still struggling. The urgency isn’t there, and hey, he laughs and smiles a lot. Life goes on, and it’s busy with a family of six and businesses to run, so we slide into a state of denial thinking we made it through the threat of suicide. He is ok. It’s all uphill from here, right?
Oh denial...you are such a horrible beast.
Fast forward, Scotty is now 16; he is struggling with facing the reality that he is almost an adult and must prepare himself to leave the nest. He butts heads and struggles in his relationship with his dad. He feels he will never be good enough. He thinks that he is a failure in his dad’s eyes. He resents his dad. He blames his dad. He hurts because he was once his dad’s pride and joy. He loves food; he hates exercise. He is a social butterfly. He still holds my hand to show me he cares. His room is full of his treasures, and he holds on to sentimental things. He is articulate and loves to debate. He is a creator of intricate stories. He is loyal and jealous. He is an amazing big brother. He is an artist at heart. He doesn’t want to be bored or do something that doesn’t interest him. He doesn’t want to put in the hard work to be the adult he has to become.
When I push him to plan out his future and ask questions such as, “what is your plan to get your diploma?”, “have you decided if you are going to college?”, “what about the military?”, “have you looked into selling your art or stories online?”, “what about jobs for this summer?” He says to me “Mom, you are murdering my childhood! I don’t want the responsibility of being an adult.” Que the mom guilt, apparently I failed as a parent. My job was to mold him and train him to leave the nest and soar. Can I please have a do-over?!
I tease him and say, “Scotty, you WILL leave this nest. It’s your choice to soar like an eagle or peck at the ground like a chicken.” His response, “I don’t want to soar like an eagle, can I be a duck?”
So “Operation Quack” began with the mission for Scotty to figure out the plan for this next phase of his life. And during these conversations, is when I should’ve clued to the fact that we were treading on thin ice. Have you met my friend, denial? If not...there he was again.
The Lure of Suicide
The crazy thing about life is that it can change so quickly. The crazy thing about teenagers is that the catalyst for change can be something that seems insignificant. Who knew that something as minor as taking a computer cord away would be the thing that would put the subject of suicide back into our lives.
It’s 10 pm, and I’ve just come home from dinner with friends, and my husband says, “Scotty told me the only thing that keeps him from slitting his throat is the ability to be online with his friends. He says he hates himself and is angry all the time”.
Well. That’s just awesome. NOT! It all floods back into my soul...our precious son has suicidal thoughts, hates himself, doesn’t want to live in our world and is deeply hurting. Of course, he is. I feel it, I know it’s back. Crap, crap, crap.
I go to his room, sit on his bed and ask him if he is ok. I ask how his talk with his dad went. I ask him to still be there in the morning. I ask him if he needs help. I tell him God made him for a big purpose and that he is talented, smart, loved and important. I ask him to promise to be there in the morning. I pray as I am pouring everything I can into him, terrified that we are back to the suicide conversations. I get up and tell him I love him and will see him in the morning, and he says “Goodnight mom.” I walk out the door and stop. Wait. What? What happened to “Goodnight mommy, I love you” He says that every night. Ugh. I pray harder. I cry. I am numb. I am terrified. I pray throughout the night.
The next morning after I hear his beautiful snore, I spend my morning coming to terms with the fear, the anguish, the frustration and the sadness. I cancel meetings with clients and instead spend my time with him. We go to lunch and shopping and stop at our favorite coffee shop.
As we are eating, we watch on the tv screen on the wall at the restaurant, a former competitive snow skier and now paraplegic/Paralympian kayaking. I think, what does that man have that gives him the strength to fight his pain and demons to push himself to tackle class 5 rapids? Is this something his parents taught him? Or is this part of his makeup? How do we help Scotty find that will and drive in himself?!
Because I am an optimist (and obviously good friends with denial), I ask him if he is really thinking about killing himself, maybe he is just bored and needs a challenge. He says it’s always there. (my heart plummets). He shares that he knows that killing himself would destroy the lives of his friends and family but that it isn’t enough to stop the thoughts or to stop him from doing it. He says the only reason he hasn’t killed himself is because he doesn’t want to be in pain and hell for eternity. WHAT?! I am taken aback by this raw statement. It's pure selfishness, but I guess at its core everything about suicide seems selfish to me. He tells me that it is a losing battle, neither side is good. The pain of life vs. the pain of hell and he fights it daily. (o.m.g. I wasn’t ready for this depth. For this to be so thought out and real.) He says it’s like the tide, and he is always getting hit by a wave, and he is drowning. (my heart just is free-falling at this point, and I am praying with every cell of my being to say the right words. I feel overwhelmingly inadequate.)
We talk about how letting himself become morbidly obese is a form of abuse and is a “painless”/passive path to suicide. He admits this. (Wait, um, come again?!) Is this his suicide plan?! It fits, Scotty gets to keep eating everything he loves, he doesn’t have to endure the pain of exercise, he doesn’t have to face the risk of getting his body in shape and healthy but still feeling like a failure in his dad’s eyes. Plus, it’s passive, he isn’t intentionally killing himself by noose or knife or drugs, he is just letting it happen without a fight. Does that count as suicide? Does that mean he doesn’t go to hell and suffer eternally in pain? Is he thinking those things? I am too afraid to ask because I know the answers.
Please oh please, how do I stop this?! Again, I am shocked to my core of how aware he is and how obtuse I’ve been.
This isn’t the suicide watch of our past. This time it’s more intense and more terrifying. This time I have to accept that these thoughts and this battle never left him and that suicide might even be alluring. I realize this could be what he’ll deal with forever.
Suicide is Never the Right Option
I look at his face. I see my little 1-year-old curious laughing boy, the 3-year-old who brought joy to everyone around him with his constant chatter. I see the 7-year-old taking care of his baby sister. I see the 9-year-old fearlessly standing in front of the school playing the harmonica that he didn’t know how to play. I see him and Fudge cuddled outside, and I see all of this so quickly. I recognize this little boy locked inside this man’s body, and now he has to figure out how to navigate his path in life, but just doesn’t know how. I understand that his needs have not been met and he struggles with the next rung in the ladder to adulthood. My job is to figure out what he needs, support him, show him unconditional love, and to listen without judgment. My job is to get him the help he needs to be healthy. I sit there overwhelmed and yet ready for the challenge that is ahead. God made me to be Scotty’s mom, and I will do everything in my power to fulfill that job. I am a person of action, and I start planning and discuss ideas with him. I am in full brainstorm mode now...poor guy. The more we talk I know that right now, at this moment, he is safe. We schedule his counseling. We discuss his future. We talk about the options he has. He says “The weird thing is that I know suicide is never the right option, but it’s what I face every day.” I ache for my boy, and I am very thankful for our relationship and that he will be open with me.
A Mother’s Love Isn’t Enough to Heal
We talk about sharing his story in hopes that it can help other families. Yes! This is all good, right? He is talking about his future, he says he’ll look at his options, he is talking about helping and giving to others. All I can think is, please don’t be lying to me, please know that you are worthy, loved and created for a purpose. Please tell me these are good signs and you aren’t just appeasing me.
I grasp onto the thought that giving and helping is such a powerful thing in a person’s life. Sharing his story, his pain, his battle could help others, and it could be a piece of the path that heals him. Maybe that combined with therapy will make a dent, and he’ll begin to heal. Maybe if I shower him with love, support, and prayer... I start down a rabbit hole of all the things “we can do” to fix him. Then it hits me again…'he hasn’t killed himself because he doesn’t want to be in hell and in pain for eternity.', not because he knows it’ll destroy his friends and family. Not because he isn’t loved enough. And I know and finally get that this isn’t about me or anything I’ve done, haven’t done or can do. This is his battle, his life, his cross to bear. I HATE it. I absolutely hate it. I stop my mind every time it goes to “what happens if”. I just can’t go there. I won’t. I will stay eternally optimistic, but please understand denial is no longer my friend. Denial has created deep crevices in my soul, and I no longer allow myself the luxury of living with rose-tinted glasses. I question everything and am vigilant but yes, always optimistic.
There is an urgency to my life that wasn't there before. There is darkness, pain and fear at levels I could NEVER have imagined. This experience has made me grow and question everything.
Today, December 19, Scotty turns 17. It has been about 6 months since the suicide watch came back into our lives. Six months of every day checking to see if he is there in the morning. Every day tuning into him to confirm he is safe. Every day of prayer and focused positive energy. Every day wondering if something might happen to trigger a choice I don't want to contemplate. Everyday mad that this is part of our lives and frustrated that I wonder if I should be treading lightly with him. Everyday struggling with being a parent that didn't ensure a safe place for my child to thrive. Six months is a long time, and while denial isn't part of my world anymore, this vigilance takes a toil. I know that answers aren't always found and that help isn't always easy to obtain. I know it is a stigma and shame in some circles. I know the feeling of isolation and fear of leaving him alone. Oh, how I know the guilt and fear to my core. I know I am not the only parent out there trying to grasp how their child and their family is struggling through this experience and that is why I share this story.
So I pray and take action because I know my love isn't enough. I know denial is very easy to slip into and I know we need help. We need a support system. We need professionals who have the tools to walk next to him and help him sift through his layers of pain. As a consultant working for Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, I have learned about the wilderness therapy programs and heard about students experiencing success through their stay at BRTW. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to do a site visit and observed students who were in a safe yet rugged environment, stripped of outside distractions allowing them to connect with themselves and the caring staff. These things are what I believe help them to identify what their needs are so they can do the work needed to heal. While we work to connect him with the right professionals at Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, I check-in daily with him and I continue to gently nudge him towards adulthood.
Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness offers programs to help troubled teens who are dealing with depression, anxiety, abuse, and many other issues. Learn more about what to do when your teen is suicidal.
When and how to take action.
We encourage you to do all that you can to help your teen. Talk with them. Engage in meaningful activities together. Encourage them to perform well in school and do fun things with their peers.
But if you believe that your teen is considering suicide, it is never to early to seek professional help.
- Contact your teen’s primary care physician or pediatrician.
- Get in touch with a local mental health professional.
- Meet with your teen’s school counselor or psychologist.
Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for recommendations on what to do next at 1.800.273.8255. They have knowledgeable representatives available 24/7 to assist you, answer your questions, and support your through this difficult process. Another option is the Trevor Lifeline, a crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth, 866.488.7386.