An End of Year Reflection: How Keeping My Child Alive Became My Only Goal in 2022, a reflection on parenting a child with mental illness
Before I begin this post it is important that you know that it is being shared with permission and it contains
TRIGGER WARNIGS FOR SUICIDAL IDEATION AND SELF HARM
In August of 2022, my oldest child, who had just turned 20, began her Sophomore year of college at Ohio University. She is a forensic chemistry major and love her school. She went back excited and ready to begin. My heart felt a twinge because I enjoyed having her home, but I was also happy to take her back to this place that she loved and see her thriving doing things she loved doing.
Sometime in early September, everything changed for her. For us.
It began, I believe, with Covid. One night I was talking with her on the phone, and she didn’t feel well. The next morning, she called me crying and told me she had tested positive for Covid. I told her she needed to contact her RA and ask them what she was supposed to do, as I live in Texas and was 1,000s of miles away and didn’t know how to help her. We talked about what to watch for and when she might need to consider going to a doctor. They put her in an isolated room, and she spent the next 36 hours without any food or water because she was too sick to take care of herself. She became pretty incoherent, and I honestly had no idea how to help her. I didn’t even know where on campus she was. But as scared as I was, this was just the beginning of what would become a true ordeal for us.
After 5 days she went back to her dorm and classes, still not feeling the same but no longer a threat to her roommate or fellow students. She was exhausted in ways she never knew you could be exhausted, but somehow managed to find a way to get up and go to class every day.
Then one morning in October, I woke up to a series of text messages:
“Mom, I promise I won’t do anything, but I don’t want to be alive anymore.
I thought you should know.”
This began the next part of our ordeal. Riley has always struggled on and off with depression and anxiety, but this time felt different. She had never actually expressed wanting to die. And though I am not a doctor, this somehow felt related to her recent experience with Covid. She is, in fact, the 3rd person I know who had Covid to express these feelings soon after having had Covid. But I’ll be honest, the cause didn’t matter, keeping my baby alive did.
We began working with doctors and therapists to help keep my child alive. Every day was full of tears, fears, and anguish. She called me every morning and checked in. We talked every night before she went to bed. And every night as she hung up, I cried, fearing that it would be the last time that I would get to hear her voice, and I would hang up the phone and lay in bed and pray to God that she would make it through the night.
She would check in throughout the day and it would be so hard to hear the lack of affect in her voice. The way she talked negatively about life or herself. At one point I said something about how I was glad she was born and that I got to be her mother and she told me point blank that she was not glad that she was alive, and that living was far too hard, it would have been easier had she never been born.
Getting out of bed every day, she assured me, was an actual physical challenge. And having had mental health challenges of my own in life, I knew what she meant.
Soon after admitting her feelings, Riley began taking medication. She had friends at college who told her she should try things like exercise and eating differently first, but thankfully she did not listen to them. She sought the care of a team of doctors and has been slowly but surely doing better. She sometimes still cries for no reason at all. But these days, I sometimes get to see her smile. She laughs. She goes with me to the store.
We had a bump in the road soon after she returned home for Christmas break. She came in one morning and handed me all of the scissors and knives in her room out of fear that she would harm herself, another new issue that had presented over the semester. I asked her what was wrong and she said that her grades had posted and she had failed one of her classes and she did not want to talk about it. I would later learn that she did talk about it; she had contacted her counselor and they helped her deal with the emotional issues and her academic advisor helped her navigate what to do next.
Days later, when she could talk to me about what had happened, I told her what a miracle it was that she had even finished the semester. Between the Covid and the mental health issues, the fact that she was even alive seemed a miracle. And knowing how hard she fought every morning to get out of bed, to face the day, to live and breathe, she did so amazingly well academically. I know she worried because she is at the school on an academic scholarship and I don’t know what we will do if she loses that scholarship, but I also can’t care. Not now. Not in light of everything. But I know that it presents added pressure and feelings of failure on her, internally, in a time that is already so challenging. I try not to add to it.
As 2022 closes out and we enter into 2023, my only hope and prayer as that my child will continue to recover from the Covid and from the mental health crisis that she experienced this past year. She is a revelation, a gift, and I hope that the world gets to continue to experience her for years to come. I pray for it. I beg the universe to help me as I try to help her.
These past few months I dropped every ball except one. Emails went unanswered. Deadlines went past without my meeting them. All I could do was check in with my child. And worry. And pray.
As I’ve said, she is definitely on the road to recovery. And I am so very thankful. I am thankful to the doctors who helped her on this road. I am thankful to her friends at college her brought her food and water when she couldn’t get them for herself, to the friends who sat beside her as she laid on her floor crying, and the friends who loved her without judgment, even when it was hard and scary to do so. I am thankful for the friends who sent me text messages asking me how she was doing, and how I was doing.
But mostly I am thankful that she is still here.
If you are a parent of a teen or young adult with mental illness, I urge you to listen and always take them seriously. Seek out help and support for yourself as you try to help and support your child. This is not an easy road, by any means. And it does not go in one direction, it is winding and twisting, and it takes you to dark places that sometimes get touched by patches of sunlight, especially in the beginning. The sun shines more frequently these days, but there are days where the dark clouds of depression still weigh heavily on our path. The important part is that we keep finding ways to walk it together, allowing her to take the lead and tell us what she needs to navigate to the next steps.
One of the hardest things I have had to learn is that I don’t have the answers and my advice is not always helpful or appreciates. What she really needed, was to be heard, loved and supported. When she calls me now on a bad day I just listen and say I love you. If she asks my opinion or for advice I offer it, but otherwise my main goal is to just be present.
And again, though I am not doctor, if your child does get Covid, please pay particular attention in the following weeks and months to their mental health, especially if they already have mental health issues. I will never be able to say with any certainty that the one made the other worse, but it was definitely a one-two punch this semester and although correlation does not equal causation, it’s hard not to wonder.
The other issue, of course to address, is the incredible academic pressure that we put on teens and young adults and the pressure to succeed. Riley has always been a straight A student and though she loves her college, we can only afford it because of scholarships. That pressure has been tremendous in college, because once you get the scholarship, you must also maintain it. She will go back to Ohio University in 2 weeks to finish her Sophomore year and I hope it will go differently for her. I worry about what impact losing her scholarship and maybe having to change schooling options will have on her as the feelings of failure are a powerful thing for these young people trying to start their lives. I need her to know that whatever happens, she will be okay. That if we need to, we can pivot, and she will land on her feet, and everyone will still love her. But I also need us, as a culture, to reconsider the immense pressure that society as a whole put on these young people just trying to figure out their lives. I feel like we are doing immeasurable harm.
But today, as this year comes to an end, I bid it a bitter farewell. It sucked. It was the worst in a series of years that were all the worst. Pandemic. The loss of my father. Covid for Tim and me. And then all of this. This is what life has been like for all of us, our story is not unique. But it is ours. And it has been hard. Maybe it’s not surprising at all that she fell apart. All I know is that this next year, we’re going to focus on putting the pieces back together again.
Please 2023, help me keep my child alive and help her to feel whole and healthy and thriving. That is all I can ask of you.
I am not a doctor and this is what I experienced on this journey, but this is by no means medical or legal advise and you should consult the help of a professional if you find yourself in a similar situation.
- Always listen to your child and take their words seriously
- You won’t know what to say, and that is okay. Don’t judge or even try and offer advice, just express love, support and get the ball rolling on medical intervention ASAP
- Enlist the help of medical professionals immediately.
- Help end the stigma against mental health, counseling and medication for mental illness
- There are a lot of things that impact mental health, so have a doctor do things like check Vitamin D levels, check thyroid function, etc. to help address any other possible health issues that may be impacting mental health. But again, it is really important to work with a doctor.
- Make sure your child has a plan and support system for getting things like water, food and basic exercise, especially if you aren’t nearby.
- If your child is at college, ask for their roommate’s emergency contact information and have your child post yours somewhere visible in the room as well
- Listen to your child and take their lead as they work on their health
- Get support and help for yourself as you travel this difficult journey
- Take care of yourself as this is a difficult journey
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health care or expresses suicidal thoughts, you can dial 988 to get immediate help.
Filed under: Mental Health
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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