Six months ago in the wee hours of a Sunday morning I dreamed about my oldest son. In this dream, a police officer told me that my son had been hurt and was taken to the hospital. I kept asking over and over again, what happened? Was he going to be okay? There was never a response, just a click and then a dial tone on the other end.
A mother’s intuition can sometimes be unsettling and I woke up with a terrible sense of foreboding.
The next morning I received a phone call with the caller I.D. displaying West Virginia. Normally I don’t answer calls from another state because more times than not they are solicitors. However, I knew from the dream that I had that this call was going to be different. From my solar plexus, I knew that it wasn’t about my daughter overdosing again on heroin. I thank my lucky stars every day that she has gotten her life together and our relationship has blossomed because of her recovery. No, this was definitely different and I knew that I wasn’t going to be prepared, dream or not, for the news coming from the other end of the line.
I was relieved to hear that he was fine and that he was going to be okay, but he was in the hospital.
And then the story unfolded with information that I found difficult to process.
It was Two weeks before the incdent that he called me. He didn’t need money or anything, he just wanted to talk. He was living less than an hour away from us in Portland, but his daily life was busy with working full time and going to college.
I knew that he was stressed, his girlfriend of three years went off to college out of state and the long distance thing wasn’t working out too well. It was on again off again for 6 months before they officially ended it. He hated his job and had taken on too many classes. Add to that, he was having to deal with his alcoholic father who called him incessantly, all hours of the day and night while in a drunken stupor asking for favors that my son would inevitably give in to.
This was a 20 year-old who had reached his breaking point, but I never knew just how bad it had gotten for him. Yes, I knew these things were happening in his life, but the more I pried, the less I knew. He was careful to omit the sordid details; details that would eventually be revealed. He was always one who didn’t want to burden others with his problems, so he kept the conversation light, thanked me for listening and told me he loved me.
A few days later he just up and left at 3 a.m. He packed his car and headed to Kentucky of all places, to visit “friends” he had met on an online game. When he called me from Missouri, I was shocked, but he was an adult. As hard as it was, I bit my tongue. I couldn’t very well ask him what the hell was he doing or demand that he come right home. He was in good spirits and sounded happier than he had for several months.However, this journey he was on wasn’t all he had hoped it would be. He realized that no matter how far he went, he wasn’t going to be able to escape his problems.
So he had decided that there was really only one solution to his misery. After some quick research, he found what he was looking for. He got in his car and drove four hours east. With a Sharpie he wrote his first and last name on one arm (to make sure his body could be identified) and the password to his phone and laptop on the other. He then climbed out onto the ledge of a bridge that is known as a hot spot for suicides. People are drawn to this place with its impressive height and view of the Appalachian Mountains. It was a sure thing to extinguish feelings of hopelessness.
It just so happened that on this sunny day a sheriff’s deputy was on patrol and saw a car illegally parked alongside the bridge. This usually meant only thing, and sure enough he was found standing on the 3 foot wide ledge. This situation was very personal to the deputy because she lost her sister to suicide just three weeks prior. She called for backup and they were able to talk him into being helped from the ledge and taken to the psychiatric unit at the hospital.
The next 5 days were a blur as we caught a flight across the country to West Virginia. We got his car out of impound, and met with the doctors at the hospital. The relief that I felt when I saw him walking down the hall overwhelmed me. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t help the tears that flowed. My hands were trembling when I hugged him. Through his own tears, he kept apologizing for what he put us through, just as he had apologized to the sheriff’s deputy for causing a traffic jam on the bridge. At that time, I could only tell him how much he was loved, and how happy I was that he was still “here”.
The drive home was more of a rollercoaster ride for my emotions, and we sought intensive outpatient care as soon as we got home. We also began family counseling, where we learned that he began thinking about self-harm at 11 years-old. By the time he was 12, he was cutting himself on his upper thighs where the wounds would be hidden.
But he seemed so happy! He laughed; a lot. He played with his younger siblings who were 9 and 10 years his junior. He loved sports. He had lots of friends. But deep down, where we couldn’t see, there was a sadness that grew and grew. We have talked about why he didn’t come to us then. He explained that with the chaos and anxiety surrounding his older sister and her addiction, he didn’t want to add more to our stress. So he kept it in. We didn’t see. We never knew. Not until it was almost too late.
Fast forward 6 months and we are still trying to navigate the choppy waters. The treatment is ongoing and he is still living with us. He recently got a new job that he likes and has begun to think about his future in constructive, positive ways. He now will talk honestly about his emotions and we can only take it day by day, dealing with the ups and downs of life. We notice and appreciate the small victories. But then there is the underlying fear that my husband and I share. I’m not sure if it will ever truly go away. It’s a familiar fear, but it’s a different sort of vibe, because each child is unique. Things are far from perfect, but I see subtle changes in all of us and how we connect. There is now hope where once there was only invisible hopelessness.
***This event made me aware of how preventative measures are desperately needed to close the communication gap. There needs to be a willingness to talk about depression and other mental health issues between parents and children and the teachers that we entrust them to. There also needs to be a willingness to listen and give support. Enough of the avoidance and looking the other way. Uncomfortable as it may be, learning about depression and feelings of self-harm should be just as important as the (sometimes controversial) 5th grade health films they show our kids in school. These issues need to be included in the topics covered in said films to hopefully lessen the stigma for those who reach out for help.***