February. The snow is supposed to start around one P.M., so the school districts have an early dismissal. Your oldest daughter, Meghan, comes home with her shoulders slouched. Her backpack is heavy so this takes some effort. She goes into her room as she always does. Her father, your husband, has bought her everything to make it a haven: a lava lamp, a lighted device that intermittently expels a puff of eucalyptus air, tiny white lights snaking the bed’s metal headboard. A sheet with moons and stars hangs from the ceiling like a hammock. “No wonder she doesn’t want to come out,” you said.
While Meghan stays in her room, your other two children return home; you start the soup knowing that only half of your family will eat it. Everyone likes something different. For the fussy ones, you always make noodles with butter. Most times, your husband would rather go out or get takeout. We could save so much money if we ate out less, you’ve told him, but he won’t listen.
When the soup is ready, you go into Meghan’s room; save the lava lamp’s blue glow, it’s dark, her body turned away from you. She lies on top of the weighted blanket that was supposed to help her with anxiety. A comforter covers her completely. She’s just a mound of pink and red flowers. You gently shake her, ask if she wants soup. “Chicken noodle; your favorite.”
She turns toward you; she looks tired; drained. Just yesterday, she was crying when you checked on her. At least she was moving around, listening to music. Now, you tell her it’s started snowing. “Maybe we can make cookies together. Chocolate chip.”
“If I tell you something, will you be mad?” she asks.
First, you think it’s drugs. Next, pregnancy, though she doesn’t have a boyfriend.
You tell her no, you won’t be mad.
She says, “I took a lot of my old pills.”
She had been on and off several medications for years, each of them working for a short time or not at all. She’d decided to give them a rest and quit her counselor, who wasn’t helping her anymore.
“What pills?” you ask. She gives you the name.
“How many did you take?”
“Twenty-one. Maybe twenty-two.”
The 911 operator puts you on the line with poison control, two policemen enter your house, including a third, your neighbor, who is off-duty but heard the call. Four pairs of EMT boots tromp into Meghan’s room in wet squeaks and close the door. Your husband rushes in as the cops ask what she took, how much. Your son, who was in the car with your husband when you told him what Meghan had done, cries with the dignity of an early teen posturing as a man.
You go in the ambulance with her, sit beside the driver who says that everything will be okay. She’s been there; she knows. Her delicate French manicure personalizes her drab uniform. You wonder what horrors she has been through and whether she’s committed herself to saving souls because she almost lost her own.
Light hail clicks against the windshield; the ambulance drives through slush, thumping as it hits the familiar pothole you know to avoid. Your neighbors’ lights are on; they are inside, eating their warm or hot dinners, watching TV, playing games, maybe making cookies.
You keep turning around in your seat. Meghan throws up in a paper container. One of the EMTs stands over her, asking questions you cannot hear.
The ER doctor asks her why she took the pills.
“I wanted to die,” she says without hesitation. She expresses concern that the stuff they want her to drink will taste bad.
“Honestly,” the doctor says, “that’s the least of your problems.”
You return home after two hours by her bedside; your husband insists upon staying with her overnight. You’ll take off work the next day, tag-teaming this crisis.
Next, you pick up the kids from your in-law’s. You tell everyone that Meghan is okay.
Your mother-in-law takes you in the kitchen, rolling in with her walker. She pitches her voice low: “Did she… you know?”
“Yes,” you say, only partially aware of what you’ve assented to.
In the car on the way home, your other daughter, just shy of her ninth birthday says, “I drew Meg a picture of a unicorn and rainbow so she can think happy thoughts.”
“I bet she’ll love that,” you say. “We can all use some happy thoughts.”
Your husband has told Meghan to just think positively. He bought her two books: The Power of Positive Thinking and The Anxiety Cure. You do not know if she’s read them.
At home, you take a shower, find a clump of her hair on the tiles. You remember her first haircut, how the stylist gave you a clipping of her light brown hair. You put it in a little baggie; at home, you pressed it between pieces of tape. Now, you remove the hair from the tile, the strands three or so shades darker than that of her youth, rub it between your fingers and reach outside the shower curtain, set it on the floor.
You are amazed that food tastes the same, that your stomach still growls just as persistently as always. You breathe the same. Your pulse and sleep schedule are the same. And yet you are so altered your life makes little sense. The inability to trust a child, accepting that she will lie, reaches a new pitch now that she’s lied about wanting to live. You call her former counselor who confesses to you that Meghan admitted to self-harm, but not suicidal ideation, nothing serious enough to warrant the breaking of counselor-patient confidentiality. “That’s why I didn’t tell you,” she says helplessly. “Now, I wish I had.”
She also tells you that Meghan admitted to drinking alone in her room and smoking pot with friends. While you were shopping at Costco, doing laundry, talking with a friend on the phone, going on date night with your husband, playing Clue with the kids, Meghan had been destroying herself, planning in her private hell to die. Her haven could not save her.
You know it will be nights of take-out, of neglecting your other two children, and so you buy them their favorite things: colored pencils, a doll, cozy socks, Cadbury eggs. A profound purposelessness grips you; you cling to your routine anyway, the maintenance of daily life, because you will fall apart if you don’t.
You’re a gym regular, but even this seems senseless, an act you simply tolerate rather than enjoy. Who cares if you turn to flab? Surely, your husband, but he’s not going anywhere. Still, the gym means more than staying lean. A sign by the butt-lift machine reads The pain you feel today is the strength you’ll feel tomorrow. You have learned that pain does not bring you strength. It’s just a persistent ache. Endurance makes you strong. The repetition of training your body five or six days a week has given you a means to avoid suffering. You will endure.
Against Meghan’s strongest objections, the psychiatrists send her to an inpatient facility once she’s medically cleared. The intake room is like a Shyamalan set piece. The bed has a blue rubber base with thick metal hooks at the bottom, a mattress smaller than its base, a tiny pillow no thicker than a small, folded blanket. Pale blue walls couldn’t trick anyone into calm. The light is weak; a green tinge pervades.
Your husband sits in a chair made of the same rubber as the bed. Within a few moments, he falls asleep.
Meghan cries as you’ve never seen her cry. She needs medication, but the intake nurse says a doctor won’t prescribe until Monday. (It’s Friday).
When Meghan insists she doesn’t want to be here, the nurse asks what she did; Meghan tells her about the pills and the nurse responds, “That’s a very serious thing you did, my dear. You are going to be here for a little while. You need to get help.”
Meghan needs to hear this, but reality is to her like a meal she doesn’t want to eat.
You don’t want to need anything but her life. You want simple food, easy to prepare with few ingredients. You don’t want new clothes, fun vacations, fancy hand soap. You just want her to get well; this wellness requires more of you than of her. You are convinced that her life depends upon the meticulousness of your care. Every moment you put a need before a want, it feels like a prayer.
You have to bring items to the inpatient facility. She wants shampoo, conditioner, clothes, shoes, books. You have a hard time finding clothes to bring her. They allow nothing with ties or strings, not even slippers with the short laces. You pack in a duffle the soft, laceless boots, leggings, a sweatshirt without a hood. She also wants iced tea. You have to go to Shop Rite for the tea because Quick Check sells only cans. Drinks must be in plastic bottles.
Meghan loves cleaning her ears with Q-tips, but the facility bans them. “Maybe they think I’ll stab myself in the eye,” she said on the phone. You don’t want to think about all the ways a child can inflict pain with Q-tip.
You smell the Dove shampoos and conditioners on sale, pick those that smell the sweetest. You also buy body wash and a bath pouf because why not? There’s no cause for objection that you see.
The cashier who rings you up has electric blue stiletto nails. In the ER, Meghan played with what remained of her black, almond-shaped acrylics. Her mascara smudged beneath her eyes, her scissored sweatshirt stained with puke, she looked like a weary drunk or drug addict.
You kissed the top of her head. Her hair needed a washing.
The cashier, her hair pressed into a complex braided weave, hands you your receipt, tells you to have a nice day.
“My daughter tried to kill herself,” you want to say. Instead, you wish her a good weekend.
Your children pick out gifts. Grandma set them loose in Walgreens and they come home excited. They bought a “word find”—a card adorned with a dress of die-cut flowers. “It’s something Meg would wear,” your other daughter says, and you tell her to cross out the Happy Birthday. It is seven months to Meghan’s seventeenth birthday. A part of you fears—and must not believe—that she will not reach it. Your son chose a tiny stuffed dog with a metal bone charm at its throat. You’re not sure they’ll let Meghan have it. They take away anything that shines. The last gift: cozy socks. You tell them that Meghan will love these gifts. They look happy, as on Christmas morning.
While you are up at 2:30 A.M., eating hot cereal, you wonder if she’s asleep in her rubber-bottomed bed, if the Benadryl they gave will keep her down. It didn’t work last night. Is she hearing the rain against her window? (Surely it is raining, fifteen minutes away). Is she pacing her room, trying to concentrate on the books you brought her? You write in your journal, which always keeps you from soul sickness, but you have no language for this. You can only wonder about the signals you’ve missed, why you don’t feel sadder than you do. You want to weep.
At visiting hours, she always cries, says she hates it here. You’re angry with her for not understanding the ramifications of her recklessness, echoes of it everywhere. You can’t deny your annoyance when she says she’s bored. You fight the urge to say she brought this on herself. When she says, “It’s not what I need,” you correct her: “It’s not what you want; it is what you need. We have to trust the professionals.”
But there are so many professionals you’re not sure who to trust. There are several resources, several routes you could follow. People have told you in the past to trust your gut, but this doesn’t seem possible. Some part of you knew to check on her at exactly the right moment, before the damage began, the pills’ sweeping assault. But you believe it’s just luck that you found her in time.
She misses mocha and caramel iced coffees, wake-up wraps and extra toasted bagels with cream cheese. She misses family, friends, the dog who sleeps in her bed, misses her room, her jewelry, her cell phone. You do not know if these pleasures, once they return to her life, are enough to tether her to the outside world, which she found so unbearable only a week ago.
She speaks of nightmares. In one: “You guys turned my room into the bedroom here, got rid of all my other stuff.” In another: her best friends threw ice cream at her. Strawberry, her least favorite kind.
She wants to play nice, to modulate her feelings so she can get out in a week, wants to keep the job she’s not yet started. (The orientation is two days away. Your husband will lie to the manager, citing the flu.) She’s been coloring a 2ndFloor pamphlet. At the bottom, in the margin of white space, she’s written I deserve to be loved and to live. You wonder if she believes it, and at what point she started to feel undeserving of basic existence and affection.
At home, you start another file folder for her. You have files for each child, but Meghan’s section takes up the most space in the cabinet. The file labels: Test Scores, Dermatology, Gastroenterology, College, Mood Check-ins, Blood Work, Immunizations, Aetna, and, now, Hospitalization. Some of the folders are thin; months ago, you gave up on mood check-ins (the checklists gauging bipolar and depressive behavior) because she got sick of doing them and you just forgot. You tell yourself that it’s hard having three kids. They each need you in different ways at different times, but Meghan needs you always. She’s your second career. But this is what we do, says your friend whose son was in thirteen mental hospitals in one year. You could not survive without this friend, who not only loves and does not judge, but also saves you from the anvil of your own guilt.
At least you caught her in time, she says, and you have to be grateful.
Mental illness snakes through your bloodline. For over a decade, you’ve been seeing a counselor and taking medication, but even in your darkest moments, you never made a plan to die. Because of your struggles, you must stay well, to be the support she needs. You have spent the last three years getting her help, but even with the support network—psychiatrists, counselors—it has not been enough. And so you wonder if her goal is to die, an ambition richer than her plan to help others like her in the future when she will ask the same questions of her clients that the doctors and clinicians ask of her now. Your counselor says Meghan may be an HSP, an empath who absorbs everyone’s pain. You tell the doctor who finally prescribes medication that she helps others with her problems. He replies, “She helps others solve their problems, but can’t solve her own.”
You visit each night, take half-days from work to keep pace with the rest of your life, hide the truth from your boss who you’ve pondered telling only because you want his pity. You get her school work, wishing you’d thought to get it on Friday, before they transferred her. You want her working even though academics should be your last concern. You want her to return to a semblance of normality, the structure of life in real time. She must stay busy, not think about all she misses, all the people she believes are not missing her. Everyone wants to get out, she says, and yet many find themselves back in here.
An article informs you: a person who tries to commit suicide is more likely to do so again. You don’t recall the percentage of recidivists, but the numbers don’t matter. You sense that this will happen again. This road, this path are long, full of holes and dangers and near-escapes. Meghan’s friend’s parents talk to you about their oldest child, who went through something similar. It was hard, they admit, but say she’s doing okay now. She attends community college, has a job and a boyfriend, a good guy this time.
You cannot imagine Meghan making such progress. She seems more likely to die than to live. You think: if you’re going to die, do it now rather than later. Save me this constant worry, this pain. You hate yourself for this thought, for wanting to love her less.
Your mother advises you to return to church. You attend a support group instead. One parent says she’s tired of hearing about how well her friends’ kids are doing. “I don’t care if they’re on the honor roll or made the varsity lacrosse team.”
All the dreams you had for Meghan must go. You were reasonable, not expecting all A’s, though you pushed for high marks. Before what you discreetly call “her attempt,” you signed her up for the SAT, which you know you will have to drag her out of bed to take in April. You’ll tell her not to worry about the score and you’ll force yourself not to care.
The previous August, you took a tour of a college, not far from the ocean. During the tour, your husband pointed to the outdoor tables by the swimming pool. He said to her, “You could get a coffee at Starbucks and study there every day.” He added, “You could go to the beach whenever you want. Eat macaroons.” She agreed, added that she might try jet skiing.
Was she planning her demise, even then?
You make plans for her return. Lock up the meds, the sharps (scissors, knives, razors for shaving). You try to convince your husband to hide the wine. “She has to learn how to restrain herself,” he says.
“But what if she can’t? What if it’s impossible?”
He doesn’t answer.
You buy her a silver ring that reads Nothing is Impossible in a Mobius strip.
Your children make cards and pick out balloons from the dollar store. You had planned to buy her flowers to replace the ones in her room that died, their vase clotted with gray water. But you forgot.
The doctors and clinicians wish her well, assure her that she is mature and will improve as she continues onto the next phase: a partial day-program and then IOP. She thanks them. With her backpack weighing down her shoulders, she looks young and scared. Her long hair, tangled and shiny, spills down the backpack straps.
On the way home, you stop at Dunkin’ Donuts. She drinks her caramel iced coffee as if it’s the last drink on earth and says her bagel is the best she’s ever eaten. Your husband smiles as if her statement is evidence of her full recovery.
As you walk in the house, your other two children run down the steps and hug her before she has a chance to put down her backpack.
“We missed you,” says your son.
“Are you happy again?” your youngest asks.
She nods and you see tears in her eyes—of happiness or sadness, you cannot tell which.
While it flurries outside, you all play Clue after dinner, the newer version with the extra weapons. At one time, you’d said, “Who knew there were so many ways to die?”
Meghan left items in her locker at the facility; early morning, you drive carefully through last night’s inch of snow, tromp toward the building in your furry boots. An orderly hands you the items in a paper bag; you open it in your car, take out the Dove shampoo bottle. You imagine the suds in her thick hair, swirls of her hair on the tile. You open the bottle cap, put the opening to your nose, sit there, alone, smelling it.
You check on Meghan all morning, making sure the comforter rises and falls. By eleven, you wake her, say she can’t lie there all day.
“I know,” she says. “But I have a headache.” She puts her arm over her forehead.
You bring her two Ibuprofen from the lockbox. She leans on her elbow, drinks them down.
“I cannot find you dead,” you say. “I just can’t.”
“I know,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
You assure her it’s okay, but instinctively know it’s not.
There is more reserved for her. She will drink wine from the fridge, smoke pot with her friends, come home so incoherent your husband will be convinced the weed was laced with something; he ponders the ER again, but his yelling snaps her awake.
“Don’t you get it?” you’ll shriek in her face. “We love you!”
She will return to her regular school, move in-and-out of failing classes; you’ll email teachers. They will sympathize, extend due dates. One evening, she will go missing for a few unbearable hours; when she returns, saying she was at her friend’s house, you and your husband will both know she’s lying.
And yet the medication starts to work; she learns to sleep again. She has good days. The counselor at IOP will report her progress. Meghan is helpful to others, gentle with their troubles. She will help the boy new to the school find his classroom. He will ask her to prom; she’ll buy a navy, lace strapless dress from Lulus, wear her hair up in a twist, get her nails painted the color of cherry-blossom froth.
The boy will put a corsage on her wrist, lean close to her for a picture. He’s handsome.
Your youngest also takes pictures on your cell phone. “Meg looks like a princess,” she’ll say.
You and your husband will tell them to have a good time. You hope she will dance, eat, laugh. You’ll think but not say: Come home safe. Come home sober.