“Mom, I’m four.”

I paused with the sandwich meat in my hand just long enough to give my 15-year-old daughter a puzzled look before I carried on making school lunches one evening. She was lying on the couch in her pajamas doing absolutely nothing.

“What did you say? Oh, I need you to find your water bottle. Did you leave it at school?” I asked as I carried on with my list of things to finish for the evening. I was looking forward to chilling on the couch for a few minutes before bed, too, but first there were the lunches to pack, a permission slip for a field trip to sign, and a dishwasher to load.

“Four,” she moaned again from across the room.

“Where is your water bottle and what is four?” I asked, barely looking up from loading the dishwasher.

My husband hollered from the other room where he was putting away our clean laundry, “Honey, she is at four!”

Then it all clicked. My daughter wasn’t moving off the couch to help with her lunch or to find the missing water bottle because she was a puddle of a person. She was at level four.

My eldest daughter has anxiety and depression. The last couple of years were brutal for her as we tried multiple medications in a desperate search to find one that worked, transferred to an online school because of the anxiety but switched back to public school this spring, and started sessions with the third counselor due to staff changes.

Some days she is an average teenager asking for a ride to the movies with friends, some days she uses the TV for a distraction from life, and some days she is begging to see a doctor in hopes that they can offer her relief from the heaviness. It’s difficult for her to tell us when the dark thoughts are whispering in her head, so we often don’t find out how bad things are until she is crying at 2 a.m. in our room. Or until after she has self-harmed.

We brainstormed ways for her to tell us in faster and simpler ways. Methods that used fewer words and caused fewer questions and misunderstandings. First, we tried a code word—siren. If she texted “siren” to us at any time, we knew she was in a dark place in her head and needed us. Eventually we replaced the code word with a battery-operated doorbell. She had the button on her headboard and the speaker plugged in next to ours. One push of the button, day or night, and we were at her bed within seconds. We became faster than a single text.

Eventually we realized that arriving at the scene of the crash wasn’t enough. We needed to know when things were heading downhill before she hit the bottom. So, we recently invented our own number scale.

1= I am doing great  
2= I am having some anxiety, but I am OK    
3= I am having high anxiety and need help to calm my world     
4= I am a human puddle and can’t function       
5= I need intervention/hospital visit

That evening in the kitchen as I clued in to her use of our brand new “How am I doing” scale, the dishes and lunches plummeted on my priority list. She was a four. My daughter on the couch was a puddle of a girl and needed her mom. She needed her mom to find the water bottle herself. She needed to be walked to bed and tucked in like a small child. She needed someone to sit with her while she fell asleep. She needed to be cared for like she was only four-years-old again.

In the morning she will be a cheerful and nervous two as she starts her school day with a refreshed mind, but for now she needs her mom because she is a four.

You may also want to read:

There Is Not One Face of Depression

The Call I Should Have Made about My Depression

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Tanya Teichroeb

Tanya is a wife to a wonderful man and mother to three precious children in northern British Columbia. Tanya is learning to look for the good in the hardships and the beauty in sharing her experiences. In her spare time Tanya enjoys coffee, reading, gardening, and silence. You can follow her at https://www.facebook.com/TeensandCoffeeBeansbyTanyaTeichroeb/