I remember the day you were born. The nurses were amazed by the volume and color of your lips; they had never seen such a beautiful baby, they gushed. From that moment, everyone cooed, “She’s so beautiful; she has such bright eyes; she is such a good baby!” The accolades for you did not stop even as you grew and started school. So smart, such a hard worker, such a bright future. You flourished despite your food intolerances and bouts of anxiety. My goals were for you to be kind and bully-free. I thought we had succeeded; then you turned 13.
Every day in my work, I see teenagers carrying trauma. Like an ant with a too-big crumb, they meander, wobbling through their lives looking for purpose. I have seen evidence of almost every detriment: abuse of all kinds, undiagnosed mental illnesses and personality disorders, rape, bullying, and so much more. Some of them are able to compartmentalize the pain. Some of them flounder under its weight. Most of them are starved for an active listener in their lives. Some of them reach out by failing classes; some even self-mutilate. They are all scrambling up a steep hill, clinging desperately to their crumb.
When my daughter was small, I envisioned helping her become “bully-free.” Bullying was such an issue in my life. Everyone could tell I was weak, insecure, and they capitalized on that shortcoming. I thought by teaching her to be kind in all circumstances and to stay away from drama, I could save her from my preconceived fate. And by all viable accounts, it worked. Except for her little brother, she is relentlessly kind to everyone. Her friends come from all walks, and they are a source of stability.
I never thought to protect her from the desperation that was growing inside her.
One day in January of 2020, I picked her up from dance. She was gasping for air, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t calm herself. When this happened a second time, I made an appointment with a pediatrician. “Generalized anxiety disorder,” the notes read. The pandemic hit shortly after, and we did not revisit the pediatrician. At home during our unprecedented life pause, we did everything together from baking cookies to riding our Kawasaki mule around the farm. We were always occupied, and we were always together. When school started again six months later, the anxiety came back with it. It also brought another obstacle: an eating disorder.
Now, in addition to a pediatrician and weekly weigh-ins, she also had a therapist. Her therapist diagnosed social anxiety disorder and an unspecified eating disorder. After two sessions, her cheer coach expressed fear she might be suicidal. She denied it to me and to her therapist, but her words to her team were, “Check on your friends; we are not OK.” She told her therapist at the first meeting she didn’t “like herself” and she struggled daily with crippling anxiety and low self-esteem. We fought to get her to eat something. When she did eat, she threw up. She lost four pounds in less than two weeks. Everyone around us commented on how thin she had gotten.
When there is a mental health crisis in your house, in your face, you are sometimes too close to see all its components.
They are lurking in basements, in corners, under beds, and behind bookshelves. New symptoms mix with old symptoms and ingrain themselves with the cobwebs of your dwelling. When you start to sweep them into piles, you find shards of broken glass. Literally.
I never thought it odd that little brother broke a snow globe. He is, as my mom says, “a bull in a china shop,” boisterous, excitable, and often reckless with the possessions of others. He admitted to breaking it, I swept up the glass, and we continued with our lives. We practiced for a Christmas play in the cold churchyard and came home to new costumes for the event. As I helped her remove the Virgin Mary’s robes, I saw three stacked Band-Aids on her right wrist. My heart seized—I had seen this evidence before.
“No!” she defended. “I’m not the kind of girl who cuts herself!” She was right. There was no trauma in her life. There was no need to seek attention of any kind to diagnose an underlying disorder; she had everything she needed and more.
She was the kind of girl who excelled, who had a smile for everyone, and who stuffed her pain so far down inside that it broke her.
I let my suspicion marinate for a while, and then I followed her to her room. I saw the tears when she turned around to face me. “I’m sorry,” she said. We talked. We cried. I redressed her wound. It was no deeper than a scratch, but four long scratches that had broken her skin.
“It hurt a lot. I don’t know why I did it. I am not doing it again.”
The anxiety, the eating disorder, the self-harm—all are evidence of someone searching for control. The anxiety is the cause; although medicated, it rears and snaps and beckons. The restriction, purging, and cutting are attempts to regain what has been lost—the sense of self and the love for the same. I have seen it before, but now it is in my house.
My husband built our house from scratch with just a little bit of help. He handled each piece of the floor, each wall, each joist, each fixture. He cut every piece of wood with me, and with our daughter, in mind. Her room is large enough for two beds and even a free-standing macramé swing. She has always hosted six-person sleepovers on her birthday. When my kids take a picture, they pose on the two-tiered stairs. They share a bathroom and have three pets: a fish, a large dog, and an indifferent cat. No one yells very often. No one is abusive to anyone else. We eat dinner together almost every night and breakfast on the weekends. We make hot chocolate and watch movies. In our bubble, on our hill, we just enjoy being together.
Now, my house is filled with questions.
What is next? When will this get better? When will it get worse? Are we looking at residential treatment? Will our insurance cover everything it takes to make her OK again? Is any of it enough? Am I going to lose my firstborn child?
Teaching her to be bully-free, and even to be kind, was never adequate. I was not prepared for the self-loathing that grew inside my house. Everything I knew from observing everyone else’s children was not enough—it is different when you open the door and it comes inside with you. All of life’s problems used to be solved with iced coffee or a sushi date; now they churn beneath the surface, despite these ongoing attempts to find normalcy. Now, we backtrack and pray she realizes she is enough.