My son’s first attempt at suicide was in March, 2020.
He was 11 years old.
I haven’t written about it before now, and very few people even know that it happened. We kept it very quiet, mostly because he didn’t want anyone to know. It ate me up inside, and because I wasn’t writing about The Thing, I couldn’t write about anything. I threw myself into work. I wrote about racial injustice. I navigated the hell that is virtual schooling during a pandemic.
I did not write.
A writer who isn’t writing is either struggling with depression (check), overwhelm (check), or panic (double check). Writing is part of what keeps me grounded and relatively sane; it’s how I make sense of the world. Not writing for long stretches of time is a sign that I’m not doing very well, and avoiding writing about the biggest trauma to hit our household in the history of ever was causing my shame to grow.
Secrets keep us sick.
In March, just days before Covid-19 hit the United States, my oldest child tried to hang himself. It was a perfect storm: he was stressed out over things that were happening at school. I was stressed out over things happening at school. Tensions were high, and when he’s anxious, he acts out. Even though I know better, sometimes I forget that when he acts out, I have to look beyond the behavior to see the child.
In March of 2020, I forgot. I was frazzled and exasperated. I yelled. My husband yelled. The entire family was mad at him on that morning before school. His ADHD medication hadn’t kicked in yet, and the thought struck him: they would be better off without me.
Of course it’s not true. The thought that entered my son’s head on a loop was a lie, but the voice was loud enough and strong enough to propel him toward gathering a stack of books while I was in my bedroom getting dressed. He took a belt and looped it through a pull-up bar that was in our living room, stood on the stack of books, and put the loop around his neck.
My daughter, who was six years old at the time, came running down the hall shouting. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but the tone of her voice let me know it was urgent. I opened the door and asked her what was wrong.
HE IS TRYING TO HANG HIMSELF.
That is what she said.
Nothing made sense. That sentence didn’t make sense. He’s trying to what? I don’t know how I got from the hall to the living room. My heart was in my throat and my face was stricken, white as a piece of paper. I felt like that painting, The Scream, by Munch, like my hair was gone and I was just a big, gaping facial expression of horror.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the round mirror on the wall and I didn’t know who that pale person was, the lady whose brilliant, creative, amazing kid just tried to hang himself. I couldn’t find him in the house. I was screaming his name and my throat was closing up. He wasn’t standing on the now-scattered stack of books that his little sister was pointing to.
I told her it was going to be okay, even though I had no idea if that was true.
I still don’t.
Telling our kids it’s going to be okay is just what we do as parents when we are inwardly freaking the fuck out. I was saying it as much for her sake as my own; reiterating that she did the right thing and she was an excellent sister, the best sister, in fact. She knew to come get me, and I told her over and over, and have many times since, that she did the right thing. She saved his life that day. Her yelling at him to stop is what snapped him back to reality.
If he wasn’t standing on the books, then he wasn’t hanging from the pullup bar. This was a good thing.
I found him sitting outside on the driveway in the sunshine, barefoot, holding his belt. His face was also white. We later stood in the bathroom together, two matching white faces reflecting in the mirror.
“Brush your teeth,” I said calmly, because even people who are contemplating suicide need to make dental hygiene a priority. We robotically got through the next few hours and days and followed instructions and developed a plan for if this should ever happen again.
The next week, the pandemic hit.
My daughter was having nightmares. She started eating her feelings and then she started eating her hair and she gained 20 pounds in a year. Everyone needed therapy. No one could sleep. I doubled my nightly dose of Zzzquil because my thoughts prevented me from falling asleep on my own. For the first 6 weeks of quarantine, my life was a living hell because I kept waiting for him to do it again.
To be honest, I think he was waiting for the same thing.
It’s been almost a year since he’s had thoughts of suicide, but now that voice is back and it’s louder. He trusts me now enough to tell me the truth.
He met me at the back door this week, shaking and terrified, when I returned home from an errand.
My thoughts are scaring me again, Mom.
His arm bore marks from a butcher knife.
Again, I found myself saying “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay,” even though I have no idea if that’s true or not.
Children who are on the autism spectrum often have co-morbidities. What that means is, they almost always have another diagnosis like ADHD or OCD. My son’s comorbidities are ADHD and anxiety, which he takes medication to manage. Often, when kids hit puberty and especially if they’re on the spectrum, they struggle with self-harm and/or thoughts of suicide. Multiple studies have been done on the subject and I can tell you from personal experience that my kid is a spectacular human being who also happens to want to end his life from time to time.
My job isn’t to figure out how to fix it. I am not even supposed to make sense of it. My job is to love him and fight like hell to get him the help he needs. In doing that, I have to protect my own energy. I have to basically parent myself — make sure I get enough veggies, sleep, and exercise — so I can be the healthiest version of myself, for my family.
It forced me to create a fortress-like set of boundaries. This was no longer a vague idea of “I should have stronger boundaries because my therapist recommends it.” This was a “everything that drains me has to go immediately because I have to stay sane and sober to be there for my kid.” Period.
I don’t have the answers today, but I know this: the biggest and most important way for me to support my child(ren) is by showing up for them in an radically nonjudgmental way.
That, I can do.