By M. E.
Or right-click here to download the audio file: Living on the Edge
THE FIRST TIME MY oldest child made a frantic telephone call to me occurred on a crisp autumn afternoon when he was thirteen. I sat in a row of parents watching my daughter chase a soccer ball with half a dozen other girls. It was a good sight. Our family had recently moved to a new town, which meant new teams, new schools, and—my husband and I hoped—new friends for the children. I had thought our offspring were adjusting well. Then my cell phone rang.
I knew the call came from my oldest son because of caller ID. But when I answered, all I heard was sobbing. I walked a few feet away from the other parents and begged Eric to tell me what was wrong. It took some coaxing before the words came: “Mom, I’m gonna hurt myself.” Frightened, I asked what he meant. “I wanna die. I need to die.” I began running for the car. To this day, I consider it a miracle I didn’t cause an accident as I sped home.
A decade has passed since that afternoon. Most of what happened immediately after that call is gone from me. I do remember running into the house and finding my son curled up on my king-sized bed. I crawled beside him and held him as he sobbed about how worthless and stupid he was, his fingers digging into me. As I held him, I began to realize that my life would never be the same. I now knew that my child was capable of self-hatred intense enough to motivate suicide. The idea was incomprehensible.
After all, I’d taught Eric the eternal things about his self-worth as a child of God, about repentance and the depth of forgiveness, about love, gratitude, and service. Our family attended church weekly and my husband and I included our children in our church service as often as possible. We had fostered a stable, happy marriage and my husband provided us a safe, comfortable life that allowed me to stay home with the children. And we had fun every day. Because we were a small family by LDS norms, Eric likely received more individual attention than many Mormon offspring. His needs were always met. With all this going for him, how could Eric have become so distraught? If living a gospel-centered life didn’t protect him from self-loathing, what would? The foundation upon which we’d built our family suddenly didn’t seem strong enough. I needed help.
I knew of other parents who had gone to the bishop when challenges arose with their children, but I knew of them because I’d served in leadership positions. From the numerous meetings I’d attended, I’d learned there is little that remains truly confidential in Mormondom. Confidentiality means your church leader only tells a limited circle of lay associates who in turn share the information with another limited circle of lay associates—and so on. People who are let in on ward “secrets” generally mean well, but gossip is gossip no matter how many layers of prayers and good intentions you wrap it in. Put plainly, I dreaded my son growing up in a ward where so many would know he had mental health issues. I wasn’t ashamed of my son or his struggles, but I felt protective and very aware that the pre-emptive “answers” the gospel had provided hadn’t been sufficient to fend off my son’s depression. Gospel living—indeed, the gift of the Holy Ghost—had not given me eyes clear enough to see this coming.
So my husband and I took Eric to a non-LDS counselor. I worried about this choice, fearing this counselor might identify our religion as part of my son’s problem and, to be honest, that was something I didn’t want to face. But my husband was equally worried that an LDS counselor might not truly hear our son if his depression had so much as a toe dipped in Mormonism. Together we prayed that this “secular” counselor would be blessed with the insight she needed to help our son—and to help us help him.
In the end, our worries were wasted because our thirteen-year-old son refused to speak to the therapist or make his next appointment. We considered compelling him to continue, but he explained he didn’t need a counselor; he needed me, us, the family, and to not be alone. He said family is all that matters, nothing else matters, and do I love him, can I love him, can he sleep on the floor by dad and me? What he expressed was not only consistent with our beliefs but a relief: We hadn’t failed him if he knew he was loved and that we would protect and cherish him.
And so our firstborn, who was already taller than his father, slept on the floor at the foot of our bed for months. When he wasn’t at school, he followed me around. If I wasn’t available, he accepted the presence of his father or younger sister. We kept him close, hugging him, encouraging him, and, in a strange way, enjoying his intense awareness of our love and connectedness. Eric made it clear to us that we were the only reason for him to remain alive; our love was all that stopped him from taking his life. But he didn’t trust himself, he said, so we shouldn’t trust him either.
In hindsight, we probably should have found a way to incorporate counseling into his life. Perhaps that would have prevented the relapses years later. But my son was never a very verbal person and I feared that forcing him into counseling might heighten his self-loathing. I decided that I could handle it. I had prayer. I had the Holy Ghost. I had maternal instinct. I had access to books written by people who actually knew things about depression and teens. Eric and I would make it together. Somehow. So help me God.
Please help me, God.
My husband and I worked under the conviction that time would heal this wound: time to adjust to this new environment and make friends, time to outgrow the onslaught of teenage hormones. And, indeed, the layers of Eric’s depression eventually peeled away. He sorted out his true friends; he discovered a talent for the stage; he decided that getting a B, or even a C, wasn’t the end of the world. The depression subsided before that school year was over and was replaced with an Eeyorish outlook that expressed itself through a dark, but irresistible humor and an ability to detach from things that had once upset him. He may not have been “popular” through high school, but he held his own, and to his peers became a beloved character in the drama that is high school. In other words, he fit. He’d grown up. He had quite a few friends. He created a place and a positive identity. When he accepted his diploma, I thought we had made it. I thought he’d head off to college, have more fun than he probably should, then serve a mission before finishing his degree. In no time, I expected he’d have a career started and possibly a family. He’d find happiness in the struggle that is life.
He attended one of the Church schools for a semester, but quickly decided he’d rather study elsewhere and returned home. Then he told us he would pass on a mission, saying he had no stomach for “going around telling other people that what they believe is wrong.” He had, after all, grown up Mormon in an area where evangelical Christianity is dominant, and thus, had been proselytized himself ad nauseam. While he was certain about not serving a mission, he wasn’t sure what or where he wanted to study, so he stayed at home and attended a community college. He even found a darling girlfriend. His new life seemed exciting and promising. But I saw other things behind his eyes. He was neither thrilled nor excited. He was losing hope again. Everything was tipping out of balance.
He started to come to me, lay out the tasks he had to accomplish for school, and ask me to pick what he should do next because he “just didn’t give a damn.” His experience as an actor had earned him a sought-after job as a waiter at one of those perky entertainment centers that offer food, bowling, an arcade, indoor go-carts, and the like, but he expressed more and more irritation toward the customers and suddenly and angrily quit. Other jobs came to similar, abrupt endings, always instigated by him. People annoyed him; he wanted to be alone. At home, he began to swear loudly and often, a behavior that seemed based in a desire to push me away. He was not the sweet lap dog of his earlier depression, but became distant. Things were thrown, overturned, broken. People were no good; God either hated him or didn’t exist. Nothing would ever turn out well for him. He was stupid. Worthless. A complete screw-up. I shouldn’t love him, he said. He’d never amount to anything.
It was obvious something was wrong, so wrong that Mommy couldn’t make it go away. My love was useless.
One day as my son stormed toward the garage door, he paused and then faced me. He asked, “Mom, why do I hate myself so much?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I adore you.”
His eyes took on that dull, half-there look I’d come to dread, and I braced for him to tell me for the millionth time that I was foolish. Instead, he looked at the floor and said, “Can you find me a counselor?”
That was three tumultuous and frightening years ago. He’s been under the care of his physician and a parade of mental health professionals. He’s been on too many medication plans to remember, none of which made much difference—a fact that only seemed to spur his depression. But, despite it all, he made the President’s List and graduated with honors. He was accepted to a flagship university many hours away, and, against the advice of his counselor, psychiatrist, and parents, decided to attend. We had no choice but to interpret this as him finding hope for his future. We prayed his experiences there would return his self-confidence.
As I write this, my son’s peers are taking their semester finals, but Eric is home with us. There is a train that regularly runs on the tracks across the street from his apartment. He would watch it from his bedroom window. Death by train wouldn’t be too messy, he told me. In fact, in some countries, it’s a preferred method of suicide. A nearly socially acceptable way to go.
Over the past three years, I’ve made several desperate, long drives to his university because he threatened to take his life. I had to quit my job because when he would hit bottom (usually as mid-terms and finals loomed), I’d have to disappear for days or weeks. Plus, I was exhausted from his recurring two a.m. phone calls. I’ve checked into hotel rooms with him, made him bathe and eat, and then helped him organize his course work so he could pass his exams. One semester, I was authorized by his professors to administer his final exams at home because he’d just been released from a mental hospital.
He had asked to be admitted because he thought, in desperation, that maybe a hospital could “fix him.” The psychiatrist who did his intake was nearly giddy because Eric’s case, he said, proved that depression is a medical problem and not an emotional one. After all, Eric had a loving, supportive family he enjoyed being with, a girlfriend who stood beside him, success at school, and no sudden tragedy with which to contend. His brain was simply out of balance. An increase in his anti-depressant should do the trick. Considering Eric had been taking more than a few pills for well over a year, I didn’t let myself get too comfortable. But this psychiatrist seemed optimistic and I welcomed that.
I used to consider myself a blessed woman because I had a strong marriage, healthy children, a beautiful home, dear friends, and the gospel of Jesus Christ in my life. Now I consider myself a blessed woman because I’ve somehow had the strength to hide from my suicidal son the toll his mental health problems has taken on me. He doesn’t know that my soul turns cold when the phone rings; I’m afraid I’ll answer to hear a doctor, police officer, or morgue attendant on the other end. He doesn’t know that, during the times he’s lived with us, I’ve paused at every door, steeling myself before entering. When he was young, if the house got too quiet, I’d check to see what kind of mischief he was up to. But now when the house gets too quiet, I scramble for an excuse to check on my adult son, bracing myself against the very real possibility that I might find him in a bathtub bleeding out, or in the closet with a belt around his neck. There isn’t a room in my house I haven’t imagined finding Eric dead in. And when he goes out, I wonder if he’ll return—and, if he doesn’t return, I wonder if I’ll ever know what happened to him. I worry that he might someday realize how difficult this time has been for me and convince himself I’d be better off without him. I used to think of the scriptural rod of iron as a God-given guide to protect my family. But now, when I hear the term, I envision my own backbone. That is my blessing. That, and the fact I haven’t joined the ranks of tortured parents who have had to bury a child who’d inexplicably lost all hope.
The intake psychiatrist’s optimism was unfounded. Eric left the hospital (which he describes as a true One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest experience) with reduced confidence in mental health professionals. The attending psychiatrist (who was not the intake doctor) convinced Eric he was bi-polar II, a diagnosis he based on the medication Eric was taking when he checked in. I understood that his counselor had initially sent Eric to the psychiatrist with a suspicion of bi-polar II—a less drastic form of bi-polar in which the manic phases are less pronounced—and I was willing to accept her diagnosis since Eric had an earlier bout with severe depression. But after my own rounds of study, I became convinced that bi-polar II was not my son’s root issue. He had never gone through anything remotely close to a manic phase as described in what I read. Once Eric was out of the hospital, he wanted to learn more about bi-polar II. And when he did, like me, he knew the diagnosis didn’t fit.
He stayed home with us the semester following his hospitalization and through the summer. He returned to the university and decided that the psychologists and psychiatrists couldn’t help him; the medication he’d been taking for nearly two years was pointless. He quit it all.
And, remarkably, improved. I was quite stunned when midterms and then finals came and went, twice over, without any crippling depression or anxiety attacks. He even remained stable when he and his girlfriend went through a difficult break-up. I began to breathe easier. Not once that fall or winter semester did he need me to check into a hotel and pep talk him through study sessions. This felt like a small victory even if I knew he wasn’t healed. As he moved into his senior year, I was genuinely optimistic.
And then mid-terms hit. His anxiety sky-rocketed and his depression tanked. The train, the train, the train.
As I sped down the highways and streets toward his apartment, I alternated between feelings of fear, grief, and anger, but chose, in the end, to feel numb. I could think while numb, and what I thought was that our son had to come home. It would devastate him to leave his university again; it would surely add to his self-loathing. But no academic degree is worth my son’s life. When someone is talking about stepping in front of a train, banking on a failed first attempt is foolishness.
I developed a plan as the scenery sped by. First, I had to get Eric to agree to see his former counselor, a person he trusted and would speak to. Next, he and I would visit the smaller university closer to home. He could live with us. Or he could forget about school altogether. A degree isn’t necessary. He is smart and capable. He could move directly into the workforce. My son was weak right then, so I would be practical and confident. No tears. I could do this. He could do this.
The next day, we drove to the smaller, local university and looked around, though he remained apathetic for the most part. His main concern was facing mid-terms in his current school. His major requires four semesters of language courses and he ambitiously chose a language so unlike English that most Americans would consider it one of the hardest to learn. He was in his fourth semester and drowning. As we drove off the campus, I told him to just get through it and, although I couldn’t help him with his language course, I could break everything else down so he wouldn’t become overwhelmed. He nodded, but I could feel his anxiety level rising. I decided to keep quiet and drive.
And then he said it. Words that struck me like a revelation.
“You know, Mom, the only time I’ve ever studied so it stuck was last year when I lived with Chris. Don’t get pissed off or anything, but he let me use his ADD medicine whenever I needed it. It was great.”
My heart stopped. My jaw fell. Suddenly it all made sense. My son is ADD. My mind whirred back over the years.
He hadn’t become depressed at thirteen because of the onslaught of hormones or our move. He’d become depressed because he’d been forced out of the comforting nest of elementary school and in to the complicated world of middle school, with its multiple classes and irregular due dates. I remembered his extreme sensitivity to noise and how irritated he becomes when interrupted. And how he’d seemed so detached in high school; the way his teachers had always complained that he wasn’t applying himself; the way he could never find his shoes, even if they were on his feet. The way I’d had to break work down for him all through his college years. The way he always aced classes that had study groups and struggled with those that didn’t. The way he couldn’t stop studying (what I now know is called hyper-focus), the way he’d call me in torment and beg me to order him to stop studying, telling me he couldn’t sleep because he had to study but he couldn’t study because he couldn’t sleep. The way he’d complain that he couldn’t understand why professors didn’t understand that their students couldn’t possibly do all they wanted them to do; it was impossible, he said. Suddenly I understood that my son hadn’t been whining; he’d been reporting the facts. He’d been telling me all along. I just couldn’t hear it. Attention Deficit Disorder. How could I have missed that?
We were at the physician’s office the next day. Of course, his own prescription for Adderall did not solve Eric’s immediate problems. He was still behind at school and still brimming with self-hatred. Two weeks later, he was still thinking of the train. The physician agreed to order a medical withdrawal from the university and Eric came home permanently. Once again, I am running regular checks of his room for potentially dangerous objects. He is back in counseling.
Eric was slow to accept the diagnosis of ADD, having always viewed it as an excuse used by the parents of poorly behaved or lazy children. But the more we learned together and the more we talked, the more he came to see how ADD impacts him. But his depression was not alleviated by this new diagnosis, it became elevated. He would need to grieve the loss of an identity he could no longer claim. During those early weeks back home, he had several melt-downs. More than once, he grabbed me by the arms, shook me, and ferociously begged me to let him die. I was selfish, he said, to not let him die. Why was I so goddamn selfish when he was so obviously useless?
We are about six weeks past his home-coming, two months past that revelatory moment in the car. Eric is coming to terms with his diagnosis. He finally has something he can look at and say, “That’s the cause of my struggle. I’m not crazy.” He is learning that ADD is manageable. And as he manages it, he sees his life improving. He’s got a job; he’s enrolling in the local university this week; he’s even reunited with his long-term girlfriend. He’s finally listening to his counselor’s “bullshit” about attitude and reading a self-help book about happiness. He tells me he combats negative thoughts by repeating in his mind lines from the book, mantra-like. And while he still isn’t so sure there is a loving God—or any God for that matter—he tells me he misses the people at church and wants to go back to see them. This change in his attitude toward other people brings me to tears with embarrassing ease.
But I’m too scarred to let myself believe Eric’s emotional self is en route to a complete healing. Even though it seems like this could be the answer to years of struggle and prayer, it feels too easy. And although I still don’t believe that bi-polar II is part of his problem, I realize I’ve been wrong about many things. So I will wait and watch. For this. For that. For signs he is sinking again.
They say many mental health issues overlap, that people with emotional problems often carry multiple diagnoses. I can’t know what is in the future for my son, but I know my future as his mother. Once your child pleads with you to let him die, you never are quite the same, never will be as confident, or sure of God’s protection. Hope becomes an act of desperation, not joy.
If you’ve ever walked to the edge of a cliff, looked down, and felt that unease, that fear, that hits you in the stomach, then you have some sense of how daily life feels for me. My husband thinks I would benefit from a little counseling. But I won’t go. Not now. Right now I need to stand on the brink of this abyss and feel hope in every breeze that doesn’t send me plummeting. Someday I expect my sense of hope will turn from desperation to relief and then, maybe, with time, transform back into joy. For now, I need to stay right where I am, feet firm. I need to keep that iron rod straight and strong and true. Because I’m not sure. I’m just not sure.