This powerful and intensely personal post was written by my friend Fiona, after a particularly distressing incident with her teenage daughter. She intended to send it to the newspapers, but for now she has allowed me to post it here, in the interests of raising awareness. Fiona feels that people need to know how incredibly serious the issue of the mental health of our teenagers has become. She says her experience has reaffirmed the belief she had as a new teacher, that the social, emotional care and development of our students should be as important to us as numeracy and literacy or even more important…
She’s safe…for now! The lacerations on her arms and legs…observed and noted. Signs of where the cord bit into her throat, observed and noted. The desolate cries for help, chemically subdued and noted. The ride in the back of the police car, efficiently noted. The birthdate, name and address of the child recorded and recorded and recorded…noted. The memories of the cold, fluorescent back of a paddy wagon, stored away for future nightmares.
Her shaking body, her tears mingling with mine, her arms clinging onto me …absorbed,embraced…felt!
No crime has been committed and this is not the scene of an accident. On paper, efficiently, clearly, extensively researched and noted, this is environmentally and genetically explained. This is quite clearly, a fifteen year old experiencing Borderline Personality traits, depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder.
On paper, efficiently, academically, extensively outlined is the therapeutic pathway to follow. There are phone numbers to dial, appointments to attend and behavioural strategies to practice just before the fog of self-loathing, loneliness and helplessness rolls over her.
To some, this is an attention seeking, manipulative, self-absorbed teenager. She should toughen up. Get over it. Think of all the people in the world worse off than her. Go for a long walk. Hug a puppy. Go to school. Get your homework done … that always feels good! Don’t you know how upsetting this is for your mum, your family? Everyone has a bad day, tomorrow will be better.
To me? She’s my baby. I have nursed her, bathed her and rocked her to sleep. I have tended to her scraped knees, dried her tears, celebrated her successes, stared in wonder at her beauty and marveled at her intelligence.
Last night? Again, I tended to her cuts, dried her tears, rocked her and fought like a tigress (albeit tearfully) to get her help. I answered the questions so the person on the other end of the line could tick their boxes (I did stumble for a moment and my stoic, matter of fact 21-year-old daughter picked up the ball until the goal was in sight), I kept the back of that paddy wagon just a close-call not an experience and every wave of physical or digital note paper was efficiently and quickly dealt with and batted away. I fought so my child’s pain, not her mental illness could be felt, not noted.
She’s safe…for now.
A crisis admission into an adolescent mental health unit.
Twenty four hours for us to re-group. Twenty four hours to prepare for the next duly noted crisis.
Twenty four hours before I meet with the team of mental health professionals to hear “yes, I can see how distressing this is for you”, “it’s pleasing that she has been seeing her case worker” “yes, I think we will review her medication”, “she is better served out in the community”, “that’s good to hear that she will be attending group sessions next Term” “now, you have her health care plan and you have the crisis numbers?” “yes, I understand your concerns, as you know this is a long-term journey” “yes, there is a chance she will succeed with one of her suicide attempts” “there is light at the end of the tunnel” “yes, I understand, the light is hard to see” “are you being counseled yourself?” “that must be helpful for you”, “well, nice to see you again, hopefully we won’t see you again too soon”
I know that there is another side to this story. The ones who are efficiently trained to manage, contain, attend to and transport these children in crisis. They are soldiers on the frontline, for them the call for help or the cry “medic!” means manage, contain, attend to and transport. I know I wouldn’t want to do it, I know that dealing with all the human suffering and violence would leave me numb! I also know these people are not super human, and like all of us they are prone to prejudice, assumptions, exhaustion and mistakes.
Trying to convince a distraught, mentally unwell, non-violent teenager to get into the back of a paddy wagon (“it’s ok it’s been washed”), because bags and folders are on the back seat of the sedan – mistake.
Not having enough ambulances to cater for all cries for help – mistake
Not increasing funding for mental health services – mistake
And what of her duly noted siblings? How have they fared? They are also of the same environment and genetic material and yet, of course, different. One, has taken on the intolerant and less informed view that much of the general public has. The other struggles with the great divide between knowledge and emotional connection; despite studying psychology, she is first and foremost, the big sister to a teenage sister, who just happens to suffer mental ill-health.
If my young daughter survives this war, she will be strong. If she doesn’t, she will have found peace. Peace in the sense that her pain will end. No more slicing into her arms and legs so that the physical pain will drown out the mental turmoil. No more feelings of worthlessness, no more memories. For me, my pain will continue.