The Plagued Parent

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Reasons Upon Reasons

One of the first questions my wife asked me was, “Do you think she did this on purpose?”

I answered, “No.”

At that point, my daughter had not been formally diagnosed with depression so when the dust settled we asked my daughter directly and bluntly about the incident.

She was insistent. No way, she said.

True, that same evening she was anxious, angry and she’d argued with us over some non-sense or another but she insisted this wasn’t an attempt to harm herself.

No way.

Months later, we sat in a family meeting with a psychiatrist, a social worker and my daughter at the adolescent ward of an in-patient facility. This would be my daughter’s first hospitalization. The psychiatrist called that event — her car skidding off a snow covered road — a suicide attempt.

That’s news to us, we said.

I looked at my daughter; she looked sheepishly at her feet.

What else would you call it, he arrogantly insisted.

A careless accident, for starters.

She drove off the road on purpose, he said. To think otherwise would be wrong.

Seeing we hardly bought into the premise he added: Parents have a hard time treating things like this as fact.

He seemed to refuse the notion that perhaps, in the story he was given, certain facts might’ve been blown out of proportion. Perhaps the idea of an adolescent lying to him seemed a foreign concept; or to be more precise foreign the notion that he couldn’t spot truth from fiction. I guess for him a suicide attempt fit the narrative that weaved itself at that moment. This allowed him to confidently make sense out of the senselessness that had become my daughter’s inner life.

Prior to that moment, and after the car incident, we had another night of emotionally erratic behavior that culminated in threatening to take her to a hospital. My daughter ran out of the house, down the street and back into the driveway crying and screaming hysterically. My wife corralled her, I hyperventilated and we took her upstairs to her room.

In the light we noticed slight scratches on her forearm. Was she cutting? I took her to the ER. After a series of evaluations over an even longer series of hours, the ER psych consult concluded she was not a threat to herself or others.

What about the cutting, I asked.

This is the first time? the doctor asked.

As far as I know, I replied.

Because, she continued, it looks like the first time. She paused adding, It’s barely even cutting as far as I can tell.

How so?

It’s done so faintly, so delicately, she explained, that it hardly seems like she wanted to to hurt. That’s not cutting, honestly.

That’s not cutting, honestly. 

So, when attempted “self-harming” came up months later at the family meeting, well you might understand my skepticism. Was this all being done for show? And if it was a “cry for help” it was a needless one — we were already neck deep in the helping.

None of this sits well with me years later. Was it all just a power play? A ruse? A ploy for sympathy?

Now, what kind of parent questions such a thing?

Earlier this week my wife forwarded me an article by blogger Stephanie Lewis. Lewis raised an interesting question wondering aloud if “I’m going to kill myself” has become the new “I’m running away.” Lewis’ thesis is blunt, direct and ripe with controversy. She suggests that in some instances the threat of suicide by some adolescents is a power-play.

I can see that; Lewis may have a valid point.

However, by accepting Lewis’ premise that does not ignore the legitimate hopelessness that drives some adolescents to take their lives. That is of course a reality. So what we have here is a duality.

On the one hand we’ve got those whom loudly cry wolf, and on the other those whom cry loudly as the wolf devours them.

How does a parent tell the difference?

Bottom line is we can’t.

This can plague one’s mind. No one can afford to dismiss their child’s responses as sheer melodrama, but at the same time their emotional responses might actually be melodramatic. Not only does it seem impossible to differentiate, it also makes slicing through to the heart of the matter all that more difficult, if not impossible.

About a month ago, an email bounced in from my daughter’s principle. In this email the principal hoped to address concerns expressed by some parents about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why.

She insisted that the series, as well as the book on which it is based, was relevant and timely. Attached to the email was a parent’s guide put together by the National Association of School Psychologists. Do a quick Google search and you can see even more has been written about the series since it’s debut.

The Netflix series, based on a young adult novel by Jay Asher centers on a high school student who, after taking her own life, leaves cassette recordings explaining why she committed suicide. The story exploits themes such as bullying, cyber bulling, sexual assault, and the blind ineptitude of school counselors. Of course lets not forget the added layer of a revenge fantasy just to keep the drama roiling.

To be clear, I have not seen the show.

I’ve watched the trailer and it has the same look and feel that Pretty Little Liars, Vampire Diaries and every other gestation of the angsty romantic teen dramedy — pretty boys and pretty girls who love them doing ugly things until somebody gets hurt and then everyone works to cover the obvious truths from oblivious bystanders who work to uncover said predictable truths.

The problem with 13 Reasons Why is that, unlike those other shows, the foregrounded death is an intentional and self-inflicted one; suicide instigated by social forces that push a person to the edge of vulnerability from which there is no walking back.

Most of the parental “guides” related to the series urge “vulnerable students” not to view the program. All of this has a “trying to get the genie back into the bottle” vibe to it — this seems all a bit late.

My soon-to-be 16-year old daughter asked if she could start watching 13 Reasons Why, to which my wife said, “I don’t know. I’m afraid the show glorifies suicide.”

There have been a spate of similar incidents recently. Some, not solely adolescents, have taken to Youtube or Facebook prior to ending their lives in an effort to offer, I assume, their reasons. The reason. This phenomena is so pronounced that Facebook  is hiring 3000 employees to vet videos and live streams for this violent and disturbing content.

The reason this content exists on Facebook is the same reason for the production of 13 Reasons Why: audience. While principals and school counselors might view this as a teaching moment, one where greater awareness could be built and compassion fostered, I feel saddened that it takes the “fear” generated by a work of art to motivate in this way.

Perhaps, this is a good thing.

I have to ask though: Why is it that a darkly melodramatic series streamed through Netflix becomes the moral stop-light which gets us to say, “Crap! We should act with more kindness, more compassion and more tenderness towards others”?

Honestly, do we really need reasons for that?

My plan is to avoid consuming 13 Reasons Why. Whatever the number of reasons, I don’t need to know them. One reason is far too many.

As for past events, maybe the “why” matters a little less at this point. I remain convinced that my daughter feigned and exploited threatening her own life so she could live the one she’s chosen.

Still as a parent, it hurts.

It hurts to know that the love, devotion and protectiveness we feel for our kids might be manipulated by them for selfish gain. Facing this seems better than facing the alternative.

Knowing this, however doesn’t really make it hurt any less; as time passes it just hurts less often.

Postscript:

Click this link to a positive twist on the 13 Reasons. Posted in the Washington Post the article examines how one high school student dealt with mental illness and teen suicide head on.

Updated: May 10, 2017 — 2:42 pm

14 Comments

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  1. Whew! A hard post to write, but it’s great that you’re handling this as well as you are. I’m SO GLAD I’m passed the ‘I’m gonna kill myself” or the ‘I’m outahere!” stage.

    1. I’m glad you’re past it too. I guess all anyone can do is try to understand.

  2. This is a thoughtful response as a parent and it makes me ponder the differences between suicidal ideation and suicidal fantasies. I think teens tend to be prone to the latter. Ideation is part of a more complex mental illness rooted in deep shame that doesn’t want a spotlight; it just wants an end. Fantasizing and having “reasons” is more about living and correcting it justifying the overwhelming emotional and very real experiences teams have. But if you can come up with a reason to die, you can turn it around to a reason to live. I don’t think any of us in our perspectives have the answer, but I do believe we need to speak openly about the topic and consider each other’s concerns. Thank you for writing this as a parent voice.

    1. Thanks for taking it all in Charli. It’s a tough position to be in and I hope some time soon we find suitable approaches to a growing problem.

  3. Your honesty in dealing with these issues is heartwarming although heartbreaking for you I suspect. A very interesting discussion, I wish you all well in these troubled times.

  4. Oh oh oh. So many tricky and heartbreaking things here. When my son was 8 he threatened to kill himself. It was so very clear to me that this was not serious. Yet as he gets older and more emotional I wonder how many of these melodramatic outbursts I can ignore. As you know so well it is almost impossible to tell what the true threat level is. Then there is social media and audience and that underdeveloped pre frontal cortex. Thank you yet again for sharing your story and your words. The image of your daughter on the street wrestled by C is a haunting one.

    1. As you mention, we are at a crossroads of vulnerability the like we’ve never seen before as a species. Where once upon a time the greatest threat to our mortality came from beyond ourselves, we now inhabit a time where we are our own worst enemies thanks to “social media and audience and that underdeveloped pre frontal cortex”. Thanks as always Anna, you insight is appreciated.

  5. To hear different perspectives on this is so needed for open conversations all over. I applaud you for sharing your painful experiences. You never know who it may help.

  6. Ohhhh how my heart goes out to you! So proud of your thoughtful discourse and willingness to examine many possibilities! This reminds me of my brother who suffered outbursts of defiance and emotion. At 14, he slashed his wrists, though not deeply enough to do real harm. There were so many reasons proposed, so many excuses, so much blaming. Suspected was his manipulation and distortion of facts to support his positions of willful disregard of reasonable household rules. Thankfully, he and we have all survived his episodes through the years. He’s 60 now! And admittedly, he was frequently misled by his own self! He just does not always know the difference between fact and fiction. All this I offer as positive outcomes I hope come your way as well!

    1. Glad to know your brother and your family emerged from that. Our mental health is a complex issue, even more complex is our tendency in American culture towards anxiety. I think this is made worse with technology in general and social media in particular. It seems as if these outlets provoke compulsive behaviors, one of which might be the ways in which we are “frequently mislead” by our “own self”. Again I am so happy he has made it to 60, and that you were there for him.

  7. So I’ve literally written three SUPER long comments to this and then deleted them all. 😉 I’ve decided I have so much to say on the topic I should just do a blog on my personal blog…not shopgirl. But all the same. In the end it’s a blend. It’s for attention and it’s a cry for help. We want people to know how much they hurt us, so we exploit our frustration and pain. Perhaps we won’t kill ourselves, but we want people to know they made us think about it. Mine was never towards my parents…I was too emotionally distant, mine always had to with school friends and the like.

    1. First, make sure you forward your post when it is done and I can link it up to this one. Second, I appreciate your insights and still would have like to read your SUPER long drafts. Thanks SGA

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