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I have to learn to care for my suicidal teen with limits but without fear

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I am a good enough mother. I know that because my son’s psychiatrist told me so last week, as she explained bell curves and Skinner’s theories, and said that suicidal thoughts are normal. Forty percent of teenagers have them, she said, and it’s only verbalizing these thoughts that pushes my son out of the realm of normal and into the abyss of mental illness.

As we sat together around the table, in an uncomfortable triad with a box of Kleenex ready for my tears, I expected her to tell me that it was my fault. I have been searching for what I did wrong since it happened, and I’ve examined my son’s life with a fine-toothed comb, finding a thousand examples of my mistakes. I married the wrong men, I worked too much, I didn’t know how to be present; I didn’t know how to be myself, much less model boundaries and attachment for my son. “It’s all my fault” has been the refrain in my mind since the night I drove home from the ER as they admitted my son for suicidal ideation. I’m comfortable there, hating and blaming myself, and I walked into that psychiatrist’s office ready to hear how I failed my son.

It’s been three months since my son considered ending his life. While he was hospitalized, he compiled a list of suicidal triggers and when he came home we developed a daily rating scale. Most of the time, he tells me that he’s a 2 or 3. He’s pretty good, he says. But then, suddenly and without warning, I get a text while I’m at the grocery store that reads: “Mom, can I stay home from school? I’m at a 7 or 8.”

In the produce aisle, between heads of purple cauliflower and mounds of sweet potatoes, I wonder what “7 or 8” means on a suicidal scale of 1-10. If 10 is dead, what does a 7 look like? Is 7 a vague idea of suicide? Or is it standing on the bridge trying to decide whether to jump?

He told me that he was fine, he would listen to music and do his schoolwork, but I still made up an excuse to go home. He was “fine,” in that jumping out of his skin way that he is often fine now, but I made him sit and talk to me anyway. I could see how desperate he was to be alone, but I ignored it because as long as he is sitting on the couch bouncing his legs and looking at me like a caged animal, he is alive.

I have gotten rusty at keeping my son alive. Honestly, I’ve never been very good at it. He was born too early and died the day he was born, only to be brought back to life by a team of doctors and nurses, and hooked up to a bewildering assortment of wires and tubes. I sat by his incubator and stroked his tiny foot with my finger until even that gentle touch made his alarms buzz and his vitals plummet. In those early days, keeping him alive was all that mattered.

Those NICU days are light years behind us now, and somewhere along the way I relaxed. I thought that the tall, smiling young man in front of me didn’t need my help much anymore. I reminded him to do his chores and asked about his day, and I believed him when he told me that he was good. I was the last one to know when he became depressed or about the first time that he considered suicide. The second time, one of his friends told me right away because she was terrified that he was really going to kill himself. He didn’t kill himself but he spent the first week of school in a psychiatric ward — just in case.

Suicide is a strange and sterile word. The dictionary tells me that it comes from Latin words “sui” (oneself) and “cide” (killing) to mean the killing or death of oneself. It is a good description of the mechanics of the act but there is no hint of the torture or torment that drove my son to that edge. The doctors tell me that my son needs medication for his depression, but the medication only takes the edge off. Now he only wants to die once in awhile and that’s supposed to be an improvement.

I’ve never known anyone who killed themselves. One of my first assignments as a fledgling reporter was to interview the family of a former reporter who had committed suicide. I remember sitting in the back room of the musty newspaper office asking the dead woman’s father how he felt about his daughter’s death and hating myself for doing it. I typed up the story as my co-workers cried in the other room. She left behind young children and no explanations.

My pain is a shadow of that stranger’s pain yet it is there, ever present. It is there in my guts when I call down to his bedroom and he doesn’t reply and I imagine that I will open up his bedroom door and find him dead. It sits on my chest, crushing me bit by bit, inch by inch, every time he tells me that he is fine.

My son has died a thousand times in my mind. I wonder sometimes whether it will always be that way, and whether I will ever relax again. I didn’t recognize his depression twice — what’s to say that I will recognize it next time? I’ve plastered my refrigerator with phone numbers to call, I drive him to therapy, and I tell him that I am here for him, but none of that “fixes” his depression or changes the terrible truth that sometimes my son simply doesn’t want to live anymore.

I can recite the statistics with the best of them. Men make up four suicides for every one committed by a woman. Young white men are at the highest risk of suicide. In the psych ward, they told me to lock up my Ibuprofen from the teenager who can walk to the store to buy a jumbo bottle of Advil or to the park to buy heroin. He planned to jump off a bridge, should I lock up every bridge in Seattle, too? If my son wants to die enough on any given day, he will die. When I told her that, the doctor looked away.

We have meetings at school trying to figure out a plan for his academics. At first, I felt like I was sucking water from a sinking lifeboat with a straw. I didn’t care if he failed every class as long as he stayed alive. I didn’t care if he stayed home in his pajamas every day if that’s what he needed to live. I was willing to say or do anything in the world to keep this amazing, sensitive, and funny son of mine alive but there was no magic answer and certainly no magic pill. I couldn’t will him to stay alive, no matter what I did, and it was the most painful truth I’ve ever faced.

Back in the psychiatrist’s office, she told me that I am a good enough mother. I have made mistakes, but all mothers do. She looked me straight in the eye and told me that I have to punish my son when he skips school, just like I used to do, because I can’t allow my guilt to enable his avoidance. His depression isn’t my fault, she said, and for the first time I allowed myself to consider that she is right. That I messed up, made mistakes, wasn’t perfect, wasn’t who I wanted to be, but that I have always loved my son and that I have been a good enough mother.

My son’s depression doesn’t belong to me. I didn’t create it and I am not responsible for it. That big, tall, handsome son of mine needs a mother, not a terrified shell of a woman. He needs boundaries and limits, even when I’m convinced that they may kill him. He needs me to stop fearing for his death and to start planning for his life.

As we drove home, my son told me that he hates that psychiatrist. She is too blunt and harsh, he said. She needs a middle-man to soften her blows. I listened, and I looked him in the eyes and I told him that I’m sorry for the mistakes I’ve made. But when he skipped school the next day — because it’s overwhelming and hard, and he needs help, and can’t I save him, just this once — I grounded him. Because I am a good enough mother, and that is the best I can do.

Jody Allard is a former techie turned freelance writer living in Seattle. She writes primarily about parenting, recovering from childhood abuse, and life with a chronic illness. She can be reached through her web site, on Twitter, or via her Facebook page.

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