Found in Grace's journal
“The way of the wicked is like darkness; They do not know over what they stumble.”
The story might start seven years ago when Grace stopped seeing her father. Regardless of the reasons, among them pornography on open display at his house, the result was the same: she resisted going; he did not pursue. Some divorced parents can relate to the child who runs away and hides when the other parent shows up to gather the children. Or the child who clings with every fiber in their body to the stair banister as the parent literally pulls the child away from their white knuckle grip. This child was Grace. And it did not happen all at once. She used to like going, and then she didn't. At all. Her father would bring her back to me, sometimes late at night telling me that he "couldn't deal with her." Several times I was out of town only to get calls from him telling me to come back and get her. I don't know what all happened in that relationship, but reader, make no mistake: children need their dads. Just like they need their moms.
Grace was a great baby and young child, easy and adorable. She was observant in the way that curious children are – and fell more toward the introversion side of the scale. She was athletic and active. She also had plenty of attention as there was a 10 and 12-year gap between she and her older siblings, 18 months between she and her younger sister Caroline, and she had cousins and grandparents who were close by. If I could identify any characteristic that seemed to be an issue for Grace from birth, it would be that she could be an anxious child. Worried about something or someone oftentimes. Her grandfather does the same, as do I. It wasn’t debilitating, however. In fact, she started kindergarten at 4, and did well academically even though she was often the youngest in her class.
Her father and I divorced when Grace was in kindergarten and I did not remarry until 2011 – seven years later. Grace and her two older siblings and one younger sibling attended parochial elementary and high schools. The schools offered a Christian environment, a supportive community of parents, teachers and clergy, and strong academics. It was a closed, and close-knit community. By the time Grace, my third child, was ready for high school, I had one still in college, and Caroline, the youngest still in 7th grade. I simply could not afford the private high school tuition that I had afforded the two older children with these other considerations. And – their elementary school only went to the 8th grade, so this would have been the time for a natural change in schools. Many families opted for public high school after 8th grade graduation. This was not as easy a decision as it is to write this paragraph; I struggled for weeks over the right thing to do for Grace. Three of her classmates were going to the public high school, and while I knew the poor reputation the school had - socially and academically, I hoped Grace would rise above it. I do not write this as a judgment on public schools in general, but rather to lay out the context for my journey with Grace. She had been in an environment which was predictable and stable, and one in which we had a family history. I opted to try our public high school for Grace. I determined that I would get involved in the school despite the fact I had a job that could be demanding and often required travel and after-hours events.
I went to the first PTA meeting and immediately got lost in the building. A nice man who was also in the hall and knew the building helped me find my way. As we walked along the hallway, I shared that I was nervous about Grace being here. He reassured me and told me to call the school if I ever had questions or concerns. I did not know if he was a parent or school staff member. He showed me to the correct room and then left.
The PTA meeting was uneventful. There were perhaps 50 parents there - a very small showing for a school of 2,000 students. The principal was introduced, and he mainly talked about the school's dismal performance on the state mandated achievement tests. He said they were working on it. There were no questions about this from any of the parents in attendance, but there was a signup sheet for a fundraiser.
My first volunteer opportunity came in the form of chaperoning a dance that was held outside in the courtyard, behind the main building. A dance in which boys get right behind the girls and grind. Together. With each other. And the boys get visibly excited - and the girls were encouraging it. I was stunned. I have seen simulated sex on television or in R-rated movies - and this was just like that. But with minors. Your 14-year-old children.
The parent/school liaison dance volunteer told me I would get used to this. It's "just the way kids dance these days." One new parent went through the dancing crowd to break the kids up. This new parent was loud and vocal - and unhappy. The parent/school liaison told her to relax - and behind the new parent's back, the liaison said she would never allow her to volunteer again at that school. The new parent was too strict, she said.
The administrators? Where were they? In the front of the building, inside, avoiding the pseudo-pole dancing and avoiding responsibility.
There was a dress code for the dance - and the parents and administration would check the kids before they left the building for the courtyard, where the dance was held. But - as soon as the kids came to the courtyard, off came the girl’s shirts to their sports bras - or whatever.
At Grace's previous school, the students were told that if they were going to dance together, they must leave enough room between them for the Holy Spirit. And, the principal was at every dance and was walking through the dance floor making sure the Holy Spirit, who must have been close to 300 pounds for as far away as the kids had to dance from each other, was in fact in between them.
There were police officers at this dance. Four of them. At our previous school, there were no police officers. Yet, I was glad to see them at this dance - but the young men who threw up in the courtyard from drinking probably were not. The other students merely observed them throwing up, as if it were no different than had a student stooped down to tie his shoe. No whispers in the crowd. No addressing the student body by administration or police officers. Remember the bar scene in The Star Wars: A New Hope movie? A life form is shot in this raucous bar, people pause and look, and then go right back to their conversations and music. This was the exact same. These children threw up, other kids stopped only long enough to look blankly at them, then they returned to grinding.
After the dance - Grace wanted to go to a "party" she heard about and said she would get a ride with someone else - someone she didn't know. I had just witnessed children dancing and acting as if they were consenting adults at bar. I had just witnessed children throwing up from drinking.
I said no.
She was angry with me. Grace’s friend was allowed to go, which made Grace that much angrier with me for the entire ride home. Like seething.
And that was the end of my first chaperoning experience at the school.
At this school, Grace met new "friends," some of whom proclaimed they were atheists. She had never been exposed to such a thing first hand. She was intrigued. She looked it up. She had questions. She thought it was kind of cool. Made her feel kind of smart to go against the grain, I imagine.
Moving forward to semester report card time in the fall, Grace's grades consistently slid from September to October. I had one unfruitful meeting with Grace’s math teacher who complained of her workload. Said she had to use her mother to help grade her papers every night. Said she was the most loved teacher in the school. Said the school put ridiculous demands on the teachers and she wasn't going to keep doing it.
A few weeks later, when grades still are not improving, I requested a meeting with the vice principal.
It turns out, the man who escorted me in the hallway that day to my first PTA meeting was the vice principal. He said he knew Grace - he said it was kind of unusual that he knew her as he did because there were so many kids. She had witnessed a parent hitting him one day, so she had to write a witness report. Then, he got her out of In School Suspension for wearing a shirt that did not have a collar. And - he just seemed to run into her. A lot.
At our meeting, he calls Grace in his office to discuss her grades. Grace is nervous and giggling and wanting to be chatty with him - probably the relationship she has with him when I am not around. He tells Grace he understands why I am concerned. He tells her he sees her going from crowd to crowd. He sees she is everyone's friend - even kids she should probably avoid. This public school vice principal goes on to say that he believes Grace was put in his path for a reason. He believes Grace is prepared for things much greater than what she is doing; she was created by God for a special purpose. He wants her to know she can come to him with any problem.
Grace is nervous. And still giggly.
I am in disbelief over what I heard, but am quiet.
Grace says she will do better and I thank him for his time. He again tells me to contact him if I have any more concerns.
We leave, and I tell Grace she has a guardian angel. Did she realize how unusual that was? I tell her in my 20 years in education, I have never seen that in a parent/student meeting in a large urban school. To mention spirituality? To reference Christianity? To people he did not even know nor know of their religious or spiritual background?
She thinks "it’s no big deal," a phrase I would begin to hear with frequency.
I am a bit alarmed at his observation that Grace moves from group to group to be “everybody’s friend,” but I don’t say anything about it to her.
Grace was asked to go to homecoming. I told her that would be fine, but I needed to meet the boy. She refused. I told her she was not going until I met him and spoke with his parents. She said no one else’s parents made them do this. She didn’t want me to meet him or his parents. Why can’t I just let her go?
Over the next few days, she and I had terse and tense conversations about how I needed to meet her date - he needed to come to the house, I needed to talk to his parents - I would not let her go with someone I didn't know. But, conversations with Grace were like driving by a rock slide. You knew it was risky to engage. Could you deliver your information and get out before the rocks fell and smashed everything in their path? Conversations would escalate quickly - over nothing. Over anything. At any time. And then it was over. She would leave the room. It got to where we all got conditioned to leave her alone, or give her a pass for behavior - or coddle her. It was a terrible existence for those of us who were with her all of time. And, I am sure it was terrible for Grace as well. There was no way she was happy.
I did get the mom’s number and called her. I met the boy. And he was nice. And his parents seemed great. I don’t know what Grace’s hesitation was. Perhaps it would have just been embarrassing to her?
I then allow Grace to go with her friends to choose dresses. I get final approval of course. So, Grace calls me when she is out with her friends and says she has found one. I tell her I’ll be right over to see it. I drive to mall and find the girls at the department store. I see Grace’s friends’ dresses. They look more like nightclub dresses for 25-year olds. Then, Grace tries hers on. Grace chooses a one shoulder sequin dress. The one sleeve is long, which is a plus. But, the dress itself is so tight. And so short. I think, in retrospect, I was entirely too quick to bow to loud and swift pressure from Grace and her friends about what "everyone" was wearing. Grace's choice was the least bad of the bad ones I saw, and I let her get it, I think because we simply argued about so much that I was starting to lose my sense of what was important enough to argue about.
But - gosh - when we got home, and she put it on with some of my heels - it was really bad, for a 14-year-old, that is. It was just so short and so tight - and she looked like she was trying too hard to get attention for the wrong reasons. I thought about it over the next few days, showed it to some co-workers, and then came home one afternoon and told Grace we were going to get another one. She was unhappy - until she realized she got two dresses out of the deal this way since we couldn't return the other one.
On the day of homecoming, my older daughter, Holly, was home from college. She and I were sitting in the kitchen and Holly asked me why Grace, who was presently out with a friend, had a kitchen knife in her bathroom cabinet? One of the new ones from the set that my oldest son had given us last Christmas. A steak knife? It was an innocuous question.
And in that moment at the kitchen table - a vision came back to me of Grace talking to me three months prior in my bathroom. It was a casual conversation, we were both sitting on the floor - and I noticed that Grace had several cuts on her left arm - almost like a young child gets when they are rock climbing or tree climbing and their arm drags against the bark or the stone. Grace told me she fell. I asked how - she said on her bike. Then I recalled a similar prior injury - and she had told me at that time she fell, too. In the span of less than a minute, I am sick.
My daughter intentionally cuts herself.
The best way I can describe this feeling I had in this moment is that it felt like I had stepped off a roller-coaster that did flips and turns and then rapidly returns to the loading station and stops with a jerk. Then the safety bar goes up, allowing you to get off or move or leave or throw up.
I go upstairs without a word - and find the knife. Holly is unaware of what has transpired in my mind, only that her question has triggered something and that I left the kitchen. I bring the knife downstairs and tell Holly the only thing I can think – and what I suspect. Holly takes it all in. Then the questions: Why? How do you know? For how long? Who would do this? My answers are all: I don’t know.
I tell Holly about the two previous times she had arm injuries as if Grace was a 5-year-old tree climber. And Grace lied to me, twice about it. Looked me dead in the eye and lied.
I voraciously read everything I could find online about cutting in the next hour or so while Grace is gone. I was in research mode. I read about the possibilities for the reasons why, about where they cut, about how it is typically girls. I saw scarred pictures of arms and inner thighs. I read about these kids who could not handle, in a healthy and normal fashion, stress or sadness. But behind all the medical and psychological jargon I read, it always struck me: This is sick. This is dark stuff. And you cannot read it or look at pictures without getting sick yourself. And, I will also tell you that to this day,whenever I am putting away dishes and I get to our knife set, the same one that had one missing when Holly found it in Grace’s room, I subconsciously note the knives to make sure they are all present. It is as if it has been hardwired into my brain – a Pavlovian response. In my mind, that knife set that still sits on the kitchen counter is forever connected to a terrible time in our lives.
I was to take Grace later that day to get shoes for her dress - and thought I would confront her then when it was just she and I in the car; I would tell her that I know, we would get her help, it would be out in the open then and we would handle it. She didn’t have to continue doing this! Grace would be relieved and happy, we would hug and then all this terribleness with her behaviors and growing opposition to me and anyone in authority would go away. I was mentally preparing myself for what I would say, how I would say it. I had digested a good amount of information on cutting, or self-harm, in those few hours; I had a handle on this and was ready. I felt good. I was in control of this.
Grace and I got in the car. Grace rarely sat up front with me anymore, preferring the solitude of the back seat, or maybe just wanting to get away from me. I turned the corner and I pulled over right in our subdivision. I put the car in park and turned around to the back seat. I confront Grace about the marks on her arms and the knife.
Grace, are you cutting yourself?
Just saying the words out loud to her, my daughter, was a moment I won’t forget. It’s not something you ever expect to ask your child. I can tell you exactly where we were on the street and what kind of day it was.
Grace denied it. Several times. Adamantly.
I told Grace denying was useless.
Then she isolated herself by beginning to curl up against the car door and not looking at me.
Grace got defiant, and the rock slide came.
Yes! She had been doing it! Since about 6th grade!
Yes - she knew it was addictive. Duh!
It made her feel better!
No - she didn't care about scars!
This is stupid!
It’s no big deal!
Reader – we sat there for an hour alternating between long pauses, me giving her soliloquies, me entreating her to please respond to me, her ignoring me, her rolling her eyes, her looking at me with sheer hatred, me trying to keep from crying.
The conversation was a bust. I envisioned a loving, conciliatory conversation in which she would know I would help her out of this - instead, I encountered and cornered a feral animal. And - I will tell you there have been times during this ordeal that I have looked in Grace's eyes and seen no light. Those are the scariest times for me as a mom, and as a Christian - regardless of whether she is my child or not. I watched her wind herself up, I watched her withdraw into herself and her dark thoughts. There was no talking to Grace. She was not letting ANYONE in. And I was stunned with the information I did get. It had been going on for years, if she was to be believed. She knew it was addictive and didn’t care; she didn’t care about scars. She just flat didn’t care about any of it.
But, she did speak after a while:
Are we gonna get shoes or what?!
I didn’t know how to answer. Not going for shoes would be punishing her, but what would I have been punishing her for? We had a bigger issue here that getting or not getting shoes had no part in.
Yes, Grace. We are.
We drive in silence to the mall and park. Grace leaps out of the car before me and I wind up just following Grace through the mall like a puppy. She won’t walk with me. I am just her servant following her through the mall on her shopping trip. My mind is pretty well preoccupied with the events of the day: the discovery, the research, the well-thought out conversation that was a bust – and now I’m just following this person, who I am not sure I know, through the mall. I feel used. And I’m sad. We find shoes which is the only time she communicates with me, and then she takes the purchase and leaves the store before I have put up my wallet. I wind up trailing her again in the mall. I wonder if people even know we are together. I’ve reflected on this day several times. If I had to do this one over again, I’d stop in the mall and tell her she needed to treat me with respect and that meant walking with me or we could leave.
I lined Grace up with a counselor the next day. It was the same counselor that was chosen for us when her dad was court-ordered to attend counseling with Grace to fix the relationship that broke years ago. So, we had seen her perhaps two or three times and then ceased going when her dad said he was not going to attend.
When I think back on that moment when the cutting came to my mind so quickly, I think I immediately jumped there because I had seen something while flipping through channels – a talk show perhaps – where there was a panel talking about it. I paused on the station only long enough to realize what it was as I had never heard of such a thing. Then – I changed the channel thinking – Wow – that is some bad, weird stuff. Who are these kinds of people who do that? Then dismissed it as one of those shock shows.
But only when I was alone.
I can't adequately explain the depths of sadness that a parent feels when they discover this horror - and the thinking that goes behind this behavior in the minds of the kids who do it. It is unimaginable. And it was in my home.
And I felt so alone.
I was embarrassed, too. What kind of parent raises a kid that hurts themselves? When you have spent every day since the day your child was born taking care of them, providing for them, keeping them safe, loving them, playing with them, protecting them – how can it so easily come undone? How can all those years that you gave your whole self to the raising of your child mean nothing? I’m not suggesting these are the “right” thoughts of a parent, or even healthy ones. But, they were mine.
The profound sadness I had as a parent, and in my role as parent, was hard to keep at bay. I did it however. For a time.
The counselor was helpful. Grace liked her - and there were a few occasions when Grace misrepresented things to her - but we always got it straightened out when the counselor asked me about the issue in front of Grace. I know there is to be a counselor-patient professional distance, but I believe this counselor really took to Grace, and to us. She recommended I get Grace to a psychiatrist for evaluation and possible medications - to see if we were dealing with depression.
I did, and she was. I got Grace on Lexapro - and it made a positive difference. Grace went from being reclusive almost all the time to coming out and speaking with people! She was pleasant sometimes! She was a bit more compliant! It was as if I was seeing, on occasion, the Grace I last saw when she was 7 or 8. We continued to see the therapist weekly - and began to monitor the cutting - and that is a horrible task I wish on no parent.
How do you monitor? You must perform body checks - literal body checks. You take pictures of their arms and legs and hips and anywhere they might try to hide a cut. Even if they say they haven't cut - you still do body checks. And each time you do it - it reminds you of the lies of the evil one that your child has believed. It is humiliating for the child as well. They must strip – sometimes show you some private places – like upper inner thigh – where they have cut. It is nauseating for the parent. Just the visual of a cut - a bunch of red lateral lines on the forearm where blood seeped to the top of the skin. Visualize a “do-list.” But this one is like a bloody completed to-do list and it is on the inner forearm. On your child. The sickness of it is suffocating.
"You don't trust me?" says Grace when she tells me she hasn’t cut, and I am there to take pictures with my phone.
No, I don't.
The pictures allow you to document the cuts – were there more? Less? In new places? How deep?
I begin stealing glances at her arms when she is around me and is unsuspecting. You get really good at waiting for that exact moment when your child looks away, so you can look at the arm and see if you need to be alarmed. You note when they wear long sleeves, in the summer, in Texas. If I see cuts on her arm, I know the next step is the body check. If I see long sleeves, I know I need to ask her. On those rare occasions she catches me looking at her arm, she starts to keep her arm close to herself, until a day or so has passed and she has forgotten. Why don’t I just ask every day? Because I don’t want to. For a lot of reasons.
And something odd happens - as a parent - you either consciously or unconsciously begin to hold back on something you might have ordinarily said to your child - be it a chore, or a re-direction. Why? Because you don't want them to cut themselves. It becomes a leverage that the manipulative child uses to control their parents and environment. Maybe not all kids - but certainly Grace.
I believe Grace was depressed. I believe she had some higher than typical anxiety - but what the rest of this behavior was, I did not know. I was aware, however, there was a sense a darkness, confusion, and isolation in Grace. I could not break through. Grace detested me. Not in the way that teenagers typically detest their parents; she really, really detested my very presence.
Next: Chapter 3: When No Means Yes