“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”
My reliance on a sleeping medication, Ambien CR, had been ongoing for about six years. My difficulty in sleeping came when my brother had committed suicide in a very public place when Grace, my third child, was 8. That tragic event is not the focus of this story, although it will come up later. I made the decision to stop the Ambien CR when I started reading about long-term effects. So, I got off the medication for that reason, but the real benefit came a few weeks later.
Since my body was trying to adjust to sleep without the benefit of the medication, I was staying awake later. One Sunday evening, Grace, then 14, came down the stairs around 11:00 p.m. in March of 2013. She asked me why I was still awake, and I told her I was off my Ambien and it was hard for me to fall asleep. She said "Oh," and left the room. As she left the room, she pulled my always-open bedroom door shut. I told her to leave my door open. I noted the hour and that she had not changed into pajamas yet.
Around 11:35 p.m., I thought I heard the front door shut. I get up and walk out of my bedroom to the front of the house and see that the front door is not, in fact, fully shut. I call upstairs, "Girls?" - already immediately knowing I had a child who just went outside. My 12-year-old, Caroline, answers from somewhere up the stairs.
I ask, “Where's Grace?” Caroline tells me that Grace left. “With who and to where?” I ask with surprise and incredulity. Caroline says she thinks to a park that is by our house.
I don't let the girls go to that park in the daytime alone; it has turned into that kind of park. In fact, we three have been walking there around dusk and were advised by a total stranger to avoid being in that park by ourselves after dark. Grace knew the park was off limits, especially at night. And then it occurred to me: I have a child who snuck out at 11:35 pm on Sunday. Why was I even pondering the safety of the park as a choice? Her simply leaving was enough. I don't bother to get dressed in real clothes. I run back to my room, get my slippers and rush out the front door.
Please know reader, I can describe this calmly now, but in that moment, I am livid that one of my children would dare sneak out! The audacity. The nerve. The disregard for her safety and ours. The disobedience. I now understand the saying "was so mad I could barely see straight." I was that person. My heart was pounding so fast I could feel it against my skin.
I race down the street and to THE park. I call her name, I see people in the park, well, I see people-shadows under trees, I walk close enough to be able to tell Grace is not one of them. Then, it occurs to me: call her cell. I run back to the house and get my phone to call her and walk back outside to see if I can see her anywhere. I dial. I hear the phone ringing. And she picks up (!)
“Where are you?” I ask as if each word was its own sentence.
Grace responds as if this were a regular conversation, “Just down the street.”
“Doing what?!,” I ask with not really allowing time for an answer. “With who?! Get here immediately!”
“Ok Mom. Calm down. I am just right on our street,” she replies as if this were still an everyday conversation.
“I. Want. You. Home. Immediately,” I spit out and then hang up.
I walk in the house and I am fuming. I ask Caroline if she knew beforehand. She said yes. I told her next time she must not keep this secret. A couple minutes have passed, possibly two, and Grace is not home.I call her again. I walk outside looking for her.
“Where are you?” I demand.
“I am on our street,” she replies very matter of factly.
“I want you here now,” I say trying to modulate my voice now because her casual attitude is making me more upset.
“I’m coming. I’m walking now,” she says.
I would have thought Grace would have come running back. But, no. I eventually see her revealed in the streetlight a block or so down, literally sauntering her way back to the house, while she is looking at her phone. This only serves to infuriate me more.
I am standing at the front door watching her walk down the street. She walks up to our house, over the threshold and hands over her phone voluntarily.
I tell her to go sit in the den. I am having to pace because I am so angry and have so much adrenaline barreling through my veins.
She sits on the sofa. I am still pacing in the den.
I tell her I am livid with her. I tell her she has disrespected me, she has disrespected everyone who has invested in her over the past half year to get her out of a bad spot. I told her that she put me and Caroline in jeopardy by leaving the front door unlocked. That it was not safe for her to go sneaking down the street.
“It’s no big deal,” she calmly informs me.
“Who were you meeting?!” I demanded of her.
“A boy,” she says. “He was going to take me to get ice cream.”
I jump on the most ridiculous part of her response, “At midnight?!”
“He's a good boy. I know him,” she replies while ignoring my question of timing.
And in fact - it would be more accurate, in hindsight, to say she knew OF him. I told Grace I was disappointed. I told her to get in bed. I followed her upstairs to her room, grabbed her laptop and told her she could forget about electronics for the foreseeable future and we would talk about all this tomorrow.
If the above seems like an overreaction to you, reader, you don’t yet know where all we have been up to this night. And, following this night, tomorrow would be the day that Grace decided to up the ante and attempt her own suicide.
Drawing from Grace’s journal, found after her self harm was discovered.
When I reflect back on monumental life events for Grace that could have contributed to where we found ourselves, my divorce from her father was undoubtedly one. Grace stopped seeing her father within a couple years’ time of the divorce. Regardless of all 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. Once, and soon after my brother’s suicide, Grace had drawn a tombstone with her name on it. I talked to her about it and brought it with us to a counseling session we were attending for children of divorced parents. Grace told the counselor she just didn’t want to keep going to her fathers and thought this drawing would be a way out of it, that is, there would be enough concern so that she would no longer be forced to go. The thinking was that Grace had just experienced the trauma and aftermath of my brother’s suicide, she saw the attention the event received and was looking for something equally shocking so she would no longer have to go – a manipulation. Her father, unhappy that the counselor would not reveal exactly what was said between Grace and the counselor in their solo sessions stopped going. 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 for work only to get calls from him telling me to come back and get her.
As background, 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 age 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 newly out of college, 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. Their elementary school only went to the 8th grade, so this would have been the time for a natural change in schools. Some of the families enrolled their children in public high school after 8th grade graduation. I struggled for weeks over the right thing to do for Grace. I thought of all the pros and cons and it ultimately came down to finances. 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. 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. Obviously, 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 and examine all the external factors that might have contributed. She had been in an environment which was predictable and stable, and one in which we had a family history; now she did not.
I went to the first PTA meeting and immediately got lost in the building. A nice younger 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. It was just like the simulated sex that you see on television or in R-rated movies. 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," she explained. 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.
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. The administrators? Where were they? In the front of the building, inside, avoiding the pseudo-pole dancing and avoiding responsibility.
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. 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 this type of thinking first-hand. I imagine she was intrigued, curious, and had questions. It piqued her interest enough that she asked me about it – did I know anyone? She seemed to think it was kind of cool and made her feel kind of smart to go against what she had been exposed to for most of her life, 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 mostly used the time to complain about her workload. She had to ask her mother to help grade her papers every night. She said she was the most loved teacher in the school. She 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 and that 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 surprised with 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. “Do you realize how unusual that conference was?” I ask her when we get to the car. She doesn’t answer me.
I continue, “In my 20 years in education, I have never heard that in a parent/student meeting in a large urban school. To mention spirituality? To reference Christianity over and above what you could be doing academically? To people he did not even know, nor know of their religious or spiritual background?”
And without even looking at me, she says, “It’s no big deal." This would become a phrase she would say to me about most things.
I am concerned 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.
Some weeks later, Grace was asked to go to homecoming. I told her that would be fine, but I needed to meet the boy. She refused, and it immediately escalated. 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. She demanded, “Why can’t you just let me go without this?” and without even waiting for me to respond, she left the room.
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 rockslide. You knew it was risky. 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 because she would leave the room. It got to where we all got conditioned to leave her alone or give her a pass for behavior. 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 retain final approval on the dress, I tell her. 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. 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. I think, in retrospect, I was too quick to bow to loud pressure from Grace and her friends about what "everyone" was wearing. And I was glad she was even out doing something with some friends.
But - gosh - when we got home, and she put it on with some of my heels, it was 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 am sensitive to even mentioning this because women should be able to wear what they want, and men should be held responsible for their actions and thoughts. I fully support that train of thought, except when it comes to our teenage daughters as they are figuring out themselves, the world, and relationships. I thought about it over the next few days, showed a picture of Grace in the dress to some co-workers for feedback, and then came home one afternoon and told Grace we were going to get another one; the one we had purchased was not ok. She was unhappy, until she realized she got two dresses out of the deal this way since we couldn't return the other one. I am sure there was another parenting way around this situation, including not buying the first one.
On the day before homecoming, my older daughter, Holly, was home from college. She and I were sitting in the kitchen at the table just talking and Holly asked me why Grace, who was presently out with a friend, had a kitchen knife in her bathroom cabinet? Holly said it was one of the new ones from the set that my son had given us last Christmas. It was a steak knife. It was an innocuous question.
In that moment at the kitchen table, a memory came back to me of Grace talking to me three months prior in my bathroom. It was a normal 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. I recalled a similar prior injury, and she had told me at that time she fell, too. That now made no sense to me because Grace is athletic and has a great sense of balance.
Then the realization came: My daughter intentionally cuts herself.
The best way I can describe this feeling of recognition that 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. All the memories of prior “falls” whizzed by me, and then they were done, and here I was back at the kitchen table.
I leave the kitchen table without responding to Holly, go upstairs and find the knife. It is as if I need to see the knife myself to fully believe what is clearly true. 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 that I think Grace is using the knife to cut herself. Holly takes it all in.
Then the questions from Holly rapidly: “What? Why? How do you know? For how long? Who would do this?”
My answer to all was only, “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.
When I think back on that kitchen 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. I changed the channel thinking, wow – that is some bad, weird stuff. Who are these kinds of people who do that? They must have had terrible parents. Then I dismissed it as one of those shock shows meaning that it can’t be real, it must be people on the fringe of society.
I spend the next hour voraciously reading everything I could find online about cutting 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.
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. This way, the cutting behavior would be out in the open then and we would handle it. I would tell her that she didn’t have to continue doing this! Grace would be relieved and happy that she no longer had this secret, we would hug and this would mean the opposition with her behaviors and with anyone in authority would also go away. I was mentally rehearsing with myself 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 talked through my plan with Holly. I had a handle on this and was ready. I felt good. I was in control of the situation.
When Grace got home, I made an effort to behave as breezy as I could and make small talk while we got ready to leave. 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 face the back seat. She looks at me because pulling over was unexpected.
I confront Grace about the marks on her arms and the discovered 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.
Then she isolated herself by beginning to curl up against the car door and not looking at me. I persisted and even mentioned a little fact I had read about the behavior becoming addictive. I was very confident of my new knowledge and guessing she wasn’t even really aware of everything associated with the behavior. But at that moment, Grace got defiant, and the rockslide came.
She screamed at me. “Yes! I have been doing it! Since about 6th grade! Yes! I know it is addictive! Duh! It makes me feel better!”
The energy, anger and defiance with which she responded took me back. I told her another item I had learned. “It will give you scars that can be lifelong.” Reader, in that moment I was telling her all the things I knew about the behavior thinking that perhaps if she knew everything about it, she would not continue to do it. This just shows my ignorance and pride at the time about how in control of it all I was.
This time, she answered indicating how ignorant she truly thought I was that I could tell her things about the behavior that she might not know.
“I don’t care about scars!” she scoffed. “This is stupid! It’s no big deal! Who cares?!”
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. There were 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. This was one of those times. 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. 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,” I replied, and started the car.
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 doesn’t wait for me; she doesn’t look back to see if I am still behind her. 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. And I’m sad. She finds 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 feel used. 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, Grace had seen her perhaps two or three times and then ceased going when her dad said he was not going to attend after his one and only session.
But only when I was alone.
I can't adequately explain the depths of sadness that a parent feels when they discover this in and on thier child, and the painful, lonely thinking that goes behind this behavior in the minds of the kids who do it. It is unimaginable. And it was in my home.
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.
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: a bunch of red lateral lines on your child’s forearm where blood seeped through 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.