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Chapter 6: Jello and Soap

Matthew 15:11

What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.

And back to the storyline:

Grace was now back at the house for the first time since the evening I took her in for the evaluation that was supposed to shock her into a reassessment of her choices. Stepdad was also there, but no one else, just we three.

Her demeanor was hard to categorize. I remember her sitting on the kitchen counter, talking to us. Her posture said she was comfortable, her legs were crossed at the ankle, but there was a bit of a Cheshire Cat quality about her. Who was behind the smile and the talking?

She shared with us that her diagnosis was major depressive disorder. She talked about the typical symptoms. She had learned some things, some terms, some other information she knew we did not have, and she seemed to relish that she knew things that we did not. She had a whole set of experiences that no one else in the family had. This is so very hard to describe, perhaps as if she had made an interesting object in art class and was describing it to us, while pointing out the features she particularly liked and thought interesting. She was the content expert.

She had to sleep in our room that night in the big green oversized chair I had in the corner because we needed to make sure she was not going to harm herself. The night passed uneventfully.

That next day, Friday, we were behind on things we were to do make a secure environment because we did not have much notice for her discharge date. We had to purchase the kind of locks that require keys and install those same locks, and we had to purge our household. We had to remove as much as we could from easy access for her, this included, don’t forget, paperclips, scissors, anything that could be used for self-harm. Think about your own household; this is an enormous task. Every room, every drawer. It was easier to put locks on doors and simply close off her sibling’s rooms, bathrooms or the office. But what do you do about the kitchen? Or all the other open areas in your home? And drawers? And even knick knacks on shelves? And what about the garage?

Stepdad set up a special painting area for her in her room. It was large butcher paper taped on one blank wall in her room. Grace painted that day. Stepdad praised her; he told her that now we could see what she was feeling whereas before, we had no idea because she was very hidden from us. He told her that he would help her hang the ones she wanted to hang and they did.

There was one drawing that was really dark, however, and Grace said she didn't want to hang that one. She wanted to throw it away. So, she crumpled up the paper and put it in the trash. He told her he had a better idea.

He and Grace brought the painting downstairs and outside to the grill that was lit for supper and she threw it in the grill and watched it burn up. He told Grace she didn't have to think about it anymore. I was staying out of the way from this new relationship that seemed to be forming. It was possibly a breakthrough! I was most definitely in the background on this day, and stepdad would come and tell me things that they were doing. In fact, the only way I know any of the above is that I was told of it after the fact.

I had hope, for her, for me, for stepdad, for stepdad and Grace, for stepdad and me. She slept in the big green chair again that night, and we three watched a movie. We started one that had a bit of violence in it movies often do, and Grace asked if we could watch something else. I felt stupid. Of course we could! She was probably on sensory overload with being back at the house.

Saturday started out as normal-feeling as it can for having your child back from the psychiatric hospital. I went to the grocery alone and while there got a request from stepdad for red jello, not a typical item for us. He was keeping Grace busy with physical things as we were told to do at discharge, chores and such. I think Grace was ready for a break around mid-afternoon but stepdad was intent on keeping her busy. A bit later, more toward supper, when I am sure Grace thought she could finally have a few moments, stepdad asked her to get in the car and go for a ride with him. She said no. She didn't want to. He repeated, immediately agitated that he has been refused:

“Get in the car,” he ordered.

“No,” she replied, with just as much conviction as he had in his order.

I then jumped in because old patterns told me that I knew where this was going. I got in line with stepdad and told her she was being disobedient and to get in the car. Stepdad said he was going to let her drive as way to entice her. She said she didn't want to.

This scene, reader, escalated. Because of my history with Grace, I took her refusal and obstinacy to mean she was no different after her 10-day stay; she had learned nothing. She would determine what she would and would not do, and if she didn't want to do something, she wouldn’t. As before. And I would not have that all over again.

I was firm. I reassured her that it was just a car ride. I told her to get in the car. And she did, but she was mad.

I did not know where he was going. I do know that at that very moment, I was feeling thankful that he was involved in our life and was helping. He had made visits to the hospital; he had called her one time when I could not bring myself to call. He was the one who thought of letting her paint her entire walls as a release if she wanted. He was the one who praised her for letting her feelings come out on paper so we could see where she was at emotionally even when they were ugly and dark. My guess was that he was going to go talk to her somewhere removed from the home. I could not have asked right in front of Grace: Where are you taking her? That would have signaled to her that we were not united, and it would have signaled to him that he needed my approval. Things up to this very moment had been going well for almost two days and for us; that was truly amazing. Maybe Grace related better with him if I was not involved as much, as with the previous 24 hours. They were gone for possibly 45 minutes.

When they pulled back into the garage, I was in the kitchen and could see that Grace was rushing out of the car and into the house. She was crying. She ran straight up the stairs toward her room.

He came in behind her, agitated, and quickly followed her up the stairs. Neither stopped to answer my obvious question: “What happened?”

I followed him up the stairs.

“We’re going for a walk,” he told her.

“No,” she said through tears that were now stopping a little and turning to anger.

“Come on. It’s a pretty day,” he said now trying to coax her.

“No!” was her repeated one-word reply.

She flung herself on her older sister’s bed upstairs. He tried to joke her into a walk again. She wanted no part of it. He went and got her shoes that she had kicked off, sat on the bed beside her and started to put them on for her and then things got physical.

She began to kick his hands away so he would not put on her shoes. He grabbed her legs. She kicked harder. He restrained both legs. She got loose and tried to run out of the room, he grabbed her and got her into a hold in which she could not get out. I am telling her to stop and telling stepdad to stop. Stepdad locks eyes with me and tells me to stay out of it or I will have undone everything he has done. She kicked and screamed at him to let her go. He screamed back at her that he couldn't let her go; he had to keep her safe and she wasn't acting safe. She began to hit him and scratch. He told her to go ahead and scratch all she wanted as long as she was not hurting herself. At which point: Grace began to go after herself with fury. She scratched herself so hard she broke skin with each drag of her hand across whatever body part she could reach. Stepdad then restrained her arms. He just held her until she quit fighting; until she gave up. Then he let his grip release.

They both breathed a bit and he told her - let's go on that walk now.

Reader: Imagine. What I see is that my daughter reacts like a feral animal because she did not want to go on a walk. I think that my husband’s motives for this walk are probably good, but his manner is different than mine. If I were to have continued to interject while they were fighting, Grace would have known she had won: She could successfully pit her mother against stepdad over a walk. This was her testing me like she did earlier with not wanting to go on a ride. And I was not going to let that happen in that moment. Be a united front, the counselor had told us.

They leave for a walk and Grace is crying. They go to the park and a few minutes later, I get a phone call. Grace has run off. Stepdad tells me to lock the door so that she can't run in and hide without us knowing, and he hangs up. I am in shock. He comes back to the house and we both then go look for her in the park and around the neighborhood and can't find her. We call the police. About 45 minutes later, the police arrive and, so does Grace, sauntering across the grass: Cheshire Cat. I reach out to touch her and she spits at me “Do not touch me.” I told her she would have to talk to the police to which she responds “Gladly.”

The police officer keeps me and stepdad apart from Grace and asks us what happened. I tell the officer that she has just been released from the hospital, he was taking her on a walk and she ran. The police officer then talks to Grace - who loudly and eagerly tells of the day:

Stepdad had taken Grace out to a field with a gallon jug filled with red jello and his new handgun that Grace did not know he had and I did not know he had brought with him. He set the jug a bit away from them on the ground. He took the gun out and said to Grace:

“Grace, do you want shoot me?” he asked, gun in hand.

Grace shook her head no.

“Grace, do you want to shoot yourself?” again, gun in hand.

Grace shook her head no.

Then, he said to Grace:

“This is what it looks like when someone shoots themself in the head.”

He then shot his pistol and burst the red gallon jug of jello that he had laid on the ground in front of them. The jello, I imagine, spewed everywhere just like a brain would. Congealed bits of red mass splattered across a field.

Grace was horrified. I was horrified overhearing it.

Grace went on to tell about how she was restrained, how he made her go for a walk. Her demeanor was almost manic - of one who was triumphant. I was nauseated. The part I experienced with the walk, thinking she was just out of control, had been precipitated with a truly out of control simulation of a gunshot to the head. With a child who had just been released from a psychiatric hospital.

Of course, since we both overhead Grace – stepdad knew I was just now hearing about the jello. And stepdad now had to talk to the police again.

The police officer came back over to us and asked stepdad if he had a license to carry, which he did. He just got it. The officer asked me about our history with Grace and I told her of our experiences the past half year or more as succinctly as possible. She told us it sounded like we were doing what we could and she left. My neighbor who has been watching from the porch, goes back inside. I am processing the entire ordeal but I don’t have much time because now because: Stepdad. Was. Furious.

When Grace sees the officer leaving and realizes we were not getting hauled off anywhere and that she was going to stay at the house again, she reluctantly went in the house. I tell her to sit in the den. Through tears she says she was afraid. I can understand that particularly after the jello but I don’t verbalize that to her: I am maintaining our unified front. Ephesians 5:22-25. I tell her she will be ok. I myself don’t even have time to process how this event must have seemed to Grace. Or to even play out how it even unfolded. I think all I was trying to do was de-escalate, both sides.

I was both stunned at his thinking and also angry that he did not let me in on his intent when they went for that ride. Why would he do something like this so soon after her release from a psych ward? Why did he not give me, the mother of the child, even the courtesy to say – Hey – what do you think about this? In no way would I have ever justified this as a behavior modification method. It is not my parenting. It can also be argued that my parenting wasn’t doing anything. I think for stepdad, he was so in the control mode of I-can-and-will-fix-this, he would have done anything to prevail. As I work through this chapter in 2022, I am struck by how it is a real-life, real-family script for a Jesus and John Wayne Du Mez script.

Reader, this is the hardest chapter I have had to write. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have had to stop writing because I could not relive this night one more time.

It is as if I don’t finish writing the words down, then maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe it will eventually fade into something else. I have not yet been able to get through drafting this chapter all at once. The only thing that allows, or really forces me to keep going, is that I hope my truth, the ugliness, the horror, the negligence, will somehow help you. It will have been worth reliving this weekend if someone learns something from it.

When I relive this specific event from my vantage point now, stepdad wound her up by forcing the walk upon her after she was clearly traumatized by his jello exhibition. He physically forced putting on her shoes after she had already had a pretty full and successful day, then used her refusal to his continued demands as the reason for more restraint. It was as if the real issue seemed to be as much about authority and control for him more so than doing what the discharge personnel told us.

But - there's more:

Grace and I go upstairs for her to change and she continues to say she thinks he is going to hurt her. I countered that he would not.

Stepdad hears our conversation and comes upstairs. I don’t know who said what next that made things escalate, but Grace told stepdad she “fucking hated him” and “fuck this” and threw something at him. She then ran in the bathroom and locked the door.

This made stepdad ballistic. He shouted, “No way! This is not happening in my home!” He ran downstairs. He ran back upstairs with a screwdriver in hand to unlock the door or take the doorknob off. Grace is sobbing in the bathroom. It took him some time, but he got the lock off. Kate had gotten quiet during this time – why? When she got out of the bathroom, I saw that she had clawed at herself again, aggressively. She saw the blood and then came the lie that she believed, and that always accompanied the blood: Its better now that you have done this to yourself.

Stepdad then starting to remove her bedroom door saying to me that we can’t guarantee her safety behind a locked door and, we were told at discharge that we may need to do that.

We three came downstairs and Grace is almost serene and gets in the chair in our room to sleep for the night. I think the day is over, but it is not. Stepdad tells Grace she is not allowed to swear at him like that and either she can wash her mouth with soap or he will. She refused. I tell Grace she has to at least apologize; I believe this is the right thing to do at that moment. Apologize for swearing at your parents, and then we can deal with the events of the day at therapy. And, I am still trying to de-escalate. She refuses. So he went and got soap and shoved it in her mouth as she in the chair. She is thrashing her head to avoid the soap, is hysterical and asks, through sobs and catching her breath how I can allow this.

It is not ok to say fuck you to a parent – even if it’s a parent you don’t like – but the use of soap is so 1950’s. I don’t even know if she had even heard of such a thing for cursing. We were in continual, elevated crises mode from the moment she got back from the car ride. I am trying to get past each mini-crisis of the evening just for some time to think, but there is no time. Once again, I know if I break rank with my spouse right there, I will have created other problems both with Grace who would use it to her advantage and with stepdad who will tell me I’m not being Biblical.

She tells him she never wants to see him again. He tells her she doesn’t get to decide, tells her she is spoiled, tells her she is lying to herself.

At this point, Grace puts her hands to neck to start choking herself.

I am alarmed. Stepdad says she can’t choke herself to death; she will pass out first.

She’s doing it to shock me, he says. It works.

“I need to go to the hospital,” she cries through heaves.

He again repeats, “You don’t get to decide anymore,” as he takes the soap away back to the bathroom.

Grace then starts to harm herself again, clawing herself with her nails and drawing blood. I hold her hands down. She yells at stepdad that she wishes we had never met while breathing so fast I think she is now trying to hyperventilate.

I know stepdad will see this as disloyalty to him and I know it will make him angry, but I sit with Grace. I am physically aligning myself with her. I hold her; I’m trying to calm her. I am stroking her head. I tell her she’ll get better.

Weak, I know. I was at a loss.

She turns to me and between gasps of air says she doesn’t trust me anymore. She may have thought I knew about the jello prior to happening and supported it. I just don’t know.

The next day, Sunday, on the way to church, she barely speaks to us and begins to scratch her arm in the backseat until it bleeds. Why? My guess is because I fussed at her for being surly all morning. Looking back, of course she was rude all morning! We all were. You don’t wake up after a night like that and expect everyone to be fine.

But this time when I see what she is doing, and for the first time in my presence, I simply turned around and said, “Grace. I know you're hurting yourself.” And then I let it go.

Stepdad and I aren't speaking about the prior evening. I think we were both emotionally spent and he was leaving that day.

That afternoon, I went up to her room to discover that she had gotten a knife from somewhere and cut her thigh several times. I called the psychiatric hospital. They said they did not have a bed open anymore.

When I first found this in Grace's room, I thought it was an original composition. I believe it is a poem - but I have not confirmed the primary source.

I went on Monday with Grace to the outpatient school since there was no available residential facility bed, even though she now qualified for admission since she had another self-harm episode. I filled out the paperwork, I asked only a few questions, I was told little. It didn’t matter that I had questions anyway. I had to enroll her there.

By Wednesday Grace is back at hospital because a bed had opened up.

We get to the hospital and on our way through the locked doors we see the physician who had diagnosed Grace the first time. Grace was almost giddy happy to see him.

"I'm back!" she exclaimed with a broad smile.

He was taken aback and said, "Yes, I see that but I am not sure why you are happy?"

"I just am!" replied Grace.

The doctor said, "Ok, well, I guess we'll be talking about that when I see you."

It was like a reunion for Grace. Or – possibly she saw it a way to get out of the house.

We go through the intake process again with a different intake person. I am tired and weary and frustrated and sad and feel hopeless and helpless. This time, Grace's story is a bit different. She tells the intake counselor that her biological dad used to hit her. This is the first time I have heard this from her. Whether or not this is true, I do not know. It’s possible he spanked her for discipline, but beyond that, I am skeptical.

I was also prepared this time. Grace was already packed with clothes with no drawstrings and shoes with no laces so that she cannot hang herself. I brought her meds in. I was now an experienced parent delivering her child to a psychiatric hospital, something I never thought I’d be.

I sign all the papers and then we get connected to a doctor virtually again, called telemedicine today, but very new at the time. The doctor (What kind of doctor? Unknown.) asks Grace things about depression and suicide. I am not even sure what the point of the virtual doctor is unless it’s an insurance requirement. The virtual doctor takes maybe 5 minutes. As I write this years later, we are coming out of a pandemic; virtual visits are common now.

The med tech comes in as the last person to see us. I recall this procedure from last time. He tosses papers on the table for permission to give her a shot of thorazine to calm her down if needed. He doesn't sit down; he literally walks in and tosses the papers at me. No exaggeration. They slide across the table. He did not introduce himself to us. He wasn’t even all that present with us. We were one more family he just needed a signature from. I looked at the papers and I looked at him and told him I was not signing for her to take sleeping pills or approving thorazine. He looks at me and says, "You have to."

I told him I did not and would not. He rolls his eyes, sighs, (again, I wish I was exaggerating here, but I am not) and says, “Whatever.” He wrote, "Parent declined."

Then he leaves the room and Grace goes with him.

And I go home.


And feel so alone. And hopeless. And empty.

Grace was home for less than a week.

I have re-played this weekend a thousand times. Even years later. What if I could have taken a step back and viewed the weekend as a non-invested viewer without the baggage? I would have done so many things different, starting with asking step dad why he wanted jello from the grocery store.

Next: Chapter 7: When Liberty is not Freedom

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