My Teen Begged for Help and My World Stood Still
Content Warning: Self-Harm, Suicidal Ideation
“Mom, just take me. I’m begging you. I’m not stable.” Words no mother dreams of hearing from their sixteen-year-old child. No amount of planning prepares you to react to this type of request. My teen begged for help, and my world stood still. What happened next? I found strength that I didn’t dream existed, and we crawled out of the darkness together. Parenthood is not for the faint of heart. It’s complicated, messy, and unpredictable; you simply figure it out.
Watching for Patterns
To put it plainly, parenting a neuro-divergent teen is complicated. It is a constant guessing game. I walk a tightrope deciding between angsty, rebellious behavior and sliding into a depressive episode. We’ve been on this journey for a while, and what I thought was hard at eight, ten, and twelve seems like a cakewalk compared to fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. My perception changed; the problems are the same. Now we watch for patterns and changes in behavior. Everyone has a rough day, but when it turns into multiple, it is time to ask questions.
When Things Are Good
When times are good, I have an energetic, creative child full of ideas. Our hours are filled with drawing, painting, music, skateboarding, and walks to the drugstore for hair dye and make-up. Nights consist of video games, chatting with friends, and random scrolling through TikTok. There is ridiculous laughter coming from behind a closed bedroom door or the peaceful sound of music filling the hall as she plays guitar or ukulele. School is hard, but we manage, and we complain about chores and our tiny siblings being annoying.
When Things Are Bad
Bad days never look the same twice. Sometimes they are quiet, reserved, and hold an electric current of anxious energy. Other times there is anger, aggression, and an “I hate the world” vibe. The laughter dies down, instead of music there is silence, and the ability to cope with simple challenges disappears. Worries amp up, and we start to try and control everything. The more we try to manipulate our environment, the less dominion we have. It is a slippery slope.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
As we entered the teen years, unhealthy coping mechanisms surfaced. First came the controlling of food. Her thought process -If I’m anxious and start to feel sick, I won’t eat. The problem is when one doesn’t eat, the result is feeling unwell, followed by more anxiety. We ride this loop on repeat. It’s not a traditional eating disorder. The drive is not to be thin, but it is a pattern of disordered eating that causes all sorts of problems.
Next came self-harm. It went unnoticed at first due to her compulsive scratching at peak anxiety moments. Then a pattern appeared, and we started to ask more questions. The amount of shame involved in cutting while still feeling compelled to do it is astronomical. The scars are visible reminders of your worst moments. The act causes an emotional release but physical pain and the constant worry of cutting too deep or causing an infection are tangible worries. Unhealthy does not even cover it.
Lastly came suicidal thoughts. The after-school-specials of my youth did not prepare me for the reality that lies before me. Suicidal ideation is terrifying. While my daughter has never made a plan or attempt to end her life, she constantly fights against thoughts that everything would be easier if she weren’t here. Her brain lies to her, saying everyone would be happier if you were gone. Nothing is further from the truth! My child was 14 years old and in 8th grade, the first time she called the Suicide Hotline. I praise God for the angels among us who make themselves available to people in crisis.
The Slide is Slow
Depression is tricky. It rarely shows up all at once like an unwanted house guest. It is a slower slide down into darkness. The shift can be so gradual that you do not realize it is happening until you are searching for a way out at the bottom of the cavern. Watching for the patterns of good vs. bad days is how it is discovered. Then we make some calls to talk to doctors about med changes and schedule some extra therapy appointments. We’ve tumbled down and climbed back up on several occasions. It is never easy, but we’ve worked through it together. But this plummet was different. This drop was unexpected.
Looking in the Rearview Mirror
When you look in the rearview mirror, things always appear clearer than they did at the moment. Looking back, our child was sliding down for about six months. It did not go totally unnoticed. We made some med changes in that period. There were talks about new coping strategies and routines to help manage anxiety and overwhelm. We actively attacked the problems we saw but didn’t quite grasp the underlying slide into darkness. Our first indication came when school became an overwhelming, overstimulating pressure cooker of pure anxiety. What happened next was both terrifying and the bravest thing my child has ever done.
I’m Not Stable, Mom!
Things were rough for days before, so we thought some time away would be the perfect way to rest and reset. We pulled into the cabin driveway and started unloading, but our teen didn’t get out of the car. I gave her some space, but after 15 minutes, I went out to check on her. What I found was a sobbing mess! She did not want to be here. Her plan did not include being around us. All she wanted was to lock herself in her room at home. After an eternity of back and forth, she begged me to take her anywhere to get help. At that moment, my heart stopped beating, and the world went silent.
What Came Next
In the following days, we found a partial hospitalization program with room. There were large medication changes and weeks of tears, fighting, and wondering what to do next. She described her mental state as a nuclear reactor waiting to explode. “Imagine Chernobyl, Mom. That is the chaos going on inside my brain.” I cried out of fear, frustration, and exhaustion. There were moments when I lost my cool and others when empathy led the way. I was braver and stronger than I thought possible. I often wanted to hide in a corner and not be the mom in charge for five minutes. Hiding was not an option. My child needed me to be the anchor while we weathered the storm.
No Easy Fixes
The brain is not a computer we can reboot. Even when you can name the problem, it does not mean you can find a simple solution. Life becomes infinitely more complicated when you are managing another person’s thoughts. I only know what she tells me. What works as a coping mechanism for me may not make any sense to her. Some days my only move is to crawl into bed and hold my sixteen-year-old as she cries and reassure her that I will stand by her side no matter what happens.
If you are fighting mental health challenges or helping a child fight theirs, I see you. When people ask how life is, let’s start being honest and say–It’s complicated! Because difficult does not even begin to cover the emotions I battle on a daily basis. Here is what I know. I gave birth to a beautiful, brave human being, and I could not be prouder of my baby. Complicated or not, we decide to figure it out. Even when the world stands still, my purpose is to keep us moving into the light. The darkness will never overcome us. We crawl out of the dark and into the light hand in hand.
For more of our story, go to Embrace Controlled Chaos