May is mental health awareness month. It would make sense that as a former licensed mental health therapist I might write something for mental health awareness month. That’s not why I’m writing this. In fact, I never dreamed I’d be writing this.
I never dreamed that when I looked in my nine-year-old daughter’s school notebook, I’d find this written among her school notes and assignments: Sometimes I wish I was dead. My beautiful, bright, sensitive, compassionate daughter wishing she was dead. Nine years old.
She was raised in love. We were a family who read to our kids every night, had snuggle time and sang lullabies. We made time to play together, to eat together, to take walks in the woods, bike rides on nature trails. Our daughter laughed and loved and played and could light up a room.
I never dreamed that my 10-year-old daughter would quit eating after a girl in her dance class made a comment about her body being thick. Weight fell off my daughter’s tall frame, exposing ribs and hipbones. A 10-year-old starving herself.
We researched, found the best eating disorders therapist in central Iowa. We made a two-hour round trip every week to take our daughter to therapy where she talked about feeling fat and wanting to die. We utilized every resource possible: a therapist, a dietitian, a pediatrician. She improved. For a little while. But depression was a demon that wouldn’t let her go.
I never dreamed that my 12-year-old daughter would come to me before dance class, telling me she’d just taken some pills, showing me how much she wanted to die.
How could she want to die? She had so much to live for. She excelled in school, was passionate about dance and music and art. She loved her animals. Most of all, she loved her family. We loved her right back, all of us wrapping our arms around her, trying to create a barrier that depression couldn’t break through. But it wove itself through the tiny spaces between our arms and fingers, it’s sinewy tendrils, encasing her in darkness.
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I never dreamed I’d be sitting across a table from my12-year-old daughter during hospital visiting hours. The cold, white walls of the visiting room, a stark contrast to the darkness that lived in my daughter. The sterile walls surrounded us, trapping her. Tears streamed down her cheeks as her trembling voice begged me to take her home. My own tears fell at the thought of her alone in a dark room, no warm arms to tuck her in, no loving voice to sing a song.
It was the first time she swallowed a pill to try to keep the depression demon at bay.
When she came home, we tried to help her thrive. We found a therapist specializing in depression, tried to find the best person to prescribe the medications that scared us to death — the medications that all came with warnings that were as scary as depression. We rallied support from every direction: dance teachers, school administrators and teachers, doctors, therapists, family.
By ninth grade, public school was a nightmare for my daughter. Depression and anxiety attacked her in every hallway, every classroom. The cafeteria had become unbearable. We looked at every option available and found a wonderful boarding school, a place where our daughter finally felt she belonged, a place where she felt accepted. She finally had hope. We had hope.
I never dreamed that I’d get a call from the boarding school late one night, saying my15-year-old daughter had overdosed on all of her medications. No one saw it coming. An ambulance was on its way to the rural boarding school 30 minutes from any hospital.
I never dreamed that my husband and I would make a two-hour drive in the dark, praying our daughter would somehow survive swallowing almost 200 pills. I never dreamed I’d see her hooked up to monitors, her heart rate erratic, her breathing depressed, her whole body tremoring, her legs unable to hold her.
I slept in her hospital room, never left her side, helped her stand on wobbly shaky legs for the first time. Watched as EKG after EKG came back abnormal. And as always, she was surrounded by love. Family came from everywhere to see her, to envelop her in the kind of love she’d been raised in. For a short time it helped, She absorbed that love, believed that she mattered … just a little bit.
She had a wonderful psychiatrist and treatment team. By the time she walked out of the hospital, we all had hope. My daughter was excited to go back to school, back to her friends. We were thrilled to see the life in her again.
I never dreamed it would all fall apart so quickly again. Not even a week into school after winter break, she broke again. Hopeless, desperate, wanting to die. Begging to die. Another trip to the hospital. This time it made her hopeless, made her wonder if that’s all her life would be. My beautiful, sweet, loving daughter with so many gifts and talents had given up.
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We decided she needed a break from the stress of life and school and took her to the ocean — her favorite place in the world. We walked on the beach, collected shells, watched the dolphins and just breathed. Some of the darkness lifted. Some, but not all. Not nearly enough.
I never dreamed that every moment of these past few months would be spent trying to keep my daughter alive. Every single second of every day, we have to fight to keep her alive — our daughter who desperately wants to die, even begs to die.
We tapped every resource, tried new modes of therapy. We took her for massage therapy, equine therapy, music lessons, art classes. Maybe doing the things she loved would keep her alive. But it wasn’t enough. We desperately sought anything she could cling to, anything that might make her want to live. Maybe we could buy a horse. Maybe we could buy a therapy dog. Maybe we should move near the ocean. Maybe the right school. Maybe …
I never dreamed I’d be sitting here right now, writing this in my room at the Ronald McDonald House while my 15-year-old daughter is in her fifth hospital stay in six months. My heart is shredded when she still begs us to let her die.
Our beautiful, sweet girl whose laughter is contagious wants to die. Our daughter who was raised with two parents who loved her beyond measure, who faced each crisis together with love. Our daughter has a family overflowing with love — a brother who’s kind and caring, an extended family who rallies around her. But even surrounded by boundless love, she wants to die.
I’ve learned that mental illness has no rules, no parameters. It doesn’t care about class, race, gender, socio-economic status. It doesn’t care if you have a loving family. It doesn’t care where or how you were raised. It can happen to anyone.
I just never dreamed it would happen to us.
• Beth Burgmeyer is a former mental health therapist who is now a writer and editor working to erase the stigma attached to mental illness.