I have been thinking a lot about suicide (not like that — don’t worry!) since reading about Olympian Kelly Catlin. In college, I wrote many papers on suicide, mostly because I was trying to answer the questions I’d been wrestling with since my attempt:
What drives a person to go to such extremes?
Nowhere in my studies did I see my personality mirrored back to me as I did reading about Kelly Catlin. Not that I’m capable of Olympic-level greatness in…well, anything. But the rest of it — the methodical planning, the ruthless self-imposed structure, the frustration with each small failure, the awkwardness around peers. The self-loathing. While my attempt was impulsive, I too had a notebook of plans, plans I had not realized because I kept getting stuck on logistics. I am glad I didn’t have access to the internet back then; with a bit more knowledge than I had available to me at the time, I may not be here.
Now, decades separated from the hopelessness that can and does often befall adolescents who cannot picture a future past age 18, I feel safe from The Bull, as Robert Fulghum described the desire to escape emotional anguish through death. But I have been increasingly concerned about Anya’s mental health. Not only has she begun puberty quite early, but thanks to the pandemic she’s dealing with a double whammy of homeschooling with dyslexia taught by an overworked, stressed-to-the-max mother plus social isolation at a point in her development when socialization is crucial. Anya is also extremely extroverted; her main complaint about our current situation is how very lonely she is. I’m working to set up as many social Zooms as I can, but online chats are not the same as in-person friends.
Adolescent hormones, check. Extreme emotional trauma, check. Academic struggles, check. Social isolation, check. It’s textbook.
The articles I read, day in and day out, for my journalism job haunt me. Children dying by suicide because they can’t see the other side. They believe that the terrible now will always be. They cannot picture a future beyond tomorrow, next week, next month.
As this pandemic drags on, I have, odd as it may sound, derived a small measure of comfort from realizing that Anya decidedly does not fit the pattern of some people who have contemplated suicide, such as Kelly Catlin and I. But not only obsessive, self-isolated overachievers give in to despair and end their lives.
I’ve gone out of my way to work social-emotional learning into our daily schoolwork. We meditate. We do yoga. I check in with both kids throughout the day, asking about their emotions, accepting their feelings as valid (one of the most damaging things you can do to someone is tell them they are not entitled to feel however they feel) and offering suggestions to help get through rough moments. I speak openly about my own struggles, and acknowledge the cause when I am upset so they don’t think it’s them. If I am upset with one of them, which is pretty rare, I try to spell out why I am upset so we can perhaps resolve the issue together. I prioritize time each day just to cuddle them and tell them how loved they are. For Anya, coping with the maelstrom that is early puberty on top of all this, I set aside time for daily mother-daughter chats, private time away from the boys so I can give her my full attention. We talk about what she’s going through. I share my experiences as a tween, a teen, even a young adult — whatever she wants to know. But I have always stopped short of discussing depression and suicide. Out of fear.
It’s stupid, this fear. Superstitious thinking. If I don’t say it, they won’t know it exists. That never works — not with death, not with sex, not with drugs, or anything else parents try to shelter children from. Kids know. Often half-truths, because the adults in their lives tiptoe around the subject. I have always been a firm believer that honesty is best, always, and the younger the better. Dispel those rumors and half-truths before they can take hold. I have spoken openly to her about a host of topics, both in the abstract and my own specific experiences with them. Sex, drugs, depression, toxic relationships, loss, death.
But not suicide. That’s one of the few doors I have always hesitated to open. Not yet, I’d think. She’s so little. Maybe next year.
Finally, it came up. We were driving to the botanic garden. Kai was asleep; the car always knocks him out. Anya and I were discussing how kids are not simply short adults, how their brains are still developing, which is part of the reason why they act differently than adults would in the same situation. (Child psych, my first major, was not the field for me, but I find it endlessly fascinating — and it’s really informed my parenting.) The opening presented itself, and for once I dove in.
“Some kids have felt really hopeless during this pandemic,” I told her. “And when you’re a kid, it feels like whatever you’re feeling is how you will always feel. So it’s been even harder on them than it has been on us adults. Some kids have even killed themselves.”
“Oh, how awful!” she replied. “I would never! I love myself too much!”
It was all I could do not to collapse in a sobbing heap over the steering wheel. To say I was relieved does not begin to cover it. Though it had nothing to do with me, hearing her say those words will remain one of the greatest gifts of my life.
Once more, I stopped short of telling her about my own experiences. Not that I think she’s too young; I just can’t bring myself to relive those feelings right now. But I will, eventually. I have to. Just in case she ever does begin to lose hope. One thing that further isolates people in these feelings is the realization that others don’t feel that desperately alone. For some, death begins to look like the answer. I have walked that road so many times, I can navigate it with my eyes closed. I’m proof that there is indeed life on the other side. That’s not something I can keep to myself.
For now, it’s enough that the subject is out in the open. To have the comfort of her response. On more than one occasion, she has shocked me with her beautifully simple strength. How she asks for help when she needs it. How confident she in every situation. How she has never once doubted her place in this world. It all goes back to those five beautiful words: I love myself too much!
I don’t feel like I can take credit for her loving herself; that’s just how she is. But I feel that it is my duty to ensure that she continues to love herself through the rocky years to come.
In the meantime, I’m going to try like hell to figure out how to become more like her.