note: This piece was written with the permission of my son.
This last May I found myself somewhere I thought I'd never be: in the Psychiatric ward of a hospital with my 12 year old son.
It had seemed like an ordinary weekend. I had gotten back from a week of work travel (I was usually gone 3-4 days out of every week for the last year) and had picked my son up from his dad's. He was grounded because of a poor report card but we still managed to have a nice weekend. We joked around, played games. He spent a lot of time with his little brother. I was transitioning to a new job the next week, one that didn't require travel, but we kept the same schedule we had adopted most of the year - weekdays with dad, rest of the days with me. He went to his dad's Monday.
On Wednesday afternoon I got a call from his school. They had found his backpack in the middle of the street. The Assistant Principle wanted me to know in case Malcolm was looking for it. All my alarm bells went off. "Well let me make sure he's where he's supposed to be" I said and hung up.
I called his dad, "Is Malcolm home?"
"Where is he?"
"Little asshole probably ran away or something. He's trying to get back at me."
And from there on out that day turned into the most terrifying and world-changing of my life. We finally found Malcolm around 8pm. When the pills he had taken didn't do the job, he got scared of starving to death and made a call. We had an ambulance pick him up. We stayed at the hospital all night running tests and waiting for a social worker to say that my home was a safe environment to take him to.
I would have never, ever, in a million years have imagined that my sweet, goofy, bowling-crazy son would try to end his life. Everything I thought I knew was turned upside down. The emergency therapist said I needed to ask him every day if he was thinking of killing himself, because "obviously he's not reaching out to you proactively." I walked around the house for days crying constantly trying to figure out what had happened to my family, how I could have been so wrong, how I couldn't have seen this coming.
Because I should have seen it coming.
My son had tried to say that he was losing hope. He explained his grades by saying, "the world's an awful place. I don't see the point in working hard in school when I'm just going to be an unhappy adult." I laughed it off as teenage bullshit.
He made a plan to run away when I was out of town. A friend of his became concerned and told a teacher. I talked to him from hours away. "Why were you going to run away?" I asked. "Because I feel like everyone would be better without me." he said. My friends reassured me that runaway plans were normal at this age. I came home and everything seemed normal. We didn't talk about it further.
My son had tried to explain to me how hard things were with his dad. That he was unhappy, that he was volatile, that he felt like he couldn't do anything to make his dad happy. But it usually only came up when we were arguing about something. I thought he was trying to deflect. I thought he was trying to pit us against each other. I thought it was classic divorced-child maneuvering. He eventually stopped talking to me about it. So when his dad sat him down the night before the suicide attempt and told him that he was making him miserable, and that if our son didn't get it together then one day he'd just pack up his truck and disappear, I'm not surprised he didn't call me.
I'm not writing this to air out my guilt to all of you, although my regret is deep and true. I'm writing this because even as I was crying next to his hospital bed, people were telling me, "He didn't mean it. He's just acting out. He's just trying to get your attention. This is what teenagers do."
But here's the thing: he didn't know what pills he was taking. He took the largest prescription bottle his dad had from the medicine cabinet, walked around with it all day at school, and then wandered off by himself to swallow the entire thing. He didn't tell anyone. He didn't leave a note. If it had been any of the other prescriptions in that cabinet, his "cry for help" would have left him dead. I would have lost the little boy that has been my heart and soul since I was 19 years old. Marcus would have lost the kindest big brother I've ever seen. The world would have lost a funny, quirky, sensitive, kind young man.
Three months later we are rebuilding with this new, clearer reality. We're all in therapy: Me, Malcolm, his dad. We've changed up our living arrangements back to the days before I was travelling so often. I think my son is happier now. I've made peace with the fact that he may well be more susceptible to depression than many other kids. I'm trying to understand that I might not be able to fix that. I check with his therapist often. I'm trying not to hover so much. I've started letting him be by himself for an hour or so. I'm still so scared.
But I'm lucky, because we get a chance to try to make this right.
Parents: if your kids are acting out, pay attention. Whatever they are going through, even if you think it will pass, it's real to them right now. Listen to your kids, respect their feelings even if they don't make sense to you. Puberty, social pressures, academic pressures - these stressors can lead kids to act impulsively and destructively, with sometimes tragic consequences. We can't protect our kids from every danger, and we can't guarantee that our best efforts will always bring the best results. But cries for help are a blessing, they are your kid's way of reaching out when they need your help.
You're lucky if they act out.