An Ugly Truth: Talking to My Daughter About Suicide
Oh, that is not to say that I allow her access to what I consider to be adult worries or information. My own mother with her non-existent boundaries taught me that my child was not my friend and confidant. I had that role. I hated that role. I will not be repeating that particular role with my child.
I do my best with discussing the issues around her body changing and the changes she notices and feels. I won't pretend that it is easy or comfortable. There is a part of me that wants to run into my closest and close my eyes and LA-LA-LA-LA it until she has moved out. However, that role has currently been taken by Terrance, so one of us has to buck up and get out there and provide some guidance. Tonight, I read her an article by the fabulous Dr. Lissa from the BlogHer feed about what vaginas should smell like ... and while she was vaguely horrified at my use of the terms Fish Taco, coochie, and pussy (and perhaps the ease in which her mother allows such terms to roll of her tongue) she was also curious and attentive. Par for the course in our house.
Nearly three weeks ago, however, I broke a barrier with her that I have held back until now.
My sister has made two suicide attempts. The first one, the tester one, was minor as these things go. Em knew that I went to my home town and that her aunt was sick ... but nothing more. She knew that her grandmother and I had progressed to a fairly spectacular argument that sealed my decision to keep my mother at arms length. However, since we still encourage Emily to call and chat with her grandmother as well as occasionally spend some vacation time with her (all done without me being involved in transport or drop off/pick up) she doesn't think to dig any deeper.
I have not kept my own mental health issues from Emily. She is aware, for instance, that I am currently changing medications. That this may mean that I am slightly crabbier (or not) as I feel out the changes in regimen. She understands that I manage depression. That I take medication for depression. She has known what the pills are and look like and that they are not candy and not for her.
I have always wanted her to know that yes, depression is real and it can be managed, and that it is just a part of life for some people. I wanted her to know that my depressions has nothing to do with HER, are in no way her fault and should not be held inside her as some kind of criticism of the wonderful person I know her to be. She also knows, from my comments, that depression is something that my "runs" in my family.
I have always been frank with her because I want her to be aware of a predisposition within 50% of her genetic makeup towards major mental health issues. Mental health issues that I know, from the copious research available, start to emerge in the age 14 range for many teens.
We were at a breakfast place with the television on in the background. I wasn't listening terribly closely, as I was waiting for my cup of coffee. She must have heard something on the television, however, which prompted the question.
Unlike the inherent weird freaked out feeling that your child asking about sex gives you - like OH MY GOD THEY KNOW THAT THEIR FATHER AND I HAVE DONE "IT!", this question sends a wholly different feeling through you.
Fear runs through you. Deep, deep fear. The same fear you felt when you were five and realized that your parents could die. That your force of will could not stop something from happening ... that your existence in the world could not wholly protect people whom you loved.
Looking into your child's face; the person who makes you both crazy and utterly joyful and reaching for words to explain the urge to extinguish your own life? The desire to simply brush the question away with a deflection or a "You don't have to worry about that" is profound. As is the desire to start to cry. Which would be its own type of deflection. For it is in those moments, I think, the moments when you sense your own parents discomfort that foundations of future trust are built or eroded.
And I want Emily to trust me, implicitly, for I know it is not going to get easier as she moves further and further beyond my influence.
I started plainly. Suicide is when people decide to kill themselves. Not by accident, but by choice. This led, predictably, to questions about WHY anyone would want to do that. Emily remains in that sweet spot of 12 when she is both old enough to understand some things, but still impervious to some of the sorrow of being older.
I did the best I could, explaining that sometimes people feel that their problems are too large, that they are too sad and worn out to feel like they want to keep being alive. That this can be caused by lots of different problems - drugs and other addictions ... and mental illnesses, like depression.
In a voice filled with incredulous indignity Emily said, "Yeah, well, YOU'VE never wanted to kill yourself."
I admit I couldn't fess up to it to her. I couldn't tell her of some of the worst parts of my depressions. It simply isn't for her to bear at this point, just as the details of abuse at the hands of my biological father is not for her to bear. Know someday? Yes. Burden her with it now? No. I couldn't.
Instead, I told her the story of my sister. She remembered when her aunt was in the hospital.
I told her how she had drank antifreeze. How this had very nearly killed her and how she had to be air lifted to a larger hospital, dying at least twice before being put on dialysis to cleanse the poison out of her blood. I explained how her aunt had to stay in the hospital for a couple of weeks to recover and get her medications to a place where she was well enough to come out. How all of this was due to the depression that we - as a family - must manage.
Emily was shocked. Her aunt, the aunt she loves and adores, the aunt who is bright and smart and young and beautiful ... THIS aunt tried to kill herself? She didn't want to live?
Yes, my beloved. Depression is a terrible illness, and it can trick you into believing things that simply are not true. I tell you this not to scare you, but to arm you against an enemy you may have to face someday. You may not. You may be protected by some combination of genetics and luck since your uncle seems to have escaped unscathed to date.
But most importantly - MOST importantly, there is nothing that is so terrible that it can't be shared. That there is nothing that she can tell me which would make me love her less or run away from her. That everything changes in time - even things which feel unchangeable and insurmountable.
I explain that I tell her this not to scare her, but to let her know that I am willing to face anything with her.
Dawn Rouse blogs at I am Doing the Best I Can about her family, her profession, and all the difficult discussions that come with being a Mother and Adult.
Writer, Thinker, Nap-Taker and almost Doctor of Early Childhood Education