One of my core parenting strategies is remembering—reaching back in my mind to pull out how I felt and how the world felt to me when I was the age of the person I’m facing. With A’s struggles these past couple of weeks, I’ve been reaching both for the time I was newly launched and for the time I was adjusting to college. I’m trying to keep A’s actual age in the front of my mind and not just her life-stage…four years is a loooong time in early adulthood.
As I was driving and remembering this morning, I noticed a salient* feature of both times: the moment where I saw where I was, turned, and committed to never be at that point again.
I don’t remember having a lot of words around it the first time, in the spring of my senior year in high school, when I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt. It was more a sense of steely focus in my gut that I associate most clearly with the second hospital, where there was a map for how to get off the floor and out into the world. I wasn’t focused on getting out of the hospital per se, though. I had earned my time there; I needed to know what inside me got me to that place, what the signposts were on that road, and where the better, branching paths were so I could take those instead. I had a goal, and I executed to reach that goal. I have not been suicidal again.
I did, however, later end up with anxiety so severe I could barely leave my (boyfriend’s) bed. This was about four, four-and-a-half years later, when I was newly launched with a B.A. in English and a Texas Provisional Teaching Certificate. At the time I felt certain what brought on the panic—my job as a middle-school English teacher in a Title 1 school—but 25 years later I think there was more to it. Still, I had enough self-knowledge to see that simply never teaching wouldn’t guarantee I’d never panic. And I had no intention of being imprisoned by my own brain again. It was a shrewd bet that if I learned other ways of operating my brain, different ways of handling my thoughts, I could avoid drowning in my feelings. I found the right coach, we practiced the techniques that worked for me, and like an athlete I went from not-able to repeatably, reliably, near-automatically performing the skills. I can’t say that I’ve never been anxious again—that’s not a realistic goal for my wiring. But even when anxiety starts to hobble me, it doesn’t trap me. I run the drills, re-build the endurance, re-gain my ability to perform. I am freed.
The thing about my “Scarlett O’Hara moments,” as I call them, is that each of them was an inner determination. Until the moment I dug in with a hell, no, my life might or might not have altered. I might have gotten mentally healthier, or not. Without that grit added to my inner strength—and someone who lives through suicide is, paradoxically, strong—without that grit, who knows what relapses, wandering, or flailing around I might have gone through? Other people’s love and support was critical during these years, without doubt. I wouldn’t have made it without everyone who cared and cares for me. But that love was necessary, but not sufficient. My determination was what made the ultimate difference.
I tell these stories over and over to my A. Like many parents, I would spare her the suffering she’s going through if I could figure out how. I would spare her the suffering I went through, if I could hand over the lessons I learned and she could put them on like a sweater. But knowing what I know about the grit, I know that my love and my words only go so far. After that, all I can add is prayer: may this be the day she sits up and thinks, “I will never let myself feel like this again. What do I need to make that come true?”
*salient (n): something (as a promontory) that projects outward or upward from its surroundings; especially : an outwardly projecting part of a fortification, trench system, or line of defense.
salient (adj): most noticeable or important.