By Amy Robinson
My daughter cuts.
She also sings in the high school choir, loves small children and chocolate and has a very messy bedroom. But you don’t see those things when you pass her on the street. You see the scars. Like all scars, they’re signs of past hurt and present strength. If you could read them—like a book—they would tell you a lot about her. They would tell you that she has a soft heart and that she feels things more deeply than many people; not just because she a teenager, but because that’s how she’s wired. They’d tell you that one of her parents has a chronic mental illness. The other is overwhelmed. Both parents are well educated. The family income is fine. And they love their kids. But severe chronic illness is exhausting—for everyone.
Children are expected to be strong.
It’s best if they can be independent and manage their own affairs with little intervention. It’s best if they can become small adults. Also, they must understand that constant stress from one sick and one overwhelmed parent is not their fault, even though they add to the stress with their messy bedroom, requests to have friends over and need for emotional support that rarely comes. When emotions are taxed, you have to ration the positive ones.
So the girl, who doesn’t yet cut, tries to follow the family game plan.
She gets good grades in school and picks up her role as the family jester with apparent ease. Then the sick parent retires and the well one takes a job. It’s a reversal of roles. Unfortunately the sick parent is unprepared to become the go-to person. The children are left adrift in an emotionally drained home, where even the imperfect roles no longer work. When she starts disappearing into her bedroom, no one really notices. It’s one less emotional demand in a stressed family system. It makes it a bit easier to ration the meager emotional resources that are left.
The beautiful brown eyed girl with the soft heart is on her own. At age 10.
She heard a kid in the school office once say something about cutting. When she tries it she finds that focusing on the self-inflicted physical pain is easier than facing the family-inflicted emotional pain. Emotions can kill you. Cuts just leave scars. They’re also easy to hide.
She begins dressing in dark clothes. The kids at school call her “emo.” When a boy in social studies tells her to go die in a hole, her depression becomes overwhelming and she tries to kill herself with an overdose of pills. Finally her parents realize their daughter is depressed.
Her world has shrunk to the size of a razor blade
The healing takes longer than the descent and the family learns which psychiatric hospitals work best for them. Over time, there are eight admissions in three different facilities and they begin to recognize staff members. The family locks all of the medicine in the house in a lock box inside a locked cabinet. They make hours-long weekly trips for specialized therapy that isn’t offered in their home town.
They begin to see signs of healing.
A parent sits with the daughter in her bedroom while the girl sobs and screams that she can’t handle this. A song plays on repeat on the CD player; “Welcome to My Life”. The girl is angry; she refuses to go for a walk. The parent makes her go anyway. After a half-an-hour, the girl is telling jokes. Then the healthy parent has a bad day; becomes frustrated and angry. It triggers the girl and she cuts again. She broke the light bulb in her room to get a sharp edge. A parent hears a song that she sings to the daughter; I Will Follow You into the Dark.
The daughter sings it for the parent at a school talent show. The girl discloses that she may be lesbian. Or bisexual. Or pansexual.
The parents learn new terminology.
It becomes apparent that the family will never be okay, until the ill parent improves. The family ends up with in-home psychiatric services—services reserved for the most challenging cases. They meet criteria with flying colors and the counselor is skilled.
And she’s always there. Every week, no missed appointments. The unhealthy parent is supported. And challenged. It’s a laborious process, but the miracle is, it works. The parent who is struggling sees the struggle first become worse, and then become less.
New connections are made with the children. Stresses are recognized. Apologies are given. The beautiful brown eyed girl with the soft heart finds a part time job in the local community. She is terrified to learn to drive.
She makes some new friends, but she still gets hurt by the old ones. There is improvement, but she still feels fragile and she still has scars from cutting.
She always will.
In the mall, an older lady nudges her husband and says, “look at her arms.” When I share with a new friend that my daughter has struggled, she says, “I know. I saw her arms.” I forget that the evidence is there to see, because the scars—in many ways—are inconsequential. They don’t define who she is. They’re visible reminders of part of her life. They’re a sign of past hurts and present strength. I would tell the lady in the mall that until you hear her story, you don’t know her hurts or her strength.
You don’t know that much of her story isn’t hers at all. It’s the story of a family, with strange dynamics—rationed emotions. It’s the story of the frustrating, healing dance of two-steps forward and one-back. It’s the story of a family that wouldn’t stop trying—a parent who would follow their daughter into the dark. And hold her hand. And keep looking for the light. Even today.
Continue your shopping, there’s nothing to see here. My beautiful brown eyed girl is smiling and asking for chocolate.
Photo: (Alicia Marlene/blog)
Editor: Dana Gornall