It’s been just over a month since I finally dared to say it out loud, that we believed Chickadee was getting better, that our long nightmare of a year might—finally!—be headed somewhere more hopeful. Meds were changed, improvements took hold, and I felt like we could hope without holding our collective breath.
Since then, life here on the “outside” has marched on without my daughter. Monkey started school; Otto started back to work; when I drive past the high school in the late afternoon and see the cross country team out running, I quietly count to myself how many of the kids we know, and find myself predicting where in the long line of jostling teenagers my Chickie would be, if she was there with them as she’d originally planned.
When friends ask, I smile and tell them we’re hanging in there. But after the first couple of times, yeah, I changed up my schedule so that I no longer pass the high school when the kids are out. It hurts to look at them. The little stabs of tangled up longing-and-fear they inspire make it hard for me to breathe.
We are hanging in there. But it’s gonna be a long hang.
It’s unclear if the medication switch that seemed to bring Chickadee at least partway back to us has stopped working entirely or if it’s still working, but the initial “oh my gosh, I suddenly don’t feel so crappy, THIS IS AMAZING” reaction she had has worn off (leaving her, once again, with Other Stuff To Deal With).
When I was a teenager, I developed a perhaps irrational love of the movie Buckaroo Bonzai. The most iconic line from the movie—say it with me, fans—is, “Wherever you go, there you are.” (I’ve always felt like that sentence spoke volumes, even if it’s from a dumb movie.) This is what my daughter is living right now, I think. When you’ve spent your lifetime (however short; no matter how old and wise she feels at 14, HO HO CHILD, YOU ARE ONLY 14) stuffing down your problems, coping in all kinds of terrible and ultimately maladaptive ways, and pretending EVERYTHING IS FINE JUST FINE IT IS SHUT UP, there is no medication that changes that. There is no magic bullet the doctors can whip out to “fix” your life. Ultimately, everyone’s life requires their willing participation to reach some level of happiness and harmony, and sitting around waiting for the magic Fix-It Fairy to descend and make it all better is a losing game.
So things got better, because she felt less terrible. There was a honeymoon period. She talked about goals and things she was looking forward to and coming home. I don’t know what changed. The novelty of not feeling like utter crap all the time wore off, or maybe the meds stopped working and she feels like utter crap again, or maybe—most likely—she came face to face with the reality that work is still required on her part; that her coping skills are still very poor, and life doesn’t always go the way we want it to, and healthy people learn how to deal with disappointments in ways that don’t destroy themselves.
There’s another medication she’s on that has stopped her from cutting herself. That one is a minor miracle, as far as I’m concerned, because of everything that’s gone on these last however many months, it was the cutting that scared me the most. This medication is actually an anti-addiction opiate blocker, and it removes the endorphin rush addicts get from using, or cutters get from cutting. So: no more cutting. That’s huge. But. Without changes in how she views the world, how she feels she can cope with unpleasant feelings, all that happens is that the cutting no longer feeds that gaping, unfillable need she has for… SOMETHING… and has been replaced with… other behaviors. Maybe they don’t make her bleed, but they are equally unacceptable. And in some cases, nearly as dangerous.
Plainly put, unraveling the mental illness from the life choices is exhausting, terrifying work, and there are plenty of adults unwilling or unable to do it. Do I believe my 14-year-old can handle it? Is she strong enough, brave enough? Absolutely. When she wants it badly enough, she will do it, and she will triumph because she’s incredible and capable and once she really sets her mind to it, there will be no stopping her.
Right now, she isn’t there. She’s in that horrible limbo where she accepts that she is ill, but uses it as the excuse for why she can’t change. She has a bevy of therapists, doctors, and support staff there to teach her how to take back control of her life. They have everything but pom-poms and a Chickadee Fight Song. And she can’t see it, yet. She’s not ready. And no one can make her ready; not the hospital staff, not us, no one.
It is a heartbreaking powerlessness. We can see what is possible; we are frustrated she won’t (or can’t). And there is nothing to do but wait for her to tire of treading water, and either drown or decide to swim.
So I don’t talk about it, much. I was afraid to hope and then I did and now that hope feels like torture. I spend my personal therapy sessions asking my therapist to help me figure out how I continue to relate to this child I love so fiercely but no longer understand. I spend our family therapy sessions silently counting to 10, focusing on keeping my outward emotions and voice even, and being ready to calmly depart when her behavior becomes abusive.
When school started up again, we went to doing family therapy over the phone rather than driving in mid-week. It saves us hours of travel, plus it allows Otto to participate between classes when necessary. Chickadee is indignant about this change. She complains nearly every time I talk to her on the phone that she wants us to COME for those sessions, and WHY can’t we BE THERE, and if Otto’s schedule means HE can’t come in, FINE, I should come in to see her and HE can phone in. I have mostly managed to demur based on Monkey’s schedule, but she is unyielding in her demands.
Last night on the phone I reminded her that we have therapy today, and again she started in with “But I want you to come in for that.”
Without thinking, I replied, “But I want you to comply with the rules and work your program, so it turns out neither of us is getting what we want.” I kept my voice light. It was not an accusation. Merely a statement of the unfairness of the world, I guess.
Neither of us spoke for a good long while. The silence stretched between us as I tried to will her to hear my unspoken words: I love you to pieces, but I can’t do this for you. I’m here but you have to make the choice. You have to want it. You have to work for it. I’ll be the first in line to cheer you on once you’re ready.
Finally she spoke again, changing the topic and pretending that exchange hadn’t happened. For now.
We are hanging in there. I guess.