Last year, my son attempted suicide for the first time after a series of escalating events. Looking back, there were signs and warnings that he needed more emotional and mental support. But as the primary parent of my sons (my husband was deployed in Korea) I was doing all I could to maintain normalcy and sanity in our household, even as things began to slowly fall apart.
One major warning sign was my son’s inability to sleep. He was restless and melancholy and simply could not get a full recharge. This went on essentially the entire summer before his attempt and continued leading up to his first try.
During his back to school physical (thank God for great pediatricians), he shared his suicidal thoughts with his doctor. She gave us the referral for care and urged us to put knives and potentially harmful items away.
And while we did immediately seek care, I didn’t take her admonishment about knives and medications seriously. Surely my child would come to me if he felt like he was a danger to himself. In fact, he TOLD me he’d let me know if he felt unsafe.
Over the course of the school year and football season commencing, I was hopeful he would just feel better and things would lighten for him mentally. Therapy seemed to help a bit. After all he was getting slightly more sleep from the sheer exhaustion of playing football in September. But what I didn’t know was the sleep was still fitful, and he had begun to have nightmares.
I was also afraid to inquire about his thoughts and whether he was feeling suicidal. I thought asking would make him “worse” or trigger him. Turns out it would not have; he needed me to ask him because he felt so much shame about what he was feeling. He felt he was letting our family down by adding one more thing to my plate. And although on the way to his weekly therapy sessions I would try to connect or let him know I was proud of him participating, he still was agonizing about being somehow “broken.”
There are so many lies, distortions and half truths about what goes on in the minds and the hearts of sons. But at the end of the day, while each boy is a unique individual, all boys need love. Some boys DO cry. And they definitely need hugs.
My son was sad and he didn’t know how to shake it. Sports didn’t help. Therapy wasn’t helping. The anti-depressant didn’t seem to be working. He started locking himself in the bathroom and trying to work up the courage to kill himself, I later learned. Then he’d call 911 or the suicide prevention hotline.
In October, he was admitted to the in-patient Adolescent Unit for mental health and I was hopeful we’d finally make some head way. He immediately seemed calmer there. And I figured it was because he was under 24/7 watch and some of the pressure of keeping himself safe was lifted from his shoulders. My husband was able to come home on emergency leave and that brightened everyone’s spirits.
My son was highly motivated to get home to dad. The only problem was dad was only home for two weeks. So, the visit served as a major blow to his mental health we all recognized in hindsight.
He was discharged with some tools and had 24 hours at home with my husband on Halloween before he inevitably headed back to his tour. Less than a week later my son had his first suicide attempt. My worst nightmare happened and our family went into survival mode with me splitting time between home and the hospital while still working full-time as a special education teacher and presenting on social emotional learning and mental health.
When he left the hospital, we checked him into a short-term treatment facility for teens working to master their mental health. During this process we learned so much more about what my son was experiencing and how long he had been trying to “hold it together” for us. He was so fortunate to have a stupendous therapist/social worker at the group home and made many gains.
November and December were simultaneously hard and healing months for me and my other sons. I began to check in with everyone and just ask the questions, give the hugs and dole out the mental health days as needed for everyone.
My son’s medications were adjusted, and he seemed to be really coming along, so he was discharged and simultaneously switched to a half-day program for military children. It turned out this was not a good fit, and we both struggled in this setting. Three weeks into the program, he had his second attempt and we were all re-devastated. My other sons experienced anger, grief, fear, shame and blame. I have to say my husband and I did as well. And it was at this point that I felt myself reaching burnout.
I lost weight, I couldn’t focus, nor could I eat. I felt like a zombie most of the time and would cry at the drop of a hat. Thankfully I went to my doctor and was prescribed an anxiety medication that helped me to survive during what was now the dead of winter. We were in January and it was basketball season for my other three boys. I was still attempting to work full time and my husband wouldn’t be home until June.
As a family, we were in therapy and I had individual counseling as well. I just needed us to survive. My son went back into the hospital until he was medically cleared and we needed to decide what to do next. The recommended long-term treatment facility was 2½ hours away from our home and my son was tired, fragile and begging to be home with us.
So, I went against medical advice and locked everything up (meds, knives, tools, everything) and put a camera in his room. This felt right in my heart and gave us 2½ weeks together before he went into a long-term treatment facility. Doing what I felt was right for him and our family resulted in the hospital contacting child protective services since we went against medical advice. I’d do it again because we needed that time together in between treatments.
Throughout the spring the boys and I became super acquainted with the highway leading from our home to my son’s center. The care and support he’s received there was nothing short of phenomenal and that’s made the process doable. Fast forward through spring and we’ve had one high school graduation, countless therapy sessions, thousands of miles driven and our soldier home for good. My son is still in treatment as of this writing, but he has grown tremendously and our overall communication has improved. All things being equal he’s on track to discharge towards summer’s end.
There are so many other families at various stages of supporting their teen’s mental wellness, but a vast wall of silence and uncertainty surrounds families coping with these struggles. I wanted to share our story because there is healing in the telling, both for my family and for others as well.
If I could leave you with anything it is to speak love and life into your children, hug them, kiss them, be upfront about your concerns and what you’re noticing in their behavior. Do not be silent. Silence allows shame to fester and the unknown to loom large. Speak with them and speak with professionals trained to support your issue. Your doctor or your child’s pediatrician should be an ongoing resource. Internet searches can also help to provide information and dispel myths about mental health and your family. There is nothing shameful about seeking support, about needing help, about fighting to keep your child alive. May you and your family be well.
LaQueshia Jeffries is a mom of boys, Army spouse of 18 years, special educator, and mental health and wellness advocate. You can find her Instagram at @LaQueshia_Jeffries or Facebook at facebook.com/MsJeffriesDesk.