TODAY’S BREW: Pumpkin everything, shame-free
Suicide awareness and suicide prevention are not the same thing, and I want to speak up about it now, when the world is trying to listen.
It’s a great step forward that suicide is on the radar, not as something that crazy people do. Talking about it is good, it’s great–but talking about it with a purpose is more important.
You may know that my baby has Bipolar Disorder and OCD. We saw the signs of a mood disorder really early. Like, REALLY early. Some of the things that come to mind: As an infant he hated being confined–couldn’t stay still in a bassinet in our room. We had to move him to another room in a giant crib to get him to sleep at all. Sitting in his little Bumbo seat before he could sit up on his own, he was most happy when given a pile of magazines to rip the pages out of and put in stacks. My sister in law called him “Stan,” like a little office worker. He had to carry an assortment of certain toys and things with him everywhere, making us late for things, not able to go out at all sometimes because he would have a violent tantrum if one thing was out of the mix. We had to go up and down the stairs at our house–only at our house–in a certain order, get in the car in a certain order or he’d turn into someone else. Adrenaline-fueled violent episodes. I remember one time at the “quiet” Walmart a half hour away that I’d go to so it wouldn’t trigger him–I put eggs in the carriage. Sam was barely able to talk yet, he was so little. Screaming “NO EGGS” over and over until we had to leave. It took me over a half hour to put him in his 5 point harness because he was thrashing so violently. And that was not uncommon. The police have had to be called on our toddler because he was being so violent about getting in the car the “proper” way, refusing to stay seated, needing to start the entire afternoon over so that the doors got opened in the right way. We used to call him “Frats” because he’d be up allll night, singing and running in circles, banging into things, like a frat party animal–he’d only be okay if he was in his playpen, where he’d go on like this for hours. I remember doing crunches to try to stay awake, and my husband and I slept in shifts so Sam wouldn’t be alone. (Search #Frats on Twitter. It was funny? But it was scary.)
This is just stuff off the top of my head.
The violence that we lived with every hour of every day was what finally sent us to seek help. My landlords that live downstairs had the courage to come to me and say, “Something is wrong with Sam.” When someone finally said it, I went right away for help.
Sam was three.
Now a lot of people might say that he was too young for us to see anything wrong. That ADHD explains a lot of it. That parenting is to blame, or he needs more boundaries.
What I say is that when my baby’s pupils would dilate to make his eyes nearly black, that when at 3 he would be in such a rage that he could throw tables across a room, that any baby that doesn’t want to be held, that any child we couldn’t allow to have a pencil, a pair of safety scissors, anything sharp, that was so angry about living… That is a child who has more than an attention issue.
Mental illness runs in my family. And I’ve seen what happens when mood disorders and other disorders are recognized too late. That was not going to be my child.
I’m a warrior when it comes to my children’s continuing mental health care. I am not any different than you. All I did was take measures to ensure my child got the proper treatment and that his brother was able to cope with it in a healthy way also–because mental illness is something we all fight together.
Again, I want to say that talking about suicide with purpose is more important than just being aware of it. The things we do as a family to ensure that our child with Bipolar Disorder and OCD does not end up considering suicide can work for anyone, anyone who pays attention to warning signs. Here are my tips, and I have to say, I’m an expert now.
- WATCH FOR SIGNS OF CHANGE. “Triggers” can’t always be recognized or anticipated when it comes to episodes–and I say “episodes” in regards to when Sam would change. This certainly isn’t all-encompassing or even applicable, necessarily, to your situation or someone you know. This is just my experience and the advice I can offer so you can prevent the mindset that could lead to suicide. Like I said, the triggers could be ANYTHING. And I do mean anything, to set him into such a violent state that he had to be physically restrained and cooled down with ice to stop trying to hurt himself or us. (I apologize if I go off-rail here a bit. It’s very very difficult to relive these memories, but it’s important. It’s so important.) The changes though–these I can now see a mile away. Before Sam would lose it, his eyes would become so dark it was frightening. His face would become incredibly serious, dark. A certain few words he’d use–this changes or grows sometimes–were red flags. If he called someone a “maniac,” he needed to be helped control himself. If he swears, he’s been triggered. Time to intervene. These days if he says, “don’t judge me,” (by the way, he’s EIGHT), he’s starting to lose control of his emotions. For me, that means he needs to be taken aside. Recently I plopped my ass down in the middle of Barnes & Noble and played Fish with him–which I carry in my purse. I know it settles him down to play a short game quietly. I think it helps him to know that someone understands he needs the world to stop for him for a few minutes. Then we were okay. Before the freakout gets out of hand, I see these signs and know it’s time to let him know I’m on his side, but he’s losing control. That it’s time to use our tools (a therapy term) to settle down and get control back. See the signs of change–long term or short term–and take them seriously enough to address them. I think that’s the key: take it seriously enough to address it.
- SPEAKING OF TAKING IT SERIOUSLY… I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard that this one or that one, child or adult alike, are only “doing x thing for attention,” or “said they wanted to hurt themselves but it’s only to get a rise out of x person,” or “is getting moody but it’s (stop me if you heard this one) just for attention.” So, um, here’s the thing: IF IT’S JUST FOR FUCKING ATTENTION, THEN GIVE THE PERSON THE ATTENTION. If someone says anything that alarms you, or is meant to alarm you–they’re going to hurt themselves, they wish they were dead, etc… DON’T PLAY GOD. Just fucking ADDRESS IT. In our house, if someone says they’re thinking of hurting themselves, (and it’s been more than one of us), or that they’re so sad they don’t know what to do, or that they want to die, all it takes is for you to reach out. If you’re a parent, there are unlimited resources to help IMMEDIATELY. At the very easiest, teachers, guidance counselors, hell, even the ER. We have a 24 hour crisis center for families that need immediate psychiatric help, either just to talk to a professional or something more. I had to run to them once when Sam hit himself in the head with a toy and said, “I did that for you,” to me and his brother. That kind of guilt and self-image needed immediate attention, not my talking him down and boosting his self-esteem or telling him I’m not angry with him for whatever. We went straight to that crisis center, which was, ironically enough, closed for Memorial Day. So I went straight to the ER. And I got the help I needed. Here’s the thing–Sam didn’t really get HURT, and he may never have done it again, but I couldn’t comfortably leave a room without worrying. That kind of sideways mentality could only manifest more seriously if left unaddressed. At the ER he met a psychologist and a psychiatrist (who actually suggested he be committed to a facility for a few days), and we had all the tests we needed to have done just to make sure everything was OKAY. Going forward, I live by the idea that if a kid’s saying something alarming or doing something alarming “just for attention,” then give it to them! Don’t YOU make the call! It’s as simple as saying, “Okay, hop in the car, we’re just taking a little drive.” If a professional determines that it’s nothing to be worried about, then great. But what if it had been? Either way, the kid got the attention they needed. And YOU showed them that it MATTERS TO YOU. Now THAT is how to prevent suicide.
- LIKE I JUST FUCKING SAID, SHOW THEM THAT THEY MATTER. I show Sam that it matters to me how he’s feeling by giving him the attention he needs when he needs it. I show him by listening when he’s having an episode and reacting when the time is right: I don’t fuel his aggression by getting angry. The Hulk can’t listen when he’s green. If he’s beyond my control, I recognize it and do something about it. If he’s beyond MY control, I realize how terrifying that must be to HIM. Time for the drive to the hospital or the crisis center. We may never have to get there! We’ve taken the drive and he’s been able to say, “I’m okay now. Let’s talk about it.” And he really, really does that. He’s learned that he can talk about it, that he MUST talk about it. There are consequences for losing control, even though it’s not always his fault. There was a long time where he’d wonder why we were angry with him because he doesn’t always remember what happens when “the angry beast” comes out. NOW he knows that he has to talk about it because no matter how unfair, there is accountability for this disorder to ensure that we stay on top of it, that we understand his feelings, or if there are new issues to handle. Either way, IT MATTERS that we talk about how he was feeling, what we could do differently as a team the next time, and that he feels understood, or at least listened to.
- OH, ALSO, SHOW THEM THAT YOU MATTER. Sam also understands that his actions affect us. We need to talk about that too. When the time is right. TALK about it–not a yelling match, not an explosion. Talk about it, even when nothing has instigated it. “Thanks Sam, for letting me have some quiet time. I need that every day, you know?” Simple things like that which show him that emotional needs are important. For that matter, I take care of my mental health. I see a therapist, too. I ensure that I take care of myself by being creative, resting, going to the doctor, just doing things that make ME happy. Lead by example. And recognize if this person you’re concerned about isn’t. Ask them about it. “How are you doing, really? I notice you’re stress-eating like Little Debbie hurt you on the inside.” (maybe not that, but you know what I mean.) It may be uncomfortable to say, but SO FUCKING WHAT.
- THERAPY. Sam has a team. A psychiatrist that prescribes his meds and checks in with him every couple of months. The school principal, nurse, teachers, counselors…they ALL know what I just told you. I update it as needed. I let them know what his new warning signs are, or what I’m noticing at home. And he sees a behavior therapist bi-weekly now–to be increased if necessary, though it has not been. What the wonderful thing is that with regular behavior therapy since he was four, Sam now controls his behavior, he lives the way he wants to live to make himself and everyone else happy. His behavior therapy has become emotional therapy now. He has FEELINGS he needs help understanding. When he loses control it may not come out in punches, it comes out in a swear that gets him in trouble at school. (Come to find out, he’d been targeted and set off because the kid knew if Sam got upset enough he would swear and it was funny. And then the Autistic kid in class would repeat the swear, which, yay, HILARIOUS). So now the school knows that when Sam swears it isn’t because he’s pushing limits–it’s because his limit has been pushed. It’s rare, and it’s not punishable. Period. On another note, therapy for his big brother is necessary too! Ben has severe anxiety–as do I. But talking about it is massively helpful. He has warning signs, too. Whenever he says, “I don’t know,” we know that he’s overwhelmed. Simple, I know. But if he’s confused, he’s terrified and anxious. In addition to that, we all need someone to talk to about living with someone who has life-altering disorders. We have a responsibility to do that, to ourselves and to him.
- DO WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO. One of the things that makes Bennett anxious is a gathering around a table. Yeah, I’m talking about formal dinners. Thanksgiving, for instance. Last year it was just us, me and Tim, Ben and Sam. But the prospect of sitting at our big dinner table looking at each other and expecting something, I guess… it literally sent him to bed in tears for an hour. This is NOT a kid who overdramatizes. I’ve found him at a family Christmas party, sobbing in an empty room because he couldn’t handle the stress. WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS, JULIE? Because you know what? We got rid of the fucking dining room table and traded it in for a little pub table that we use every single day. It’s casual, it feels like US. Yeah, we might not be hosting dinner parties anytime soon, but FUCK ‘EM IF THEY CAN’T TAKE A JOKE. My kid needs this and we like it better this way. Also, if we can’t go to the giant Christmas party, well that’s just too bad. We might try. We might go and pop in for an hour and leave before half the people know we were there. We might go without Ben. We might not go at all. We might miss out on stuff, and that has to be okay. THE BIG EXPECTED THING DOES NOT HAVE TO BE BOWED DOWN TO LIKE A FALSE GOD. He doesn’t HAVE to be in the school play, he doesn’t HAVE to go to the Christmas party, he doesn’t HAVE to be made uncomfortable just to face his unknown fears WHERE HE IS CHALLENGED TO NOT ONLY FIGURE THE FEAR OUT BUT THEN DEAL WITH IT ALL IN THE NAME OF TRADITION OR DOING WHAT’S EXPECTED. Fuck that noise.
- GET THE FUCK OVER YOURSELF AND IF MEDICATION IS NECESSARY, GET IT. I don’t like to take aspirin if I don’t have to. But I take meds for anxiety, a mood disorder, stuff to stabilize my hormones, panic pills as necessary… Because my quality of life SUCKED before them. When medication was suggested hesitantly when Sam had barely turned four, I didn’t waste a second in complying. His quality of life…well, it was unliveable. We woke up every day in tears, knowing what we all were waking up to. Sam took medication and for the first time in 4 years I was able to watch him sit down and color a picture without having to run in circles and fall down or threaten to stab us with a pencil. I AM NOT SAYING MEDICATION IS THE ANSWER. But it goddamn well is a component in the intricate puzzle we keep together with him. If Sam doesn’t have the therapy/parenting quality/school involvement/medication seamlessly upkept, it all falls to shit. They go hand in hand. I refuse to be the asshole that says “my kid isn’t taking drugs” just so nobody looks at me funny. He needs these things right now to help him be the happy, productive, creative, confident child he’s become. One who has never seen his academic career suffer despite all he deals with. He’s not even on an individualized plan. One time last year he was marked down on his report card for not participating in class–this is unusual for him. He’d also been acting out at home, irritating us on purpose with no benefit to himself, claiming everyone was angry at him all the time… We realized that we’d dealt with his manic cycles so often that this was actually indicative of a depressive cycle for him. Once we recognized it and talked it over with him, we were able to address it as a family. We’ve been through two or three of these now, and they get easier every time. (Again, went off the rails a little there, but too damn bad.) In any case, it did require a slight shift in his medication for a certain period of time.
- ALSO, IN REGARDS TO MEDICATION… Sam knows what his medication does for him. He’s beginning to understand which one does what. He knows when he has to take it regularly and at what point he needs medication to help him in the moment. As he gets older I’m holding him more accountable for his part in when he has those in the moment needs. If he’s out of control and we’ve tried everything, yes, I give him the instant release medication–and I’m telling him I’ve done my part trying to help him control himself, and then gave him the meds, and now he has to do his part. He has to use his tools. Deep breathing, sitting quietly and reading a book, whatever he needs and wherever he needs it. Now I’m able to give him half of the instant release pill to calm him (clonidine), and say, “Now you do your part. We have to work for it.” Often taking the entire pill will put him to sleep–often he NEEDS that because he’s been running on a manic cycle and can’t stop. But sometimes it can be avoided by just saying, “let’s put the work in.” He knows what the meds do and that they aren’t the only answer. His 11 year old brother knows when and how to give him his meds. It’s like needing to eat healthy meals–nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide. (Unless you’ve seen Sam eat a meal; sometimes, I do want to hide.)
What I’m saying through all this stuff is that we pay attention to feelings in this house. We make them a priority. We suffer through stuff together. When we have to or when we just want to for the bigger picture. We feel comfortable to be ourselves and admit that we have problems, we have fears, we need help. We speak out about our feelings and needs. We refuse to be ashamed. We’re open that we have disorders, that we take medication, that there are some things we can’t handle alone or sometimes at all. I, myself, have called the suicide hotline when I thought there was an issue. There’s a text number I utilize often as well, where they just listen when I need to talk. For me, in the U.S. I text SUPPORT to 741-741. It’s a priceless resource. I recommend the line to other people, say we use it all the time. I won’t be afraid to admit that we aren’t perfect. We are not disorders, we HAVE them. We have challenges, but we’re HAPPY. Happy overall doesn’t mean there aren’t terrible disturbances inside–it just means that we know in the end, we’ll be okay.
I won’t be humble about it: I have created and ensured that this home has become a safe place to feel what we want to feel, talk about what we don’t want to feel, recognize what will keep each other protected and happy. A place where the problem is handled as soon as it happens. A place where we care about ourselves and each other, and if there’s a change in that, it’s all of our problems. We won’t ever FIX the things that weaken the four of us…but we’ll always acknowledge them and then walk right the fuck on by as we do what makes us happy.
THIS is what prevents suicide. THIS is what will ensure that my child who suffers a debilitating disorder knows that it is exactly that–a disorder. Not him. It requires maintenance like any other medical issue. It requires attention, and what he knows is that it’s attention that we all will give. THAT IS WHAT WE NEED TO DO, FOLKS. PAY ATTENTION WHEN ATTENTION IS NEEDED AND REACT. It’s not enough to be aware of the threat–there are measures you can take every day to keep it in the side-vision. So that it won’t affect you. So that suicide doesn’t sneak up on you.
Live your life shamelessly and openly. And love people. Loving people openly and with investment can make the difference between doing the irreversible thing and not. Be the one to take the initiative and tell someone that they matter to you, that you notice there’s a change, that you think they need help and that you want to help them get it sooner rather than later. Be uncomfortable. The alternative is a lot worse.
Share what you know about suicide and how it affects you today. Challenge yourself to bring it up in one way to someone today. It may start a conversation that someone desperately needs. It may change a life to hear, “I’ve noticed…” It may save a life to hear, “I think you need some help. I want to help you.” It may save a life down the road if you start telling someone how YOU feel–it may help them open up when they never thought they could.
Have faith in yourself to help others have faith in themselves. Be the prevention.