Let's be honest. Having a child dealing with suicidal ideation or any other mental disorder is excruciating. It makes you question everything you ever did as a parent. "What if I had done this ... or what if I had reacted this way instead of the way that I did." You would have to be made of ice to not feel this way just a little bit.
The first time my daughter was hospitalized, I had gotten a call from the school nurse telling me she had cut herself at school. She was already being treated for anorexia, so I called both her therapist and her pediatrician who both recommended I take her to a local emergency clinic to have her evaluated. The call came towards the end of the school day, and everyone agreed that it was best to wait until school ended, then take her in. I knew cutting and self harm were bad, but really, in my mind, allowing us to wait until school was over sounded like this wasn't quite the emergency it actually was. I picked up all the kids from school, dropped off everyone except my daughter, and drove with her to the clinic. I called her dad on the way over and he met us there. We waited for hours to be seen. I honestly thought that the psychologist would see her and recommend that we get some more intensive outpatient therapy - possibly group therapy and sessions with a psychologist - and maybe some new anti-depressant medication, and then we would go home. When we were finally called back - hours later, it immediately became clear that reality was much different from what was in my head.
My husband couldn't go back with us to the evaluation room due to COVID restrictions, so it was just my daughter and me. I prayed with her, I sang to her, and we talked about anything to get our minds off where we were. We called her dad, who waited outside in the parking lot for news. It had to have been horrible for him. We could see him walking around the parking lot, and we described the window where we were, but he couldn't see us due to the privacy glass. When the psychologist finally came to see us, we had been there nearly four and a half hours. He asked my daughter a series of questions. He asked her if she thought about killing herself that day. I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. This isn't where I thought this conversation was going. I knew where we were - an emergency clinic - but it hadn't sunk in that my daughter was harming herself because she was having suicidal thoughts. Listening to her detail, and I mean detail, the various ways and methods she had fantasized about to kill herself while at school that day was like I was in some horrible reality that I didn't recognize. I felt horrible that she hadn't come to me to tell me these things, I felt horrible that she even felt this way, I wondered what I could have done differently to support her so she didn't feel this badly about herself, and all the while, I was trying desperately to breathe slowly so I didn't dissolve into a panic attack of my own. This wasn't the child I thought I knew. My daughter had been a rock, a kid I could reliably depend on. My oldest three were old enough to look after themselves when my husband and I occasionally went outside the house on a date and she would always assure us that she would take care of everyone. She was talented, incredibly smart, kind, sweet and empathetic. I knew she was struggling, but I had no idea it had gone this far. It was all I could do to keep a calm countenance so I didn't worry her and so that she could tell the psychologist what she needed to tell him.
When he was done, he put his pen down and said, "Well, I have enough information to commit her. I'll send someone in to go over paperwork and give you details in a few minutes."
My reaction was, "Wait, what? You're going to commit her?" He looked like he had gotten this question before and calmly told me that yes, they needed to keep her as long as she was a danger to herself. We had looped my husband in on the interview, so he heard everything over the phone. We both and questions. "How long will she be here? What happens now? When can we see her? When can we bring her home?" The psychologist couldn't answer most of our questions. He told us that it depended on how our daughter responded to treatment. When she was more stable, we would be able to take her home. After he left, nurses immediately came into our room and had lots of paperwork for me to sign. I asked questions on all of it - again, how long she would be there, what about her medication, what about getting clothes to her (she only had what she was wearing), what I could bring to her to comfort her, what visiting hours were, etc. I had never so much as turned her over to an overnight summer camp, let alone a place I wasn't familiar with. I wanted to know what was going to happen and nobody could answer my questions. I asked what would happen if we just took her home. They gently explained to me that we would be running the risk of her committing suicide if we did that. My hands were shaking and the tears finally came. I couldn't hold it in anymore. There it was. My daughter was so depressed that she didn't want to be alive anymore. The thought was incredibly scary. I turned to her and told her how much I loved her. I encouraged her to take the next few days to take a break from everything and figure out what she needed. I promised to bring her clothes and whatever else they would let me bring. She was 13, but she still slept with her teddy bear every night. The clinic wouldn't let her have it. I told them that it was her comfort bear and asked if there couldn't be an exception made. They refused. They told me she could have clothes without any drawstrings, shoes without laces, paperback books - no hardbacks, and no stuffed animals or pillows. I felt like I was getting a crash course in items around our house that she could use to harm herself. Again, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. What else had I missed?
Everyone left and I pulled my daughter in my lap and held her as tight as I could. I told her how much she meant to me and how much she meant to her dad. We called him again and told him what happened and gave him a chance to talk with her before they took her away.
Took her away. That concept felt so scary and so foreign. It was everything we had tried to protect her against, but still, it felt like an evil invader from the outside who had infiltrated our family. Why had we not been able to keep her from all this?
I was handed a family folder of information that included policies, visiting hours, what we could bring for her, insurance information, and what her schedule would be like for the next few days. It included her care team and how to contact them. Before they took her back, I begged them to feed her - it was well after 10:00pm, and she hadn't had dinner - not good for someone who was also being treated for anorexia. They brought her a microwaved burrito and a juice pouch. I held her as long as they would let me, and when they finally took her, I promised to bring clothes back that night so she would have something other than her jeans and a t-shirt to wear to bed.
What had just happened? I sat in my car and cried like I couldn't breathe anymore. I called a cousin who had dealt with something similar with her child and asked her how she handled it and told her I was falling apart. Just talking to someone helped ease the loneliness and isolation I felt. I drove home and packed as many things as I could for her, including her favorite books and her Bible to keep her company and drove back. Round trip, it was nearly an hour of driving. I arrived back at the clinic at 11:30pm and despite the fact that they told me the reception area was going to be open all night, nobody was there. I walked around trying to find a door that someone would answer so I could give my daughter her things and that so, in my mind, she could feel a little less scared and alone. I finally got someone to answer the door. I explained that she had just been admitted and that she had nothing to wear to bed that night and could they please give this to her. The nurse said he would take it right to her and then left. The door closed and locked and that was it. For the second time that night, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I couldn't even really process what had happened in the last few hours. I felt relieved that if she was having suicidal thoughts, there was a place to help her understand those feelings. I felt guilty because I hadn't properly prepared her for what was going to happen when I picked her up from school, because I didn't know what was going to happen. I felt like I had lied to her. I prayed she would forgive me. I felt alone, like I had completely failed as a parent, and I felt scared because I had just left my precious girl in the care of people I didn't know, and for the first time in her life, I didn't know what was going to happen to her.
This was nearly three months ago.