This story appears in ParentMap's November 2017 print edition. Subscribe today!
My son is suicidal. I say that now like I say that he is 17 years old, or that he’s tall and handsome, with broad shoulders and an easy laugh. No matter how much I’ve wished it would vanish, his struggle with suicide has become a part of him, like his sense of humor or his love of history.
When he wants to die, my son never comes to me. Instead, he texts his friends or his girlfriend. The first time one of his friends texted me and said my son wanted to die, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea. My son is outgoing and social. Everyone who meets him loves him. He was only 14 years old, and I couldn’t conceive of a life cut so short. I took him to counseling and told myself he was better now.
The next time that same friend told me my son wanted to die and that this time, he was making plans to kill himself, I took him to the hospital, still convinced it must be a mistake. But when we got there, he sat down in a room devoid of anything you could use to harm yourself — even a garbage can — and calmly told the nurse about his suicidal thoughts.
My son was admitted into the psychiatric ward that night. I sat in the parking lot screaming into my steering wheel, and I drove home blinded by tears. I blamed myself for not knowing something was wrong, and I blamed myself for not being the person he confided in. I blamed myself for everything because if it was my fault, I could fix it. I could be a better mother. I could keep him alive.
No one tells you what to do when your teenager wants to die.
I know better now. I take him to counseling and refill his prescription for antidepressants, but I’ve forced myself to let go of my need to keep him alive.
It sounds strange to say that as a mother — perhaps even neglectful. But I’ve had to figure out how to parent a suicidal teenager on my own. No one tells you what to do when your teenager wants to die. The psychiatric hospital staff tells you to lock up your ibuprofen — even though your son says he wants to jump off a tall building and could buy ibuprofen at the corner store. Then they send you home. When you get there, you realize there’s a world of ways to die and none of them are preventable. There’s no one there to console you or help you manage your own fear. It’s easy to let it take over.
And I did — for months. Every time I called down the stairs and he didn’t reply, I imagined I’d find him dead. When he began skipping school, I was too scared to ground him. I let him get away with more than I should at home, too. All I could think about was keeping my son alive for another day.
My son’s suicidal thoughts didn’t go away after his first hospitalization. The next time, I found myself pulling into a parking lot to read the frantic texts from his friend. I drove home as fast as I could, and told him to get in the car. I didn’t tell him I was taking him to the psychiatric ward because I knew he wouldn’t want to go. When I finally admitted where we were going, he threatened to jump out of the car. But my heart was beating in time to my fear, and there was no room for negotiation. My decision left scars I never imagined.
For months afterward, my son panicked when I asked him to get into the car. He was angry I didn’t directly ask him if he was in crisis before I made the decision to take him to the hospital, and he was convinced I’d take him to the hospital again if he opened up to me about his feelings. “Why should I talk to you now?” he demanded, and I had no answer. I wanted the best for him, but instead I placed a wedge between us that’s yet to be removed. It’s a small wedge, wrapped in good intentions and a mother’s love, but it’s a wedge nonetheless.
When he told me how angry he was at me for taking him to the hospital, I wanted to scream at him that it was the best I could do. I wanted to tell him that his death would destroy me. I wanted to beg him to stay alive for me, even if saying that is toxic and manipulative because his life means more to me than right or wrong.
All I could think about was keeping my son alive for another day.
But that’s not what my son needs. So I try harder to create a safe space for him to be vulnerable. I vow to respect his boundaries by giving him a say in his own treatment, and work harder to regain his trust. I even promise him that I’ll never take him to the hospital without telling him again. He met me halfway and said that if we talk first and I’m still convinced he needs to go to the hospital, he will get in the car — even if he doesn’t want to go, even if he doesn’t believe he needs help.
It took six months to learn he was again planning to die by suicide; this time the school nurse told me. I had begun to relax, but I felt the familiar fear rise as she offered me resources to help. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” I said, before thanking her and hanging up. I thought desperately of the hospital and its promise of safety, but I knew I had to do better by my son. I had to stop inflicting trauma in the name of saving his life.
I waited for him to get home from school, and I met him at the door. “We need to talk,” I said. He told me he wasn’t in crisis, but his medication wasn’t working. We made a safety plan together, and for the first time he was open with me about the depths of his depression.
My son didn’t die that day, or any other day since, and he’s begun to trust me again. We went to the doctor together, and he agreed to try a new antidepressant. This one works, he tells me, and I hope the threat of suicide is behind him.
But if there is a next time, I will keep my promises. My son needs to live, but he also needs a mother he can trust — even if that means putting his needs ahead of my need to protect him, even if it means letting go of the promise of safety, even if it means holding my breath until the next crisis passes.
Read more about talking to your teen
Suicide doesn't go away just because we don't talk about it. Read more about how to have an effective, if difficult, conversation with your teen.