I can’t say it was a complete shock when I got the first phone call, but then again, it’s always a shock to hear that your child is self-mutilating. I was worried about Rachel. I think I had an inkling of what was going on. She kept her arms covered and she’d be in her room for hours. So, when her therapist called to say she was a mandated reporter and had to let the parents know that Rachel was cutting herself, I felt isolated and devastated but no, not shocked. In the beginning I wouldn’t even talk to my best friend about it. I told my mother and one sister. I didn’t know where it was coming from and was still feeling guilty that I might have caused it. It wasn’t until much later that I learned my level of religiousity, my shalom bayis issues (that are not more than a typical couple have) has nothing to do with my daughter’s mental illness. But at the time I didn’t and the shame was great.
Rachel was always super-sensitive as a child, but definitely not someone we would have ever predicted would become suicidal. I remember her coming home after school in first grade and saying, “Mommy, I’m not going back to school. One of the girls was acting bad. Mrs. Frome held her shirt and screamed at her in front of the class. She said she’s taking her to Pre-1A. If it was me, I’d be so embarrassed.” There were other incidents like that and in 3rd grade we switched her to a school where she was happy. She never had many friends but she was close to her siblings so although I’m the more sociable type, it didn’t bother me.
Until 10th grade that is, when it hit me that the phone had stopped ringing for her entirely and that from after Pesach she was spending an inordinate amount of time in her room. That’s when I started to worry and contacted a therapist. The therapist met with her and said, “Everything’s fine, she’s just not happy in school. Send her somewhere out of town.”
We agreed we had to make some change. Especially after camp that summer when she came home and, before slamming the door and going into her room for hours, yelled, “If I have to go back to that school, I can’t live!” The change was bewildering to us. Normally, she was an obedient straight A student, now she was an angry teenager. But she was still behaving in school so we let things ride – until one day she brought a cell phone to school and was expelled. In my opinion, the school blew the whole thing out of proportion. She was a good girl and the phone did not even have wi-fi. But the school wouldn’t listen to us and out she was.
Honestly, many principals and rabbis we spoke to at the time were unkind and unhelpful, choosing to criticize us as parents rather than help direct us. The one bright star was when we made the trip to see Rav Matisyahu Solomon, mashgiach of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood. He was quite sick at the time but agreed to meet with us. “Feel comfortable,” he said to Rachel, “I know your mother.” They discussed the pros and cons of going to a school far out of town as opposed to a place closer to home, in the same area where her grandmother lived.
“Let’s go with the closer place,” he said “and I’ll learn with you every Sunday. Save up your questions during the week and we’ll discuss them when you call.” Although, unfortunately, my daughter never took him upon his offer, it was a beautiful experience for her and one that made a lasting impression.
In retrospect, her being expelled was for the best (though it’s taken me a long time to appreciate it and there still remains bitterness towards those involved), because we now knew we had no other option and really it was what Rachel wanted anyway (and perhaps why she defied the school to begin with by bringing in a forbidden cell phone). However, our problems and her problems were far from over.
11th grade in her new school seemed to begin well. She lived with my parents during the week. We found her a new therapist and they began work together. It was around the time of the therapist’s phone call to me about the cutting when I noticed the ever increasing amount of time she’d spend in her room, plus her lack of personal hygiene. That’s when we began to have an inkling of the scope of Rachel’s problems.
Rachel had always been close to her siblings and we didn’t want to alienate them. In the beginning, they understood something was up but were not sure what. She was still playing with them and buying them presents. When we were contemplating sending her away for 11th grade, my 13-year-old son became hysterical. He thought we were throwing her out and he’d never see her again. I had to spend a lot of time assuring him that was not the case.
One thing we never discussed with them were Rachel’s suicide attempts. We called them stomach attacks. Her first attempt out of the three was in 11th grade. She was on her way home for Shabbos and, on the bus, swallowed an entire bottle of anti-anxiety pills. Thankfully, as soon as the meds kicked in, she called her therapist for help. Her therapist immediately notified us and the minute she got off the bus and was already passing out, we rushed her to the hospital.
While we were generally able to function normally with the other children, the situation became more difficult during crisis times. Sadly, this became the norm rather than the exception). At its height, my husband and I were going to the hospital with Rachel and both staying with her. We soon realized this was detrimental to her siblings. They were losing out on both of our attention and it scared them because it made the situation seem dire (which it was but we didn’t want them to know that). We decided that the next time only one of us would accompany her to the hospital.
Things became most intense when our son was in 10th grade and he started acting out. As soon as the situation was more stable, we focused on him and today he is doing well. At this point, the only fallout I’m aware of is that sometimes my children get scared and ask questions like, “When will Rachel get better?” My response? “I don’t know if and when she’ll recover completely. Mental illness doesn’t usually disappear. Sometimes she’ll be better and sometimes she’ll be worse.” I know that answer is disturbing, but I believe we have to be straight. I always end, though, by saying, “If you ever have more questions, ask me.”
The second time she attempted suicide was in camp the summer before 12th grade. Again, she swallowed a bottle of pills. As soon as we were informed we rushed to pick her up. The interesting thing is that she never admitted to wanting to kill herself. Instead she would say, “I just wanted it to end.”
After that traumatic summer, we sent her back to school. But it was a nerve-wracking time. We lived in trauma and fear. I constantly checked her room for box cutters. I asked her doctor, “How do I know she’s not going to kill herself?”
“There’s nothing you can do if she really wants to kill herself,” he answered dispassionately.
She still lived with my mother who would implore her to take a shower. “Sure, Bobi,” she’d answer and a few hours later my mother would find her in bed with the same oily hair. She’d come home for Shabbos and sleep for hours. She also refused to take her meds. “I’m not sick,” she’d shout. “Do you want me to become a zombie?”
We did a full work up on her but received no clear diagnosis. Nevertheless, her therapist suggested DBT for first line of treatment – engaging in specific cognitive exercises to stop the self-harm. At first, she was resistant. She was instructed to write down when she had urges to self-mutilate and call her coach immediately. She ended up calling only after she gave in to the impulse.
Rachel’s third suicide attempt came in the middle of 12th grade. While in the past we thought that changing her meds would prevent another attempt, this time we had her hospitalized in a psychiatric unit for two weeks. After that she was transferred to an outpatient day program. The logistics of getting her there and back were very difficult as it was not near our home, but the program was excellent and she benefited.
However, when she was ready to leave the program, the school refused to take her back. I was incensed, “Do you kick girls out because they have cancer and they have to leave school for treatment?” I asked. But as I had learned, there was no one there with any understanding of mental illness; consequently there was no one there to talk to.
We ended up sending her to a school that specialized in girls at risk even though at that time she was not “at risk.” We had no choice, however it was either that or the hospital wouldn’t release her.
I felt it wasn’t productive for Rachel to continue living with my parents so she moved into the school dorm. This proved to be a disaster. She stayed in bed and ate all day. When she came home for the weekend, I’d make her shower and drag her for a manicure and a haircut. Clearly this arrangement wasn’t working out. Thankfully, and I am convinced this is what saved her from another suicide attempt, she left school and was hired by Karen, a dress shop owner in our community. Although Rachel worked hard to cover up her cuts, Karen saw but wisely said nothing. Rachel was good at her job and the customers loved her. She remained there for a year and a half. When the store eventually folded, I told Karen, “There are many reasons stuff happens in our lives and we usually don’t know why but in this case, I am sure that your store was here to save my daughter.”
Things have settled down, thank G-d. Rachel is living in an apartment with a roommate with similar issues. She is no longer suicidal but she does have very down days. I wouldn’t say she is healthy, but she is healthier. There’s still a long way to go. She doesn’t need the type of facility she was in previously. Instead a social worker checks in on the girls every day. Rachel and her roommate call her when they get to work each day. If the social worker doesn’t receive a call, then she’ll come to the door and check on them. She comes at night to help them with homework, just to hang out, plan healthy menus with them, whatever is needed. Rachel still needs help learning how to manage her own life. She often gets paralyzed by anxiety. She binge eats and needs lots of support.
The potentially good news is that her therapist sees her eventually becoming independent and being able to retain significant relationships. I take one day at a time. I wish someone could assure me that in three years all will be fine. But my expectations have changed. I used to fantasize that she’d be well enough to go to seminary, come back, marry and raise a family. I used to think faith in G-d meant that if you believed enough, a sick person would get healed.
Now I have learned that emunah means walking the walk with G-d beside you and believing that ultimately it will be good. It took me a long time to come to this understanding. Radically accepting the pain was hardest for me. But I learned that I can live with the pain and that the painful feeling will pass, though the situation may not. I attend Al Anon meetings and they have helped to change my mindset. I now understand it’s not about what’s happening externally, it’s about what’s happening in my mind.