The first time my son was suicidal, there were only a few clues. He had been withdrawn and spent a lot of time in his room playing video games. It was summer vacation then and I worried a little bit, as moms do, but it never dawned on me that he wanted to die. I thought, perhaps, that he was depressed.
I didn't find out about my son's suicidal thoughts until his friend told her parents, her parents told his school, and his school called me. It was a game of telephone, but this time the meaning remained intact. My son wanted to die, they told me, and when I asked him about it, he admitted it was true. I took him to therapy, and he went back to school, and I breathed a sigh of relief that his depression went away as silently as it had arrived.
The second time my son became suicidal, I began to notice some of the same signs. He was withdrawn and irritable, and he stopped playing with his little sisters like he used to. When his friend texted me to tell me he was making a plan to kill himself, the bottom dropped out from under me, but a little tiny piece of me knew. I made a mental note of the signs, as I spoke to his therapists and doctors, and it was comforting to think that next time, if there was a next time, I would know the signs. I would see it coming.
My son spent the first few days of school in a mental hospital this year. The doctors there told me he would be fine. He had a safety plan, but they put him on antidepressants for what they termed severe major depressive disorder, and they said the medication would help him. He told me the medication helped him. I believed the medication helped him. I had to believe we wouldn't end up in that hospital again.
It's been seven months since my son's second suicidal crisis. He has an IEP for depression now, and with that help he easily brought his grades up and began going to school regularly. He stopped withdrawing and isolating himself, and he has been hanging out with his friends and family regularly. Today, he even has a job interview. He's 16 years old now, and he is eager to get a job and start working. Every day, when I call out to him and it takes him a minute to answer me, and I imagine that he is laying in his bedroom dead, I console myself with these facts. He is doing well in school. He is planning for his future. He is fine. We are fine.
There were no signs this time that my son was planning his death. When I go down my list of triggers and warning signs, there wasn't a single one. There was nothing to indicate that my son was planning to kill himself, and that he's even planned how he will do it in the mental hospital if I take him back there. There was nothing to see, and nothing to do, until the moment his friend texted to tell me that he needs help.
I know what to do now. I no longer feel panic at the prospect of a suicidal teenager. I will take him back to the mental hospital, and they will adjust his medication, and in a few days he will come home. He won't be able to kill himself there, despite his plans, and I know they will help him stabilize. When he comes home, we will have a safety plan, but then it will be up to me to keep him alive.
I know how to handle today's crisis, but what I don't know is what to do when he comes home. I don't know how to prevent my son from killing himself if he is determined to die. I don't know how to save my son when he locks away his pain and refuses to share it with me. If there are no signs or symptoms of my son's suicidal thoughts, what will I hold onto the next time I call down to his room and he doesn't answer me? Some day, will he be laying there dead instead of just listening to loud music in his headphones?
I take my son to therapy, I refill his meds, and I tell him how much I love him, but I've been doing that for the last seven months and we are still right back where we started from. Only this time, he learned to hide it better. He learned how to conceal his depression from me, and maybe even his therapist. He learned how to make sure I won't know when and if he decides to go through with it. He probably will love me enough to make sure I am not the one to find his body. But he will not tell me how he feels, or let me help him, and there's nothing as frightening as that.
Yesterday, I published a resource guide for parents of suicidal teens. Today, I am one of them again, and I tremble at the knowledge I may always be one. Parenting is supposed to get easier, but parenting a suicidal teen is a long-haul. As long as I can keep him alive.