By Mary DeVries
If we had not heard the thud of her body falling on the floor, she would be dead. If she had locked the door and we had had to spend precious time breaking it down, she would be dead. If her meltdown an hour earlier hadn’t spurred me to move from the living room to the office to email the head of special education at her high school, we would not have heard the thud of my 16-year-old daughter’s body hitting the floor. But we did.
When her Dad heard the thud, he asked me in a slightly alarmed voice, “Was that you?” I said no, and we ran up the five stairs to her bedroom. It was dark, but when we turned on the light we saw her lying in a fetal position on the floor. Her face was turning blue. She was barely breathing and not responsive. I started to scream her name, “Mariah! Mariah!” I touched her unconscious face and brushed my hand over her forehead, but I quickly recoiled as she was starting to turn blue. I was afraid that it might already be too late.
We didn’t know if she had taken drugs or if she had had a seizure or even a stroke. I watched her face getting bluer, and every second she seemed less alive. I screamed at my husband to call the police. He ran to get the phone but came back with his voice frantic. “I can’t find the damned phone!” I ran to find it, and when I reached the police they kept asking me inane questions like, “Does she have a history of drug use? Could she be pregnant?” I kept screaming, “She’s turning blue! She’s barely breathing! We need help!”
By then had it been sixty seconds? Ninety seconds? The blue around her mouth was turning so dark it looked almost black. I didn’t know what to do other than scream into the phone as though the urgency of my voice would bring the paramedics sooner. I screamed at my husband to start CPR and ran to the front door to wave down the paramedics when they arrived.
As my husband pushed with both hands against Mariah’s chest, one of her hands rose up slightly towards her neck. He pushed aside the high neck of her red flannel pajamas, the ones with the reindeer that we had given her two Christmases earlier when we thought that love was enough. Only then did he see the two bright multi-colored extra-wide shoe laces pulled so tightly around her neck that she seemed minutes away from death. He released the hold of the shoelaces and within seconds she was breathing again. A minute later the police arrived followed by the paramedics. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. This was not a drug reaction. This was not a seizure. My daughter had come very close to killing herself.
Her small bedroom was crowded now with six paramedics and police officers, and a few of them asked to speak with me in the kitchen. They asked me questions in a calm tone of voice—as though I was sane—as though a mother could find her daughter almost dead and realize that she tried to kill herself and still have a coherent conversation. I could only stammer. I could hear the paramedics in the background talking loudly as if their gruff voices could rouse Mariah from the trauma. Why weren’t they rushing her to the hospital?
My mind was locked in protest. How was it possible that my daughter hated her life enough to want to end it? How did we get here? It had been almost seventeen years since her birth mother had handed her to my husband and me in the delivery room. My ten-year-old stepdaughter had witnessed the birth, and the doctor had let her cut the cord. What had gone so terribly wrong in the time since the cord to her birth mother’s body had been severed that she would use another cord to try to end her life?
In the week that Mariah was hospitalized after her suicide attempt, I found myself imagining the pain she must have felt to be able to pull those shoelaces that tight. How could all that had gone on in our family—all the singing and musicals and dance and drama and dogs and puppies and birds and nature trips and basketball and kayaking and traveling and adoption support and having a church and a godmother and a big sister and eating together at almost every meal—how could all of that have ended up like this? Even weighing the frustration and anger that too often came her way because of her troubles in school, it should not have come to this.
Mariah’s junior year had begun with hope, but by the second week of school she was starting to skip classes. After doing poorly in a general education school in ninth grade, we had moved her to a special education program in a larger school for her sophomore year. That year, she began to skip classes and hang out with a group of homeless kids who inhabited the park across from the high school. They were called Juggalos, a cultish group with an affinity for the rap group Insane Clown Posse. I never figured it out. I never wanted to. All I knew was that my daughter, a student with learning disabilities and ADD, who was impulsive, volatile and emotionally immature was hitting the skids. The high school campus was too porous and the pull towards the homeless gypsies too strong to keep her in class. Her special education case manager tried, her therapist tried, her psychiatrist tried, we all tried.
My anxiety grew so high and her hostility hit me with such brute force that sometimes I couldn’t stop myself from fighting back. After one fight, she ran away and stayed out all night with the Juggalos in an abandoned building. When she returned to school the next day, her case manager called me. “She looks so bad. I can’t let her go to class. She needs a shower and a change of clothes.” The previous night had been hell for me, not knowing if she was shooting up or being raped. After having begged her not to do this to herself or to us, I was not ready to greet her with anything but resentment. I choked on my tears and told the case manager, “She can’t come home. Make her shower at school.”
We were desperately looking forward to summer. We knew that when we got her away from school and back into nature she could find her soul again, and she did. We went on a camping trip and she made friends in the lusciously warm swimming hole. That was followed by a role in a summer theater production and an internship where she watched dogs give birth and helped take care of newborn puppies. She was in heaven and all was right with the world.
But then came September and school and she started skipping classes again. We never thought that she was so fragile, so injured by her past school failures, so wounded by the brew of adoption and identity issues, so frayed by our continuing attempts to keep her in school, that she would ever consider suicide as a way out.
When I arrived home on the night of the suicide attempt, I could see from my husband’s face that there had been a problem. After two weeks trying to keep her in class, he came home to a message from a teacher saying she had walked out of class again. My husband never raised his voice with her, but he had sternly let her know that he didn’t want to come home to a new problem every day.
My husband and I went together to her room and found her crying. “School sucks, I suck, I hate my life!” We tried to help her to look at the good things in her life and told her that school was something she just had to get through in order to get to the next place. After an hour of trying to soothe her and her calming down some, we left the room having no thought that this meltdown was different than any of the others. But it was different. She wasn’t acting hateful toward us, she was directing her hate toward herself. Perhaps I should have said, “You’re too upset to sleep, let’s have some warm milk and toast and watch TV together. Maybe you don’t have to go to school tomorrow.” I should have, but I didn’t.
I don’t remember the paramedics leaving the house with her on the stretcher. I just remember my husband and I following right behind the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the same hospital where she was born. We could see her body in the ambulance, and she looked like a wounded animal. I kept trying to convince myself that this was not just a bad movie by repeating, “I am driving behind this ambulance because my daughter just tried to kill herself.”
We stood close around her in the emergency room. Her face was marked with little black dots that had something to do with the trauma. The circle around her neck was swollen and red. She was dazed and shocked and had no idea what had happened. In the middle of the night, I went home to sleep. My husband stayed with her until the ambulance took her to a locked psychiatric unit where she stayed for two weeks followed by three weeks in a day treatment program.
My grief and shock was so strong it felt as though there had been a death. At times when she was in the hospital, I felt like I was talking to someone who had tried to murder my daughter. The problem was that she was one and the same person. I was agitated, anxious and terrorized about our future. The voices in my head were screaming, “How could you have pulled those shoelaces so tight? Your body didn’t want to stop breathing! Why couldn’t you remember any of the thousands of good moments in your life?”
But no matter how painful it gets, life has a way of moving on. We have turned a thousand corners since that night. After dozens of meetings with her therapist, a new family therapist, a psychiatrist, the school, the county mental health team, new home-schooling tutors and talks with legal advocates, we are now in the aftermath of a serious suicide attempt.
And where am I now? Sometimes depleted, occasionally overwhelmed, frequently anxious, but picking up the pieces. Should we have done things differently? Of course! We should never have accepted the school district’s limitations and paid to have her in a special education school. We should have been less frustrated with her and understood much more about how ADD affected her behavior. If we knew then what we know now, I would have moved to a much smaller community away from our sometimes harsh urban environment, but…..
In my heart of hearts, which is not always easy to find, I can see the daughter who I prayed for, the daughter who has such enthusiasm for life, the one who makes friends easily, who loves singing and acting and animals, as well as the daughter who is willful and resilient and beautiful. At those times I know that we will get through this. I try not to entertain too many thoughts about what it all means for the future. For now, I mostly put one foot in front of the other and only occasionally pull over on the side of the road to cry.
Author’s Note: This essay was written shortly after my daughter’s suicide attempt more than three years ago. The intervening years have been a roller coaster of additional psychiatric hospitalizations, many medication trials, involvement with the criminal justice system and a year of residential treatment where she was able to complete high school. She returned home after treatment to a supportive therapist, a job and our full support, but within months she was back on the streets. Years of anxiety and grief has taken its toll, but we always find our way back to our love for each other and our daughter. After many gains and losses, Mariah is now 20 years old and has a part-time job that she loves.
Mary DeVries is an author and social justice activist who lives in California.