What do you do when your 15 year old daughter tells you she is a failure at life. That she feels despairing and hopeless and as if she cannot carry on, that she just wants to go to sleep and not wake up.
Perhaps the usual response would be that this is normal histrionic teenage behaviour to be met with a “Don’t be silly, sweetheart” and a hug, and for the tale to be then recounted over a glass of wine with other parents, accompanied by much eye rolling and laughter at our teenagers and their self absorption and hysteria.
But this is not just normal teenage behaviour. It is L, curled up on a chair in a meeting room at the adolescent psychiatric unit where she has been inpatient for two months. I have my arms wrapped tightly around her and the words are whispered, not shouted, in a way that suggest L is ashamed of how she feels. There is no way I can tell her she is silly or that she is wrong. How she feels is real and causing her such pain and to deny or dismiss it would be to make her close up again, to think she is just stupid.
I hold her close. I tell her that it is so crippling to feel as she does and it must be exhausting for her. I say I know that I wish she could see herself with our eyes and see how wonderful she is, but I know that when she feels like this there is nothing else. I tell her that hitting rock bottom is sometimes just part of the journey and indeed part of life, that rather than failing at life, she is experiencing the worst of life, the most difficult parts and that if she just stands still through them it will be an achievement. We talk about the change or bereavement model and she hasn’t heard of it. I don’t want to let go of her to get a pen so I draw a curved line on her jeans. I explain how the process of change or grief can work, that we slide bit by bit into the bottom of the curve and when we get there it feels as if all hope has gone. We want the world to stop, we don’t want to feel or think, we just have had enough. But then I trace the second part of the curve, the upward line and show her that what lies ahead from this terrible place is somewhere better, not at first, but eventually we will get there.
This is grief for Ed, I know. We talk about how great she felt in the grip of anorexia and the realisation she is leaving it behind is so hard. Because L doesn’t know what’s next. Who will she be on the other side of this trek to leave her eating disorder behind. All the certainty and control Ed gave her has crumbled and as she moves to a healthy weight (17.8 BMI this morning) she has to be a new person. But who will that be? At the moment, she is the inpatient, the vacant chair in the classroom, the empty bedroom at home. She is absent from her life and when she returns, she has to decide how she will be, how this new L will navigate life without rituals, restriction and rules. No wonder she is so scared.
I tell her that she just has to do what I do, to put one foot in front of the other. She needs to accept and experience this grief and this part of the journey, even though it hurts. I tell her I know it will get better.
I leave her at 8.30 and drive through town to pick up J and take him back to school after orchestra practice locally. We talk about L and J is sad for her. We call her on my hands free and her familiar voice rings through the car speakers. She chats to J and he tells her he loves her. She still sounds sad.
Tomorrow we have a two month review and family therapy. We will just keep going. I have to believe it will get better too. And I do. But seeing your child in so much pain is so hard and I long for the day when the sun shines for her again.