Actual, physical heartache is real. I am now confident that it exists. I have to admit – I had my doubts until, a year ago, when I jokingly asked my son what the band aids on his arm were hiding, and he looked at me with tears in his eyes. In that instant, something within me broke, and left a painful, gaping hole, anguish that I could not, as hard as I tried, mitigate.
To be left alone with my thoughts was to invite torrents of tears and such self-scrutiny that I invariably questioned my ability to parent, and declared myself a failure. How could I have spent the greater part of my adult life trying to keep the world from injuring my children, to then have my son – my beautiful, funny, intelligent son – harm himself? How could he have been so thoroughly despondent that the sensation of slicing his own body was the only respite he could identify? I returned frequently to the same haunting question…”What did i miss?”
Our family had always seemed like a giant old tree to me, with a broad and stable foundation, secure and steadfast. The brightly colored leaves recalled our multiple good fortunes and successes, embellishing the solid base. I used to love observing each year as the leaves changed colors and gently floated to the ground when winter approached; I was secure in the knowledge that, much as our lives evolved, in the coming seasons the trees would renew with more, equally vibrant leaves, mirroring the flourishing of our family. But that year, as Autumn enveloped us, I saw only the dearth of leaves, each one falling and removing with it a small but definite segment of the whole, leaving a shell of the radiance that was present what seemed like a fleeting moment before.
I spent the better (or actually, worse) part of the subsequent months with images flashing through my mind – my son as a small child at the beach posing for photographs while clutching his beloved plastic hammer, him sitting proudly in the middle of his intricate sand sculpture, him joyfully spontaneously singing a fabricated love song to his younger sister, him crawling into bed with me to snuggle. There was so much delight; where had that boy gone?
I tried desperately to understand him. I ached to help him. Knowing the depth of my agony, I could only imagine how intense his suffering must have been – I was sad, woefully sad, but that is not the same demon as depression. I scoured Facebook, snapchat, any available social media with the hope of catching a glimpse of him with a smile, or at least to have proof that he was intact for another day. I texted him trivial questions, and breathed a sigh of relief when he answered, and panicked when he delayed; could he be occupied with self-injury at that moment? What if this was a forever situation, and neither he nor I would ever again experience peace? And how would this experience impact his future – the promise of an accomplished, charming, confident and capable young man? Was he permanently broken? Did he hold himself to an unattainable standard, and was therefore fated to fail?
Answers to my myriad questions were few and far between. My son thankfully sought guidance from an older sister, who wisely directed him to professional help prior to my husband’s and my knowledge of the situation. With medication and therapy, at a painstakingly slow pace, he gradually grew stronger, self-harming behavior was eliminated and depression lifted. He now has a new “normal” existence. I am perpetually concerned that his post-depression balance is precarious, and a suboptimal academic grade, a personal insult or an ended relationship will plummet him on a downward trajectory. I am fearful that neither he nor I will identify the signs of recurrence early enough to avoid a repeat performance; I have observed this tragedy once, was grateful for the curtain call, and have no wish to revisit.
I share my reality because depression in young adults is on the rise across all American demographics, and is often difficult to recognize. The effects are devastating, not only to the individual, but also to family and friends. Depression somehow crept into our close-knit and communicative family, took its toll, and left its scars; I was blindsided and it has become clear to me that none of us is immune. I have been fortunate in that both my son and I have gotten a reprieve from the pain with which we struggled to coexist. As the following Spring arrived, so my own tree again began to thrive. I am relieved, but know that it will be many years before I again comfortably appreciate the beauty I once saw in Autumn.
The writer, a health care professional, wishes to remain anonymous.