Parenting a suicidal child is like death by a thousand cuts

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

When my child attempted suicide 18 months ago, it was obviously a dramatic and stressful time. People rallied around me and the support was incredible. The focus was on keeping this 12-year-old alive and solving the immediate danger of her making another attempt on her life. 

I remember being terrified to bring her home after she'd been in the hospital for two weeks following her attempt. While she was in there, I knew she was safe, but here at home with me – a single parent who was dealing with it all on my own – I barely slept for the first couple of weeks. Her doctor told me my daughter had "an ambivalent relationship with living": words that rang through my mind constantly, and I suspect will stay with me forever. 

What if I was distracted and she tried again? I was vigilant to the point of exhaustion. 

But as time went on and the situation started to settle, we worked with social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists to try to figure out why she was feeling the way she was feeling, and what we could do to keep her safe while we figured everything out and helped her to get better. 

Our home life became more relaxed too. After a year and a half, I still keep potentially dangerous items locked up just in case, but I mostly don't feel like there's an immediate danger. Mostly.

My daughter's journey to wellness is not a linear one, and it's made up of mild peaks and massive troughs. And just when we think she's making progress and getting better, her mental health will take a huge dive. It's a constant one-step-up-two-steps-back scenario. I'm hoping the arc is generally moving in the right direction but it's not like recovering from the flu – every day is not better than the one before it.

The challenge with parenting a suicidal child is it's not just about those big dramatic moments with sirens wailing, racing to the emergency room. It's about the tiny moments that make up our every day and eat away at our family. 

Things like:

Parenting my other children.
I have two other children who also require love and attention, but they pretty much always come second. If my daughter's situation allows, I'll spend time with my other kids, but if my daughter suddenly feels unsafe or needs to talk, I drop everything to be with her. Because what will happen if I don't?

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Everyday health.
My daughter suffers from severe anxiety at times, so going to the dentist and having immunisations has been confronting with her. I watched my usually mild-mannered teen turn into a cornered junkyard dog when I took her to get her HPV vaccine. And she hasn't been to the dentist in two years because I can't figure out a way to get her through it.

General discipline.
It's hard when you're parenting a mentally ill teenager to work out what is mental illness and what is general offensive teen behaviour. I try to strike a balance between being understanding of her challenges and being a firm but fair parent. Sometimes I'm probably too lenient but I have to make calculated assessments of situations and weigh up risks. Am I turning her into an entitled brat? I have no idea.

Academia and potential for the future.
My daughter is super brainy and has always gotten As and Bs on her report cards. Now she regularly fails her classes. I was pretty chilled about it at first because my main priority was keeping her alive – the rest could wait. But it's been about two years now and she's in year 9 at school. She had her heart set on applying to a creative industries senior school and that option is out the window now because her grades are too poor. She's starting to have an effect on her future that is difficult to reverse.

My career.
I get called up to my daughter's school regularly for meetings with the counsellor, to pick her up if she's feeling overwhelmed, or to discuss a disciplinary issue (let's just say she knows exactly where the detention room is). I also take her to weekly appointments with mental health professionals, and don't like to leave her at home alone for long on her own because she gets anxious.

That means I can't go out and get a full-time job or focus on progressing my career. I'm lucky in that I can freelance from home and I enjoy doing that, but this is not where I thought I'd be at this stage in my life.

The nature of our mother-daughter relationship.
I have been patiently caring for, and listening to, my daughter as she has gone through all sorts of hell with anxiety, depression and what the doctors call "suicide ideation". She's impulsive, and can seem fine one minute and then want to hurt herself the next. It's a level of stress I wouldn't wish on anyone.

I've been pretty pragmatic for a long time but lately I've noticed myself resenting her. Resenting what she's taken from our family, what she's put me through, and what she's done to herself and her future. It's not reasonable – I objectively know it's not her fault – but those feelings are there anyway. We used to be super close, and I hope time can repair our relationship after she gets better. 

I often have people comment that I must be so relieved my daughter is doing better, which is how it looks from the outside – and I am – but a suicide attempt is not a one-off event without repercussions. It's the tip of a stress iceberg that sucks in all who surround it.

I'm not sure where it ends.

If you or anyone you know needs support you can contact the Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; Lifeline 131 114, lifeline.org.au; beyondblue 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au; SuicideLine 1300 651 251