When I look back at the time that Willie and our family was dealing with his mental illness it strikes me how sudden and fast it was. Listening to and talking with other families and youth, I see that most often their struggles are measured in years and sometimes decades. They spend months and years in treatment and trying to get the help they need. Our story is so brief.
It was 3 months from the time that Willie wrote me that note telling me that he thought he was mentally ill and that he needed help. The note that said he wanted to die. 3 months from that day until the day he ended his life. Just a little less than 3 months actually. At the time it was such an interminable span of time. Now, searching back through his journals and with a clarity that only hindsight can bring, we know that it was much more than those 3 months. What we lived through as a family was just the last glimpse of what Willie had been living with for years. Willie admitted during counselling to a previous suicide attempt when he was 13 – almost 3 years before. It was during a time when I knew something wasn’t right and had taken him to the doctor after I questioned some disturbing writings in his calendar. That was chalked up to “normal” teenage behaviour and I was told to stop worrying. Had I known then, I wouldn’t have stopped worrying.
One of the things that does have an impact on me as I look back and try to remember the good times is that during those 3 months, for all the fighting and anger and turmoil that was going on, Willie and I had so much time together. All of the trips to the hospitals and counsellors. The times visiting in the hospital when there really isn’t anything to do but sit with each other. That leads to conversations. Conversations that led to me sharing my own struggles and my own sense that it does get better…maybe it’s hard to see that, but it does. It’s within those conversations also that I got to know Willie in a way and a depth that I don’t know that I would have had it not happened. For that, part of me is incredibly grateful. It also hurts to know the pain he was in and to think back and recall the parts of himself that he shared that I couldn’t help him with. We tried, but he did such a good job at hiding key things from the doctors and therapists that they were treating a smokescreen that he created as a diversion. They focused on the family relationships, the fighting and the arguments over video games and bedtimes and dishes when they should have been focusing on the suicidal rants on his journals that we had found. The pages of disturbing and distraught entries that documented a mind that was tormented by itself and wanted help. They classified him as depressed and anxious – which he was – but they missed so much more. With a family history that includes an uncle on permanent disability for psychosis and a cousin who spent time in the same facility just a few months before for mental illness we were highly concerned – and voiced those concerns, time and time again. Only to be told that we were worried about nothing. He was just depressed and would be fine.
Willie shared fears and secrets with me that I struggle with whether or not to divulge even now… confidences that were spoken in the car in fits of rage or in moments of such complete misery that he had nothing left and wanted to leave his feelings with someone. His common and usual final words to me at the end of every conversation were “you just don’t understand what it’s like to me inside my head – I just want to be dead”… and he was right, at that time, I didn’t understand. I was blinded with a love and a commitment to do whatever it took to ensure he was ok – and alive. Over the past 18 months though, I understand. Maybe not to the degree of mental illness that he endured and feared getting worse, but I understand. I understand both the strength and the abject weakness that’s needed to get to the point of reaching out for help. I know that when he wrote me that note and walked away so I could read it, it took more nerve than anything he had ever done. I also think that that night was the night that he decided on the last ditch attempt to “get better” and be helped. That was why it was so fast – 3 months. In his mind, it was the final chance to see if he could be helped. As was always his way, he was impatient and impulsive. He hated waiting and always wanted everything NOW. It’s no surprise that for him, if results didn’t happen quickly, they weren’t going to happen.
Those 3 months were the worst yet they were also filled with a lot of little moments that still make me smile. Walking down the hallway in the hospital and Willie exclaiming in the silence, punctuated by my boots clicking, that he hated that sound… it became a running joke that he would check my feet when I came to visit and smirk if I had the boots on – which of course, I made a point of wearing after that…we shared an odd sense of humour. The phone calls of nothing to say, just lonely from the hospital before bedtime and lights out. A boy who was taller than me and still growing but every bit as much a momma’s boy as he ever was in so many ways.
In a way, those 3 months ended and we were all still so caught up in the process of trying to make it all ok that we were left in shock at what happened. We were left to try to stop the roller-coaster that had been going and halt course. When you’re barreling ahead at the speed we seemed to be it’s one hell of a jolt when that stop comes.