I have read tragic, heartbreaking stories in the papers from Mothers who lost a child to suicide, I think it so brave of them to open up and talk about what has happened to them and the truth of what led up to such an awful event for any parent and family. I felt too, that by telling their story they were helping other parents who might need to look out and watch for their own young. The most horrific part of reading or hearing of another families loss to teenage suicide, is that there is often discovered a series of traumatic events for the child that if someone had been aware of, perhaps could have helped them to recover from. On line, cyber bullying is all over the news and cases where particularly girls are humiliated to the point of extreme desperation are making the headlines too many times each year.
I am lucky, my daughter made it through her suicide attempt and is gladly and blissfully still here with us. This is the story that led us to that dreadful day and the changes we’ve made since, maybe someone might read this who needs help with their own child. I’ve asked for my daughters permission to write this and will call her Libby instead of her real name.
Life had been difficult for Libby for a long time, her father and I had a terrible divorce, the fighting and animosity went on far too long and affected the children badly. Libby being the eldest and having had the first five years of her life with us living together as a family, was certainly more affected than my middle daughter who was only a tiny baby when we split. Libby is now 16, my middle daughter 11. When Libby went up to secondary school at age 11, things were looking really rosy for her. She was a really able pupil, glowing reports right through school, teachers loved her, she loved school and she shone so brightly amongst her friends who all loved her. I wasn’t convinced about the reputation of our local catchment school but Libby was determined to follow her friends there and I made the decision to let go of my own desire for her to go perhaps to grammar or try for a scholarship at a private school and felt it best to let Libby decide her pathway.
All seemed well but in year 8 when Libby was 13 years old, problems started with bullying from other girls in the school. I made an application for Libby to try to get into a school with an amazing reputation in another nearby town, hoping this could solve the problems she was having and also give her a chance to achieve to her full potential academically.
In September 2012, Libby started in Year 9 at her new school. It was difficult, she didn’t know a soul. I remember on the first transfer day I had to call someone out to the car to try to help me convince her to get out and enter the school building. They were supportive and did help her through that first day, but when your child tells you they would rather die than step into another school, you have to really have faith in your decision as a mother and pray that you’ve made the right one. It’s easy as well to think that the things our children say are sometimes overly dramatic or meant to pull on our heart strings, listen, really listen because perhaps what a child is saying is coming from the desperateness they are feeling in their hearts.
Libby started well at her new school, on her 14th birthday in October just a few weeks after the start of term, she gathered 18 girls from her year and I felt assured about her being able to settle there, they all seemed like lovely, happy fun girls. But in January 2013 the first bombshell hit. I took Libby for an assessment at Camhs (the Child and Adult Mental Health Service) after worries that she was feeling very down and emotionally struggling. The therapist called me into the room after the appointment to tell me Libby had been self-harming. This wasn’t something I was prepared for and it doesn’t matter how much you read about teenagers harming themselves or how common it is, it’s a shock to hear your own child is feeling that desperate. We started counselling straight away and her mood did lift for a while. I tried to reconnect with her, spending time in a way that its easy to forget when you’re a busy working Mum with younger children competing for attention and support. Libby seemed to improve, but all through this there were ongoing problems with her father and we all had concerns about the usual worries with teenagers, boys, her choice of friends and the terrible pull between letting go and holding on as they start to rebel and make their own decisions.
In the early summer of 2013 I started a relationship with a wonderful man, this was lovely news for me and I was very happy, but in this time I feel I lost my connection with Libby. Our late night catch up chats each night after her younger siblings were in bed, I now spent on the phone or having supper with him, I became so wrapped up in all the attention that I was getting from him, attention I hadn’t had for myself in a long time, that I selfishly took my eye off Libby. The changes that came with this new relationship were rapid and intense, a new man around the house, new children coming in and staying at weekends, holidays, it all felt blissful for me, but I know now Libby felt confused and lost as I moved further away into being wrapped up in love.
Things went from bad to worse over the coming Winter months. Libbys autumn school report showed a dramatic change in the level of her work and there were obviously clashes and serious problems with her teachers in Maths and Science. When Libby went back to school after the Christmas break she seemed to be becoming like a shadow of her beautiful self. She was frequently getting upset by comments made by teachers in many of her lessons, personal comments about her appearance or blatantly bullying comments about her abilities.
Libby had an ISA (independent science assessment) exam that January morning, she looked pale and said she was feeling sick, it was a cold, freezing day but I dropped her at the bus stop as usual, distracted as I so often was, with the school run, my other two children and worrying about whether Libby had even looked at revision for the exam. I then went on to teach my first yoga class of the day. A few minutes before the class was to begin I noticed a persistent call from an unknown number on my mobile. I was about to switch the phone off so it didn’t disturb the class when I received a text from my Mum, saying ‘call now urgent’. I asked my class to lie in Savasana and relax while I popped outside for 2 minutes. I called the number and spoke to the school where they told me Libby had taken an overdose and been taken to hospital in an ambulance. My coping mechanism is always denial, that was how I went back into the class, told my ladies that my daughter had been taken ill, packed up and drove the 20 miles to A&E. I was still in complete denial until the Doctor came into the side room where Libby lay, pale and emotional to tell us the levels of paracetamol in her blood were way over the regulated guideline amounts for immediate treatment. She had taken two large doses of paracetamol over a two day period. My denial ended, this was really happening, my precious daughter had been suffering so greatly and deeply that she had made this determined decision to end her own life.
Any feeling or emotion for yourself stops when you are faced with a child as despairing as this, everything became about Libby, you don’t fall apart until much later because you are there and your child is suffering and all you do is be there for them, entirely. The nurses found me a bed so I could lie next to Libby that night and the next day we waited for results to tell us if any permanent damage had been done to Libbys liver. Luckily all was clear. Psychological assessments were routinely performed and I firmly put my foot down to any suggestion that Libby should remain in care to recover in a psychiatric ward, she was coming home with me.
When we arrived home after 36 hours in hospital, the floodgates to all that had really been going on for Libby, opened. She had been suffering terrible bullying at school and online on Facebook, Tumbler, SnapChat and Ask.com. The girlfriends she thought she had, had humiliated her, they turned her into a spectacle, I’m sure they had no idea of the damage they caused and its possible they never will. I just thank God that Libby made it through her anguish and had the strength to open up to me and tell me what had been happening. I spoke to the parents of one of the boys involved, we called in the police and asked the school to intervene. It was thankfully all taken very seriously, I took over for Libby, doing everything I could to protect her from immature minds who can’t understand the destructive effect of what they do. Libby had three weeks off school and we all knew that her return to school was going to be very difficult.
She tried, she tried to go back and fit in, be normal and get on. But it was too hard for her, the school itself now represented humiliation, abuse, torment and anxiety. Libby started to truant from school, she barely went from February to July 2014. She would go in some days, an incident either from her bullying peers or one of the draconian teachers, would trigger a panic attack of anxiety and she would simple walk off site. I would receive texts most days from the school, a generic text telling me my daughter hadn’t arrived for register or a class. I was in a permanent state of worry and anxiety myself, wondering where she and gone, what she was doing and of course panicking that she might have taken it upon herself to do something rash again. We called the police several times trying to find her, we do not live anywhere near the town or the school so I would ask the partner that I had at the time, to go out to try to find her, he often would, in the library. The school were patient at first but then she became labeled as another naughty child, truanting, with a bad attitude and it felt to me that they gave up on her.
Libby was by now seeing a private psychoanalyst once again, we gave up on Camhs after they suggested we medicate her to get her back to school. I refused to drug my child just to get her back onto the hamster wheel of life and conformity, we were going to work through this and give her as long as it took, no quick fixes and no covering up Libbys true feelings and true distress. Instead she had weekly sessions with a therapist and weekly massages for healing with a colleague of mine. These cost way beyond our means but I can not stress enough to any other parent, how invaluable these were. The therapist really connected with Libby in a way no other ever had, he was highly experienced and worth every penny. I trusted that it was worth it and it felt at the time that the universe was helping us, I suddenly started getting extra clients that helped to pay this added outgoing and I was lucky that my parents also helped a little towards the cost. The therapist fed back to me when needed and with Libbys consent, he helped her get on top of her school work, suggested private tutors and organised a revision timetable for an upcoming Year 10 GCSE Core Science exam. We worked fast and in five weeks Libby went from being predicted a D in her exam to getting a fantastic B grade. She worked so hard showing us all that she really wanted to do well, really wanted to learn and that the school were letting her down.
Her therapist then went on to suggest Libby shouldn’t be at the school at all, we looked at homeschooling but when I told the school the situation was becoming that drastic for us, they suggested a Learning Centre. Our local centre, is a tiny school in a big old house just outside the town, its reputation is for the children who have been expelled, the ‘delinquents’, I wasn’t keen. But by July, Libby had barely spent more than a few days in school, she was voting with her feet and flatly refusing to tow the line and conform to mainstream school. We’d tried all we could and at the end, when I made the decision to pull her out once and for all, I too was getting fed up with the system. I was tired of being told that her skirt was too short, her hair too wild or that she’d been found wandering off the school site, I wanted the school to try to understand what had happened to Libby, to help her and support her but it seemed they just didn’t have the resources or the inclination to treat her with the respect she needed. Everything I thought about the importance of having my child in school, behaving, fitting in and conforming, disappeared, I looked at her and thought, no, enough is enough, lets try something else.
So early July of this year I told her that was the end, no more school, ever. We made an application for Libby to go to the local Learning Centre, knowing that if it was unsuccessful it would be on my shoulders to educate her at home. We had a strong medical referral and others from her therapist and the school and we were pleased that she was accepted this September. Poor Libby, when I told her the news that she had a place I thought she’d be pleased but she just said it was hard to be happy about a journey that had been so awful and so difficult.
It is now mid November and Libby has been at centre for two months. She seems happy and settled at last. Subjects are taught mainly solo or in groups of two, the other pupils are there for various reasons, the girl she has most of her classes with is there for medical reasons. The atmosphere is very relaxed and laid back, no uniform, reduced hours and pupils are treated with great respect, no one gets told off or humiliated, its gentle and there is someone there to talk to if any child has the need. She spends two days doing just art, a subject she had dropped in Year 9 after being told she wasn’t very good at it, shocking at any school that should know better. Therapeutically the chance to get absorbed in her art is fantastic for her and the work she is producing is wildly creative and fun. She is studying for 10 GCSE’s, she’s starting a project towards GCSE Film and Photography this week and on Thursday she starts a course in Motor Mechanics! She also has the opportunity to go powerboating in the Spring.
Libby’s friend group went down to two girls before the summer but now she is slowly building up a wider group, she’s discovered that boys are a lot easier to get along with at this age, less complicated perhaps and she has a lot of boy mates. She smiles and laughs a lot more, doesn’t need to wear as much make up, a mask that she felt she had to put on before, she seems comfortable with herself, her body, her clothes. She stopped seeing her Dad which is sad but I hope that in time she will be able to rebuild her relationship with him, particularly as he and I are able to communicate more gently and with more clarity than ever before. The relationship I was in, ended which was hard for her, she built up a bond with him and he was there for her through all the bad times. We are all healing from this loss, its hard for the children when someone goes, when they just disappear and don’t say goodbye or stay in touch at all, we will heal from this in time, at least we had that support when we needed it most. I’m not complacent about how all of this has affected Libby, its been difficult, there are still concerns, its not all rosy. There are still all the usual issues parents have at her age, smoking, drinking, drugs and hoping that she is safe, but I hope we can move on in a new way now, more connected and more mindfully aware of Libby and her feelings.
Libby pushed me to the limit on all my conditioning about mainstream education, she pushed me beyond my comfort zone, because she is such a strong willed, determined young woman who seems to be turning a terrible episode in her life, into something creative and opening up the door to possibilities that I can’t wait to watch as she grows. I’m blessed to have all my children, I wouldn’t wish what happened to us on anyone, but if it ever does my advice would be, stay open, do nothing but love your child fully, completely and listen to them, treat them with respect, like you would another adult, listen and be there, help them and support them. If school is the problem, and it often is, trust that it isn’t the only solution to your childs education, we are so well conditioned to believe that it is and it can feel like a major upheaval and stress on us as parents to try alternatives. But in my experience there is nothing more stress-free than having a happy, laughing teenager around the house. Long may it continue.