If someone had told me pre-parenthood a 4-year-old could communicate suicidal thoughts, I wouldn’t have believed them. Years later, with my own newly adopted bundle of joy, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about children and mental illness.
We were loving parents, protective, careful about media. And yet our child, Mateo, barely out of diapers, was telling us he wanted to die.
“I want to be dead, Mommy,” he’d say. “I want to cut my head off with scissors and die.”
I knew he didn’t entirely understand what death was — at 4, who would? But the intention was clear: He was unhappy. And if the thoughts weren’t enough, the actions soon followed.
He’d try to jump out of the moving car, rolling down the window when the door was locked. He’d run into the busy street on purpose. He’d grab sharp objects and make threatening motions to me or himself. Other strange things were happening, too. He never slept. Ever. It was like his body didn’t need it — constantly buzzing and hyper-aware. He had lengthy rages about every little thing and couldn’t be consoled. But mostly, he just stopped smiling.
But what doctor would believe all that? And at 4 years old! We finally found a progressive psychiatrist who diagnosed him with early-onset bipolar disorder. At the time, I didn’t care about labels. I was just happy someone believed there was a real problem and that I wasn’t a drama-queen mom! Later, we found out, compounded with the mental health issue, he has brain damage caused by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
Diagnosis in hand, I did research and connected with other parents. Several advised me if my son was unsafe to himself and others, he should go to a psychiatric hospital. I was astounded a place like that would exist for children. What would kids need to go to a mental hospital for? I scoffed at the idea of sending my son to a place like that.
But things got progressively worse. What finally pushed me over the edge was when he grabbed his 1-year-old sister’s head and shoved it through a window. Thank God she had no injuries. That day, I decided I couldn’t keep him (and my daughter) safe without help, and made the heartbreaking decision to drive to the ER and ask for a psych admission.
The whole experience was surreal. Just getting admitted was two full days of paperwork, explaining the symptoms over and over again, waiting and waiting and waiting in the ER, the whole time choking back my tears. What I really wanted to do was go home and sob into my pillow. I had a son who was clearly sick with mental health issues and I was completely helpless.
Walking away from your child in a hospital is one of the hardest, most unnatural things a parent could do. For the next week, strangers took care of my son — bathed him, brushed his teeth, helped him get dressed. Would they make sure he ate enough at breakfast? Would they know what toys he liked to play with? Would they hug him if he was sad? The rules about visitation were strict. I was only allowed to see my baby one hour a day. After taking care of him all day long, for most of his life, I was regulated to only one hour. It was like prison. I couldn’t even tuck him in at night. I’d never gone more than two days (when my mom watched him on my wedding anniversary) without tucking him into bed. I wanted my voice telling him I loved him. I wanted to be the last thing he heard before falling asleep. Not other kids crying, not a random nurse or staff member, not the strange sounds of an unfamiliar building. Me. His mom.
It was a seven-day nightmare. Looking back, I still don’t know how I got through it. In the end, it was the right decision. They put him on medication to help him sleep and moderate his moods. The talks of death and violent behavior stopped. I saw smiles and glimpses of my happy, giggly boy again.
He’s gone to the hospital six more times since then — always to alter his medication when he’s being unsafe. It gets easier. It’s still hard leaving your baby in someone else’s hands. I imagine it’ll be that way forever. But when it comes down to it, a mental illness is no different than a medical condition that needs treatment. Would you hesitate to send your diabetic child to the hospital if they needed it? No. The only difference is the stigma.
We’ve shifted from viewing his illness as a sad childhood tragedy to a medical condition that needs treatment. We’ve found Mateo, as well as friends and family, have followed along this path, being objective rather than emotional. Our hope is that as he gets older, he can recognize what he needs and not feel ashamed.