Part One: “No One Wanted The Baby!” I Did and Still Do: A Mother and Daughter’s Story About Mental Illness, Lack of Treatment, Waitlists & Suicide

(1-8-20) Sadly, this first-person account by a mother whose daughter recently attempted suicide has a familiar ring. I asked her to write about the experience and after consulting her daughter, both agreed. Even so, I’ve chosen pseudonyms to protect the family’s privacy.

The Shape of Loss: Teen Suicide and the Failure of Mental Health in Public Schools : Part One

On June 15th, 2004, I was called by the adoption agency and told they had a newborn baby girl they wanted me to consider for adoption. Her birth mother was a patient at the state psychiatric hospital, and, I was told, “no one wanted the baby.” Chances are, she would likely end up in foster care.

The following day, I arrived at the agency to read through the birth mother’s file before making my decision. What I read was heartbreaking.

The twenty-three year old birth mother — Jean — lived with a diagnosis of bi-polar schizoaffective disorder and had endured repeated traumas beginning at the age of fifteen, with a sexual assault and subsequent suicide attempt. In her photo, she looked like a tangled-haired hippie who had just walked out of the woods after a week with no food. The medication she must have been on appeared to have replaced her youth with eyes dull and hopeless, her mouth was closed shut in what must have been a ferocious silence.

I would like to say that I knew the risks before I agreed to adopt her daughter, whom I will call Marie.

Eyes and Heart Wide Open

I’d researched fetal alcohol exposure, the impact of trauma in-utero, and the medication her mother had been on. I knew the genetic risk of mental illness, the impact of teratogenic exposure, and I felt I was prepared and could protect my new daughter. My faith and education a talisman that would carry with me. I was to be stouthearted and methodical like a seamstress with a hem, each stitch careful and planned.

I allowed contact between Marie and her birthmother, Jean.

After Jean was discharged from the mental hospital, she tried to make a life for herself, which was often tenuous, and I wondered if she ever thought about the time that she lost to bring Marie into this world.

Would you spend six months in a psychiatric hospital while pregnant only to be pronounced “well” and leave empty-handed?

And yet, she would call and speak to Marie, voice full of enthusiasm, “Right on!” she’d tell her, “Butterflies are cool!” and if she was bitter and wary, she never let on. I knew the back story, but I would not share that story with Marie until much later; it was a privilege for her to believe that Jean was like any other birth mother who had a “choice” to “place her baby for adoption.”

An Encouraging Start – At First

Pre-school proved easy for Marie; she loved to explore and had a creative imagination that was encouraged. She would start each day strapping on what she called her “clappy shoes,” which were heavy-heeled Mary Janes that made a clatter as she ran through the house. She was the child in the grocery store with jagged bangs hugging her hairline and scabs on her knees; I was the parent who perfected the shrug that said, “I only turned my back for a second!”

Marie entered kindergarten with her share of peculiarities: a penchant for catching bees and stuffing them into Tupperware, an obsession with Peter Pan, an ET stuffy that went everywhere with her, strapped to her back like a pair of Ninja swords. I soon discovered that she struggled with sleep, had nightmares, and developmentally lagged behind her peers. When she started all day kindergarten, my little bright-eyed girl was so eager and trusting it makes me want to weep, however, the shine wore off quickly when she learned that “exploring” the classroom would not be tolerated.

I would wait in front of her classroom door each day to pick her up and watch as she eagerly pushed her way to the front of the line, her pink puffy coat and lopped off bangs visible from the parking lot.

Marie struggled with anxiety, focus, and the ability to “remain in her seat.”

Despite having an individual education plan that identified her risks, she was stigmatized and roughly handled by staff.

In the fall of her first-grade year and easily overwhelmed, she decided to hide under a table in the classroom and not come out when everyone else went to recess. The teacher and secretary drug her out into the light, and when she resisted, they marched her down the hallway, each holding an arm stiff and straight as a plank, making it impossible for her to drop her weight. They took her to the “special education room” which housed a blue padded room that was 6×6 ft, where she remained until I arrived.

Instead of finding my sweet but anxious six-year-old with the Peter Pan swagger, she was inside a blue padded room with three teachers bracing their backs against the door, keeping it shut as she repeatedly hurled herself against it.

She had stripped off all of her clothing, and was running up the walls, bare feet slapping the vinyl, only to be able to look out the netted windows for a moment until once again falling six feet to the padded floor. I saw my naked child, hair sweaty and flattened to her scalp, cheeks the color of beets, grinning maniacally and using language I didn’t learn until I was a teen for the few seconds she clung to the net of the window. The school did this to her two more times, and each time she escalated to a point of breaking.

I threatened lawsuits, demanded equity, called the school board and the education department. The seclusions ended, but now she had a diagnosis of PTSD, and was provisionally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When I dropped her off at school she would cry, plead, and eventually leave the car with an expression in her eyes that said, “Save me, there is still time.”

Marie had learned that escape was the only safety she had, and with a safecracker’s intent, would find ways to leave the building, even if it meant kicking and screaming, with the sweet relief of suspension.

The journey into medication and mental health began when Marie was six years old following the seclusions.

She didn’t just run away from school, she fled anything that awakened an emotion that felt “too big.”

She pulled out her hair, shrieked, screamed, jumped from heights, wouldn’t eat, and wore the face of a hostage: eyes darting to the nearest door. She was placed on medication that caused her to smear feces, another that caused a potentially homicidal incident in the lunchroom where all the children had to be sequestered, yet another that caused cardiac issues. There were public meltdowns, talk of wishing she was dead (beginning at nine), and nothing ever seemed to help: I gave up when her psychiatrist looked at her as if she were something growing in a petri dish and said, head cocked to the side, “She looks like a lithium kid. Let’s try that.”

We tried horse therapy, but she was discharged because rather than riding a horse she wanted to walk with the horse and catch tadpoles.  We tried a Girl’s Therapy Group, where she was bullied and ridiculed.

Marie detested school, but wanted friends, a small consolation for living this life. She was never to have friends, only the ones she would befriend and walk with to the school counselor’s office, someone more desperate than she. Therapists were unsuccessful with Marie, she had come to distrust strangers who asked her questions, demanded things of her that she was not capable of tolerating. She began to believe that she carried an inner worthlessness that had spread like dark ink, staining every interaction or attempt at friendship.

Marie was stigmatized at school, a result of her displays of dis-regulation and inability to moderate her mood. School was being shut in a small storage room with a teaching assistant reading aloud to her, pushing her to complete math worksheets. I would purchase “incentive” items from the dollar store; erasers, Chiclets, stickers, and markers so that Marie could woo someone from the mainstream classroom into her tiny cluttered space and perhaps “have a friend.”

There was talk of counselors, interventions, ways of integrating Marie into the mainstream and yet no follow through: she spent three years in the small storage room, this time there were no padded walls but similarly isolated.

The principal said that she posed too big a risk to the other children, there had been phone calls from parents, threats and complaints.

Outside of school, we would take trips to the Oregon coast, her favorite place to be, where she would use a battered Easter basket to catch hermit crabs and collect shells until her lips were blue and fingers numb. She would sing, I remember, her voice hoarse and nearly breaking. In these moments, with eyes squeezed shut and hearing her voice catch in the wind, I would imagine her life without school, the relief of not making her go, feeling like I had dislodged a stone from my shoe.

Marie’s birth mother was complicated

Marie would occasionally speak to Jean on the phone, had met her grandmother and was well-loved by her immediate family. Her case manager would remind us that she had “many protective factors” in place – a phrase I would come to learn was an excuse for not providing adequate services.

When Marie was nine years old, a day after Mother’s Day, we realized we had forgotten to call her birth mother. When I had mentioned it to Marie, she had sadly shaken her head, and said, “Not now. Maybe later.”

Even though Marie was young, she knew her birth mother was complicated. Their few times of meeting in person were often marked with loss, as if Jean were an angel in a painting who temporarily came to life, and then disappeared behind oil and canvas.

It was Marie’s grandmother who called me the day after Mother’s Day to report that Jean had taken her own life. She had begun to become ill, and “just didn’t have it in her to go through all of it again.” She described how she had gone out to fetch Jean a soda, hearing a gunshot, and finding her daughter alive on the floor with a bullet lodged in her head. She watched Jean struggle to speak, holding her, waiting for emergency personnel to arrive. Jean died before she reached the hospital.

Jean’s mother told me that earlier on the day that Jean shot herself, she had gone into the local county mental health department in crisis, “but there was a long line, and no one helped her.”

She also told me that Jean’s psychiatrist had taken her off of all of her psychiatric medications two months prior, and that Jean was the second suicide in their small community who was under that doctor’s care. Within two months, the psychiatrist left town with no forwarding address.

After birth mother’s suicide, Marie also thinks of it

As Marie entered middle-school and her symptoms of depression deepened, she spoke of suicide. I decided that I didn’t care if she graduated from high school. I wanted her to be alive, which wasn’t the long-term goal her teachers were looking for in school meetings.

The sadness that Marie carried with her remained outside of school, like a smudge that wouldn’t wipe away. I wanted badly for her to be rid of images that caused her to feel ugly and afraid. Upon my insistence, she attended two therapy sessions at her school; she liked the therapist but was dropped after she missed a session and was late to another: The school counselor called me and, as if I was being read my rights, she insisted there was a waitlist full of kids who were sure to show up, and Marie was keeping her from helping children “who really want my help.”

Ridiculous as it now seems, I must have been hoping for a therapist who would be willing to pull quarters from her ears. Perhaps someone full of promise who would understand that they needed to audition for the role, instead of someone who was content pushing paper and checking her name off of a list.

Marie took the therapist’s rejection as yet another betrayal.

She slept with hands fisted and unsettled. Her anger and depression were unrelenting. She cut off her thick wavy blonde hair, shaving it close to her head.  At 5’4 she weighed less than 100 pounds, cheekbones pronounced and walking with a hunch, she was barely recognizable from the year before.

She began “cutting” at fourteen, stayed in her room and refused to leave the dark, listening to music that was ugly and rageful. The anger she held onto for years had become permanently burrowed, her words singularly cruel and directed only at me. I had to learn to hold her without crushing that tender place she may still hold for a mother who failed her, who parented her from afar, an ear pressed against the wall.  She ended her eighth-grade year not attending any school. Her diagnosis had shifted from Bipolar II to ongoing clinical depression, PTSD, ADHD, Neuro-cognitive developmental disorder.

I asked Marie what she thought of “all of those diagnosis” and she said, “It’s all a bunch of bullshit. I mean, I’ve always been depressed! What’s there to be happy about?”

(PART TWO: As Marie continues a downward spiral, her mother frantically seeks help from high school counselors, psychiatrists and mental health workers.



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.