It's been so humid and dark this week. The air is heavy, and it feels hard to breathe. The weird wetness of the air plus the dip in temperature that hints at fall is an awkward combination. The whole thing has made me feel like I’m moving through water. It’s slowed me down, and maybe that’s the only good part. It’s made me take a moment and look around me.
I’m looking especially at my daughter Kate. She’s almost 15. She has long, curly blond hair and blue-green eyes, and she’s lean and graceful. She’s a dancer. She just started high school and somehow seems to be taking it in stride. She’s a student, after all—she appreciates the actual learning, at least in most of her classes, notably language arts and history, though she’s tickled by her French teacher, a sharp-dressed older Haitian man. I think she’s been more enthusiastic in the last few weeks about French than she ever was about Spanish in middle school.
She wears striped T-shirts or concert shirts that just graze her midriff, or big, cozy sweatshirts with hoods that say things like “Pink” or “Cape Cod,” and those teeny denim shorts teenage girls favor. Her legs are strong from dance. They are beautiful. But if you look closely at her thighs, you’ll see a series of horizontal lines on each one. They’re scratches that are healing. Really, they are cuts, and she made them herself with scissors in the past few weeks.
She’s been having panic attacks for a year. The cutting is new. When I noticed it the first time she said she’d fallen into a bush. Even though when I first caught sight of it, it instantly looked intentional to me, I chose to believe her, to remain in denial for a day or two. That was the short amount of time it took for her to disclose what had been happening.
I was scared. I felt guilty. I felt frustrated. I felt ashamed. Strangely, I realize now, all the feelings I felt when my now-sober husband was in the final throes of his drinking.
Kate was in fifth grade then, when things got so bad that really, if he hadn’t stopped, he probably would have died. She and I were confidants in anger and outrage; we both just wanted him out of the house. We wanted to protect Sara, her sister, who was only nine, as much as we could. But Kate was only eleven. She shouldn’t have been my cohort. I knew that, and I tried to protect her as best I could—I spoke to her constantly about how I would always take care of her, no matter what, and she believed me then, believes me now—but I was like a shipwreck that year, and she saw that, and she stepped up.
Now she’s finally acknowledging her anger at having to do that. She’s mostly angry at her dad, I think, but I was at fault, too. I’m not indulging myself with mother guilt here; it’s just the truth. She took on more than she should have, than she was capable of. She was amazingly strong. But she shouldn’t have had to be.
The panic attacks have been painful to witness—I have never experienced one, my pain always having been more depressive than anxious—but they make sense to me, that she feels out of control, out of herself, not herself. The cutting takes that to another level, and I’m trying not to get too alarmed; I’ve read about it and it’s not generally a gateway to suicidal tendencies, more a way to find some relief from your anxiety and pain. I understand that, even though the part of me who is her mom, who thinks she’s the most beautiful and amazing and perfect person in the universe, is heartbroken by the thought that she would harm herself even that small bit, that maybe there will be scars on those beautiful legs. The cuts aren’t that deep, they really are more like scratches, so hopefully, no trace will remain. And we’re taking all the measures we need to take, together, to get her professional support, so we can confront it now.
But it’s a powerful lesson in restraint, I have to say. I want to panic and scream and cry and just wallow in the unfairness of it, that she has been made to feel this way by the circumstances of our life, and the imperfect way I handled some things. But she’s not a little girl anymore, and I can’t fix everything, I can’t make things go away. She’s a young woman with her own feelings and thoughts and her own reactions to them. It won’t help her if I freak out or tell her to “just stop.” What I need to do is be with her and behind her and just…there.
To that end, I’ve been treating her a bit like a china doll, at least in my mind. When we’re apart during the day, I text her more. When she’s with me I find myself touching her and petting her and hugging her more.
I know she’s going to be okay, but I also know that there’s not a place where okayness stays okay forever. Not for her or for any of us. I just need to be her mother, and make sure to love her and adore her, and also give her the space to be herself.