It’s 4:30 on Friday night when I hear the familiar beep of a text message coming through on my cell phone. I’m at my mother’s house where I have been all day, helping to care for her as she recovers from knee surgery. I quickly grab my phone, and see my oldest son’s picture flashing on the screen. The message reads, “When you get home, I’ll be upstairs ready to talk”. I felt my heart sink deep into the pit of my gut, the way it always does when I’m about to face something bad, something that I’m dreading. For the past few days I had watched my boy slowly unraveling before my eyes. He had gone from his usual happy, funny self just a few days earlier, to an angry, extremely emotional adolescent. He was spending all his free time locked away in his bedroom, and he was refusing to come down to eat meals with the family. During those brief moments where he would come downstairs, he would express extreme anger at every little thing the younger children or I said or did. Even starting up a conversation, would set him off into an angry rant.
One evening after he blew up at his 5-year-old brother for no clear reason, I took him aside and asked him what was going on. The question seemed to only aggravate him more, and sent him into an angry tirade which ended with him saying, “You have no idea what’s going on in my life right now!!!” The anger which was so plain on his face, did not match the agony that was clearly coming through in his voice. My boy was in pain…my heart sank and I had to stifle the need to dig deeper and force him to tell me what was wrong, so that I could help take the hurt away. Instead, in the calmest voice I could muster, I asked him, “Then why don’t we sit down and talk about it.” In the blink of an eye the pain that had escaped just a few seconds before, disappeared and “the wall” came back up. “There’s NOTHING WRONG! I’m fine and I’M NOT SAYING ANYTHING MORE!!!” “Okay, that’s fine…you know that I love you. I can clearly see that something is not right but I respect the fact you are not ready to talk about it. When you are, you know I’ll be here for you”. I have said this line more times than I can count. It is a standard blurb which I often use when talking to my teenagers. For those of you who have not entered the world of raising a teen, teenagers are emotional, sensitive, private souls. They feel misunderstood, and that no adult could ever understand the difficulties they encounter. They have this fear (which is sometimes justified) that adults will not take their thoughts or feelings seriously. This fear often drives them to hide the things they are going through from the adults in their lives. Sadly, you will NEVER be able to force your teen to tell you what is wrong…all you can do is let them know you are there for them, and then wait until they’re ready. Per his text…my boy was ready to talk.
As I packed up the rest of my stuff, all I could think about was my son and all he has been through in his 17 years of life. The emotional downward spiral that was sucking the joy and life out of him is extremely familiar. When he was about 12 years old, my happy loving boy seemingly changed overnight, and became a much darker, sadder version of himself. The first sign that something was really wrong, he completely withdrew from friends, family, and activities which he loved. He stopped eating, he could not sleep…every day became darker and darker until he eventually sank into deep despair. One day after a particularly bad day, he informed us that we would all be better off if he had never been born. Within 2 hours of this conversation, we had him admitted to psychiatric hospital for treatment. At the hospital he was diagnosed with clinical depression. His treatment lasted about a year, and with medication and lots of therapy he recovered quickly. He was taken off antidepressants about 6 months after his hospitalization; since he no longer needed them (therapy at that point was enough). It’s been about 5 years since his hospitalization, and all this time “Diji” has been doing great! Not once has the darkness returned, and in all this time he has never needed the medication again. The sudden onset of anger, sadness, heightened irritability, not eating, and hearing him walking through the house at all hours of the night because of his inability to sleep…let’s just say this mama was SCARED of what was going on with him! Receiving his message that night, as nerve-racking as it was, gave me some relief. My son was not holding it in as he did back when he was 12…he was reaching out to me for help. I knew then, that he would be okay…my job now was to be there and listen.
When I arrived home I quickly got all the other kids settled and fed, and then headed up to find “Diji”. I knocked on his bedroom door and walked in. He was sitting on his bed, his face pale, his eyes blood-shot with dark circles underneath. I felt sick…my stomach was in knots; I suddenly felt warm tears welling up in my eyes. He looked so incredibly broken…not at all like the confident young man he normally is. Within moments my son began spilling his heart out to me. Through tears he explained to me how his first love, the girl he has been with for 20 months, broke his heart and ended their relationship. He went on about how she was his best friend…how they were planning to go to away to college together, and how eventually he wanted to marry her someday. He told me that he truly believed she was the woman he would spend the rest of his life with. He was devastated and did not know what he would do without her. Most heartbreaking was listening to him talk about the fact that he needed to change. It was obvious that he blamed himself.
As his mother my first instinct was to protect him. The “mother bear” in me wanted to step in and fix this…to take care of him…to make the hurt disappear. The parent in me was more rational, this was his first love, his first long-term relationship, his first heartbreak. We have all been through this, and like the rest of us, he will be okay. This more rational side of me knew that what my son needed was not to be protected, what he needed was for me to be his mom. He needed me to listen, to give him support, to help him work through his feelings, and give him advice on how to cope with the loss. We stayed in his room for what seemed like hours…it was only about an hour but it certainly felt like more. I listened intently to my boy, each word he said piercing deeper into my already broken heart. I wanted to cry with him but knew that I HAD to stay STRONG. I felt completely helpless…he was looking to me to provide answers, and sadly I had none. For the first time in a long time I felt completely helpless, and inadequate as a parent.
In the 17 years I have been a mom I have been through many things with my 5 children. I have lived through many firsts, first steps, first words, first day of school, first school dance, first girlfriend…but heartbreak…this is uncharted territory for me as a mom. With “Diji” being the oldest, all of his milestones have been achieved, with an in-experienced parent at the helm. Like all his other firsts, this mom was completely unprepared to help him deal with his first heartbreak. All I could do for him on this night was listen, tell him how much I love him, and reassure him that no matter what…even if it does not seem possible now…that he would be okay and that I would be there every step of the way to help him. This was all I had to offer my poor heartbroken boy, and though at the time it seemed like it could not possibly be enough, it helped him take the first step towards moving forward. After our conversation that night, he joined the rest of the family for movie night, and his mood improved dramatically. By the next day, he had spoken to the rest of the family about the situation, he ate 3 meals that day, and although he was still sad, the spiral had been reversed…he was now moving upward. He was able to get himself out of the deep dark abyss that was swallowing him. As his mother I could not be more proud.
It has now been about 2 weeks since the break up and although he still has his bad days; his good days outnumber the bad. Each day I make sure to check in with him. I ask him how he’s doing, how he’s feeling, what his plans are for the day, for the weekend…anything to keep him talking. I reassure him often, letting him know how proud I am when he’s having good days, and letting him know everything is okay and that his feelings are perfectly normal when he’s having bad days. I’ve also tried to help him reconnect with some of the old activities he used to enjoy. The goal now is to help him move forward and create his new “normal”. I know that it’s going to take some time to heal, but simply listening and supporting him has helped him find a way to move on past those feelings of heartache and disappointment.
I know I’ve said this before, but I don’t care…I’m going to keep saying it over and over! I AM SO PROUD OF MY SON! I admire his ability to come to me and others to talk through his feelings and what he was experiencing. I’m proud of his ability to recognize when he needs help, and even more proud that he had the confidence to ask for it. I now know that no matter what life throws at him, my son can and will rise above it all. I am also extremely proud of myself for being able to take control of my own feelings and step aside to allow my son to work through this on his own terms. Watching my child heartbroken is one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with. However, after watching how resilient he is, and the amazing way that he has handled himself has made me even more proud of the wonderful young man he has become. I am so humbled by his strength, and I’m so proud to be his mom.