My younger daughter called me into her room on Sunday afternoon as we neared the end of her Fall Break visit home. “I don’t want to go back to school,” she told me.
Thinking she was just feeling preemptively homesick (her next break would be six weeks away for Thanksgiving), I encouraged her and hugged her and told her she’d be okay.
Sometime in the middle of the night after we got home from dropping her off (a seven-hour round trip), I got a call from her. She was in tears. “Mom, I don’t feel good. I don’t want to be here, and I can’t do this. I need to go home!” I was beside myself. This was not her mood when she talked to me 12 hours earlier, even though she was definitely feeling down.
I tried to figure out what we could do. I told her to get some sleep, see the counselor at school, and go to classes. I’d check in with her in the evening to see how she was doing.
Anxiety is nothing new for us. In fact, my daughter and I wrote two articles for CatholicMom.com about our journey with her mental health and therapy (part one; part two). The tough thing about anxiety and depression is that it’s not a straight road. There are plenty of ups and downs, successes and relapses, great days and horrible ones. So I was thinking that the stress of college was a series of bad days, and that maybe we could get a therapist near her to see her, if necessary. This was the plan I managed to come up with in the middle of the night in mid-October.
The next evening, I called her to chat, and her spirits seemed better. She was cheerier, and I felt like maybe our plan was going to work. My husband and I went out for a bite to eat and figured we could relax a little bit.
But at 9:30, I got another tearful phone call, and this one was scary.
“I can’t do this! I have to go home!” she sobbed.
I was suddenly on high alert. “I thought it was better today. What’s happening?”
Apparently, the day went by smoothly with plenty to do, but as evening approached her mood dropped and her anxiety got a really good hold on her. She was spinning mentally and couldn’t stop.
“Where are you right now?”
“I’m at the Grotto. I left my dorm. Mom, I can’t do this. I don’t feel safe.”
I don’t feel safe.
With that one sentence, I knew this wasn’t just anxiety ramping up. This was something new to me.
“Honey, what’s going on?”
“I can hear the RA looking for me.”
She was scattered. I repeated the question. “Honey, what’s happening? What’s going on with you right now?”
She finally admitted that she left her dorm because she was crying so much and didn’t want to bother her roommate. “I don’t feel safe.”
“You keep saying that: ‘I don’t feel safe.’ What do you mean?” I asked this question even though it terrified me, and I was afraid I already knew the answer.
She hardly wanted to admit what she meant, either. She was having suicidal ideations, and even though she knew she didn’t want to hurt herself, she couldn’t get rid of the thoughts.
Now I was wide awake. Wide. Awake. And scared.
“Mom, please come and get me.”
We couldn’t leave at that moment. It’s a seven-hour round trip to get her, and we’d get home at 4 AM, if we got home at all. My husband was supposed to leave for a three-day business trip, and I was supposed to have a business trip for training the day after he left. I had no idea what to do, except to promise that I would leave work at 2 the next day and drive down for her.
She went to the RA, promised to update me in a little while, and we hung up. I did nothing but cry for about two hours after that, and my husband and I both spent the entire night tossing and turning with worry. I did get some texts from her saying she’d be okay, that she wasn’t going to be alone at all. But I’d be lying if I said it was much comfort to know that.
The next morning, my husband sat on the side of the bed just before 6 AM. “I’m cancelling my trip and leaving to get her by 8.” Just like that, we had the start of a plan. Whatever was going to happen after this, we knew this was where we’d start. I texted her early to let her know what was happening, and that her father would send her an ETA as soon as he could. I went to work and cancelled my trip, and muddled my way through the day until I could put my arms around my daughter again.
What happened next was almost two weeks of doctor’s appointments and therapy and doing schoolwork at home. At the end of the first week, she wasn’t feeling up to going, so she emailed her professors, who only knew there was an emergency that she needed to go home for. She told them exactly what was happening, and that she had high hopes to be back the following week. Every single one of them was kind and understanding, and one professor in particular emailed her a beautiful note about how glad he was that she was seeing her therapist and physician. He said she should treat this as “Job #1” so that she would feel better. Then I started to cry as I read the next part of his email to her:
“I am so sorry for your suffering, but I know that YOU know that there is hope, healing, recovery, and promise. We are not defined by our illnesses, especially, I would say, when they are the distortions of our mental horizon. I will pray for you. The lies that our minds tell us are not at all like the truth of God’s love for us. They do not match his power, either.”
He went on in the same vein a little more, and then promised to pray for her.
When she went back to school, it was with some trepidation, but with great hope that her new prescription for anti-depressants and some strategies from her psychologist would help her gain some traction in recovering. And so far, it seems to be working. Her moods are better, she’s sleeping better, and her anxiety, while not gone, is at least held at bay by the plans her physician and therapist have provided for her.
The reason she and I made the decision to share this is to help other families know that there are ways to get help and gain hope again while dealing with anxiety and depression. When she was first home, she cried because she couldn’t see how she would feel any better – ever. A month away from that, and she sees hope – and she does feel better! In fact, she told me she was feeling “exponentially better.”
The decision to go back to anti-depressants was not an easy one, especially when the person taking them is 18 and feeling discouraged because she might have to take it “for the rest of my life.” When she said that, I told her that I have to take medicine for my barely-functioning thyroid for the rest of my life. Her father has to take blood pressure medication for the rest of his life. Medicine is to help fix something your body isn’t doing well. There shouldn’t be any shame in that.
If you or your child is experiencing depression or anxiety, don’t be afraid to find help. If it’s suggested that medications might be the best option for recovery, please don’t be afraid. Be aware of side effects, but don’t be afraid. Sometimes a person’s brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin and needs help that will come with taking meds.
Prayer is, of course, important in our lives, but please don’t think that anxiety and depression go away as a result of prayer alone. And if someone you know is experiencing these problems, by all means pray for them, but please don’t suggest that their faith is lacking somehow because they’re suffering.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal ideations, please make sure they have the National Suicide Prevention Hotline programmed into their phone. My daughter has it now, which I hate but also know is necessary. It’s 1-800-273-8255, and it’s always manned.
And, finally, if your family is going through the same thing we’ve been going through, please know that you’re in my prayers. Know that it’s going to get better – eventually. It’s not easy, and there will be really bad days mixed in during recovery, but it’s going to get better. If you’re looking for a patron saint to pray for you, St. Dymphna is your girl.
Copyright 2019 Christine Johnson with Amanda Johnson