Opening my eyes at 6:20 this morning I am happy to be able to straighten my legs and stretch. For once the 8 pound dog isn’t taking up a third of the bed. Despite my efforts to unplug I realize my phone is in my hand without even making a choice to pick it up. I decide to start the day at an inbox of zero. I almost didn’t swipe right on the letter from the Denver Schools. For some reason I opened it, expecting to be invited (along with 45,000 of my closest friends) to sit in on a superintendent meeting.
Instead I read about a 9 year hold boy taking his life allegedly because other fourth graders bullied him about being gay. The note also referenced an unnamed teenager who was hospitalized and in critical condition because of a self inflicted gun shot.
These times of sorrow and grief call on us to take the time to reflect on what we can do — both small and large efforts, individually and as a community — to consistently support our most vulnerable children. We must do everything possible to protect our children.- Denver Public School letter 8/28/18
Fifteen minutes later our bed was made and Oliver was lying across it on his side, blue fuzzy jacket on. He wears this jacket to cover his stomach. He is worried people notice his weight. Now though he is not worried. He is cooing at a picture of a puppy in a burrito. He is 13.
This summer he sent his father and I a long text which started about screen time and ended somewhere darker. (He has given me permission to share this text.)
Ok so I’m writing you this text because I honestly don’t know if I can just clearly say and explain this in person.
I think my recent increase in screen usage stems from two main things and some other factors that all combined to result in this overuse.
The first thing and probably main culprit is puberty, it affects everyone differently and I believe that for me the hormonal swings are mainly amplifying my already present anxiety and introvertedness this makes it so right now interacting with others not only completely drains me of energy, but actually freaks me out and scares me. Additionally mood swings have generally brought me to darker places then ever before and lowered my general happiness and energy which only gets worse when I spend all day on screens.
Also I believe that summer and it’s extensive freedom and no real purpose has made my lifestyle worse in other ways, my sleep is completely off and I’m eating more unhealthily then ever. But mainly I’m lost, I don’t have school to distract me or focus, on and while I do have Colin here I left a lot of my life in Denver. As much as I love it here right now I’m struggling.
Of course this could just be a negative mood swing, but there is certainly a serious problem and I need to fix my life right now, but I just don’t think I can do it alone. So I want to ask for help, because I’m worried about where this might go. I’m sorry for causing you trouble.
The opening of this text gave me a valuable insight. Oliver is clearly able to think about and analyze his feelings (see above.) But he DOES NOT talk about them. After I got this text this summer I suggested to a few friends that they invite their kids to text them with problems if that was easier than talking. Guess what? It was. Screentime might have started as his problem, but it was part of his solution as well. The night we got this text Steve and I sat down with Oliver right away. As much as my 20 years of talk therapy made me want to turn this into a difficult conversation about his mother I decided to follow his lead and write instead of talk. I asked him to break down his concerns into different areas and gave him paper and markers to draw and write. He wrote SLEEP, EXERCISE, FREE TIME, MOOD, SOCIAL ANXIETY, and EATING. Then I asked him to list what these things would look like in their very best forms. His mood began to change. Listing them out into small steps made them seem like something he could tackle. We picked two areas to work on that week. Sleep, and social stuff. He gave himself two challenges. Getting into bed at 10:30 with lights out and laying in his bed waiting for sleep. And texting 3 friends. Within days some of this mangled mess of concern started to clear up.
Of course we also talked about therapy (I am a HUGE proponent) and I have a recommendation lined up for him, but we decided to wait a bit and see how things shake out. We also started a book group reading Freeing Your Child From Anxiety
. We only met twice and then we just started drinking wine. I kid. It was ovaltine.
In any case Steve and I responded with lists and plans and Oliver responded to us.
This was not my approach this morning.
I walked over to the bed, rested my arm on his fuzzy blue shoulder and told him the facts of the letter from DPS.
“There are two sides for us to think about.” I told him.
He rolled up to sitting, eyes on mine.
One, of course, is keeping ourselves safe. You know I am depressed. You know I am in treatment. You know I take medicine and have therapy and have faced some real darkness. But despite that I am here with you and even when I am sad I am happy every day that I made it here. Even when I feel loathing or unaccomplished I can still go to sleep glad that I made it here, to you. I want that for you.” I tell him.
He is nodding.
“This summer you told us you were in a dark place.”
He has cast his eyes down. Maybe I should be texting this. But I continue.
“Sometimes you are not kind to yourself. Sometimes you expect to get 100 on an assignment and a 70 feels like a whole piece of your identity has been taken away, instead of just three incorrect bubbles on a computer.”
He is looking at me now. We have spent the past two nights with him in tears, me telling him that he is more than just a grade and him almost believing me.
“There are lots of worries in this world. Some are about problems that we should try to solve, like not getting enough sleep. Some are anxieties that we can notice and try to treat like background noise, like feeling as though being 15 minutes early for school is not early enough.”
Now he has a smile.
“And then there is that dangerous worry. When all of our fears and upsets come together and tell us the big lie that no life is better than this life. I know that feeling. I tell him. I will help him. If he ever feels like he wants to be numb and do nothing I will understand. I won’t tell him that he is just 13 and all of this is just temporary. I will get him treatment. I will slash away the things that feel as if they are closing in on him. I will give him a break from responsibilities.
Because at the worst of times our only responsibility is to stay alive.
He hears me. He is patting my hand on his shoulder.
There is another side too. I tell him. The side where you can save a life other than your own.
I used stats the article I read this morning that said LGBTQIA teens are three times more likely to report attempted suicide and four times more likely to commit suicide. Amongst those who didn’t have an attempt they cited having just one person helped.
He can help. He can tap into his incredible well of kindness. He can recognize people who are fragile and stand by them. Even just physically. He can remember that also people’s pain can be buried into a small ball invisible to everyone but corroding them from the inside out. Smiles, eye contact, greetings. These little things add up. After all, we all want to be seen.
I finished with this second part and he was sitting up straight. “I can do this.” He tells me. I am scared of talking to people but I can smile. I can sit at a different desk or lunch table. I could make someone a drawing. Maybe once a week.” He likes this.
So once again, despite my emotional speech, we have landed at a behavioral approach. It is not the way I would do it. But it is his way. And I imagine there will be some kids over the next week that feel seen by him and maybe will see him back, and maybe at night when they are lying in the dark there will be something about their day to enjoy instead of nothing. And that is something.
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Anna Rosenblum Palmer is a freelance writer based in Denver, CO. She writes about sex, parenting, cat pee, bi-polar disorder and the NFL; all things inextricably intertwined with her mental health. In her free time she teaches her boys creative swear words, seeks the last missing puzzle piece and thinks deeply about how she is not exercising. Her writing can be found on Babble, Parent.co, Great Moments in Parenting, Ravishly, Good Men Project, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Playpen, Crazy Good Parent, and YourTango. She also does a fair amount of navel gazing on her own blog at annarosenblumpalmer.com.