When No Cure Comes

I always feel like a monster when I say raising my daughter was hard from day one.

Jolene was never a happy, smiling baby. She only stopped crying when she was asleep or in a swing. Nothing I did could ease her incessant colic, and she refused my breast milk, even though I had nursed her brother with ease.

I felt terribly guilty. I couldn’t feed my child or relieve her pain. I didn’t even enjoy my daughter, and that was the worst of all.

Once she outgrew colic, she experienced continual ear infections, and had multiple surgeries before she reached three years old. Her ear problems led to speech delay. At a special preschool for hearing and speech-impaired children, they diagnosed her with attention deficit disorder (ADD), which seemed more like a learning disability than a mental illness. It was difficult and stressful, yes, but not as debilitating as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

With a good handle on her speech, and with the medications for ADD working well, I hoped she could start kindergarten fresh. However, she was already labeled as “special.” During that kindergarten year, Jolene ran away from home multiple times. I had no clue why. I had been sexually abused as a child, so I wondered about Jolene. But when I tried to talk about it with her, without suggesting anything, she gave me no hints.

The reality of incest and of clear, severe, psychological illness appeared when we moved — still as a family — to a different state. She ran away and told the police that her father was sexually abusing her. Our family fell apart. The children were removed from our house, and I separated from my husband, although we didn’t get a divorce for another year.

Jolene returned home with me briefly, but deteriorated quickly to the point where she had a bowel movement on the floor at school. I never doubted she had been abused. How could I? There was no other explanation for her behavior.

As many problems as Jolene seemed to be born with, the abuse only made them worse.

How didn’t I know?

I’ve beat myself up about that more often than I could say. In the end, it didn’t matter. We both had to deal with the fall out. As many problems as Jolene seemed to be born with, the abuse only made them worse.

My son spent a couple of months at a state mental hospital before going into therapeutic foster care — where he stayed, more or less. My daughter could have followed a similar path, but I bought the argument that she would better adapt if she spent a longer time in a children’s home. She did improve a great deal there, but it set her up for institutionalized living.

I was in therapy three nights of the week (individual one night, family two nights). Those original therapy sessions helped me to understand the extent of the abuse my children had endured. Jolene drew pictures and talked about it. If I’d had any remaining doubts, they disappeared.

After she returned home, Jolene attended a class for kids with emotional disorders and also learning disabilities. It was the first time I came up against the cold reality that she couldn’t be “cured.” Jolene would never be free of her disabilities, although she did learn how to work around them.

She continued running away from home, which broke my heart and scared me to death. Thankfully, she was never harmed, and was always taken in by a kind stranger who fed her and brought her to the police.

Weekly therapy continued to be a part of my life until Jolene was almost 18. I kept hoping she would integrate into a fairly ordinary lifestyle. And she showed promise — Jolene had a successful summer job, was recognized as an outstanding poet, and even volunteered at the Olympics.

Her forward progress slammed to a stop when Jolene was placed in a self-contained classroom halfway through the tenth grade. For all intents and purposes, her education stopped. I finally shut the door on the dream that she would be like everyone else her age, but I still hoped she would be happy in her own way.

Clarity about Jolene’s mental illness took a long time. She was in her late teens before they determined her major issue was borderline personality disorder (BPD). I strove to understand it better, and what I learned was scary. With medication and therapy, it could be helped, but it was one of the hardest illnesses to treat and one of the most difficult to live with.

I don’t understand the “why” any more now than the hour I first suspected she was gone.

When Jolene reached adulthood, things seemed to improve. Adult Mental Health Services took over, and they got her to live as independently as possible. She moved into a succession of group homes until she ultimately transitioned into a regular apartment, fixed her own meals, and enjoyed a steady boyfriend. She tried a few jobs, but none of them worked out. Though she wanted so much more, she was doing an extraordinary job of living a “normal” life.

During this time, we saw each other about once a week, and she attended group therapy to learn how to cope with BPD. The group didn’t help her as much as it could have — about a year before her death, she stopped taking all her medication with the support of her therapist.

A few days before her 24th birthday, on a day we had planned her birthday party, Jolene took her own life. There was no note.

I know I had been far from a perfect mom, and I’d said and done things that I regretted. But I did the best I was capable of. I realize now that even a perfect parent couldn’t have cured Jolene’s problems. Even so, I have peace about her death, including gratitude that she no longer struggles with her major problems — but I don’t understand the “why” any more now than the hour I first suspected she was gone.

Her death wasn’t predictable or inevitable. Not everyone’s story ends the way ours did, and I’m thankful for the peace I have, and for the wisdom shared by those who have walked a similar path.

Our years together weren’t easy or fun, but we loved each other deeply. I often told Jolene that I learned more from her than she did from me. We even had our own love language, where “Emahay” meant “I love you.” I am so grateful for the time we had together.

If you’ve lost a child to suicide, or your child has attempted to end his or her life, you’re not alone in this. I encourage you to reach out and talk with someone who can listen and support you on this journey. Leave your contact information below, and someone on our team will connect with you soon.

Photo Credit: Aaron Burden