Last week I spent close to four hours trying to prevent a student from harming herself. She was a college freshmen with a history of depression and suicidal thoughts. Three days into the new semester, she decided to withdraw from school. The decision was wreaking havoc with her fragile emotional state. I kept her with me in my office until we could meet with the dean of students to discuss the process. She cried almost nonstop the entire hour we were alone.
After our meeting with the dean, I walked her over to see a mental health counselor because she’d admitted to us that she had thoughts of harming herself. As I sat in the waiting room while she met with a counselor, the space began to fill with students, all going through some kind of personal pain or challenge, all wearing masks to cover it. It reminded me of a doctor’s office during flu season.
Why so much pain?
The student’s mother was waiting for her outside of the building when we exited. The older woman opened her arms; the daughter melted into them. It was clear the two shared a strong bond. As I watched the mother hold her child with so much love and tenderness, listened to her say all the right things, relief washed over me. I don’t know what I’d been expecting. Someone harsh and demanding? An enabler? A hot mess who would make things worse?
I left them and walked slowly back to my office, my thoughts turning to my third born son. Of my four boys, he’s the one I worry about most, the one I think of when I think of pain. He started smoking pot in high school, then progressed to drinking cough medicine. Yes, you read correctly. There is an ingredient in some cough medicine called dextromethorphan that can get you high if you drink enough of it.
I remember the day I found out. I’d been away at a conference for three days and was excited to tell my husband about it. Instead, he told me that he’d found a bunch of empty cough medicine bottles hidden in the attic crawl space. He’d brought one to the drugstore it came from and asked the pharmacist why a teenager would have this. That’s how he learned about dextromethorphan. My husband then went to the police station to report that the pharmacy was illegally selling cough medicine to minors.
My poor husband was crazed, desperate, didn’t know what else to do. He’d grown up watching his three older siblings turn into alcoholics while in their teens and early twenties. His household, led by a hard-working father and a kind, but enabling, stay-at-home mom, neither of whom drank, was filled with chaos and dysfunction. Somehow, my husband managed to avoid this fate, and became so anti-drugs he refused to even take a drag off a cigarette. Now the disease of addiction had entered his own home, his own son.
Why so much pain?
For my part, I was desperate to know why our son was doing something so dangerous. We’d done everything we knew how to be good parents and raise him right. My husband is one of the best fathers I know. Had something bad happened to him that he never told us about? Was he in some kind of emotional pain and seeking to self-medicate? I begged him to tell me the truth. He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and said nothing had happened, that he was fine.
We contacted the school drug counselor, our son’s guidance counselor, and put him in a drug rehab. We went to family counseling. I told our adult sons, who no longer lived at home, and our parents. It was imperative to me to not let this become some dirty little secret that we kept hidden away. We needed to shine a light on the problem if we were going to solve it, and our son needed all the support and love he could get.
At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder what all these school staff and drug counselors thought of my husband and me. Did they assume we were bad parents? That we had some deep, dark family secret that drove our son to despair? That we were hot messes who’d damaged our son? Were they surprised to learn that we were ordinary people who’d been married many years, that we owned a home, had good jobs and educations, that we loved our child?
Then why so much pain?
This is why I do my best not to judge people. No person, no family, is immune to pain and suffering. There are kids from good families who go astray, kids raised in horrible conditions who find their way, and anything and everyone in between. The student I worked with last week has a sister at the university who is a stellar student, a tough and determined scholar who volunteers to mentor other students. She refused to leave her sister’s side to go to class until I assured her that I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d already told the student I was staying with her until her mother arrived; whether she liked it or not, she was stuck with me.
In the world of higher education that I inhabit, the increase of students in need of mental health services is a hot topic. It’s happening at campuses all across the country. What is driving all this pain? Is our obsession with technology, which leaves us too disconnected from nature and each other? Is it the constant exposure to violence on TV, in video games, and in music? We think it’s desensitizing our kids, but could it actually be making them more sensitive? Is it the high divorce rate? Social media? Or is it none of these things? Perhaps it’s always been there, but students are simply more likely to seek help now.
I wish I knew the answers so I could help make it better. As it stands, all I can do is love, listen, care, and empathize. When I need to process it all to save my sanity, I write. Sometimes even that’s not enough.
Image of rose with thorns via: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/406098091372548906