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Parenting is full of decisions that, even once made, haunt for years afterward. Whether to reveal my struggles with suicidal thoughts to my son was just such a decision. I did, but I still wonder if I made the right choice.
We’ve been open about my bipolar disorder since I was diagnosed. My husband and I talk as I explore how it has shaped me and my relationships with others; many of those conversations take place in front of the kids. So, I have no idea when my son became aware that mom has a mental disorder.
I do know that he identifies bipolar disorder with me. A family dinner conversation went like this: mom and dad were discussing bipolar disorder and the stigma surrounding it. Daughter said, “What’s bipolar disorder?” and son responded, “Mom.”
My son knows that with bipolar disorder’s highs come crashing lows. He knows I’ve had times when I couldn’t get out of bed or spent the day crying. And he’s familiar with the anger that surfaces when I’m overwhelmed with a toxic mix of anxiety and hypomania. But there was no reason for him to know how close I’ve come to ending my life. Until he was diagnosed with depression.
It was his therapist’s idea that I share my experiences with why and how anyone would decide that suicide was a reasonable option for ending pain.
I remember the day we first discussed suicidal thoughts. I was sitting in a chair, the big comfy kind therapists always seem to have, across from my son. His therapist sat in another chair and my son a third. As I spoke, my son said nothing; his therapist kept his non-judgmental therapist face firmly in place. When I finished, my son said only that he wasn’t going to kill himself because it was a stupid thing to do.
I was, of course, relieved. And I thought that was the end of it, though I still worried that my son might fall into another depression.
But it wasn’t the end. And I was completely wrong about where my son’s anxieties lay.
A year ago, my son and I were fighting, which wasn’t particularly uncommon at that time. We have a deep connection and are also very much alike. Our disagreements quickly become volcanic eruptions as each of us digs in our heels, refusing to relent. I naturally believe I am only adamant when I believe I have my son’s interests at heart. My husband agrees, but he’s far too afraid of conflict to push a point. I have no such fear.
I don’t recall how the conflict began, but I know it started in the car on the way to buy a book my son had forgotten he needed for a class the next day. We argued throughout the trip to Barnes & Noble. By the time we reached the parking lot, the argument was in full force and had turned to my son’s insistence that he was entitled to a say about who should drive my car and when. He continued to argue his point as we went up the elevator in the store, found his book, paid for it and walked to the car.
As we got in the car to go home, the argument had, and I swear I don’t know how, turned to suicide. I know I told him I hoped he’d turn to me if he thought he was a danger to himself.
I’m not a stranger to feeling like the dumbest parent alive, but I’ve never felt more of an idiot than when my son screamed at me that suicide was the most selfish, stupid thing a person could do. “All it does,” he said, “ is hurt the people it leaves behind. The person who does it is dead and everyone else is ruined forever.”
“He’s talking about me,” I thought. “This has all been about me.” He may have truly thought of hurting himself at one time, but the person he worried about was me. He’d already figured out that suicide was a stupid thing to do. I didn’t need to worry about him; I needed to worry about myself. Argument over.
My son never tells me he loves me but in that moment, he told me more clearly than he ever could with words.
I have no idea if telling my son about myself and suicide was a good idea. And I wonder about it frequently. Part of me thinks it was important and that maybe, if he is depressed again, he’ll remember what he said to me.
Have you told your children about any self-harming thoughts you’ve had? Would you?