With teen-agers, everything is a crisis.
Years ago, I heard Bill Cosby suggest a way to help kids through the crisis years. “When your child turns 13,” he said, “place them in a pickle barrel. Drill a hole in the barrel for food and air. That should work until they turn 16 and start yelling, ‘I want a car. I want a car!’
“At that point,” he advised, “plug the hole!”
However, there are some problems that seem to defy solutions, and it is those insoluble problems that prompt the kind of call I received from our ER one afternoon.
If I had the magical powers Dickens conjured up in the “Christmas Carol,” I’d take every teen-ager I know back to that afternoon when I waited for the frantic arrival of two horrified parents. I’d play the “future ghost” and we’d huddle in a corner of the waiting room, gazing into the soul of two frightened parents as they came through the doors.
“Ya’ll have my son?” the father asked.
“Yes, we do. The doctor’s waiting.”
That’s a bad sign. Doctors don’t usually wait. In the family room, the doctor began unpacking afternoon events.
“At 1:45 this afternoon, your son was found hanging from a tree in the local park. He was brought in without pulse or respiration. We worked on him for 40 minutes before pronouncing him dead. I’m so sorry.”
There. Right there! Freeze frame, I thought as I looked at the eyes of the parents. I’d like to shrink every teen-ager to microscopic size and take them on a rafting trip into the white-water tears coming out those tear ducts.
When their tears finally slowed, their questions surged. As each question was answered, unhealthy shame began to mold their face. I wanted to beg the doctors to try one more time to resuscitate this kid.
“Something was wrong,” the mother said. “We told him we loved him. Why couldn’t he believe that?”
The accusing stares began, and I could even feel some of them erupting from me. Staff began with the prosecutorial questions about what the parents knew and when. The staff wanted to assure themselves that no matter how bad they wanted to stuff their own kids into a barrel, things would never reach these proportions. Freeze frame.
My eyes sought to stare down each inquisitor. Yes, this could be your kid. Yes, nurse, your sweet Suzie, and yes, Doc, your smart Ivy-League Billy. This could be your kid.
“Can we see him?” the parents asked.
“Yes,” the nurse said, “the chaplain will take you back.”
Entering the room, I turned away. I made sure my eyes didn’t find this kid. I was plenty mad at him even if the parents weren’t. Mom’s hand found his face and cupped his cheek in her palm.
“Baby,” she began to call him as if summoning him from the dead. “Baby, we loved you. We loved you so much!”
“We tried to tell him that. How come he didn’t know it?” she asked.
“Did you hate me that much?” Dad pleaded. “I loved you. I know I didn’t show it, but I did.”
If I could just convince myself this family was messed up, I thought, I could distance myself from this senseless pain, but the parents seemed pretty normal, and that was the scariest part.
The problem is normal means for every two homicides in the United States, there are three suicides.
Psychologist Karl Menninger taught that suicide was “murder 180 degrees.” He meant that the person who dies from suicide kills the image of that thing he hates reflected in him. The suicide victim wants to murder someone or some image, but cannot, so he chooses instead to permanently close his own eyes to that thing he hates.
Menninger’s theory seemed right. This kid had just murdered every bit of joy these parents had ever had in having a son. He had murdered every dream, hope, wish, future this couple ever had for their only son.
As his parents left our ER, it definitely seemed as if there had been three murders.
As Dickens’ character Scrooge is brought to his own tombstone, he commands the ghost to “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”
Still, the ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” Scrooge said. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you will show me!”
Don’t wait for help
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students and third among youth ages15 to 24. Talking to someone about suicide doesn’t encourage the act. Ask them whether they are considering hurting themselves and how they might do it. Look for stressors such as abuse, humiliating events, a loss such as a boy or girlfriend, failure in school or a death in the family or the break-up of parents. If you are thinking about committing suicide, call the national referral network at (800) SUICIDE (784-2433).