Witness

Twenty-two years ago I was pregnant. It was my second pregnancy, I noticed the baby moving earlier this time around, I would lie in the bath and talk to it, hello, I’m looking forward to meeting you.

The labour was quick. Two and a half hours from my waters breaking, via a taxi ride to the hospital and some time (I have no idea how long) kneeling in a corridor with contractions until a delivery room was free.

By the time I saw I midwife I was ready to push.

He was a quiet and mostly happy baby to start with, though later colicky and hard to settle. I had PND for the second time and with a twenty month old too (as yet undiagnosed with autism) parenting was a challenge. I did my best, at twenty five I lacked the perspective I have now.

Growing up he was an empathetic child, incredibly good with his brother, his gateway into the world, his best friend, his translator, his comforter. He loved the outdoors, he would go off up the garden at my parents alone at eighteen months old and talk to bugs and plants, completely happy in this world. Unafraid and connected.

I remember him digging holes in the back garden when they went through their “World War Two” phase, leopard crawling between the vegetable beds, tanks welded together from cardboard boxes.

I remember these things like part of a different world. Life had it’s “moments” but I could usually fix them, a favourite video, a batch of brownies, taking them out for an ice cream. A distraction made it better. The world was easily sorted out, I had the power then.

Things change.

For the past several years he has lived with depression. At first I thought it would pass, it was “a phase”. I am good at creative solutions, I pulled out all the stops. We tried therapy, several times, without success. We tried activities, encouraged pursuits, offered support. I am a great “fixer”, in the face of setbacks I would pull another solution out of the bag, always looking for another way.

There have been weeks when he wouldn’t get out of bed, and I would switch between supportive mother and harpy, full blown lecture, goading him to action. I have lived with depression, with the dark siren song of suicide, a gothic love ballad, calling into the deep silence of oblivion. I thought I knew.

Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes…

But I don’t know. I know it for me. I don’t for him. He has worked hard to be “normal” to get and keep a job, to set up in his own home, to maintain relationships. It comes for him every time, sapping him of hope and energy, drawing him down.

They do not prepare you for this in parenting classes, or at any point in your child’s education. They do not give you the hand out for “how to support your child with suicidal thoughts.” I find myself burbling platitudes, offering possibilities, my voice level, reasonable, my soul screaming, please don’t die.

I have no agency here. If he chooses this it will be his choice. If he doesn’t I think I will always live with the fear. I go into his room in the morning wondering if he will be there, I go up the garden wondering what I will find, I breathe slowly into my ribs, allowing them to stretch, bare feet gripping the grass, preparing myself for some horror.

Not yet. He still lives. For now.

This feels like the ultimate test in allowing your child to make their own choices. I hate it. I want to show him what I see, the hope I carry for him, the promise. I want to show him the wonder of his tiny, pink form freshly born, the fingers so delicate I was afraid to dress him in case I hurt them.

I want to tell him it will be ok.

But I can’t make that promise. Sometimes it is for sure.

Sometimes it really isn’t. Life is vast and unfettered, wild lightning, beautiful and terrifying.

I wonder sometimes that I am moving through the days at all. This knowledge, of the space he inhabits now, haunts me. It is a spectre, edging my vision. All the while unrealised I tell myself it isn’t real, it hasn’t happened, but the dread lingers.

How do you help your child with suicidal thoughts?

I tell him I am here, that I love him, that I am proud.

I make him a coffee, bring biscuits.

I ask him what makes him happy, talk about memories.

We walk together and he points out the kingfishers by the river bank, and the brown trout hidden against the gravel of the river bed.

I listen as he tells me of his latest close call, on the parapet of the bridge. I ask questions in an even tone, when it is safe, make a joke. I watch myself doing this from somewhere far away.

I encourage him to do what he can, to throw out the rule book, to be ready to start over. Take the medication, take a shower, sleep when you can.

I want to erase it all, like an etch-a-sketch picture, turn the knobs, a blank slate. The desire is to “do something”. I know there is nothing to do. We have got the support that’s available, we have professional advice, we live with family who do what they can to help.

If I could I would take it from him, of course, who wouldn’t? I would take the cup, drink it dry.

I can’t. I can only be here. Hold the space.

Witness.

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