September/October 2012. About a month and a half prior I had flown off the warship, to which I was assigned, because we a had another death in the family.
A close uncle of mine had taken his own life in August 2012 and I was granted emergency leave to go back home to attend the funeral.
After visiting my family in Rhode Island, and saying my final goodbye to an uncle who was such an integral part of my family, I drove back down to the Hampton Roads/Tidewater area to be back with my wife and our two daughters.
I stayed at home for about six weeks. The ship still had about a month or so left in the deployment, before it was scheduled to return back to Norfolk, Virginia; so there were a couple of options for me…either return to the ship (which was still on assignment) and finish up the deployment with the rest of my crew, or stay back ashore and assist in making preparations for the ship’s homecoming.
This wasn’t the first time I was faced with a similar choice. Back in 2004, when my little brother Benjamin died, I was also on deployment aboard a warship and had an opportunity to either stay behind or go back to the ship: in 2004 I chose the latter…and once again, I made the same choice.
Even though I was mourning such a terrible loss, I believed that my first duty was to my ship and shipmates. I didn’t want them to finish up the deployment without me. I was one of the senior enlisted aboard the ship and felt obligated to report back and assume my post.
Based on the schedule at that time, the ship would only be gone for another few weeks. I would be back again soon…or so I thought.
It’s a decision that I have wrestled with to this day; especially in light of the events which transpired in the months and even years ahead.
In those short few weeks on leave, which I shared back at home with my wife and kids, I started to notice first hand, my daughter Elizabeth’s emotional and behavioral climate change that my wife had told me about, when I was at sea.
Elizabeth had always been a strong-willed child. Her resolute spirit and expressive nature were trademark characteristics which were tempered by a delicate and withdrawn side; all of which added to her complex and colorful personality.
These nuances could be seen in her art work. She was a child truly gifted with an uncanny ability to capture the raw emotion and essence of a character or moment onto paper…with pen, pencil or any colored medium.
Not only was she talented artistically, but she was gifted with amazing beauty. Elizabeth was an amalgamation of her mother’s dark brown hair and delicate Hispanic features which softened my prominent jawline and strong facial characteristics. Her forest green-brown eyes would seem to almost glow when the sunlight hit them just right.
Everything about Elizabeth was perfect. In spite of an undercurrent of brooding, moodiness and rebellion; she was our oldest child, her mother’s baby girl and my little princess…nothing would ever stop or change our love for her.
March 2013. It had been about three months since I came back from deployment.
Except for the six weeks I was home because of my uncle passing away, I had been gone at sea for almost nine months.
There was an adjustment period for me. In many ways, I felt like a stranger in my own home. I had to get used to the routine set by Erica and the kids; a routine which was much different than the fast-paced, high-stress schedule that comes with military operations.
After about a month and half, things seemed to get back to their ‘pre-deployment’ pace; Erica and the kids were getting used to me being back in the house. Dad was home and that meant things like structure, order and discipline. While I was gone, things were naturally a little bit more relaxed, especially since I was deployed for the entirety of summer vacation. Not only were things more relaxed, but the issues which Elizabeth had struggled with (the same ones Erica had told me about at the beginning of my deployment) had progressed and become worse.
In my absence, Elizabeth had surrounded herself with a circle of friends, who not only practiced the same self-harm behavior she was struggling with…these kids glamorized and glorified it. Our daughter was enveloped with a cadre of fellow adolescence who were on the fringe of the main stream. They were a group of kids whose personal energy centered on all things dark, morbid and depressing.
This theme permeated their very identity, internally as well as outwardly. Whatever dark storm was brooding on the inside of their young hearts and minds, manifested itself through clothing, music, fashion and hair-styles.
Within the short three years following our move from Hawaii to Virginia, Elizabeth went from wearing pretty pink bows and cute bobbed hair to wearing black jeans, spiked bracelets and thick dark eyeliner. Her mood and climate had changed to depressed and gloomy…and the circle of kids she was hanging out with were the same way.
One evening, mid-March, these factors and changes would coalesce and result in what would be the first of several emotional and behavioral breakdowns.
It was almost bed time. Our daily routine as a family was drawing to a close and we were all settling in for the night. We had already eaten supper and both the kids were getting ready for bed.
As is the case with most adolescence and teens in today’s digital/social media environment, from time to time Elizabeth would be grounded from the internet or her electronic devices, due to an infraction or misbehavior.
This particular night was no exception. That week Elizabeth was restricted from her electronics and more specifically, she was prohibited from social media.
Towards the end of the evening, Erica and I went to check up on our kids, get them tucked into bed and settled for a good night’s rest. When we walked into Elizabeth’s room, we saw that she had one of the electronic devices which she was restricted from.
Initially, Erica and I told Elizabeth to hand over the device. What was supposed to be the simple return of a restricted device, turned into a fiasco and nightmare. A defiance and rebellion unlike anything I had seen before seemed to dominate and control our little girl’s behavior. Her frenzied tantrum and emotional outburst were uncontrollable.
After a few minutes, Elizabeth seemed to calm down. She was more responsive and calmly listened as her mom and I tried to reason with her and explain the consequences of such behavior.
Erica and I left the room for a moment; mean while Elizabeth walked into the kitchen…or at least seemed to.
A few moments went by, and I went back to Elizabeth’s room, just to check on her. She wasn’t in her room, she wasn’t in her sister’s room and she wasn’t in our room.
I walked down the hall, into the living room and peeked into the kitchen; the back door had been flung open, so forcefully in fact that it was still moving when I walked into the kitchen.
I knew that meant only one thing: Elizabeth had run out the backdoor and outside.
It was mid-March and we were coming off the tail-end of a very cold winter. It was dark out; the weather was damp, and the air was cold enough to see your breath. Meanwhile Elizabeth was out there with nothing on but her pajamas.
I went back into the house and told Erica, “I think Elizabeth ran outside…”; Erica replied, “Well, you better tell her to get back inside…it’s freezing out!”.
I grabbed a flashlight and walked all around the outside of the house “Elizabeth!”,I called out, “Elizabeth…c’mon sweetie…c’mon back inside”. No response…she wasn’t in the yard or anywhere near the parameter of the house.
I walked back inside the house and talked to Erica, “I think she ran off…I can’t find her anywhere around the house…I’m gonna get in my truck…maybe she walked up the street.”
I grabbed my keys, jumped in my truck and drove up the street. About a quarter mile up the main road, my headlights illuminated just enough so I could see a short figure…it was Elizabeth. She had nothing on but a sweatshirt and a pair of gym shorts…no shoes and no socks.
As I slowly pulled my truck up, I rolled down my window “Elizabeth…c’mon kiddo…get in the truck…everything’s gonna be ok. Let’s just get back to the house…mommy and your little sister are worried about you.”
Instead, Elizabeth ran away from the side of the road, across the drainage ditch and into a marshy area; full of mud, thorns and God knows whatever else.
My heart was breaking…what was happening to my little girl? Why was she acting this way…out of control and scary? Why won’t she listen to her mom and me?
I couldn’t stand the idea of our 13-year-old daughter out in the cold damp night, away from home where she was supposed to be, safe and secure. None of this was supposed to be happening…none of it was normal…none of this was right.
Standing there on the side of the road and walking towards the edge of the marsh, I took my flash light and shined it into the woods, “Elizabeth…c’mon out honey…it’s ok…whatever’s making you upset, we can talk about it at home…”, I desperately pleaded. I wanted her to come home so badly…she was only a kid. I couldn’t abandon her; it was my job, as her daddy, to keep her safe.
Quickly, I reached into my pocket, grabbed my phone and called my wife, who was still at the house down the road with our five-year-old daughter Isabella.
Describing to Erica what was going on, I told her to come up and see if she could talk Elizabeth out of the woods…I would drive back to the house and stay with Isabella.
I pulled into the driveway and told Erica to call law-enforcement, if Elizabeth didn’t cooperate. Erica walked out and drove up the street; I sat on the couch and waited.
Isabella, came up to me and asked, “Daddy, is Elizabeth going to be ok?”Her little five-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend all the drama and dysfunction which was taking place. She had seen bits and pieces of the power struggle between mom and her older-sister while I was deployed, but nothing of this magnitude.
Calmly as I could, I reassured Isabella that everything was going to be ok.
I turned on the living room tv and waited. 5 minutes…10 minutes…15 minutes.
My mobile phone startled me as it rang. I looked at the screen caller ID…‘Erica’.
On the other end, Erica breathlessly replied, ”Matthew, I had to call the sheriff…they came and are taking Elizabeth down to the station…she’s out of control and they don’t think it’s safe for her to be alone…I need to come back to the house…get you and Isabella and we’ll all head down the street to the sheriff’s office.”
My thoughts were racing a thousand miles an hour. ‘“Not safe to be alone”…what does that even mean?’,I thought. Considering the history of all the other losses, every part of me hoped that whatever Elizabeth was dealing with, was unrelated to the self-harm suffered by others in my family.
Later that evening Erica, Isabella and I went down and met Elizabeth at the sheriff’s office. My wife and I spoke to the responding deputy and he explained that Elizabeth had indicated she wanted to hurt herself. My heart sank. How could this be happening? Quietly I told myself,‘No…this can’t be true…it’s just a cry for attention…there’s no way my little girl is serious about hurting herself.’
In addition to the deputy sheriff, a behavioral crisis-response counselor was called in. The counselor sat and spoke with Elizabeth, one-on-one, for about 45 minutes. After the counselor was done speaking with Elizabeth, he pulled Erica and I aside and explained, what he believed, was the best course of action.
Based in the opinion of both the deputy and the counselor, they felt it was best for Elizabeth to go into the hospital for inpatient observation and acute treatment. Erica and I agreed…we were out of our league when it came to this type of behavior. We were not in a place emotionally or spiritually to properly handle what our little girl Elizabeth was wrestling with.
After we signed over the parental consent forms, Elizabeth was escorted out of the sheriff’s office and put into the crisis-counselor’s car. We walked right behind them and watched as our little girl, disheveled and an emotional wreck, was driven down the road to be admitted into the hospital.
So much drama and turmoil had happened in such a short amount of time. Within a matter of hours, our little girl went from getting ready for bed, to being hauled to the sheriff’s office, to being taken to the psychiatric ward at the county hospital.
That night was very difficult…the earlier events of the evening were scary and surreal. Isabella wanted to know where her big sister was going; meanwhile Erica and I watched as our daughter looked out the back window of the car at us, as it slowly pulled away. Our family was missing someone in the house; Elizabeth’s room was empty, and she wasn’t there for her mommy and I to tuck her in.
During the course of that evening’s unfolding chaos, I would helplessly watch as my dearest, most precious blood wrestled with the same unseen malevolence which had slowly suffocated the light of love and hope from all the others. I felt powerless and helpless…my daughter was in danger from something I could neither see or touch, and at the time, I believed there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
The peace in our home had been assaulted by an unseen and unnamed thing, which had stolen all reasonable and rational thinking from my little princess. The signs and clues of its broken and chaotic presence had been visible from time to time over the weeks, months and even years, but I was too immature, and yes even ignorant, to recognize them.
This wouldn’t be Elizabeth’s last visit to the hospital for emotional and behavioral health issues. In fact, over the course of the next couple of years there would be two more.
Our family would end up having to wrestle over and over and over again, with that same essence which sought to steal not just sanity and joy, but life itself.
Painfully over the span of about three years, my wife and I would watch as our beautiful daughter Elizabeth was slowly stolen away from us; piece-by-piece…feeling-by-feeling…thought-by-thought.