September 2014. We had come back from our family vacation in Texas, where my wife is from, a few weeks prior.
School had been in session for a few weeks. Our youngest daughter, Isabella was in 2nd grade and our oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was in 9th grade.
Erica had invited her mom to come back and stay with us until at least Thanksgiving. Erica was planning on going back to work, and we thought that having her mom around, would be a help. Plus, the kids would have the chance to spend some time with their grandmother.
All the arraignments were made, and my mother-in-law joined us on our road trip, from Texas back to North Carolina.
Once we got back and settled into the new school year routine, everything seemed to be o.k., but there was still an underlying tension and uneasiness in our home environment. Elizabeth’s behavior seemed unfocused and distracted, almost from the very start of 9th grade. The atmosphere of her behavioral climate seemed to steadily churn with an underlying sense of agitation and moodiness.
Bear in mind, Elizabeth had already been hospitalized two times already for the same set of issues, albeit they had yet to be diagnosed. The first hospitalization was back in March 2013 and the second was in July of 2014, about a month before school starting again.
Both hospital visits yielded the same effects. Elizabeth would leave the hospital only slightly improved, and we would be handed her patient discharge file, which contained the same repetitive notes, but we were not given any solutions.
Regardless of the names which the hospital mental health professionals had ascribed to Elizabeth’s condition, and the ‘roadmap-to-recovery’ which they provided, it all proved to be futile and of no avail. The continued regimen of medication and talk therapy only seemed to act as a half-built levy against the flood of whatever unseen and allusive dark oppression which consumed her mind.
On a Sunday afternoon, in mid-September, the dark storm clouds of depression and self-destruction were quickly beginning to form in our house. We had just finished Sunday dinner, and I was heading upstairs to relax and watch T.V.
Erica was in the master bedroom with her mom, Isabella was in her bedroom playing, and Elizabeth was sitting at the kitchen table, playing on the laptop computer.
For at least a week or so, Elizabeth’s emotional climate was teetering on a low simmer. Whatever was haunting her mind had been slowly building, but it hadn’t boiled over…yet.
One of the things that always seemed to be a trigger for that emotional boil-over was Elizabeth’s interactions with her peers…especially boys.
We could almost set our clocks to the pattern and rhythm of the infatuation, which became an obsession, which would then turn into an emotional Molotov cocktail of rejection, depression and often self-destructive behavior. This volatile mix, in combination with her circle of peers who also had similar issues, had a dramatically negative effect on her school work and our family life.
Well, on this particular September Sunday afternoon, it was all about to boil over – VIOLENTLY!
I had just barely reached the top of the stairs and was about to walk into the family game room so I could watch T.V., when all of a sudden, I heard Erica loudly scream.
“MATTHEW!!! Get down here now! Elizabeth…no…stop! Matthew…HURRY…she has a knife!!!”
Running, and nearly stumbling, down the stairs I turned the corner and saw my wife trying to wrestle something out of my daughter’s hands; my mother-in-law was standing off to the side asking Elizabeth to stop.
“What’s going on?!?” I questioningly exclaimed as I walked into the kitchen. To my shock and horror, I could see that Elizabeth was holding against her chest a huge 10-inch butcher knife.
My mind sprang into action. During the early years of my military service, I had been trained in certain things such as physical restraint techniques and how to disarm someone, but I NEVER IMAGINED I would someday be forced to employ those same techniques on my own little girl.
Carefully I started to disarm Elizabeth, which was no easy task. In the effort to pry the knife away from her, I wanted to prevent her from accidentally stabbing herself or me. Straining, I pried the knife away. It was as if I was wrestling against the dark malevolence itself, which had suddenly emerged from the shadows it had been trying to hide in since Elizabeth’s last hospital stay, almost a month prior.
Handing the knife to Erica, I restrained Elizabeth…for her safety and ours.
“Erica…quickly, get her medicine! She needs to take her medicine!”, I shouted as Elizabeth screamed incoherently and violently flailed. With my arms around her, in sort of a bear hug, I brought Elizabeth out of the kitchen, away from all the other sharp objects, and into the living room.
Suddenly, she let her legs go limp from underneath her. Following her to the ground so she wouldn’t fall, I held her close to keep her from flailing and wiggling. “Hurry up Erica…I don’t know how much longer I can hold her!”, I yelled. At this point, the adrenalin had almost finished running its course, and my arms were starting to get weak. The single-track, laser beam focus provided by over a decade of military training began to lose its edge, and the insanity and horror of reality came into focus.
‘Oh my God…my little girl was mere seconds away from stabbing her self’, I thought to myself. Images of the butcher knife blade plunging, to the hilt, into her or me kept flashing across my imagination.
With my arms beginning to tremble, I continued to hold Elizabeth, while she was screaming and wailing. As I sit here and write this, I find myself once again pausing to reflect and remember. In the quietness of my office, I can painfully hear in my mind, the sound of my little girl’s voice, as she articulated the words of death, despair, and self-hatred: “I wanna die! I wanna die! I wanna DIE!!! I don’t wanna be here anymore…make it stop! Pleeeease, make it stop! Pleeeease! I can’t do it anymore…I wanna die!”
The words still echo in my memory, as if it was yesterday. As a father, hearing the sound of such deep pain, which haunted my own little girl, is heartbreaking.
After a few minutes, Elizabeth started to calm down; at least enough to where she was able to take her medicine.
I slowly helped her up off of the floor, but still held her close, just in case. Meanwhile, we all knew what was going to happen next.
Erica called Elizabeth’s therapist and told her what happened; she explained in full detail what had unfolded and then proceeded to listen. “Uh huh…yes, she just took her medicine now. It seemed like something was bothering her for the past few days, but we didn’t expect this.” Erica explained. “But she just got out of the hospital a little over a month ago. Uh huh…ok…alright then. We’ll do that. Thank you. We’ll call you as we get an update”.
The conversation with the therapist was over, and Erica hung up the phone.
“Matthew, Elizabeth needs to go to the hospital…right now,” Erica told me. She then went on to explain, that the therapist advised her that, based on the behavior that Elizabeth demonstrated, it was time to take her to a larger, more robust facility, which may be better equipped to treat and diagnose whatever the issue was.
I thought to myself, ‘Oh man…not again…we just went through this’, but I quickly agreed with Erica. In my heart, I knew she was right. The alternative was far too dangerous.
Erica asked her mom to stay with Isabella, while we took Elizabeth to the hospital which was about a 45-minute drive away, in Virginia. We pulled in the parking lot and walked into the emergency room. After a while, a doctor came and spoke with us. Erica and I explained, in detail, what had happened and that we were there, based on the recommendation of our daughter’s therapist. We gave the doctor the name and number of the therapist, in case he needed to get further details or clarification.
After a few hours of waiting in a private room, just outside of the ER, a decision was made: Elizabeth was going to be admitted into the psychiatric treatment ward for observation and diagnosis.
Erica and I had been through this drill before, we knew the routine. Fill out the paperwork, answer a series of medical and behavioral history questions, sign the entire stack of paper and then wait…and wait…and wait.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth sat in the chair next to us; she looked like she had been through a war.
I remember Erica filling out the mountain of paperwork, while I sat and looked at Elizabeth through the eyes of a brokenhearted father. It was torture to see her going through this, and it was exhausting on our entire family. I gently reached out my hand, palm facing up, to show Elizabeth that I loved her and that nothing was ever going to change that…I was her daddy, and that’s what daddy’s do. They love their children and walk through hell with them if that is what it takes to keep them safe…and to keep them alive.
Elizabeth put her hand in mine. She was so tired and so beaten down by the darkness that had been haunting her mind, that she could barely look up at me.
Through her weary, bloodshot eyes, I caught a glimpse of the little girl who just wanted everything to be ok. I looked at her and gently whispered: “I know honey…it’s ok…everything’s gonna be alright…we’re all gonna get through this together.”
Finally, Erica filled out the last sheet of paperwork and handed me the clipboard so I could make my final few signatures as well.
With all the necessary paperwork completed, the attending nurse brought us into the next room. The nurse gave us a small pamphlet containing all the information about the ward schedule and the essential numbers to the main hospital, psychiatric ward and the nurses’ station.
Erica and I hugged Elizabeth one more time and told her how much we loved her…that everything was going to be ok.
Somewhere in our hearts, we believed this would be the hospital stay where a solution would be provided to ease our daughter’s torment. Through several resources, we had been told that this was it…this was going to be the place where a comprehensive way ahead would be given; and in time, peace, order, and serenity would return to both our child and home.
This would be the place where all the previous diagnoses would coalesce, and Elizabeth would receive her ‘official’ diagnosis. All the labels and all the names which had been used by the other hospitals would be cataloged and parsed as sub-symptoms under a greater cause. With, what seemed to be an official diagnosis given, Erica and I engaged in managing the treatment plan in the hopes that Elizabeth would eventually break free of the chains and shackles which held her mind, sanity and peace hostage.
The ritual of Elizabeth having an emotional meltdown, followed by a violent outbreak, which was then followed by her being checked into the hospital, had become an unwelcome routine in our family. It tore our heart out, every time we had to say goodbye. Everyone in our little household; Erica, Elizabeth, Isabella and I….all four of us, were the victims of an invisible assailant; our souls carried wounds caused by an unseen war.
By this point, it had been hard for Erica and me to hide these outbreaks from our youngest daughter, Isabella. At the time all this was unfolding she was about six and a half years old and could hear and see everything that was happening with her big sister. Too many times, Erica and I would have to tell Isabella to go and play in her room and shut the door behind her; just to keep her protected from the hell and chaos which had held our entire little family hostage.
During the outbreaks of violence and strife caused by the veiled darkness which was suffocating her big sister’s mind, our youngest daughter Isabella would run and seek refuge either under the blankets in her room or hide in our, her parent’s, room.
The ripple effect was becoming bigger and more profound in our family. The outbursts were becoming more violent, the drugs more potent, and hospital stays longer and more frequent.
This would become Elizabeth’s last hospital stay. The mental health professionals said they had seen enough of a behavior pattern to name and treat our daughter’s problems accurately.
Another round of medication was prescribed, and a more robust therapy plan was implemented…it seemed like we had a roadmap to recovery.
But recovery is not where this road would lead…