Note: This essay includes discussions of self-harm and suicidal ideation.
My daughter, who is now a 28-year-old therapist leading a happy and productive life, almost didn’t make it to adulthood due to mental illness.
Faith was 9 years old the first time she threatened to hurt herself with a knife. It was the spring of 2004 and my husband and I were watching “The Sopranos” when Faith came downstairs after bedtime, grabbed a paring knife from the kitchen counter and stood between the paused TV and us. Tony Soprano was frozen on the screen behind her, a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth. He looked as dumbfounded as I felt.
“I’m a terrible person,” Faith said as she squeezed the handle of the knife.
Her teacher had called that afternoon to tell me that Faith and her friends played a mean trick on the new girl in their third grade class.
“You’re not a terrible person,” I said. “You did something that wasn’t kind or respectful, and it’s normal to feel bad about that. But you’re not a terrible person.”
She scratched the point of the blade across her palm ― not hard enough to do anything, but still.
“Faithy, why don’t you put down that knife,” my husband said.
“I like it,” she said.
“Give me the knife.” I held out my hand but did not get off the sofa. Faith was small, but strong and unpredictable.
She looked at me with eyes that were both fierce and desperate. She didn’t move. She was just a little girl. She wore tie-dyed pajamas with chicks on them. Her long brown hair was damp from the shower. Her chest rose up and down as she breathed, and I found myself matching her, breath for breath.
“Faithy,” I said, softening my tone. “Do you want to maybe see a therapist?”
Her shoulders relaxed and she nodded. She took three steps toward us, handed me the knife, and fell into our arms.
Over the next eight years ― hampered by questions like “Is this just a phase?” “Are we helicoptering?” and “Can we afford this?” ― we took Faith to social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists. She tried medications that didn’t help. She spent five days in an adolescent behavior wing of our local hospital, where she became aware of the problems caused by her aggressive communication. She attended a wilderness therapy program in Hawaii for two months and learned to nurture herself like her seedlings in the nursery there. She went to a therapeutic boarding school in Montana for three weeks. That place was such a disaster, the only thing Faith learned was that if she shouted loudly and clearly enough, we would always come to her rescue.
All along, even while Faith was sending out nude photos of her teenage body, harming herself to dull her emotional pain and fighting the urge to die, she excelled at school, sports and friendships. Her smile lit the room. Her enthusiasm and energy were contagious. She charmed every kid, adult and animal she met.
My husband and I were confused, stressed, often overwhelmed. We knew that the very traits that were making childhood and adolescence so difficult for our daughter — her intensity, sensitivity and passion — would someday make her an extraordinary adult. There’d be no stopping Faith… if we could get her to adulthood alive.
“Use your powers for good,” we told Faith again and again.
One day in 2012, when Faith was 17, she squeezed in next to me on the sofa in our living room. I was reading a book, our dog nestled at my feet. My daughter looked more depleted than ever. She’d recently been kicked out of her elite boarding school, considered too promiscuous and emotionally fragile to be part of their community. She was back at our local public school with kids who didn’t understand her and a softball team that didn’t want her. She’d blown the last semester, getting all D’s and a sympathy A from her math teacher.
The reality of her situation had set in, and she was depressed in a way I hadn’t seen before. There was no mania or anger fueling her depression, just a weary hopelessness, a soul-sucking resignation.
“Things will get better,” I said.
“No. Don’t say that. They won’t.”
For years, I’d been telling Faith this, reminding her she was strong and resilient. For years, I’d listened and comforted and sometimes yelled and screamed. All along, I had tried to shape my daughter into the person I thought she could be. The person I wanted her to be. The person I wished she could be. That person was not “mentally ill,” but rather a tough teen who would grow out of her issues with the right help. And yet, here we were. Clearly, my optimism and hope for my child, combined with the stigma and fear of mental illness, had kept me from accepting the truth for far too long.
Faith stroked our pup’s silky fur. She kept her head down and said, “You’re going to be OK, though. When I die. You’ll get over it.”
I took a breath. “Faith. I won’t.”
“Mom. Kids die all the time. If I had cancer and died, you’d get over it. You’d move on.”
“No. You don’t understand. I’d never get over it. And besides, you don’t have cancer. If you had cancer, I’d try every single thing to cure you. Western medicine. Eastern medicine. Everything in between.”
She met my eyes. “But then, if you tried it all and I was still sick, you’d let me die, right?”
She was right, I would. But this wasn’t cancer. Or was it? What was the difference, really? This depression was killing her, surely as a malignant tumor.
I thought back to one afternoon when Faith was six weeks old, and I was putting her down for a nap. She was crying uncontrollably, and I was a sleep-deprived new mom. Faith wasn’t wet or hungry, hot or cold. She was simply inconsolable. I stood there, rocking her in my arms, back and forth, back and forth, willing her to stop crying and go to sleep. Please, I prayed, I needed this nap.
She didn’t let up. My movements became bigger and stronger, swinging her really. And then, all of a sudden, I thought about whipping her to the floor. If I threw Faith to the ground, the crying would stop, right?
I didn’t throw her to the ground. Instead, I held her tighter as I fell into the rocking chair and sobbed. She snuggled into me, and the two of us cried together, connected in our misery.
That traumatic moment still haunted me. I was terrified by the power I had to hurt my child, frightened by how her strong emotions could provoke such desperation in me. But perhaps I was missing the point. I hadn’t hurt Faith when she was an infant. In fact, I’d done exactly what she needed: I cried with her. She had these big emotions that might not have made sense, but I was there with her. I held her until they passed. And I kept holding her.
I looked at my daughter snuggled next to me on the sofa, devoid of expression, beaten down to a shadow of herself. Maybe, all the years of trying to shape Faith into a person who didn’t struggle under the grip of mental illness had been a mistake. Maybe, telling a person that things will get better is not always what they need to hear. Maybe, what I should have been doing was what I’d done when Faith was six weeks old: be there with her in her pain.
Fear had prevented me from doing that ― fear of losing Faith to madness, to suicide. But I finally understood my fear was not stopping that from happening. All it did was keep me from empathizing when my daughter desperately needed it. I had to find courage. I had to validate what Faith was experiencing, even if that meant embracing the possibility of losing her.
I said, “OK, I hear you. If we try everything else, and you still feel this bad, you can end your life.”
Faith took a deep breath. With those words, she was no longer alone. I had metaphorically fallen into the rocking chair and cried with her. She knew I would hold her for as long as it took.
I don’t normally tell people about that conversation, because it’s so easily misunderstood. It sounds horrific ― something a mother should never and would never say. I would have done anything to save Faith’s life. I didn’t want her to die by suicide. And yet, those are the words that tumbled out of my mouth.
One of my close friends told me it wasn’t horrific at all ― it was a radical act of love. That’s how I like to think about it. Because what those words conveyed to Faith was that I understood the depth of her pain. That what she was feeling was real. That I was right there, by her side. That we would try everything under the sun to help her.
Suicide is horrifying. We don’t know how to talk about it, so we often shy away from the topic altogether. Or we tell our loved one not to think that way. What does that do, other than invalidate them in their loneliest, most hopeless moment? The truth is, withholding my permission would not have stopped Faith from dying by suicide if that’s what she were determined to do. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone dies by suicide every 11 minutes. I have to believe most of those people had loved ones who were urging them to hold on a bit longer, telling them things would get better.
If I could redo that conversation with Faith when she was 17, I’d say: I hear you. You’ve been in pain for years, and you deserve relief. I’m grateful for your courage to let me know what you’re feeling. I’m in awe of your resilience, and I see how exhausted you are, even though you’re so strong. I’d ask her if she had a plan. I’d ask her if she had what she needed to carry out the plan. I’d ask her if she had a time frame for when it would happen. I’d ask every scary question in a calm, nonjudgmental way, and I’d keep on listening and validating and loving.
We like to think we have control over how our kids turn out. But our kids are who they are. We can model our values for them. But the job of parenting isn’t to shape our kids into the happy and competent adults we want them to be. It’s to discover who they are. To love and accept them fully, even if that means accepting their mental illness ― not as a phase, but as another aspect of their life. By discovering, accepting and loving, we give our kids the ability to shape themselves into happy and competent adults.
What happened after this conversation in 2012? My daughter felt heard and understood. She tried Western medicine. Eastern medicine. Everything in between. Energy healing and a new medication did the trick. Something shifted. Faith found a way to go on. She’s 28 now and she manages her mental health every day. She has her master’s degree in social work, and she works as a therapist. Things did get better for Faith ― not because I said they would, but because Faith made it so. And let me be clear, she still has a mental illness. But for now, it’s under control.
As for me, I became a crisis counselor for Crisis Text Line. I give strangers all over the world the empathy and validation they need to get through their darkest moments. My daughter taught me how.
Brenda Ferber is an award-winning author whose work makes readers laugh, cry and see themselves and the world in a slightly new light. She’s also a counselor for Crisis Text Line. When she’s not writing or crisis counseling, she and her daughter create content to end the stigma against mental illness at tiktok.com/@stigmasmashers. After raising three kids in the Chicago area, Brenda now resides in Boca Raton, Florida, with her husband and two cute dogs. To learn more, visit brendaferber.com.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get support via text by texting HOME to 741741 to connect with a volunteer Crisis Counselor at Crisis Text Line. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
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