There’s a lovely view into Bungonia Gorge from a look out near one of the car parks. My eldest daughter, then 14, was not wanting to go on the walk we’d planned with our friends. It had taken me some time to coax her out of foetal position in the car. She was accusing me of forcing her on the trip, and nothing I could say would calm her down. Now we were looking over the rails and into the depths.
This was in December 2011, back before Zoe’s arm and depression set in, when we went on a company bushwalk in Bungonia National Park. My husband and Zoe (pre-physical issues) went with the gung-ho mad fit group down into the gorge. The other two girls and I were doing the slower, cruisier walk around the plateaus.
“You know how they say if you fall from a building, you die before you hit the ground?” she asked. “Is that true?”
“No.” I answered. “You would be absolutely terrified as you fell. You wouldn’t necessarily die, either. You may lie there in agony for hours until you were rescued. And then you would live with the consequences forever.”
It probably wasn’t the best answer, but that was the first time she’d alluded to suicide, I was tired of arguing, and it just slipped out. She’s done it a number of times since – “I don’t deserve food,” or “I don’t deserve to be loved,” are statements we hear too often.
S was the perfect baby: bright, ahead on all her milestones, chatty and cheerful, and I was congratulating myself on my parenting skills. By the time she hit school, however, she’d started showing signs of being very anxious. She would not go to sleep in a room by herself, she screamed about monsters or “the walls moving”. She was scared of a lot of things – ants, dogs, heights, certain foods, talking to people she didn’t know, the dark, needles, crowds – it was a long time ago and I can’t remember all the things that frightened her, but I do remember that it was bad enough for us to seek help from a psychologist when she was five. If exposed to anything she was scared of, she’d react with a full-on screaming tantrum.
She steadily improved over the years, as kids tend to, and we hoped that she might outgrow her issues entirely. But then puberty kicked in, with what in retrospect were fairly predictable results.
The first time I realised we had major problems looming was on a holiday to Nungurner in East Gippsland. The kids were bored, so we thought we might take them on a paddle steamer for fun. S was very angry, saying she just wanted to stay in the car. It was hot, we’d paid for her ticket, this was not an option, and after all, how bad could a trip on a paddle steamer be?
One of the inner circles of Hell, according to the response. She yelled at me that I obviously hated her and suggesting she might just throw herself in. I finally managed to get her to eat something (a caramel slice, from memory), which improved her mood. I told her that sometimes we all had to do things we didn’t want to, and that as trials went, being expected to spend an hour on a boat so that your sisters and family can have a bit of fun wasn’t that big an impost.
I then joked: “And when you’re 23 and seeing a therapist, you can explain how awfully your parents mistreated you – ‘They forced me to go on… on… a… PADDLE STEAMER!’”
She laughed. Luckily. The Paddle Steamer incident, however, is now something we must never mention lest it bring on a tantrum.
Looking back on the pattern of behaviour from when she was young, it’s obvious that when S experiences something that frightens her, she behaves appallingly. She is rude, surly, sarcastic accuses me of having failed in some way to prevent whatever it was. It’s nothing short of a teenaged tantrum.
Which has always raised the question, is her behaviour manipulative or symptomatic of her depression and anxiety? The answer is, I believe, both. She uses her tantrums to get her way, but her way is always to avoid a situation that stresses her out.
S has fairly well defined situations which are sure to make her stressed or tearful. Crowds, buses, school work stress (although this is becoming less an issue), needles, and sadly, counsellors, all make her completely insufferable. As a parent, I find the balancing act between maintaining discipline and not pushing her into self-destructive behaviour very hard. What I try to do is to calmly explain that I don’t deserve to be abused the way she is treating me, and that what it is that I am expecting from her is not unreasonable. I just calmly press the point.
Appealing to her logic systems behind her screwed up emotions seems to work, but I get very tired of trying to be the saint. Sometimes I just want to scream at her – but screaming at a kid who self-harms (she will bite herself, sometimes to the point of bleeding) doesn’t help.
So that’s S, my eldest. We’ve dealt with her behavioural and mental health issues for years. Zoe, my middle daughter, used to be the sane one, so to have her emotional health also pack in so spectacularly last year was a bit of a blow, to say the least.