A Narrative - Surviving or Thriving?

I have been privileged to work with many amazing young people and their families. Often, I have been asked for advice. Too frequently I have been unable to signpost to effective services and have felt utterly useless. As this week is Mental Health Awareness Week I have written a short narrative that is based on real conversations and real people in the hope that the theme of surviving to thriving resonates beyond May 14th.

It was a family birthday in February and I asked my daughter if I could see her arm. I don’t know why I asked but it seemed right at the time. She slowly lifted up one sleeve. A little; barely higher than her wrist. I asked again but this time, a little more forcefully. The smirk was incongruous with the countless raw smears and stale stripes and gouges.

‘There are easier ways to camouflage yourself as a tiger’, I said in shock. What else was I to say? It was a family birthday. A day of celebration. Except it wasn’t; any more. It was a challenging time. It still is.

‘My teachers know’, she blurted out. How could they know? I thought. I had made an appointment and as far as I knew, she was doing fine. She attends regularly. Sometimes she lacks focus but that’s normal and she is on track for her predicted grades. I understand that teenagers often stop communicating effectively with their parents but we have a good relationship, don’t we?

Ticking the boxes, going through the motions was reckoned sufficient. It wasn’t. She may be existing and she may be getting through. She was enduring. She was surviving. Certainly not thriving.

I found the bloodied sheets. I found the razor blades. I found the kitchen knives. (I thought the boys had borrowed them for fishing). I became obsessive, changing the sheets daily, always hoping the staling brown slurs would be missing. They didn’t get any less. It took me a while to realize she had moved onto her legs, her stomach.

Prozac. ‘Prozac Nation’. I read the book years ago. I had read, ‘Catcher in the Rye’. I had completed Child Protection Training – I knew the procedures. I followed the procedures. On almost a daily basis. Theory to practice – worlds apart. I was wholly, totally and utterly naïve, unprepared and debilitated. ‘I do not believe my daughter should be given anti-depressants. She is self-medicating (it sounded better) with cannabis. At least daily.’

The response still resonates. ‘I asked her that. She said no.’ The meds were prescribed, saved and became another route to self-harm. Suicidal thoughts, suicidal actions. Suicide is success. Success is suicide. Perverse and obstinate. But still she maintained a public functioning veneer. And she was alive. I sometimes wondered if she would make her next birthday. She did. But I still wonder if she’ll make her next.

A loving family, friends, prosperity, success and a life ahead is ineffective protective armour when steadily crushed by unrecognised anxiety, depression, obsessional behaviours and sleepless nights. Especially if the words to describe the turmoil are elusive, lacking in our vocabulary or simply never taught.

The cutting ceased with a suddenness I couldn’t quite believe it. Self-harm takes many forms. The weight steadily reduced. The self-medication continued.

Flawlessly made up, I hadn’t realised she was hiding. She had never particularly liked school. I knew that. As Friday neared there was more conversation, music and; looking back, occasionally laughter but already by Saturday evening a quietness would roll through the house. Friends text. Friends called. Friends visited. She had friends. She had relationships. Good, healthy relationships. But gradually she became a bedroom recluse. Apart from the voices, relentlessly questioning, undermining and chasing. With GCSEs approaching this was a ‘normal’ pattern of behaviour for ‘normal’ teenagers. Flawlessly made up, excellent school attendance, steady progress, extra-curricular club, I didn’t realise she was hiding. She was surviving, not thriving.

Recently I received some plug plants little more than seedlings through the post. I read the instructions, transplanted them, water them regularly, and placed them on a sunny window sill. They are thriving. Care and attention important. If only it was so easy.

Surviving to thriving. How? Ask the questions? Hear the responses. Watch. Approach. Be approachable. Care. Care enough to make a difference. Keep seeking answers, even when elusive. Talk, and talk with compassion. Listen and hear without judgement or pre-conception. Persist. Be obstinate, but with kindness, with understanding and the knowledge that thriving is fundaMENTAL.

Sharonne is a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator within a busy, large mainstream Village College. She has enjoyed a variety of roles including teacher of English and supporting students with emotional, behavioural and social difficulties. When asked, ‘Why education? Why teaching?’ the answer has remained resolute. ‘To make a difference.’ Sharonne enjoys reading, being outdoors, debating and writing. She is learning to overcome her anxiety around public speaking and wishes to do more, especially around Autism (Girls in particular), Equality and Special Educational Needs and Disability.

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