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What I See When I Look at My Daughter’s Graduation Picture

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Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s daughter.

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.


I have known fear, but I had never known it with the kind of intimacy I do these days, until my daughter’s life was at risk. Until my beautiful, brilliant, kind daughter turned on herself. As her brain struggled to make her move forward, as it convinced her of all her faults, as it sent messages of lies to her soul.

It started with sentences of self-criticism, long looks in the mirror and measuring herself against others. It grew into self-harm, hoodies in the dead of summer. That snowballed into an inability to exist in the world, an inability to see her own worth and to love herself as she was.

I remember the early days, sweeping her room for sharp objects, taking away art supplies that could double as injury tools, locking up household knives and medications. I would ask her about the cuts, I would try to sneak sly glances at her arms and legs, and I would beg her to trade the blades for markers and paper.

It grew from there, to her darkest moments. It brought us to the therapist’s office, begging for stability. We built systems of check-ins and guidance. I spent hours in the waiting room, hoping miracles were being worked behind closed doors. And then we would meet, grim smiles on the therapist’s lips, and talk about coping strategies and crisis lines.

I would take her home, chattering about hope and happiness in the future. I’d hold my breath, praying for relief. In the middle of the day, I would send messages to her phone and wait, with pounding heart, for her response, assuring me of her safety. When her physician suggested we had moved out of the scope of her care, and we may need more specialized help, I nearly broke in half. Medicine changes and dosage adjustments and praying for the right thing to help her. I would have traveled the world if it meant saving her.

I called every number the insurance gave me. I begged every doctor for an appointment. I reached out to every resource at my disposal, desperate for someone to care as much as I did. When we finally got an appointment, I cried with relief. When we arrived for it, my stomach threatened to betray the calm demeanor I was attempting to portray. As the doctor went down a checklist, my heart was breaking more with each answer.

Yes, we lock things up.

Yes, there’s a history in our family.

Yes, there has been trauma.

Yes, she has thought about how to end it.

End it. The beautiful, precious life I brought into this world, the wondrous and amazing soul I cherished, wanting to take herself out. The truth shook me to my very core. I doubled down on involvement. I would wake in the middle of the night and crawl out of bed as silently as possible, so as not to wake my husband, who assured me we were doing all we could. But it didn’t feel that way. I would creep down the hallway and open her door, squinting my eyes and hoping to see the nearly imperceptible movement of her breathing to show she was safe and sleeping, just like I did when she was a baby. Sometimes, after creaking the door shut, I’d sit in the living room and weep, hoping to release the fear that gripped me tightly. On the darkest nights, I’d tuck her into bed next to me, barely able to sleep, my hand constantly reaching out for her.

And so we carried on, for months. Appointments and medication changes and therapy and safety check-ins. It was hard for her to talk about the future, to make plans for tomorrow, to even get out of bed and face today. I would remind her of all the good in her life, talk about her future for her and promise to stick by her all the way.

And eventually, like the sun through parted clouds, a smile broke across her face one day. A genuine, happy smile. It had been so long, I almost forgot what it looked like. I tried not to overreact, not to pull attention to this moment, to just let her bask in a happy feeling. And then I prayed for more.

There were days I feared we were slipping back and days that felt like leaps forward. She began to advocate for herself. When she was feeling better, she stopped taking her medication and didn’t tell me. When she started to slip without them, she came and told me she needed them back. We got them together.

School days were less of a battle. After planning with her teachers for special arrangements to accommodate her anxiety about school, her grades improved. She knew her teachers understood, and cared, and gave her the tools to do her best. She was coming back.

And now, as I write this, I’m looking at her graduation cap and gown picture. There were moments I wasn’t sure we’d ever get here. My eyes fill with tears as they think about the scary, lonely nights I spent wondering what her future would look like. I was bitter and sad as other parents talked about sports and extracurriculars and clubs. My daughter was in a club no one wants admission to, and I was a mom in a club no mom wants to be in. Even now, as other senior parents talk scholarships and colleges, my plan is to try to get her driving, to show her how to fill her own prescriptions, help her find her first job and learn how to manage her illness.

And still, the celebration will be big. Each milestone feels like overcoming what once felt impossible.

But parenting my child has given me one very important, special gift: I cherish each and every moment I’m able to spend with her, for there were days when I thought those would run out too soon.

But she is here. And most days, she is smiling.

Unsplash image by Jeremiah Lawrence

Originally published: June 2, 2021
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