This story could have had a different ending. At the time of writing this, and in my darkest moments, I’m worried it still might.
To be honest, I am dazed, unsure of how we even got here. When I look back to my cosy, secure self, six months ago, when I was still proud to have raised two such well-adjusted, happy girls, who were clearly destined to lead fulfilling successful lives thanks to the great start they had been afforded, I cringe. How could I of all people have got it so wrong?
You see, I am a Youth Offending Officer. I work with traumatised children every day. I know what makes a great parent and I’ve seen the damage that adverse childhood experiences such as exposure to domestic abuse and neglect can cause. I am familiar with the mental health concerns that plague young people who have been mistreated. I knew that my own children lived a world away from that of my cases, where poverty and violence are the norm. I knew that my girls would never be afflicted by trauma, anxiety, or mental health crises. How wrong I was.
On the face of it, this story is about a little girl – my little girl – who was so embarrassed by her friend exposing her “secret crush” that she Googled the fatal dose of paracetamol, took twenty-four of them first thing in the morning and then didn’t tell anyone for over eight hours, because she wanted to compete in her horse dressage competition that afternoon (I know you are eager to learn how she did: she came second. The consultant later commented to her, “Lily, you do know that paracetamol is not a performance-enhancing drug, don’t you?”)
As a result, she spent four days on a drip, and at one stage the doctors were so concerned for her liver function that they consulted specialists in London.
But that is only one aspect of this story. During our journey, our lives have collided with those of other children on their own journeys, all of them tumultuous in their own way. All of them traumatic, and many of them from paths of life that you would have thought were well protected from the torrents of such destruction and harm.
It seems to me that child-rearing is a bit like white water rafting; we started our journey fourteen years ago when we welcomed our feisty eldest daughter into the world. She kept us on our toes, but the thrill of parenthood soon settled into a fairly smooth journey down the river, with only a few minor knocks and spins to contend with. Nothing that would upend us. Then, as we drifted towards her adolescence, the rapids loomed; we braced ourselves and the currents proved every bit as forceful as we had feared. Slamming doors, tantrums and defiance were the rocks and eddies we had to navigate. Do we go with the flow with our protective gear tightly attached, or are we actually losing control here? Is this safe?
Then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, we spun round a bend in the river and there we were, drifting peacefully once again: our reward for all the hard work was a pleasant, stable and happy teenager (so far! My sense of security has been a false friend that I have learned not to trust!)
“I see Thea has become the golden child,” grumbled Lily. She was now twelve and we knew the rapids were approaching once again but hey, we’d done this once – we knew what we are doing. We were in control. How naive we were. In hindsight, how complacent.
Control, and a lack of it, is at the heart of this story – the concept of control underpins every aspect of this tale, and believe me, there are many aspects. Too many for this article. The mental health of our young is also an obvious theme here; it’s a crisis we have all read about, and despite the adage that you don’t think it’ll happen to you being a well-worn warning, it still applies to all of us. To me, painfully so.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning, even though I am still unsure where the beginning actually started. If you know what I mean. Did I expose the entire root of the dandelion, or did I leave some buried? We may never know.
I think things began to take a dark turn for Lily a few months after her twelfth birthday. She had been muttering about feeling jittery at school and I light-heartedly put it down to her taking advantage of the school canteen and buying too many sugary doughnuts in the morning. A sugar-crash. Not a crash crash.
I didn’t pay much attention until she pulled her sleeve up one day and, to my horror, I saw that it was covered in scratches she seemed to have made with her fingernails. “Lily” I exclaimed, flabbergasted. You’ve hurt yourself! That’s awful! You mustn’t do that”
She welled up. I know now that my overreaction was not a good way to handle the situation. It was one I had never thought I would have to prepare for, so it was off-the-cuff. I should have remained calm. My panic only made it harder for her to talk to me about it.
Over the next few months, she continued to scratch her arms, and I became concerned that she was making some kind of identity statement, so she could have a ‘dark secret’ to confide in her friends about. Despite Lily having many pals, I had always worried that she had never enjoyed a ‘best friend’, and I thought she might be looking for social status. The school ELSA (Emotional Literacy Support Assistant) agreed and informed me that there was a bit of a wave of self-harming behaviours in her year.
However, when the school holidays hit, the self-harming stopped. At least I thought it did. I still almost think it did, though Lily has since told me it didn’t. But it’s hard to tell as she isn’t always consistent. Confusion permeates this tale too.
The point is, I thought we were through a particularly nasty and upsetting phase, but I reassured myself that a phase it was. Even more promisingly, she made a new ‘best friend’. Her novel social life quickly became all she talked about. The girl, Magda, lived in one of the edgier parts of the city and Lily was loving the buzz of it. Encountering local boys and exchanging lively insults across the park – flirting the twelve-year-old way, I fondly imagined, when Lily excitedly described her adventures. “I like road-men” she declared (these being what my generation described as ‘bad-boys’). I recalled my own pre-teen adolescence when I was equally drawn to the darker, more exciting side of society, observing rather than partaking of course. Just like she’s doing now, I reassured myself.
This friendship seemed fine, on the face of it. Magda was very quiet whenever she stayed with us, so it was hard to get to know her, but Lily seemed taken with her. “She likes crystals and spells”, Lily told me, and I thought that was a good sign. The girl has a wholesome hippie streak, I thought. I dutifully spoke to her parents to reassure myself that the girls weren’t being permitted out after dark. Lily described Magda’s father as strict and her mother as a sweet pushover. Nice combination. They went for dog walks with her parents. I was relieved that Lily had finally found a bit of a soul mate she could gel with.
Violet would tell me all the gossip she cultivated from her trips out with Magda. I did question my daughter’s reports of her friend’s seemingly endless changes of ‘boyfriend’. “Lily,” I quizzed. “Why does Magda date a new boy every other day?”
“Oh,” she confided. “It’s because boys always like her where she’s so pretty, but when they get to know her, they realise she’s a bit of a psychopath”. I was only slightly perturbed.
How funny twelve-year-olds are! I thought to myself, remembering the various boys I had labelled my ‘boyfriend’ at that age, simply because their friend had passed me a note popping the question, to which I had replied with a further note saying “yes” before a swift end to the relationship a day or so later, with a similarly to-the-point dumping note. I didn’t dwell on the psychopath bit of Lily’s explanation.
Then Covid hit our family, and Lily was the only one to escape the virus. We were in isolation, so she was asking to spend more time at Magda’s – understandably, I thought. She doesn’t want to catch Covid, and her friend can’t visit here.
But it quickly became too much. Every day after leaving school she was on the phone. “Hi Mum!” she’d greet me brightly. And I knew she’d be asking to go to Magda’s. We started to say no, which she took surprisingly well, especially as she had started to become moodier generally. I thought she was understanding and mature when her requests to see Magda were being declined. She later told us it had been a relief.
We gave her permission at weekends, though, and it was on a Friday evening that things took a turn for the worse, after Lily had spent the evening with Magda and her parents. The mortifying exposure of the secret crush, to the secret crush. Along with this exposure, it seems that Magda also relished telling the boy about all the screen shots Lily had taken of his social media. (Social media. We will touch on that later.)
“I did it because I liked him too”, Magda informed Lily via Snapchat, while she was sitting up in bed wired up to her drip. “And we are getting close. I spoke to him for two hours, this morning,” she bragged. “And by the way, I can’t believe you chose to do this on my birthday”.
How could Lily have tried to end her life over such a trivial thing as the exposure of a normal adolescent crush? I wondered. But of course, to a twelve-year-old, everything is embarrassing, let alone something personal that friends could use as ammunition. And at that age, they are still egotistic little things, with distorted perspectives. They think the whole world’s focus will be on them forever. It’s all that matters to anyone.
“That was just the trigger”, Lily later confided. Gradually we learned that Magda had been manipulating Lily, and that when she has not able to go out with Magda, Magda was inviting Lily’s enemy Hettie instead, the girl who for some reason had been calling Lily a slut and a whore, to her face and to other children. That was another issue Lily had told me about, which I had failed to realise was having such an impact on her. She described it in such a trivial way, and reassured me that this girl was horrible to everyone, not just her. So, I didn’t label it “bullying”. But now I realise that between Hettie and Magda, they were controlling Lily. It turns out Magda had been seen bossing Lily around, telling her to do jobs for her and carry her bag. Putting her down. We don’t think of coercive and controlling behaviour within schoolgirl friendships but here it was, taking its toll on Lily every bit as if it were a domestically abusive intimate relationship. And it nearly cost Lily her life: if she had not had treatment, she would have died.
The hospital was an eye-opener. A true mix of highs and lows, and some both at the same time.
It’s funny how problems seem big until a bigger one comes along. At A and E, I was reassured when we were directed at reception to the waiting area. If we are waiting instead of being rushed through, I misguidedly thought, then the fact that she took twenty-four paracetamols over eight hours ago can’t be as bad as I would have thought. So, my next pressing concern was how to keep her entertained during the long wait. I fretted that there was no Internet reception, so I couldn’t download a game on my phone for her to play. Forty minutes crawled by. Once triaged, though, we were ushered straight through. Lily had started being sick but no one seemed alarmed, so I concentrated on the problem at hand: keeping her hair out of the vomit. Of course, I’m grateful for the calm of the nurses and doctors. Protecting us from panic.
Bloods were taken and I broke the news to Lily that we would not be out in time for her and her sister to babysit tonight. They had planned to earn a little money by looking after my friend’s two young daughters while we enjoyed an hour or so of child-free gossip. “No matter,” I reassured her. “At least we have the takeaway tomorrow night to look forward to”.
Needless to say, we missed the takeaway too.
By and by, Lily was wheeled in her bed to a new ward and attached to an intravenous drip to wash through her liver. Hospital admission during times of Covid meant that she got to have her own room, for the first half of the night. I was lucky to be able to stay with her – I had only come out of isolation two days before.
About three in the morning, Lily was attached to a fresh bag and wheeled to a pediatric cardiology ward. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was lucky: children’s wards that are concerned with life-or-death situations tend to receive more grateful donations, so it was the cheeriest ward around – fish tanks and colourful artwork on the walls. Lily’s bed was even next to one of the tanks. The nurse charged her with an important responsibility: “Look after my shrimp while you’re there”.
Lily herself was variable; sometimes sick, sometimes well, sometimes cheerful, sometimes grumpy. I took her intermittent rejections on the chin and bribed her with chocolate and M and S watermelon when she was well enough to eat.
The paracetamol and the length of time before she had told anyone took its toll; on day two she felt rough: she barely ate, and her liver function tests continued to worsen. I knew things were bad when I actually felt relief at the consultant’s disclosure that a liver transplant was a worse-case scenario. At least it was life in the short term: we have all heard of slow and painful paracetamol deaths.
By the end of day two, despite the nosedive in the condition of her liver, and while I fretted after an astronomically high liver functioning enzyme test of over 3000 (a thousand times over that of a healthy liver), Lily was beginning to cast her eye around at her fellow patients. I went to the toilet and came back to find that the lady with the baby in the cubicle next to Lily had engaged her in conversation. “They think I am abusing my baby,” she confided, whilst cradling the infant aggressively. I hurriedly sat between them and invited Lily to play Squares with me; a two person only game. No wonder the woman was not allowed to draw her curtain, I thought to myself: the baby had to be in sight of the nurses at all times.
Thirteen-year-old Flora was in the bed opposite. She had anorexia and had been sectioned, so a carer had to accompany her at all times. Except for when the carer went to the toilet, whereupon Scary-Woman-With-the-Baby tried to ply the girl with coffee. “She knows Flora isn’t allowed coffee, because she’d already been told!”, the mother of another patient, Abigail, confided. Abigail was fourteen and in for exploratory work; she was often in pain, though the doctors wondered whether some of the problems were psychosomatic; she self-harmed and her stomach pain was not relieved with opiate medication.
But these girls were lucky: like Lily, they had loving parents either staying with them or visiting every day. Thirteen-year-old Aggie was not so fortunate. She was often kept away from other patients, and isolated in her own room due to her propensity to draw other people into her mental health problems. But on day two she popped out of the kitchen as Abigail’s Mum and I were on our way to make tea. “I’m going into care today!” she exclaimed at us, before apologising profusely for being rude (she was never rude, but instead plagued with self-doubt over her manners: Asperger’s meant she was unable to read social cues). “My mother is refusing to come and get me”, she added. She was medically fit to leave as her horrendous self-inflicted cuts had healed enough, but no one was coming.
We didn’t see Aggie again, until the next day when the particular nurses on shift allowed her to socialise with the other girls, including Lily, who by now had become firm friends with the teens. There seems to be mixed opinions on whether it’s a good idea to let girls with psychiatric issues mingle. On the one hand, they might support each other and help reduce the sense of isolation. On the other hand, they might escalate each other’s behaviours and swap tips. The nurses on day three seemed to be of the former mindset and Aggie was allowed out.
At one point during the day, Lily was inclined in her bed watching a DVD with her other hospital friends seated on either side of her. She was in her element. I took the chance to go and sit in the quiet area, whereupon Aggie tentatively asked to sit with me. “I’m still here,” she pointed out needlessly. “They can’t find a home for me, but I’m sure my mother would step in, even if they did. She’ll never let me go”.
That was when Aggie described her situation as she saw it. She said that she had only made it to the hospital due to a neighbour hearing her scream after cutting her arms. She asserted that her mother normally keeps her locked up with no access to a phone to summons help, and that she’s often kept off school just to do housework. She added that her mother is emotionally abusive and refuses to get support for her, despite Aggie having apparently found her father hanging, four years previously. “My mother is Russian,” Aggie explained knowingly. “So, she doesn’t believe in mental health problems.” The afflicted girl also told me that police and school had repeatedly made safeguarding referrals which weren’t being acted upon due to her Asperger’s. “My Social Worker tells me that because I have Autism my mother can manage me how she likes. Even when Mum assaulted me, she only got a Police Caution.”
I don’t know whether Aggie’s mental health problems were creating a false reality, or whether the poor child really was living a nightmare. Imagine that! Getting to a place of safety like a hospital, only for the adults to think you’re lying and send you home! Her mother didn’t visit so I never got to make my own judgment. I told the nurse what Aggie had described and let them figure out how to help her.
The point is, despite this being a cardiology ward, the beds were full of girls whose physical health problems were related to their psychiatric issues, Lily included. Moreover, a work friend’s thirteen-year-old daughter was in an orthopedic ward downstairs, having been admitted six weeks ago, again, for anorexia. This friend, Sarah, was a lifesaver for me. Despite the differing conditions of our children, we were both united in our confusion about where it all went wrong for them. What was going on? That was when I started thinking about control. Self-harm, eating disorders, emotional abuse. It all tracks back to the need to be in control. Or feeling out of it. Why is our society so out of kilter that many of us feel we have to claw back control with destructive means? Why are our children, many from seemingly loving, stable backgrounds, so vulnerable to terrible mental health problems? Could devices and the Internet be having an insidious and poisonous effect on our young? Or have they lost all resilience? Is this another impact of the COVID-19 pandemic? Or is this more deep-rooted, or even linked to what the press has coined, “the snowflake generation” that we have spawned? It’s no wonder the system is buckling under pressure.
No wonder Lily didn’t even qualify for a referral to the community Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.
By the end of day three Lily was immersed in her new hospital social life, and Magda had been pushed from her mind. When I told her that I was going to ask her Dad to stay overnight so that I could get some rest, she tried to shoo me away. “I’ll be fine on my own,” she assured me. “Me and my friends have planned a game of Monopoly tonight.”
I took her aside. “Look, I’m not going to leave you alone with Scary-Woman-With-the-Baby,” I told her firmly. “I wouldn’t sleep, especially as she tried to sabotage Flora’s treatment plan. Imagine if you woke in the night to find her looming over your bed!”
“Fair enough,” she conceded. “Get Dad up here, and stay with me until he arrives.”
The next day she berated me for giving her a nightmare. “I had a dream that I woke up and she had put a goldfish in my bag!”
By the end of day, three Lily’s worsening liver functioning had plateaued and she was discharged after four days and nights, much to her distress. She had become attached to her new friends and had enjoyed the break from life that the hospital had afforded her. She wanted to keep her cannula as a souvenir. I worried that she would sabotage her own health to get back to the ward, but we had planned some activities for her to look forward to, including a visit to her favourite friend from a different school, whom she had neglected during her friendship with Magda, as well as some rides and visits to the beloved pony that she loans.
The prospect of returning to school was stressing her out, but they managed it fantastically, with great support and sensitivity. The friendship with Magda, which Lily now described with hindsight as “toxic”, was shut down and the offending girls were told to stay away from her, much to her relief. Her old friends from primary school enveloped her in their ranks again. They even formed a mini running club. She joined the school drama club. She started counselling. All within a week. “It’s so nice to feel like a child again,” Lily reflected. “And not to have to feel pressured into acting like a teenager.” I was awash with relief that we were coming out of the woods.
So why, part way through writing this piece, did she start self-harming again, by cutting her arms? And why did she take an unnoticed second, then a third, overdose (this time of 13 Ibuprofen and a packet of antihistamine – not enough to be fatal but still enough to require a day in hospital having blood tests to check on her poor battered liver)? Three overdoses in three weeks! There must be something going on that we don’t know about.
“I hated that I got a homework detention,” Lily later informed us. “And Dad annoyed me about doing my homework too.” I was alarmed, to say the least. Surely she can’t be doing this every time she feels challenged? There’s got to be a dark secret we’ve been unaware of. Something that has happened to her while she’s been out? Has someone been grooming her online? Has she shared indecent images of herself? Has she been accessing these harmful chat rooms you hear about? (By this time we had imposed tight controls on her phone including a tracker, and a two-hour time limit, Snapchat was gone and apps were permission-only, but who knows what might have gone on before OD-Day?)
Scenarios rampaged through my head. I suddenly recalled a seemingly light-hearted conversation (I have also come to distrust my judgment of light-hearted!) whereby Lily had asked us what we would do if she killed someone.
“We would still love you,” I had told her. “But we would have to go to the police of course.”
“I can’t believe you would tell on me!” she had exclaimed. My God! I suddenly thought now. Has she killed someone?
I tried to reassure her that she could talk to us, no matter what the problem was. I told her that our lack of understanding meant that all sorts of scenarios were popping up in our heads, but that no matter how extreme these were, not one would make us think any less of her.
“That’s a bit sappy,” she observed.
But it turns out that none of these horrific notions are factors. Put simply, although the toxic friendship had ground her down, she simply did not have enough resilience to cope with her overwhelming emotions. Did social media play a part? More than likely. You can Google the concerning research studies yourself, which link overuse of social media, especially in girls, to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation. Do the algorithms sense if a user is feeling low and send them what they want, even if this includes dark stuff? Probably. We live in a consumerist society after all. Has self-harm become so normalised that it is now an optional go-to as a coping strategy for many of our young? Possibly.
The only thing I know for sure is that no one knows anything for sure. Even the professionals. Lily left the hospital without even a referral to the community CAMHS team, so sure was the hospital team that she wouldn’t try it again. Less than two weeks later, she had. Twice. Humans are immensely complex and so we have created, in our perhaps misguided mission to make life better, societies and systems that are so complicated that understanding the interplay of these complexities is almost impossible.
For now, all I can say is that Lily is getting every available help and support. Her parents, school and the various mental health professionals are working together, in constant communication, and we are walking the tightrope of putting our trust in her so she can develop, and keep her safe. (This is no mean feat; yesterday she decided to take a bath unexpectedly – she never takes baths! – after mysteriously using a dictionary. Any strange behaviour puts me on edge. But when she wedged a chair against the lockless bathroom door I had to intercede and forbid the door-wedging.
“Why, do you think I’m gonna die in there or something?” she moaned. She then tortured me with an hour-long soak, with me asking innocuous questions through the door every five minutes to reassure myself she was still alive!)
The professionals have told us we are dream parents. “We can tell you work in this field”, they have observed. “You are doing everything right”. But if even that’s not enough to protect our daughter, where do we go from here? And what about the children who aren’t afforded such support? Whose lives aren’t so stable, with all the positive lifestyle factors that Lily enjoys. It’s a miracle that anyone makes it through to adulthood!
I’m afraid there’s no happy ending to this tale, but only because there’s no end full stop. We are still going. And we will keep going. Because no matter what new dimension of this nightmare we are shunted into, we will cope. I know this because one positive about our journey is that I have learned how strong I am. I had always thought myself to be a coward, but I know now that I am not. I’ve even been able to maintain a dark sense of humour. I may go so far as to say that throughout this scary ride I have laughed. A lot. In fact, at times, I’ve speculated whether I’ve become temporarily psychopathic due to my ability to stay jovial in the face of such adversity. I’ve been told that it will all come crashing down once the storm is over, but we’ll see.
I half think that my unflappability has been due to me being a talker. Offloading over and over to my many long-suffering but amazing friends has helped me process events and keep perspective. I’m forever grateful.
Lily has learned the value of true friendship too. We have started to do a gratitude journal, as a way of re-wiring our brains to be more positively focused. She’s become closer to her sister. And she’s been inspired to be a nurse one day. When she is thinking about her future.
It’s been a learning journey for me, too. Like the ugly duckling, I have become a swan. Serene and composed above, treading water madly, below. I have learned to deal with the upset of seeing my own child damage her body, with calm and compassion, as well as the odd black joke. And acceptance that I can’t understand everything. Nor can I control everything my child does. But I can support her. Without judgment.
I have also realised that mental health problems in children are a hidden pandemic. Since Lily’s difficulties, friends from all walks of life have confided the struggles of their own children. A GP friend’s daughter took an overdose a few years ago. By chance I became reacquainted with a long-lost old friend, as she was working on our ward one day. She told me that her own daughter has struggled with poor mental health for years, and is now prescribed an antipsychotic medication. It is a pervasive problem that people are afraid to talk about. I understand that. When Lily tells other children about what has happened to her, I brace myself. Might their parents prevent their kids from socialising with her, lest she taints them somehow? Thankfully so far, everyone has been supportive. But we need to bring this problem out into the open, remove the shame and urgently give resources to the overstretched mental health services that these children desperately need. They’ll repay us in the end, when they are paying taxes and saving the world from climate catastrophe. Goodness knows they’ll need to be resilient when that future comes knocking.
I don’t know what the next chapter will be. I am hoping we are owed a good one. I’ll let you know.
At the time of finishing this article, I have just found out. Lily has indeed killed someone.
Now you can have a taste of the roller coaster we are on!
To be continued, no doubt…
Rosie Christopher is a Probation Officer who has worked with a multitude of adults and young offenders over the years, giving her plenty of inspiration but not enough time to write! She loves walking in the nearby New Forest with her family and dog.