It is late on a Friday night in the emergency department as I lead the mother into a small family room off the hallway. She is here with her son, who is now sitting in the locked psychiatric wing of the ER. We sit down on the threadbare couches.
“Tell me,” I say, “what’s been going on.” Out pours a tale of a successful young man, off to college, his bright future ahead of him — then the gradual deterioration, the precipitous decline. Now, instead of sitting in an auditorium at graduation, the mother tells me, she is sitting in the ER, holding back tears. This is not the future she envisioned for her child.
Mothers of those with mental illness share a special burden that they rest of us can only begin to imagine. They have raised and loved a person, but that person seems to have disappeared. In her book, Cutting the Soul: A Journey into the Mental Illness of a Teenager Through the Eyes of His Mother, Theresa Larsen offers us an intimate look at the experience.
At fourteen, Larsen’s son Matthew had a “subtle” intelligence. “Sensitive and kind,” he “had high expectations and unrealistic goals,” taking advanced classes and serving as the sweet older brother for his little sister. Over the course of a few months, his mood began to sink. Sometimes he isolated himself; other times, he seemed like the Matthew his mother knew.
Then one day, he came to her, apologizing. “Mom, I cut my hand,” Larsen recalls him saying. “… Don’t be angry with me please. I was messing around with my pocket knife and I cut my hand. I didn’t mean to cut it this deep.” It was the cry of a confused, distressed boy, and set both Larsen and her husband, Erik, grappling for words as they clean his wounds.
“Were you trying to kill yourself?” Erik asked.
Matthew flatly denied it. But while the cuts were not so deep as to require an immediate trip to the ER, Larsen realized they represented something far deeper. After a trip to their pediatrician, she sought out mental health treatment for her son. Thus began a disastrous series of psychiatrist visits that would make anyone in the profession cringe and want to offer her an apology.
The cutting continued. “I couldn’t help it,” Matthew told his mother. “I don’t know what to do.”
Larsen intersperses Matthew’s own journal entries from the time, giving us a glimpse into his thought process. “Only a single action can relieve me of my misery, but it has been forbidden,” he writes. “Like a match it takes a few strikes to spark my courage.”
Desperately, Larsen continued to seek answers. After trying to avoid medications for Matthew as long as possible, she realized she had to. “I needed the prescription to work,” she writes, “or Matthew’s illness was going to destroy our family.”
Matthew continued to deteriorate. His self-harm progressed to suicide attempts, his thoughts devolved into psychosis. He was hospitalized, then in residential treatment. After cutting himself with a sharp plastic object he found while in residential treatment, he writes, “This is actually the first time I wanted to cut to kill. An attempt to murder myself. I wish it worked. Damn it. … The pain I cause my parents. They hurt because of me. I cry knowing how much hurt it causes them to see me like this. I must stop! I must! I will, damn it!” But he cannot stop, and it is quite some time before he or his family find relief.
These journal entries, alongside Larsen’s own words, show us both what the son and the mother have gone through. Brushes with others with mental illness — a young man who tried to break into their house; a shooter at their daughter’s school — all made Larsen wonder what the future held for Matthew. In therapy herself, she asked, “How do I cope with Matthew dying?” As a mother, she writes, “Constantly waiting for my phone to ring with more bad news, kept me in a state of perpetual crisis.”
Larsen honestly depicts the tight-rope of fear and worry that parents in her shoes must traverse every day, balancing their own needs and those of the family at large with those of the mentally ill member.
“Maybe you need to redefine what normal is,” one of Matthew’s therapists offered at one point.
As I saw with the mother I spoke with in the ER, having a mentally ill child means redefining many things. For anyone who has had a mentally ill family member, you know there is rarely (never?) a happily ever after ending.
There is, however, a happier for now.
For Matthew and his family, the new normal, while maybe not the original plan, is one filled with hope and possibility. “Reach out and grasp hold of everything you once knew,” Matthew writes in his journal. “A love for this contentment festers inside you. Unlock the potential your life now holds.”
Cutting the Soul: A Journey into the Mental Illness of a Teenager Through the Eyes of His Mother
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, December 2014
Paperback, 348 pages