Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Tell Me What To Do

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My son's alarm went off every hour, on the hour, and when it did, he dropped to the ground for thirty push-ups.

Depression gripped my seventeen-year-old child. This electronic reminder to move brought comfort through a minute of discipline. While emotional well-being eluded him, the powerlessness my son, my husband, and I felt diminished a bit with this routine. Our son needed bite-sized actions, doable tasks to activate himself.

The alarm got under my skin, but I did not speak up. There were too many other things to say. One Sunday afternoon I lay on the couch watching my son curled in the fetal position on the floor, softly crying. My husband perched on a chair near us. We listened as our son asked, "Will I ever be happy? What can I do to stop feeling this way?" I felt helpless. Until he was about six, I could comfort him by sitting him on my lap. He would lay his head against my chest and rub the skin around my elbow. My arms wrapped around him, squeezing away his angst. I no longer had a reliable way of consoling him.

Happiness was out of reach. He begged, "Just tell me what to do." We were in the habit of telling him what to do, loving him by ticking off one recommended treatment after another. Talk therapy gave insights, but no immediate relief. Yoga gave him a boost for a few hours, but the calm was fleeting. Removing academic pressure lessened anxiety, but gave him more time to dwell on his demons. We were out of advice. My husband took him on a bike ride.

Photo by George Coletrain. See more of George's work at coletraincollective.com.

The alarm went off at the worst times. It trilled in yoga class while we attempted inversions. When he left his phone on the kitchen counter to take a shower, it sounded and I fumbled to dry my soapy hands to turn it off. It chirped in his back pocket while he drove on the freeway. I ignored it as I coached him through a lane change.

Getting high was a respite. Trying not to shake my disapproving finger, I explained how weed acted as a depressant on his brain. But, I knew pot numbed the nagging darkness.

When he went out, I was anxious for his safety. I worried he would ride in a car with someone under the influence or experiment with a new drug. When he stayed home, I felt a bit more in control, but still I was helpless. He slept until noon. He ignored his littlest sister's pleas for a tickle. While I might feel annoyed he left the dog walking until late in the day, I was most terrified of where his sober mind would take him. Would he lay sluggish in bed, worried whether anyone liked him? Would he panic, his mind in a loop, calculating in rational terms that our world's injustices outnumbered signs of hope? Or the worst: would he allow himself to fantasize about ending it all?

Our son told us of his suicidal ideations a couple months earlier when we confronted him about increasingly frequent pot smoking. His therapist reported she ended each session by asking if he would tell us if he became a danger to himself. My husband and I, and his therapist believed his frequent cannabis use was amplifying his suicidal musings. He was saturating his developing mind with THC, making therapy more difficult to ease his despair.

Partially believing my lecture about his brain's chemistry, he tried to quit smoking pot, hoping a chemical-free brain would bring relief from depression. When the marijuana was out of his system, the clouds began to lift. Feeling an uptick in his mood, he began smoking again. A few weeks later, he brought me his pipe and stash and asked me to keep them for him.

"Do you need more help?" I asked. He said he'd try anything. I investigated other recommended treatments.

A few days later we sat with a counselor at an outpatient rehab center. She asked him why he was there. He said, "I will do anything to make my depression go away."

After an hour with my son, the counselor insisted I take him to the nearest Emergency Room. An addiction specialist, she said his underlying problem was depression and anxiety, not addiction. At that moment, he was actively suicidal.

While I knew he fantasized about making "it all go away," being confronted with the reality he was planning his death meant I had to shed a measured approach. Keeping him alive was what mattered. All other concerns evaporated. The chicken defrosting in the refrigerator no longer needed to be thawed by the afternoon, my three daughters' carpools were no longer on my agenda, and incomplete calculus homework was irrelevant. All the while, the mobile phone alarm kept its schedule.

In the ER waiting room, fish floated silently in their tank, watching us numb ourselves with our phones. A mother across from us held a limp toddler and tried not to succumb to sleep. While we sunk into our vinyl chairs, his alarm chimed. On the hour. My son silenced it, but did no push-ups.

I diligently filled out his medical history. The form asked about his birth and infancy, fishing for trauma. I bragged he talked in sentences before he walked and slept through the night at six weeks. His sleep was so deep, every hour we checked his breathing to make sure he was alive.

After the triage nurse assigned us to a stripped-down room (he couldn't be trusted with tongue depressors or discarded sharps or bandage tape) the lilt of the phone alarm failed to infuse levity. A woman in scrubs watched over him, keeping him safe. As she picked through her Chex Mix, I caught her looking at the bananas and granola bars I'd grabbed from the cafeteria. We didn't know when he'd be fed.

When I snuck out of the room to talk to the social worker about the dearth of mental health beds in Louisiana, I heard the familiar chime calling to me while the social worker explained, "He may have to stay on a medical ward for a night while they find a placement. He also may be sent over 300 miles away for an indeterminate amount of time. Be ready."

I was not ready and I began to wonder if all this was necessary. Had we done enough? Couldn't we keep him safe at home? If we hadn't saved our son, surely strangers couldn't do any better. I considered gathering our things and taking the back exit to the parking lot. I knew this would earn us stamp of AMA, Against Medical Advice.

When the doctor interviewed him, he asked about allergies, previous surgeries, and if he was currently a danger to himself.  The doctor peered over his computer screen and looked my son in his eye, "Do you have a plan?"

My son stared at the otoscope hanging on the wall. "Thinking about suicide has become a game. Wherever I am, on a bike ride or in my bedroom or with friends, I try to figure out how I can kill myself in that place, at that moment." I felt detached from this statement, as if I was another clinician in the room developing a treatment plan.

I wished this game was like video games that captured his attention when he was younger-games I could limit or forbid by setting a timer or taking away an electronic device. This game could not be squelched so simply. I wondered if he had been playing the suicide game during family dinners or while I drove him to yoga or when we mapped out and prioritized his to-do list on Sunday nights.

My husband arrived around dinner time. Our three daughters were settled at home. The social worker found a bed at a nearby facility. Minutes later my husband climbed into an ambulance with our son, who would be transported, as procedure dictated, strapped to a rolling stretcher. Before they secured his arms, like a normal teenager, he took a selfie and passed the phone to me.

My husband and I locked eyes. We were frightened by the bleak circumstance we faced: life or death is rather simple.

We believe in doing. Love is an action. That night, love was not proactive. It was not buying extra avocados because it was our son's favorite bagel topping or proofreading a research paper or asking a pointed question so I could diagnose over the internet if the root of his depression was under-the-radar of Asperger or acne medicine or anger management. The night I watched my son loaded into an ambulance, love was reactive. To protect him, we released him.

In the safety of my minivan, I wept and the alarm did its thing, muffled in my purse. I cried through the repeating tune.

When the ambulance reached the inpatient mental facility, we left him with several nurses who did not know if we could bring him books, if vegan meals were available, or when he might get treatment. When we hugged our son, his paper scrubs crunched. We said our goodbyes in a common room divided by masking tape, separating boys from girls. The patients sat in a huddle on their designated side, checking us out.

My husband and I stopped for pizza on the way home. As we cried into our salads, the phone's refrain played. My husband reached in my purse and turned off the alarm. We tried not to guzzle our wine too conspicuously.

I found temporary relief in my to-do list: organize childcare for healthy kids, fight with the insurance company to get the coverage stated in our policy, reach the right doctors at the right numbers at the right times, and make it to the one hour we were allowed to visit. All along, the phone kept playing its ditty.

The phone held my son's life, a life free from the distortions of depression, outside of a psychiatric ward, when he could be safe with himself. Snapchat notifications flashed on the screen and texts popped up. The phone held photos of happier times. There were before and after photos, showing his body changing from the push-ups. I wondered how a hospital visit would change him. After several days, the battery died and the chipper tune stopped.

Five days later, our son came home. He said he had so much to live for and things he wanted to accomplish. He did not want to go back. I took him at his word. I was hopeful. Antidepressants would likely help.

His first night back at home, I did not want to let him sleep in his room on the other side of the house. I wished for a smaller version of him, plump and chatty, tiny enough to fit between my husband and me in our bed. If he slept between us, I could check to make sure he was breathing, alive. We could wedge him between us, nuzzle the gloom away, replacing it with a sunny room full of little dancers, twirling, carefree.


Emily Skelding is a part-time writer and full-on mother of four, ages 4, 7, 16, and 19. Her essays have appeared in Hip Mama and Mockingbird.  She is writing a memoir tracing how her strident ideas about education and parenting unraveled during a decade of teaching and mothering in post-Katrina New Orleans. Her family recently moved from New Orleans to Salem, Oregon. A former middle school teacher, she spills her family’s secrets on stage at story slams.


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It is heartbreaking to read this and I'm so hopeful Sumner is finding ways to combat the depression and anxiety he suffered. You are a great writer Emily and an even greater parent.....letting go while staying connected I think is the most difficult thing ever.
What an incredible piece. Beautifully written.
Wow! This is beautiful and important. I was pulled right in and I got so choked up at the paragraph that begins, "That night love was not pro-active.." That paragraph choked me up.
Yes. This.
Thank you, Emily. I love that damn alarm going off through the whole story. As Michelle Obama said recently, "Sometimes, that shit doesn't work."