When was the moment I realized our family needed help? It was probably lying on a hotel bed in a pool of tears, grappling with my teenage daughter to stop her jumping out of the window. That’s a pretty clear sign, right?
Sure, there were indications before that that things were going awry. But the changes were gradual. I was busy at work. And who knows what normal teen behavior looks like anyway?
The funny thing is that around that time it felt like we were living the dream. We had holidays to France, trips to Disneyworld, lazy barbeques with friends and their kids. We were earning good money and had the car, foreign holidays and MacBooks to match.
Yes, there were plenty of 70 hour weeks, but you have to make sacrifices to have a successful career. Family life had to come a distant second place, as my wife and kids knew only too well (I’d tell them). Looking back, I didn’t see how stressful that time was for us all, but that’s the point: I was too busy to notice.
I was so far removed I didn’t notice the change at home until it was too late. My eldest had just started high school and wasn’t getting on well. Her grades were slipping and she had trouble sleeping, was rude and aggressively antisocial.
Soon after, she handed a suicide note to a school nurse. I was abroad with work and rushed home. How did I feel? Truthfully, I was annoyed at my daughter’s ‘attention seeking’. That was a low point for me – not my daughter’s cry for help, but my reaction to it.
We were now officially in treatment. She was transferred to an acute Psychiatric Unit, prescribed an antidepressant and four days later was released to a community care unit. Within three weeks she had started drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and self-harming. It was clear this treatment was doing more harm than good.
Soon after this I sold the company I’d worked long and hard to build up. Sitting by myself in a hotel room with an unopened bottle of champagne, I didn’t feel very accomplished. I didn’t feel happy. And things were about to get much worse.
How did we not see this coming?
My daughter held my smartphone hostage because she didn’t want to go to the restaurant we’d booked. I didn’t respond well, calling her a spoiled rich kid. She hurled the phone against the wall and screamed that she hated me. That was when she tried to open the hotel window and jump out. That was what mental health issues looked like.
Thirty minutes later her rage had abated but I was holding on tight to make sure she didn’t try again. My wife and I did a sweep of the room to remove knives, corkscrews – anything she could use to harm herself.
This was the first time I had experienced what my wife and second child had been living through for many months. While my daughter’s anger was the main symptom, it was clear our whole family was damaged and needed support. I was unable to help my daughter cope with her mood swings and depression. I was frightened and out of control.
My wife and I stayed up long into the night asking ourselves how could we have missed the warning signs and what more we could have done. Over the next few weeks we digested all the information we could get our hands on, and sought advice from friends who had experienced similar challenges.
The result was a long period of intensive treatment for my daughter. A process that was not without stress.
The program began with three months in the wilderness. At just fourteen, my eldest daughter was separated from her family, friends and smartphone. We were allowed to communicate with her only by letter.
While my wife cried every night, I felt relieved. I believed we’d addressed the issue and the program would cure her. Again, I cringe when I think of my reaction to this traumatic upheaval to the family.
My daughter received some 18 months of intense treatment at a Therapeutic Boarding School 2000 miles away, while the rest of us undertook regular family therapy. At the end of that program, my daughter was no longer on medication; she was no longer considered a suicide risk and she was managing her depression. We brought her home for good.
Treatment was a huge drain on our family. It was brutal financially but the emotional toll was worse. Sisters were separated during their formative years, the normal fabric of family life dreadfully torn. Treatment delivered results for us, but at what cost?
I firmly believe that a ‘problem child’ is just the most visible symptom of a ‘problem family’. Preventing the tidal wave of problems that my family experienced begins with a long hard look in the mirror. I only wish I’d learned that lesson earlier.