I've had to talk to my ten year old about suicide twice in the last six months.
In the Fall, it was a high-school student whose mother teaches at Tigger's school and whose brother is in Tigger's grade. I won't go into the abundant speculation about the hows and whys, except to say that he wasn't obviously unhappy, and he wasn't bullied. Small town news spreading (as opposed to gossip which has a meaner edge) ensured that Tigger heard far more of the details about this tragedy than I would have liked, but he was able to ask me honest questions about what he had heard and we were able to discuss it and be sad and shocked and not know quite how to feel about it together. He seemed appropriately bewildered by the whole thing.
But then it happened again. A few weeks ago, it was the director of Tigger's summer camp. Tigger, who has a great ability to get in good with authority figures in spite of his challenges, talked about this young man almost daily in the summer. This was someone he had been nice to and who had been nice to him. This was someone who will clearly and directly be missed in Tigger's life.
Unfortunately, that same weekend, there were also two young men who died of heroin overdoses. Because they were around the same age as the director, there was much said and mixed up about who died in what way. So in the same conversation I had about the director's suicide, I also had to talk about drugs.
Tigger will be in Middle School in a year and a half. I have known that conversations like this were coming soon. I'm not going to be one of those parents who doesn't talk about things and who shields her children from everything. My own personal squeamishness about topics will not translate into kids who become victims of their own ignorance. I'm not the kind of person who believes that not talking about something will keep it from happening.
But whenever I have to have these conversations, I wonder if every word that comes out of my mouth is saying the right thing. Am I going to be able to convince him that these things are not worth doing, or am I making them more attractive to his dangerously curious mind?
Ever since he was small, Tigger has been getting into all sorts of things that he shouldn't. No hiding place was clever enough, he would find it. No prohibition was ever meaningful, he'd be into whatever it was as soon as you turned your back. And for Tigger it is often more important to see if he can get away with something than have a care about potential consquences. Consequences have never overcome impulsivity. Only the ADD meds have really helped with that. So as he approches adolescence, I worry about how those tendencies will translate in the mind of a willful teenager.
When we first went to the pediatrician to talk about ADD, the doctor warned me that not medicating him would lead him to self-medicate when he was older. I was already aware of this possibility and have seen signs of it in the smallest of things.
I have absolutely no personal experience with these sorts of topics. I got through my entire adolesence without any kind of drug experimentation. I never had any interest in losing that kind of control. Similarly, no matter how bleak the world of my teens and 20s got, I never gave any thought to ending my pain in any kind of permanent way. I could never imagine just not being.
Now I think the same holds true for Tigger. He is a fighter. He is not willing to die or even to be shortchanged in life, and it is interesting that our first serious talk about drugs involved the death of two people. That, I believe had an impact; it made the danger seem less abstract.
We live in the kind of community where bad things aren't supposed to happen. It is safer than most, but it also produces a curious denial of destructive behavior. If we adults talk about these topics amongst ourselves, it's always about someone else's family. Because gossip can be cruel, It's much harder to admit that it might someday be our family member in the woods, or behind closed doors, or in court. On the surface, it all looks happy, but dig deeper and someone might be crying for help.
Now when, in response to an open ended question regarding the biggest challenges to our Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Senate President comes out with "opiate addiction," you know there's a threat to your family. Even in your small, safe, little town.
I'm a big fan of local schools hosting parent or family nights on these topics with professional speakers and therapists; parents need help, and they need to know they are not alone with these fears and challenges. As with anything out of the "norm" sometimes we need to face down the finger pointers and extend a hand from experience.
As parents, Piper and I will continue to do the right things. We will make sure that Tigger is kept occupied in sports and other activities. We will continue to have these terrible conversations. We will try to use the sometimes infuriatingly small-town network (if you don't know what you are doing, someone else does) to our advantage, and develop relationships with other authority figures in Tigger's life. We will do our best to protect him and help him find pursuits that he loves.
And we will hope, as every parent does, that it is enough.