Everything in the room is colourless and plastic. The grey walls haven’t seen paint in years. (Are they actually painted grey? Or has time and neglect turned them this colour — a blend of sorrow and blur?). In the middle of the room are three beige, too-small plastic chairs – the sort parents force their rear-ends into during kindergarten visits. One bigger, mottled faux-leather chair, ripped and spilling orange innards, dominates the space – the only speck of colour in a room devoid of cheer and decoration.
This is where furniture and parents’ hopes come to die.
Just down the hall (around the corner where the other families can’t see us) is the regular children’s emergency department. I’ve been there plenty of times, with both my kids. We’ve gone there for middle-of-the-night ear infections, cuts, broken bones. There are clean cubicles adorned with stickers of cartoon characters. Nurses bring popsicles. They do their best to ensure children are comfortable and not scared.
This time, we’re here for a broken mind, not broken bones. It seems they don’t bring popsicles for that.
It’s two weeks before Christmas. Just a week earlier, we were on a family vacation to the most magical place on earth. Earlier that morning, I’d been on the national morning news, talking about a book I wrote.
Now, we sit in this colourless room, waiting for a member of the mental health emergency team to talk to our 12 year old about why he’s suicidal. And as we sat there, I was getting texts from people to congratulate me on my media appearance, or to comment on my vacation photos. These two realities don’t align. But which one is real, I wonder?
The vacation is already a distant memory of a dashed hope. We planned it for the better part of a year. We’d gone to Disney three times before, and although I actually wanted to vacation somewhere else, I clung to the memory of how happy we’ve all been there. As corny as it sounds, every time we’d gone, the problems of everyday lives melted away. Disney requires you to suspend belief, to not question, to accept the fantasy. We embraced it. We laughed together, made memories, and relaxed.
I needed that again. I desperately needed this holiday (hell, anything) to bolster Puck’s spirits. I needed to bolster my own. So I booked the trip – part cruise, part vacation at Disney. Months before the trip, when Puck would get low, he and I would walk the dog and plan together which rides we’d go on, what we’d be doing if we were there right now, and what we’d eat. Planning the trip sustained us. It dangled in front of us, a tantalizing promise of happiness we might feel in the future, if not now.
In my mind, I thought that the vacation would give Puck a reprieve from his anxiety and depression. Changing schools last Fall was tough for him, and I admit, I’d been using the vacation as a distraction. I know, of course, that you can’t just flick a switch and turn off mental illness. Nothing external is going to have that big an impact on something that is organic and brain-based. But I really felt like he’d be happy, even if only for ten days. I hoped.
My hopes were dashed at dinner the first night of our cruise. All around us was splendour and delicious things to eat. Puck didn’t eat anything. After all our months of planning and talking about what we’d eat, he was too depressed and had no appetite. He put his head down on the table and patiently waited for us to finish. When the cheerful waiters were concerned and tried to tempt him into happiness, he lifted his head, looked at me with pained eyes, and politely asked if he could be excused.
That’s when I knew, for sure: there was no Fantasyland fix this time. His mental illness is deeper, completely out of his control. Even when he wants to be happy and has been imagining how to be happy, he just cannot reach it.
My heart broke for him.
He did have moments of happiness. He loved being on the ship, and I’d wake up to find him out on the balcony, wrapped in a blanket, peacefully watching the sunrise over the Caribbean. There was joy, on our favourite rides like Splash Mountain or when we swam with stingrays. I treasured his laughter. But the moments of laughter and true joy were far fewer than on past trips. His smile would appear, so briefly, and then the shadow would fall.
One morning one the ship, as I joined him on the balcony, a rainbow appeared over the turquoise sea. It stayed so long, growing more vibrant, that I joked it must have been a fake rainbow, created by Disney.
“No,” Puck insisted. “It’s real. And rainbows are a sign that thing will get better.”
We both so desperately wanted to believe that. We sat staring at that rainbow for twenty minutes, until no trace remained in the sky. We waited for things to get better.
We’re still waiting.
And now, we waited in the mental health emergency room at the children’s hospital, because just a week after we watched the rainbow, Puck was talking about suicide.
The difference between how our health care system treats physical and mental emergencies is stark. As soon as we talked to the triage nurse, we were hidden from the view of those with physical ailments, and whisked quickly down a corridor to our shabby, undecorated room. No creature comforts. No one checking in on us during the long wait.
The social worker showed up. He was kind, but stuck to the script he’d been given. He asked only the questions on the form in front of him. When Puck became upset answering a question, the social worker didn’t follow up or ask why. He moved on to the next thing.
If I’d had any hopes that this visit would help, they were as fleeting as rainbows and Fantasyland. The bare, bright lights in the room made me anxious. This was not a place you came for comfort or hope. This was not a place to bring a child in distress. It felt like an interrogation room. It felt like we’d done something wrong, and were going to be punished.
Puck stopped answering questions. The social worker prodded him to answer. My mind whispered, “You have the right to remain silent”. I expected armed officers to barge through the door and take him away.
I answered for him, just so we could get on with things and get out of there. I’d given up any hope of getting help that day. At least, I thought, there will be a record that I brought him here. I’ve done what I am supposed to do. I tried. I am ticking the boxes, going through the motions, just like the social worker.
After disappearing for another half hour, the social worker returned to tell us that Puck was, in his opinion, ‘Just fine’. He suggested we make an appointment with our family doctor, and gave Puck (who has dyslexia) a bunch of written hand-outs about stress and self-care, written at a high-school level. We could make a follow up appointment with the clinic for the following week, he told us, but if we said no, our case was considered closed.
With that, we were done. No answers. No real help. Just three hours in a horrible little room that made Puck feel like he was ‘bad’.
We walked back out through the emergency room, past the children with flu and fractures who sat watching television while they waited for care, fevered heads resting on a parent’s shoulder. I remembered being like them, once.
We were back outside, in the cold December daylight. My eyes blinked, adjusting to a world that was different shades of bleak than the one we’d left in the interrogation room. Christmas music came from a passing car; a jarring, artificial joy intruding on our pain. Puck and I buckle our seatbelts. Snow begins to fall.
“Ready?” I ask him, as I always do when I start the car.
He looks at me, the pain lifting from his eyes a little. “Ready,” he assures me.
We head back to reality, still looking for rainbows.