‘Lockdown taught my daughter to live again’

When her badly bullied teenage daughter tried to take her own life, this devastated mother found herself battling with guilt and constant fear. Then the family found a surprise silver lining amid the strangeness of the pandemic.

Sitting in a hospital room with my 14-year-old daughter Isobel*, I stared at her tear-stained face with a sickening mix of fear and despair as she wailed that she wanted to die. Putting my head in my hands, guilt washed over me. How had it come to this? Despite loving her so very much, I had failed my only child.

That night, last October, was the lowest point in a hellish year as Isobel struggled with a multitude of emotional problems. First she was horribly bullied – a falling out within her friendship group led to teenagers throughout the school getting involved. Things got nasty. They’d crowd around her during lunchtimes, taunting and threatening her. Teachers stepped in, the ringleaders were punished and eventually it stopped. But Isobel was left feeling fundamentally unlikable, with severe trust issues that made friendships difficult.

She also fell behind with her schoolwork as worrying about what awaited her between lessons distracted her in class. Learning, which previously came easily, became another area in which she felt inadequate. To top it all off, she’d recently started her periods, throwing hormonal upheaval into an already tumultuous mix.

I tried to help, encouraging Isobel to talk about her feelings and hiring a tutor to help her catch up on schoolwork, but she refused to engage. When I reassured her, ‘This will pass,’ she’d shake her head, insisting my words proved that I didn’t understand. Next, Isobel started refusing to go to school, becoming increasingly socially isolated. She’d back out of plans with her friends; offers of shopping trips with me – which she used to enjoy – were rejected. She spent most of her time shut away in her room.

The night that we ended up at hospital, a row in school with her friends had spilled on to social media, attracting an audience. When one boy suggested Isobel might as well kill herself, she took him up on the idea.

This was already my greatest fear – so much so that my husband Nick* had removed the lock from the bathroom door and we’d hidden all medication in a locked chest. That awful evening I went to get some painkillers from the chest and noticed fresh score marks from a failed attempt to prise it open with a knife. As the implications of my discovery sank in, an explosion of splashing and spluttering came from the bathroom above. Charging upstairs I found Isobel in the bath, choking and sobbing hysterically, her long hair plastered across her face as she screamed at me to get out so she could go back to trying to drown herself.

‘Did you try to get to the pills?’ I asked, trying to suppress the panic rising in my chest. ‘Yes!’ she screeched back. When I asked her why, she looked at me, incredulous, and said, ‘Because I want to die.’ I knew I had to get her to hospital. By now Nick was in the bathroom doorway, frozen in shock. I pulled the plug and covered Isobel in a towel, kneeling beside her as she came out with a devastating stream of words, ‘I’ve written you a note… it’s on my phone… it’s not your fault… I don’t want to be here any more… don’t make me stay.’

I could hear Nick quietly sobbing behind me and wanted to yell at him. I resented his emotion. I wanted to cry, too, but didn’t dare; if I started I might not be able to stop.

Nick pulled himself together, helping me coax Isobel out of the bathroom and into some clothes, persuading her that we needed to go ‘somewhere safe’. She was calmer now, almost trance-like. I was amazed at how malleable she was as Nick buckled her into the car. He stayed at home – we had our four-year-old nephew staying over, who’d slept through the whole thing. Throughout the 20-minute journey, Isobel kept quietly repeating her horrible death wish. ‘I’m not going to let that happen,’ I told her, reminding her over and over how loved she was.

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It was only after being rushed through triage and taken into a room with a paediatric nurse that Isobel seemed shocked to be in hospital. She became aggressive towards the nurse, snapping when she asked if she knew why she was in hospital. ‘It’s because I tried to kill myself.’

‘Do you still want to kill yourself?’ the nurse asked.

‘Yes.’

When Isobel was told that if she ran off, as she threatened she would, the police would bring her back, she looked at me with fury.

‘I will never trust you again,’ she spat at me. ‘And when I do kill myself, it will be your fault.’

Nine months have passed since my daughter said those devastating words. They still haunt me, despite Isobel’s mental state having improved dramatically since then. I expect they always will. Thankfully, the dark hopelessness we both felt that night has evaporated. My child, now 15, feels like she has a future again. As astonishing as this might sound, I think lockdown helped to save my daughter. Everything that made lockdown so difficult for most adolescents – no school, no social life – liberated Isobel. The things most teenagers longed for were precisely what she couldn’t cope with.

‘Now everyone else gets to feel what it’s like to be me,’ she declared when lockdown was announced. I saw it as some breathing space – a welcome break from the daily battles of trying to get Isobel into school and an opportunity to just ‘be’ for a while. Because I was struggling too. Knowing my child had felt so wretched that death seemed the best option had a profound impact on my sense of self. My boss – I’m an accountant – had already let me take compassionate leave so that I could focus on Isobel. While this helped, it meant I lost the distraction of work and the validation it gave me. I lost confidence in my parenting skills – scared that if I made mistakes, pushed her too hard, Isobel had the ultimate recourse: suicide.

A sense of being on constant red alert, forever trying to assess my child’s mood, had made relaxation impossible. Depression – something I’d never experienced before – had struck. My brain became foggy. My legs felt like jelly. Simple tasks, such as cooking a meal, had overwhelmed me. I felt permanently on the brink of tears. I’d longed for something, anything, to change – and suddenly it did, in the form of lockdown. Immediately it helped us both. Like most people, I envisaged a hiatus, almost a holiday. No alarms, no schoolwork, no pressure. My boss furloughed me, meaning I could take more time off but still get paid. Nick, an IT consultant, worked from home, giving a comforting sense of unity.

Of course, I felt selfish for finding positives in a situation where people were dying and livelihoods lost. ‘After what you’ve been through,’ said my mum, ‘if you can find some good in all this, then grab hold of it.’ She was right. I thought back to the night Isobel tried to hurt herself. After she was admitted to the children’s ward, they gave us a room where I was allowed to stay overnight with her, although she refused to even look at me. She slept, but I couldn’t. Isobel was remarkably calm when she woke. I was stunned when she gave me a cautious smile. I asked if I could hug her, surprised and relieved when she said yes.

Isobel was seen by the emergency response team for the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). After two hours of sympathetically talking through her experiences of the past year, the CAMHS worker discharged her. With her feelings validated, Isobel said she no longer felt suicidal. She promised to engage with the local CAMHS team and her first appointment was scheduled for the following week. But for things to feel so calm after the chaos of the previous night was bewildering. When I mentioned this to the CAMHS worker, Isobel said, ‘I don’t feel so mad at everyone now I’ve got my period.’ It turns out she had got her period the night before. Later, I thought back to how bad things had been in the run-up to Isobel’s last two periods – the only ones she’d had at that point. It was just before the second one that I’d started locking away our pills.

The weeks that followed were hectic: weekly CAMHS appointments; calls at random times of the day from school saying Isobel had broken down in class and needed collecting; pleading for an appointment with our GP to discuss Isobel’s hormones; another premenstrual phase that took her mood so low she told me she couldn’t imagine ever feeling happy again.

So yes, when lockdown happened I really was ready to press pause on life as we knew it. Without the spectre of school hanging over Isobel, her mood seemed more level, less erratic. Our GP had also prescribed her a contraceptive pill and that seemed to be helping. He suspected she was suffering from an extreme form of premenstrual syndrome, known to cause catastrophic mood swings and suicidal feelings, and put her on Yasmin – a brand of contraceptive pill proven to help with mood because it can balance fluctuating hormones. The GP also recommended that, instead of taking the usual monthly breaks between packets and menstruating, Isobel should have just four periods a year, so that we could prepare for them.

Lockdown brought a calmness to our home. I was sleeping better and so was Isobel. My legs felt as though they belonged to me again. Before lockdown, I had stopped expecting anything of her – she no longer did chores and didn’t even eat with me and Nick. ‘You need to muck in with family life again,’ I told her. She agreed she would, without any fuss. We worked out a daily timetable together and included a couple of lessons she enjoyed, and she used her prescribed hour of exercise to walk the dog.

Isobel’s mood improved as lockdown continued. On our walks she gradually opened up about the fear and distress she felt when she was being bullied. She joined a virtual yoga class. Her expression stopped being permanently strained. Understandably, as lockdown measures eased, I felt fearful. But when she told me she was going to have a socially distanced meet-up with her friend Lucy* I was thrilled. ‘Lucy has found lockdown really hard,’ Isobel revealed when she arrived home. She found comfort in that and they continue to meet up. Lucy’s positive response to her support has been a huge boost to Isobel’s sense of self-worth, as has delivering groceries for her grandparents and making a daily phone call to our elderly neighbours to see if they need help.

Isobel says she’s looking forward to going back to school in September. She could have gone back for a couple of sessions already but didn’t feel ready for that. Apparently, many of her peers also felt the same way. For the first time in a long while I get a sense of her being able to fit back in.

Mentally, she’s stronger every day; I feel like I’m getting my daughter back. Is this dramatic change down to her newly settled hormones or the emotional space and renewed sense of value that lockdown gave her? I’d say it’s a combination of both. I suspect that when the child mental health team re-assesses Isobel they’ll be keen to get her off their books. I’d like to see how she gets on back at school before I agree to that. But the future looks positive. ‘I don’t want lockdown to last for ever any more,’ Isobel told me. ‘I feel ready to be part of everything again.’ I know what she means, because suddenly that’s how I feel too.

For more information and support, visit youngminds.org.uk or call the parents helpline on 0808 802 5544. Young people can text YM to 85258 to access the YoungMinds Crisis Messenger, a free 24/7 service. Search for your nearest CAMHS centre at nhs.uk or speak to your GP about a referral.

*Names have been changed.