By the time my son started his senior year of high school, he was “that” guy. Alex wasn’t just regular popular, he lived at the pinnacle of popular. I watched him bloom from the quiet kid we used to call The Professor into an outgoing, charismatic three sport varsity letterman. He never met a person he didn’t consider a friend and his sense of humor and goofy demeanor made him a fan favorite. Watching him flash that $4000 smile amongst his peers – it never crossed my mind that some of what I was seeing was an Academy Award worthy performance.
Looking back now, I see signs that I wish I’d recognized in the moment. His grades began to decline. He was unfocused, unorganized and falling asleep in class. Motivation was lacking. Poor decision making and impulsiveness resulted in some very costly lessons. The further he moved towards graduation, the more he changed. The smile in his eyes no longer matched the one on his lips.
Initially, I attributed it to regular teenager behavior. I poked and prodded and questioned and conversed and fussed and grounded and hired tutors and talked to teachers; in short, I did all the things a good helicopter parent would do.
Ultimately, it was his Twitter feed that gave him away. Sandwiched between tweets about music, sports and pop culture were three tweets that referenced his self-perceived failures. Alex attempted to explain away the significance of the tweets by saying, “That’s just Twitter talk.” I asked him if he was he depressed and he replied that he was not. I didn’t wholeheartedly believe him, but I could feel him retreating further and further away when I pressed him. So I backed off and hoped for good things.
How We Got Here
Without him ever explicitly stating it, I understood what was happening. Alex played sports all of his life and despite his relatively small stature, he had the most success with football. Alex started every varsity football game of his sophomore, junior and senior years and hoped to play football in college. But by the time his junior year was over, it was clear that his dreams of playing college football would not happen – at least not in the manner he would have liked. So much of his identity was wrapped up in sports and he was about to lose his place. It sounds trite. But the time, relationships, discipline and joy of playing had always provided him with a structure that he still needed. And he was losing it.
Alex ended up settling on a very small Division III school in a very small city that was very different from the environment to which he was accustomed. When we visited, the coaching staff courted him in a way that no other school had. When we left he said, “They made me feel like I was all world.” I knew the school wasn’t a good fit for him, but I closed my eyes and jumped – right along with the kid. Because on that day, his $4000 smile was popping and seeing him happy – even for the moment – was all that mattered.
About six games into the season, Alex ended up in a head to head collision with a player from the opposing team. After lying on the ground for a few seconds that seemed like forever to me, he was diagnosed with a concussion and never allowed back on the field. A few weeks later, he confessed that he hated the school – for all the reasons I knew it would not be a good fit – and withdrew at the end of the semester.
Fast Forward to Now
Alex has been home for over a year now. His failure to make significant progress in school and difficulty finding permanent employment have been his greatest struggles. He is embarrassed about his situation and makes every attempt to hide it from his friends and family. Seeing his friends on social media doing things he would like to be doing has intensified his negative feelings about himself. His self esteem is in short supply. He considers himself a burden and has had suicidal thoughts but said that he would not hurt himself. I arranged counseling for him, but after two meetings he refused to set any new appointments.
We are both still working through managing the depression and cycling through the highs and lows. As his mother, it is heartbreaking to see your child struggling and not be able to fix it. I pray for wins for him and celebrate the smallest successes because seeing his light shine even for a minute gives me hope that this will soon pass. Conversely, there are times – when I am so incredibly frustrated that I want to shake him and tell him to get it together – that this is life and he’d better get used to it.
But then I remember the promises I’ve made to myself for him.
- I will talk less and listen more. Too much from me and I lose him. I lose his ear.
- I will support him and validate his efforts even if he does not want to do it my way.
- I will provide guidance instead ordering his steps.
- I will remember that his path will not be the same as mine and that is okay.
- I will remind him that his current struggles are only temporary. He has an entire life ahead.
- I will tell him that I love him even when I don’t like him.
- I will make time to visit with him every day. He will not feel alone in his house.
The most important promise though is the one he made to me. He promised me that if he ever reaches the point at which he considers hurting himself – he will come to me and let me help him. We are still in the struggle and I don’t yet know how this story ends, but I’ll be by his side for the journey.