Kelly + Laurel’s Story
"I Just Want My Life Back"
I Want My Life Back
Recently I was privileged to sit beside an amazing young lady and participate in the telling of her story. She’s had numerous labels attached to her ED (eating disorder) OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), MDD (major depressive disorder), BPD (borderline personality disorder) social anxiety, generalized anxiety, SI (suicidal ideations), and SH (self- harm), but she’ll be the first to tell you that those labels do not define who she is. I hope you’ll enjoy the interview and getting acquainted with Laurel’s story in the video. Here are a few things I learned from my front-row seat as a witness to her journey.
Let me introduce you to the bravest girl I know.
She wasn’t always the fiercely courageous young woman she is now. There was a time when she would beg others to order food at restaurants on her behalf because engaging with strangers or speaking up for herself was simply overwhelming. Walking into a grocery store could incite a full-blown panic attack. At one point, this intelligent student was failing in school because perfectionism led her to believe nothing she ever did was good enough. Her tasks went unfinished and her work unsubmitted. The clutching darkness of intrusive thoughts, depression, and anxiety overpowered her, and her life was nearly destroyed.
This is my daughter Laurel’s story.
Laurel’s childhood began normally and happily. She was a natural-born leader (and little mama to her younger siblings and friends), extremely inquisitive, and full of imagination. In 2015, when Laurel was nine, our family relocated to a new city, and despite initial excitement about the adventure, she began to exhibit some worrisome behaviors. Laurel stopped playing outside, losing interest in backyard games, bike riding and creative play.
She began spending more and more time indoors and alone. She became very fearful, of spiders in particular, and was certain she would be poisoned by contaminated food. Eventually she would not eat anything placed before her until she had watched me successfully taste a bite… and live.
Not wanting to be an alarmist, I became an expert at justifying her actions.
It was simply grief… she missed her friends and her old life.
It was simply insecurity…she wasn’t sure where she belonged in our new community.
It was simply an overactive imagination…she was always reading fantasy books.
It was simply hormones…signs of adolescence had arrived early.
Over time, and with new connections to friends, activities, and community, Laurel seemed to return to herself, and from all observations, it seemed the “phase” had passed.
But she wasn’t just “going through a phase.”
Five years later, long after we had settled into another new home after another move and were back in our original hometown, Laurel began a downward spiral that seemed to have no end. On her birthday, January 4, 2020, her mind flooded with overwhelm and anxiety. Laurel knew something was truly wrong inside her. She should have been happy about celebrating her 14th birthday, but she felt hollow, undeserving, empty. Intrusive thoughts screamed self-condemnation at her, and she sought desperately for relief.
She pressed a sharp object into her leg and dragged it across her skin, watching with fascination as a thin trail of blood rose in its wake. She continued to press and cut into her skin, and a wave of calm allowed her to escape fear and anxiety’s grip as endorphins coursed through her body.
Laurel’s self-inflicted injuries, and the cause of them, were her own carefully guarded secret, a burden she carried alone. As she began to harm herself more frequently and with intensifying urgency, she realized that this self-medication was only able to provide a few moments of relief before the pain came back to taunt her again.
She needed real help. Very cautiously, and with minimal self-disclosure, Laurel asked if she could resume going to counseling. She began right away, but weekly sessions weren’t enough. She continued to self harm, withdraw from friends and family, and crave comfort foods, darkness, and excessive sleep.
Laurel was fighting for her life.
In April, Laurel confessed to a close friend that she had reached her breaking point and had no more strength or will to go on living.
We increased the intensity of her counseling, shifted her days from academic work to a regimen of self-care, initiated 24-hour safety monitoring, and began seeing a psychiatrist who prescribed meds for OCD, anxiety, and depression. The wait for full efficacy and the right prescription to give Laurel the stability she needed seemed interminable.
We were utilizing every known resource and employing every known strategy to keep Laurel safe and alive.
And it wasn’t enough.
I could not keep my daughter safe.
One afternoon, Laurel, her siblings, and I were out in the backyard. I looked over to Laurel and saw her quietly scratching into her forearm, trying to draw blood. Her weapon was a sharpened twig she had found in the grass. I looked up at the canopy of trees over our property, and instead of seeing their verdant beauty, I saw millions of potential implements of destruction. I knew then that my most conscientious efforts, my fiercest protection, would not be enough to protect her. The realization was accompanied by a crushing sense of guilt and failure as a mother, for wasn’t it my job to protect my child from harm?
Laurel needed a higher level of care…residential treatment. When we found a program that specialized in treating her needs and had an opening, I was thrilled with God’s provision. For the first time in months, my heart filled with hope that this might be the means by which my daughter could come home again.
Fear was replaced by hope… until I had to say goodbye.
That chilly October morning, we had lugged Laurel’s suitcases up brick stairs to the hospital’s admissions office. With a brave face on and laser-focus on the task at hand, we plowed through reams of paperwork and a flurry of introductions with staff members. With brave hugs, we said, “See you soon,” and parted ways quickly. It was going to be okay. Laurel would be safe. These clinicians were the best in their field, and her mid-treatment visit was only a month away.
The drive to the airport and the check- in process were quiet. I boarded the plane and settled in for the return flight home. With the click of my seatbelt, condemning thoughts began screaming at me. “What kind of mother abandons her daughter to strangers? What if she doesn’t make it? What if they can’t keep her safe either? What if you never see her again?”
I panicked. Every fiber of my being wanted to break the window next to me, leap from the plane, and go racing back for my girl. I sobbed. The plane began to back away from the terminal. It was too late. I could only love her from afar now.
I watched out the window and tried to compose myself. Our take-off was perfectly timed with that moment when the setting sun first dips below the horizon. The whole treeline was silhouetted by a sky aflame. The full spectrum of light striped the sky in an inverted rainbow that reached all the way overhead to twilight’s first twinkling stars. As the plane reached cruising altitude and leveled, I couldn’t stop staring. As far as I could see before us, the rainbow continued. Craning my next to look behind, it went on without end behind us.
The power of one image restored peace to my heart.
Of course. Thank you, God. The sign of Your promise and Your faithfulness. Now it stretched from horizon to horizon, an eternal timeline reminding me that you have always been there, and You always will. And here I sat, a passenger on a journey, and our whole mental health crisis was only one spot on that timeline. I might not know what was ahead for Laurel…for me…for our family, but there was one thing I could count on. God, my rock, my hope, my strength was already there, and I knew He would not abandon me.
The rainbow image carried me on through Laurel’s and my journey, anchoring me to hope. For a long time, we had more setbacks than victories. It felt as if we’d fallen, like Alice in Wonderland, down into the rabbit hole, and there would never be any solid ground upon which to stand. Laurel’s two months of treatment stretched on to three- through Christmas- and her 15th birthday- right on through her fourth month and into the fifth. Visitation was canceled due to continuing Covid-19 concerns. Laurel was moved from one department of the treatment facility to another, hoping to find the right team and the right specialists to provide her with optimal care.
Returning home was the starting line, not the finish.
Laurel was discharged in March, and I could not have been more excited to celebrate with her in this moment of victory. I had my daughter back. She had received help, medications, skills, answers, and it was time to begin living the full and rich life we had been forced to put on hold.
I didn’t have a clue.
Laurel was out of the hospital, and she was better, but she had changed… and I had too. It took her a long time to adjust to living in a family again, to the pace and energy of life and school outside the walls. The freedom of a relaxed schedule was overwhelming…as was the flow of family and friends who were eager to reconnect with the Laurel they knew and remembered.
I was disappointed and heartsick when she continued to self-harm, when she still had dark days of shutting down and hiding from the world. I had wrongly expected that she’d be “well” when she came home. I had to learn to accept that mental illness, while it did not define my daughter, it certainly shaped her, and learning what it meant to live with her struggles was a process we were all just beginning to understand.
Progress, not perfection
Laurel’s treatment team had tried to introduce me to a new way of looking at Laurel’s restoration to health, to learn to emphasize “progress, not perfection”. I was slow to grasp the concept, wondering with every hard day, every setback, if we were not about to descend once more into the life-and-death struggles of the previous year. When it finally began to sink in that healing would come incrementally, I began to find small victories to celebrate. A day without self-harming. Then three days. Then a week. Laurel completed 75% of her wellness checklist for a day. Then 80%. She began making progress in one school subject. Then another. Then another. Each tiny success seemed to give her the wherewithal to succeed in something slightly bigger.
The breakthrough (and a broken-down door)
In May, Laurel and I attended a conference at which Heidi St. John was the keynote speaker. Her topic that afternoon was “Esther: Courage for Such a Time as This.” She challenged us to face the culture and issues of our day with courage, much as the Biblical heroine’s courage saved the lives of her people.
On the drive back, Laurel told me she had something to do when we reached home. She was irritatingly vague about it, so I had no choice but to wait and see what was in store.
She hurried inside the house as soon as I pulled into the driveway. Only moments later, she came out carrying an accordion-style door- the door to her closet. This door was not merely a way to keep younger siblings out of her closet. For all of the dark months that Laurel’s suffering was her secret, the inside of her door had been her confidante. Every intrusive thought. Every doubt, fear, worry, and question. Every self-loathing and self-condemning statement was recorded and illustrated inside that door.
I had taken down the door and replaced it with new ones while she was gone, but I knew it was for her to decide when to truly let it go.
Apparently today was the day.
She unfolded the door and laid it on the driveway. I couldn’t look at it without tears and deep sorrow. Laurel went into the garage. This time she came out with a mallet and a mischievous grin. I went and gathered all of the family members that were present to come and witness what I couldn’t believe was about to happen.
Laurel pulverized that door. Splintered bits flew off with a satisfying crack with every blow. In a few minutes, she’d reduced it to a pile of debris. She stood triumphant, mallet in hand, grinning, but a little shocked over what she’d just done. I cried. And laughed. And cried some more. And maybe danced too…
We hugged and took pictures. Everyone helped to clean up the debris. I noticed one piece, about the length of my hand that held an intact message. Curious, I picked it up to read it.
It said, “I want my life back.”
That was my daughter, and she had come home at last.