It’s impossible to draw a straight line connecting all the dots that led to my daughter’s downward trajectory.
Fall is usually a season of promise for children—empty notebooks, renewed friendships, fresh beginnings with new teachers, and a chance to reinvent themselves. In September 2020 my daughter started high school with little fanfare. Because of the pandemic, there was no planned welcoming day to orient new students to their classes. Freshmen navigated the labyrinth of hallways on their own. A parade of masked kids—each indistinguishable from the next—proceeded into a half-packed school. With light backpacks and beaming white sneakers, they moved as a sea of automatons coursing into a single entryway. Although at the time not having a freshman orientation seemed minor to me, these small deviations from routine compounded, chiseling away at any semblance of normalcy and rootedness. I downplayed my daughter’s nervousness about going to a new school the first day; after all, wasn’t it bad for all of us?! But under these unprecedented circumstances, something seemed different: a deviation from the typical strain of high school anxiety.
It’s impossible to draw a straight line connecting all the dots that led to my daughter’s downward trajectory. We posited different theories, none of which we could prove, but all potential contributors. Was it the isolationism of COVID that ripped away so much of the potential conviviality of being a teenager? Seemed obvious. But then again, when COVID first hit and we were deep in lockdown and her beloved sleepaway camp was canceled, we reinvented her summer with friends. We didn’t allow them to play inside together—instead, they spent golden months riding bikes around town, swimming in backyard pools, watching movies on projectors, and roasting s’mores. It was simple and uncomplicated. She seemed jubilant everyday. Though social media was prominent in her life, it never seemed to exert an overwhelming influence, aside from her casually posting TikToks, “snapping” her friends, or checking to see comments roll in after a post.
How about her incessant drive for perfection at school? This felt most resonant to us. She viewed perfection as binary: either she was perfect or she was not. Not worthy, not smart, not qualified; she couldn’t seem to experience the nuance of success and failure, and how they often intertwine. There was no middle path. In the school our children attend, anxiety has become a necessary tradeoff in service to the holy grail of academic achievement. Punishing deadlines, limitless school work, and overlapping activities are expected and accepted. We are all willing participants—educators, parents, and even students. I vividly remember at my older son’s high school orientation when the guidance counselor nonchalantly informed us that some students wouldn’t have a lunch period; there just wasn’t enough time in the day with electives and full course loads. These children would need to find a way to shove a sandwich or protein bar in their mouths while shuttling to class. The hamster wheel left no time to decompress. I waited for shock and worry to ripple through the room, but as I looked around, parents were scribbling notes or impatiently raising their hands. The moment passed.
Flash-forward two years to fall 2020: Dropping my freshman daughter off at a new school that fall, I could feel her ship pull further and further away from safe harbors. She became more emotionally labile with every new class assignment or “high stakes” test. She lost all joy in the pursuit of learning, becoming her own taskmaster in churning out good grades and finished products. What I’ve described thus far feels so common: a teenage perfectionist with low confidence and limitless drive, being pulled along a relentless current of academic expectation. But why did my daughter’s illness take such a dramatic turn? Why did her anxiety become so acute that it ballooned into full-blown depression, ultimately requiring hospitalization? There’s no explicit or hidden tragic factor in our story, and my girl held tremendous guilt about this, often questioning the validity of her misery. In her mind, she didn’t “earn” the right to be depressed.
The slide from bad to worse is a blur. She was on a relentless academic treadmill and even when she did achieve that all-important “A”, she felt like an imposter. She relegated her achievements to the generosity of a teacher, or mere happenstance—not a reflection of her own hard work and intellect. But because her grades were fine, we all maintained the facade that things were ok for far longer than in retrospect we should have allowed. By winter how,ever, there could be no denying: she was being pulled under, and suddenly we were scared.
It was around this time that we as a family began watching Stranger Things, only to learn that the idea of a shadow world mirroring our own had begun to envelop our daughter. She had been skirting around a portal into a claustrophobic and haunting world since the beginning of the year, but as the days grew shorter, the darkness became omnipresent. Though her mirrorworld might have had some qualities of the world we know, it is a realm that is almost impossible to survive in—a place where monsters roam the shadows and swallow you whole. Like the characters in that popular TV show, my husband and I soon found ourselves in a race against time to find a portal to recover our daughter.
Through the winter and early spring, I would glance at her face, praying for glimmers of the inner light which had slowly dimmed. Her iridescent skin had become a sickly pallor, pale and dulled. I used to love tickling her and her little brother—they would melt into giggles, rolling on the floor, crashing into each other from uncontrollable laughter. Now even a light hug pained her. Her body ached. After months of therapy, sometimes three times per week, and a therapeutic team frustrated by their ability to help to alleviate her feelings of overwhelm and retrieve her from her mirror world, we took the decisive action to have her treated in an in-patient facility. To our surprise, she didn’t resist. She surrendered completely to the process: she wanted help.
When we arrived at the hospital, I was told to expect a college campus with lush gardens and wide-open spaces. My eldest son imagined it like the X-Mansion in the Marvel movies—a central elegant staircase, towering library shelves, oversized rooms with plush couches. It wasn’t as grand as my son pictured, but rather institutional, spare, with muted wall colors and cold tiles on the floor. We arrived at a backdoor and went directly to a waiting area that was airy and clean. She was still wearing the gown from the emergency room that had authorized her admission to the facility. Only one other patient, around 20 years old, was present: she had a waif-like frame and walked aimlessly in circles with her mask around her chin. The reality of where we were was quickly settling in—is this where my daughter belonged?
My husband and I visited everyday, walking through a series of locked doors. Our daughter had sunken as far as she was willing to accept: with each day, her resolve to begin living again—to return to us from her mirror world and the confines of this facility—grew exponentially. The hospital was the worst-best thing that happened to us. We needed that experience to recalibrate our parenting.
Of the many things I learned during this brutal period, perhaps the most important was that I had never given my daughter the space to express herself as she started to drown. We thought the way to help her was to mitigate her emotions. We would say, “don’t worry so much,” “it's normal teenage stuff,” or “you’re fine.” I didn’t understand that by not validating her intense emotions, I was actually paving the way for them to intensify, and deserting her to navigate them on her own. One turning point for us as parents was getting comfortable with the discomfort and sadness my daughter was experiencing, and validation became a buzzword in our home. Our job was not to “fix” her, but rather listen and acknowledge what she was feeling without judgment. If my daughter had been failing in school, aggressively acting out, or crying for help in a more “obvious” way, then perhaps she would have gotten more attention for her condition sooner.
This is not a story with a Hollywood ending—yet. It’s been 8 months since she returned from her 2-week hospitalization. We soak up her every smile, giggle, and warm embrace- no matter how rare and fleeting. Our life is more settled and routine, with the normal juggling of her school, sports, and friends. We finally have found our bearings as parents. My daughter has learned that pain makes you stronger—and her resilience, self-awareness, and silent endurance awes us every day. Our new north star as parents is “Live your best life.” It doesn’t mean a perfect life, but one in which she can find comfort in discomfort, maneuver through struggles within herself, and root her identity in self-acceptance and love.
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