The pictures we post of our teens don’t always tell the whole story

By Andrea Askowitz

In June, my daughter, Tashi, graduated from high school. She got dressed up under her robe in a vintage wedding dress, black-lace gloves, and full makeup including press-on eyelashes. Maybe over the top, but her effort gave me hope.

I was tempted to post pictures on social media. I took a million: one with her arms out looking like a Goth angel; another in the auditorium among 650 graduates, distinguishable by the bright orange hair poofing out under her cap; one we staged that captures her cap flying in the air and her face exhilarated, even happy. Or maybe that’s me projecting.

All summer my feeds have been filled with friends’ kids in caps and gowns. In my world, high school graduation is a given. But I didn’t post because in Tashi’s case, graduation was not a given. Posting those pictures would have felt fake. There is so much more to the story.

In 10th grade, pre-pandemic, Tashi started crying on weekends. She held it together during the week, then cracked. She had friends. She swore no one hurt her. She didn’t know why she was crying. I took her to a psychologist, who recommended a psychiatrist, who prescribed an anti-depressant.

When COVID-19 hit and school went online, Tashi shut her laptop and quit. My daughter failed 10th grade. She then spent the next six months in bed.

One day she told me she cut herself. I’d heard of cutting. A friend’s kid. A kid we used to know. But my kid? I asked why and with no affectation she said, “I felt like it.”

I asked if she’d cut me. I don’t know why; maybe so I could feel what she felt. She said no.

A few days later, she got out of bed in tiny pajama shorts. I caught a glimpse of her white stick legs and that’s when I saw the pink slashes just below her shorts line. I didn’t cry or scream. I didn’t want to scare her away from me. I just stood in our hallway trying not to stare.

Her psychologist said, “Hide the knives.”

Her psychiatrist changed her medication immediately, but there is no such thing as immediate in mental health. Medication takes weeks to produce any noticeable change.

When she dyed her hair purple, I took that as a positive sign. I said, “You must be feeling better.”

She said, “Don’t tell me how I’m feeling. That’s how you’re feeling.”

My wife and I joined a therapy group, with weekly writing and reading assignments. Our therapist told us Tashi would need support for a long time. Still, I wished for immediate transformation.

I’m fortunate to have the resources so in 11th grade, Tashi went to a small private school to help her catch up, since she lost most of her 10th grade credits. Our world was still on lockdown, so every morning I woke her at 7:55. Without brushing her teeth or even peeing, she’d reach for her laptop and log in. This was school now.

I spent the next few months delivering bagels and salami sandwiches to her bedside; anything to fatten her up. We found a new psychologist, someone Tashi genuinely connected with. But her medication wasn’t working so her psychiatrist prescribed something else, again.

For the third time I read the side effects—weight loss, weight gain, lethargy, mania. I ignored my fear. I had to believe the medication would work.

One night, Tashi said, “I want to go to a psych ward.”

I looked at my daughter’s purple hair. Her dark roots registered in my mind. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson and those tiny cups for pills.

“Hospitals can be scary,” I said. “You won’t have your phone. You can’t leave. I won’t be able to reach you.”

She said, “You have no idea how it feels for me here.”

At 9:00 p.m. we headed to the psych ward at Miami Children’s Hospital. We waited all night to be admitted, first in the waiting room, then on a tiny bed in an exam room. I paced the halls like Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, demanding someone take care of my baby.

This was November 2020. The problem: There were no open beds in Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. One nurse told me youth mental health cases had exploded.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), before the pandemic, depression rates among American teenagers had already increased 40% in 10 years. In 2009, 26.1% of high school students reported feeling persistently sad and hopeless. In 2019, that number went up to 36.7%.

In March 31, 2022, the CDC released new data on teenage mental health revealing that in 2021, more teens than ever reported feeling depressed: 44% (close to half).

On the worst night of my life my only consolation was that Tashi seemed calm. She said she wasn’t scared. She needed a break. She was glad to get help. 

At 6:00 a.m., a nurse wheeled my 16-year-old down the hall and into an ambulance. The only bed available was 50 miles away. Tears poured down as Tashi was wheeled on board the bright blue ambulance with red hearts and a giant Teddy bear, waving.

Tashi was given new medication again. Five days later, we picked her up.

Slowly she got better, though I knew by then not to say that. School went live and before the end of 11th grade, I sat down with her teachers, with the requisite six feet apart. Each teacher told me what every teacher has told me her whole life: Tashi is a joy. They all said Tashi could pull out an A if she gave it her all the final term.

That night we made a deal. I knew Tashi wanted a professional hair dye. If she got all As, maybe one B, I’d pay for it.

A month later she went to the hair salon.

Senior year, she went back to our neighborhood public school. Then, on her own volition with the help of a college counselor, Tashi applied to nine universities and got accepted to each one. If it sounds like I’m bragging, I need to, because what these acceptances tell me is that other people believe in Tashi as much as I do. She picked the University of North Carolina Asheville.

Two weeks ago, our family loaded the van and headed north. At UNCA, we acted like every other family. I don’t know what those families have been through, but I’m guessing way too many of their experiences were much like ours. We set up our kids’ dorm rooms, went to the bookstore, took a million pictures.

Now, I want to post the one of her sitting on her dorm bed with two thumbs up, or strutting on campus as a strawberry blonde, her rainbow socks to her knees, waving like she knows she’s got this.

Tashi is in college and I am so proud. I’m relieved. I’m also scared.

So, I’m going to post because that’s what social media is for, no? It’s for mothers like me to project the image we wish to be true and maybe it will be.

Andrea Askowitz is the author of My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. She writes about parenting and relationships. She’s a host and teacher on the podcast Writing Class Radio.

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