I just adore my 14-year-old, Chloe. I remember feeling the same way about Maeve when she was 14. At that age kids feel SO grown up—when they are actually the most fragile and vulnerable. So it is time to be worried about her.
If you are a parent, I hope you know that suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers. If you don’t know that, you’re not doing your job right. Teenage suicide is almost always caused by clinical depression, even if triggered by some life event, such as being bullied, that pushes the kid past the limit of what he or she can cope with.
Depression is extremely difficult to diagnose, because the clinically depressed learn early to “put a good face on it,” hide how they are actually feeling, in order not to be accused of malingering, hypochondria, etc. People who do not suffer from depression have no concept of what the illness feels like, or of how cruel they are being by telling a depressed kid to “buck up,” to “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” or “look on the bright side”—when there is no bright side. Such abysmally ignorant “advice” is more of what pushes the kid closer to the edge of the cliff. In the profound words of Pink Floyd, “All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall.”
What you must do to protect your teenager from suicide is be trustworthy. Your child must trust you enough to be able to tell you how he or she is actually feeling. Further, since the kid is probably not going to volunteer such information, you must be able to ask for it, without having the kid feel threatened. If you do not have that level of trust with your child, then you are not doing your job right. You also need to know what level of depression is dangerous, and what your local resources are for dealing with it. Most types of depression can now be arrested by modern antidepressants—which did not exist when I was a teenager. I wondered for a while why no one had ever told me about Alateen—until I realized that I had already entered college before Alateen was founded.
I need now to tell you more about myself than is comfortable, but in order to perhaps save a life . . . There are a great many details about my teenaged life that might be relevant for my argument; I’ll have to choose among them.
My parents had their own strengths and weaknesses, but the cause of my own depression was genetics: our family tree is festooned with drunks, depressives, and a few suicides. I vaguely remember being depressed at age seven, but the first serious episode, which lasted for months, was at age 11, in Brooklyn, being terrorized by the catechism classes at St. Patrick’s, preparing for confirmation, because in the 1950s the Church was still teaching the pathological heresy that sex is evil. That episode just blew over, I think; then I had a full-blown manic episode for a few weeks around my 13th birthday. About six months later, during a visit to a Castle Frankenstein, I had a psychological experience (described elsewhere) that began a period of cyclic depressions. These hit every three weeks for the next year, until the evening when I had my first Awakening experience inMillValley in 1955, as I have described perhaps too often.
It was useful that I had had a manic episode, because I thus knew the Awakening experience could not be explained away as being manic. I was no doubt much more suicidal than I knew at the time; afterward, I knew, and have always known, that I am ultimately safe. The cyclic depressions ceased for about six months, until . . . I won’t here describe my profound, chaste relationship with Gwen in my junior year, but when her father ordered her to end the relationship (I think because he was not going to allow a boy named Kelly to take his daughter to a Demolay dance), I was devastated; the cyclic depressions began again, worse than before, and continued for the next three and a half years.
By accident, during my senior year, I discovered a technique for speeding up the worst phase of these cycles. Listening one day to Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony (after writing which he committed suicide, I later learned), I found myself being pulled down into the depths by its first movement. Instead of fighting, I went with the mood: I plunged down on purpose, as deep as I could go. It was much like swimming deep under water. I can still visualize the sea creatures and anemones I saw in my mind as I swam. As the music lightens toward the end of the movement, I visualized myself swimming through a tunnel and rising to the surface in a sunlit cove, with the black pitch of depression dissolving around me. I was not instantly cheerful, but I always knew the worst of it was over, and this trick always speeded the cycle up by several days. I would never recommend that a depressed person try diving deeper into the depression. I did not consciously know then that doing so was safe for me. It was safe only because of the Awakening: because I knew I was safe, suicide was no longer a possibility or a danger.
Although I had identified the church’s teaching as being pathological, that did not undo my Good Catholic Boy inhibitions, which I was angry about. For my entire life, I have not been able to act on impulse, even when the consequences would have been beneficial, or at least harmless, as I could figure out afterward. I was fascinated, frustrated, and frightened about sex, even though I believed sex was inherently innocent and essential. I lost my virginity only when Jennifer, when I stopped by where she was babysitting, dragged me upstairs and into bed.
The cyclic depression stopped when I got together with my first wife, Anne. Having sex every day was the medicine, the best antidepressant for me. And I think having sex every day is what should be normal for all humans—if all lived in a truly, totally healthy society.
Now back to teenagers. Has anyone ever looked for a possible correlation between suicide and lack of sexual activity? In our current pathological state regarding sexuality in general, I doubt it, but I’d like to be proved wrong. In Denmark, it is normal for families to allow teenagers to spend the night together in one home or the other, and I believe their suicide rate is way far less than ours. Remember that not so long ago, teenagers married as soon as they were physically mature enough to have sex. Then “No sex before marriage” was simply a description of fact. When marriage started becoming delayed because of more years of education, “No sex before marriage” became an arbitrary, unnatural rule. It is ridiculous to expect the young to survive four years of high school, then four years of college without having sex, yet that is still the cultural ideal for all too many people.
I think it is likely that it is the bright kids, the ones who want to go to college, who try to follow the rules, who don’t have active sex lives, who end up taking their own lives. If you are a parent who focuses on your kid’s success, the grades, the SAT, the prestigious college, without knowing how your kid actually feels about all that, it is you who are risking the kid’s life. Instead, ask, observe, interview your kid’s friends, to find out what the kid wants and needs, then arrange your life to give the kid whatever those are, as far as possible. Don’t use STDs as an excuse for denying a basic right; deal with that issue sensibly.That, in my opinion, is how to do the job of parenting right. That is what Melinda and I try always to do for our kids. Of course, sometimes we can’t provide some of what they want (we do somewhat better with need), but we keep trying. Right now it is our exquisite, fragile Chloe who is the neediest. We’re on it.