The Catalyst for the Work I Do
She is my ‘why’
The love for a living child gives us the strength to meet challenges, to protect them, to keep them safe, to meet their needs…
The love for a child who commits suicide can give us the power to change the world so that no other child follows in her footsteps and that no other parent feels the endless aching that refuses to leave the heart—
She was described as a great friend, someone with deep compassion and empathy for others. She was smart, intelligent, capable, beautiful, sometimes happy, sometimes impulsive, sometimes sad. At five-years old she worried about the little things, for example placing a bottle of water in my purse to bring into the movie theater caused her concern… “What if they find the water?” She expected nothing less than perfection out of herself, which of course was an impossible task to achieve.
One evening, early in the month of March 2012, she called me crying and upset. She said, “Mom, _____ is acting stupid. Looks like we won’t be going through with our plans.” She was calm, speaking clearly, I had no idea how much alcohol she had consumed-her speech never gave it away. I asked the typical questions of a concerned mother: “Where are you?”, “Who is with you?”, “Do you want me to come pick you up?” Her responses informed me that she was outside a bar, where she and her fiancé were dancing. I said, “Abbey, Mom needs you to go inside. It isn’t safe for you to be outside a bar alone.” Our conversation was interrupted when her fiancé found her, and I heard her say to him, “I want to go home.” I heard her fiancé, in the background, agree to take her home. Abbey spoke into the phone addressing me once again, “Mom he is going to take me home now.” More questions from me, “Who is the designated driver?” She gave me the name of her friend and coworker. I inquired further, “Okay. Has he had any alcohol this evening?” “No,” she responded, “we agreed before going out that he was the designated driver.” I asked, “Are you sure you don’t want me to come pick you up and bring you to Mom’s house?” “No, it’s fine Mom, I’ll just go home.” “Okay,” I stated, “Text Mom as soon as you get home, to let me know you are safe.”
The last words Abbey spoke, before we hung up were “I love, you mom” and the last words she texted me, as I slept comfortably in my bed, were “I wish I was dead.” I heard the text about 30 minutes after we hung up. I was in that twilight sleep that we parents often inhabit when our youth are living at home and are out with friends—we are waiting to hear the sounds that confirm to us that they made it home safely. As I heard the text, I thought “She is home safe” and I allowed myself to slip into a deep sleep.
Suddenly, I was abruptly awakened. My husband, Abbey’s step father, was yelling at me, “Kim, get up! There is an emergency, it’s Abbey! We have to get to the hospital, hurry!” I will never forget that night, arriving at the hospital. Time slowed as my husband and I followed the signs towards the EMERGENCY ENTRANCE. Then we needed to locate a parking place, which seemed impossible. I was ready to leap from the car and run into the emergency room, but I somehow knew I needed my husband by my side. He parked the car. We both ran into the emergency room, only to find that it was extremely busy.
I gave my daughter’s name and basic information to the man behind the glass. He didn’t have any idea who I was describing. He said that there was no one with that name in the emergency room. Finally, after I provided a description of Abbey, and my husband shared with the receptionist the limited pieces of information given by her fiancé… the receptionist said, “Oh you must be referring to the patient we have listed as Christina Conundrum.” I immediately realized my daughter arrived as a Jane Doe—meaning she wasn’t capable of providing her name upon arriving at the hospital. The man behind the window continued with these words, “They are working on her. You aren’t allowed back there yet.” Having been an X-ray technologist for 20 years of my life, and having a lot of experience with working in emergencies rooms, I immediately knew what “working on her” meant. They were trying to save her life. My worst nightmare had been confirmed. Abbey was involved in a horrible accident. I still didn’t have any details.
I felt sick to my stomach, my legs were weak. My heart was beating so fast and loud I thought it would burst through my chest. It took everything in my power to keep it together… I wanted to scream and shout loudly, “Take me to my daughter, I don’t care about your STUPID RULES!” If my daughter was fighting for her life, I wanted to be beside her!!!!… but I knew that demanding and screaming wouldn’t get me what I so desperately needed.
I had to keep myself together. I had to keep myself calm. I found myself deliberately speaking, with purpose… I needed to see my daughter, I needed to know what was happening. I began pressing my husband for facts by asking him, “What did _____ say when he called the house?” My husband replied, “All he said was ‘just hurry and get to the hospital, I’m not there yet, I’m with the police. But you must hurry’.”
Again, I went to the receptionist window and begged them to let me see my daughter, and the receptionist replied, “They are still working on her and you can’t get in their way.” I was frantic, and desperate. Each moment seemed an eternity and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wanted to run into the back area where I knew I could find Abbey. I worked hard to control myself.
Finally, a nurse approached us and asked that we follow her. Finally, I thought, finally, they must have succeeded and now we get to see Abbey. I was wrong. The nurse led us into a small room—for privacy, I imagine. We followed her into the room. The nurse proceeded to speak, “Do you have any idea what happened?” “No!,” I replied. She said, “Your daughter opened the door of the pickup truck where she sat in the passenger seat and hurled herself from the vehicle. The vehicle was going over 60 miles an hour on the freeway. She had high alcohol content in her blood stream. The police are interviewing the others who were in the car with her. You can see her now, but she is unconscious, and I want to prepare you—her eyes are taped shut, and her face, well…,” the nurse hesitated…, “We are calling a plastic surgeon to repair her face.”
I thought to myself, if they are calling a plastic surgeon they must have saved her! But that moment of hope was shattered as the nurse continued to speak, “Your daughter is on life support, we do not know if she will ever regain consciousness, time will tell.” “Take me to her,” I said. The nurse began to walk in front of us. I rushed past her and scanned the emergency room where all patients being treated were in beds neatly organized, side by side, lined against the walls of the emergency room. And there she was, just as the nurse had described. She was unconscious. She was on life-support. Her eyes were taped shut, but not completely. I begged Abbey, “wake up, come back to us.” She remained silent, unconscious, lifeless.
Abbey was transferred to the intensive care unit. She was in a coma. There were brain scans. There were tests. Many specialists came to see her. Days passed, and with each additional brain scan, with each additional test, and with each new examination by a specialist—I hoped, I prayed, and I attempted to bargain with God. I told God that I would take Abbey’s pain. I would exchange places with her, and lay in a coma for the rest of my life if he would heal her and allow her to live a full life. But it was never to happen. My tears, my broken heart, my pleas, my attempts to bargain with God, would not change the course of events that followed.
The neurologist wanted to speak with us. Here are the words I heard from his mouth, “She will never be the girl she once was. Her brain function is almost completely gone. There is nothing more we can do. If by some small miracle, she survived off life support, she would live the rest of her life dependent on others to feed her, change her diapers, and bathe her.” Then came the professional suggestion, “She should be removed from life support.” “What does that mean”, I asked, “What will happen if we remove her life support?” The neurologist responded, “We know from the limited amount of urine that she is putting out, that her lower brainstem isn’t functioning, which indicates that without life support her respiration and heart will fail to function. Removing life support will allow her body to do what comes natural to it.” I sat in shock and disbelief. My heart was tearing apart. Then more words were coming out of the doctor’s mouth, “tell us when you are ready to start the ‘procedure’.” A coded term meaning, ‘remove her from life support’.
Time passed. I spoke with more specialists—I had to be sure, I had to be certain. Apparently, her brain had swelled into the spinal cord. Her brain was damaged beyond repair. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move. People were talking. How could people talk when my baby was just lying there?
How could I agree to remove Abbey from life support? There could be a miracle. Doctors don’t know everything. I insisted on more tests. What are the other options? There must be more options! I was confused, overwhelmed, and exhausted when I dropped to my knees and asked God to fill me with love. I was in a fog. Family and friends were arriving asking questions such as, “What happened?” Which was a constant reminder that she had done this to herself; she chose this. How could she have done this to herself?
How could I have missed that my child was at risk for suicide? Why? WHY?? Guilt began consuming my mind. Youth with good moms, don’t commit suicide. I’m a child developmentalist, how could I have missed warning signs of this magnitude? Questions flooded my mind. But for now, these questions had to be pushed into the deep recesses of my mind. I had to be strong for Abbey, and this meant there was only one important question that needed to be answered immediately. What can be done to save Abbey’s life?
I insisted on speaking with more neurosurgeons. One surgeon suggested a possible course of action: Open Abbey’s skull, expose the brain until the swelling goes down. This surgery wouldn’t repair already damaged parts of her brain. Her life would lack any quality. She would be dependent on others for the rest of her life. And there were many obstacles to having any type of cutting edge surgery. We’d need to find a surgeon willing to perform it, and a facility that could support such a drastic procedure. Insurance would need to approve the cost of the procedure and agree to pay for it. I am a fighter. I felt I could fight to overcome each of these obstacles. But there was more to consider.
Much of Abbey’s brain was already damaged beyond repair. The surgery would not restore her to a condition in which she could lead a normal quality of life. She would require 24-hour care for the remainder of her life. She might breathe on her own, her heart might beat but, she would never, ever, have any quality to her life.
I remained in prayer until I knew what had to be done. The day came when I looked at my daughter. I really looked at her… laying in that bed, eyes taped shut, lifeless. I knew in my heart that keeping her in that state was cruel. I also knew that the suggested surgery, would not restore Abbey to a life she would want to live. IF I chose the surgery, IF I could find a maverick among neurosurgeons to perform the surgery, IF I could find a facility to support us, IF I could talk the insurance company into covering the insurmountable costs, or IF I raised the money myself, the choice would have nothing to do with Abbey’s needs. It would be the most selfish and cruel choice I could make. I grappled with thoughts that perhaps God could give us a miracle and the surgery could restore Abbey completely. Then I simply returned to prayer.
I finally reached a decision. If Abbey was meant to be healed from God’s grace, it would happen through a natural process. I would not try and force God’s hand. I would have faith. If Abbey was destined for a miracle, it would happen. My prayer became simple, “God please allow my daughter to find peace, show me the path to lead her to peace, and give me the strength to walk it.”
I sat next to Abbey’s bedside one afternoon, my heart overflowing with love for her. I whispered into her ear, “I’m going to let you go home now Abbey.” It was the most difficult and painful decision I have ever had to make—or so I thought. The reality was that after this decision, I had to choose to live and remain in life with my living youth, or choose to die to end the pain of living without Abbey in the world.
Abbey’s biological father and I approved the ‘PROCEDURE.’ It was done; her life support was removed. I crawled in her hospital bed. I held her in my arms. I listened with intention to the loud noises that escaped her mouth. She was gasping for air, she was struggling to breathe. All I could do was listen, wait, and wonder when the last gasp would occur. As I lay beside my dying child, the hustle and bustle of nurses, doctors, and staff continued outside of Abbey’s hospital room located in the intensive care ward. There was laughter and joking. People were discussing food and lunch or dinner breaks. It was just another day for staff, nurses, and physicians. It was so painful to hear their joy, as my child was slowly dying. They were laughing; Abbey was LOUDLY gasping for air each and every second of the last 14-hours of her life. The pain of listening to her was excruciating.
We asked the nursing staff to provide more medication to calm Abbey. To relax her further would end her life, they claimed. “But she is dying, her life IS ending,” I said. “She is suffering.” “She isn’t aware of anything, the nurses and doctors assured us. I thought to myself, “How can they possibly know what she is and isn’t feeling?” I wasn’t comforted by their claims. The situation seemed cruel.
I felt like I was standing in a room full of people, screaming at the top of my lungs, and hospital staff were continuing to make absurd suggestion as to what I might do instead of laying in the bed holding my child as she slowly died—“Have you eaten? You need to eat and keep your strength up. You need to drink water. Have you been drinking water?” Really? REALLY?? My daughter is dying and the recommendations are to eat and drink water?
It was the fourteenth hour since the PROCEDURE WAS COMPLETED, 14-hours of listening to my daughter loudly grasp for air, until Abbey’s final breath. Suddenly, there it was—her last and final heartbeat. I squeezed her tightly, I listened closely, I was secretly praying for a miracle, I thought her heart would beat again and that the tide would change. I waited in vain. Abbey’s heart would never beat again. There was only silence, a deafening silence. The tears flowed as I said my good-byes, and told her how much I loved her. I was broken.
Perhaps Abbey was never to find peace in living. Perhaps her peace could only be found in death. Perhaps only God knew this. In many ways, Abbey’s final heartbeat sent her to the peace she couldn’t find in life. I had attempted to bargain with God. I had wanted to exchange places with Abbey. I wanted to take her pain and give her a chance to find peace in living. She found peace in death and I took on her pain while living. I suppose in some strange way, God gave me what I asked for, just not in the way I requested it. I have heard that while we often pray for healing, sometimes healing comes in the form of death. There have been so many times, when the pain of losing Abbey has been so profound, so unimaginable that I wished for my own death, and contemplated a variety of methods to achieve it.
One year later a friend was faced with the same decision. Doctors informed her that she needed to remove her mother from life support. She called me, asking for advice. “How did you do it?” she asked. “How were you able to decide to remove Abbey’s life support?” I replied, “I had to love her so completely and so unselfishly that I could say goodbye—I had to give her what she needed, which was peace”. This was my truth, but living with one’s truth is not without great pain.
After Abbey’s death, I moved into the darkest places of my mind. The entire world went black. I could not find peace and I found it impossible to move into the light. I lay in the bed underneath the covers and unable to leave my room. Friends and family came to support me, but most days I refused to see anyone. It hurt too much. I knew my friends were trying to support me but truthfully, I knew being with them would cause me unbearable pain. Looking at them would remind me that their families were intact, their youth were all alive, one of mine was dead. I felt guilty simply having these thoughts, being jealous of friends with living youth. I certainly didn’t want any of my friends to lose a child, so they could understand my pain, yet there was this awful gnawing feeling that they could bring me no comfort because all of their youth were alive.
There was another internal fight happening within me. Should I live, or should I die? If I died, I could find Abbey, I could hold her again—I could hold her and never let go. But I’d be leaving my other youth behind. My youth might believe I loved Abbey more than I loved them-which isn’t true. I didn’t want to abandon them, I only wanted to abandon my pain and find Abbey. Yet, to do so would be a one-way trip. My youth would be left to mourn their mother as well as their sister. I could not make a decision that would harm any of my living youth. Consequently, there was a constant internal battle in my mind—how to end my unbearable pain without harming my living youth? There was no escaping this seemingly unending, internal mental battle. Frequently, I begged God to please let me die, so the pain would end, but I wouldn’t be responsible for taking my own life. I would stare at train tracks while sitting in my car and silently think to myself, “if a train came by, I could just run out in front of it, and end all of this anguish and struggle.”
Sleep, when it was possible, provided moments of peace until I suddenly awoke and was forced to remember… Abbey died. All that was possible while she lived—was now impossible. I wouldn’t see her happy again, I wouldn’t see her married, I wouldn’t see her become a mother. It was all so definite, so final. Every dream, hope, and vision for her future was gone.
Mother’s Day came two months after Abbey took her last breath. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to STOP time. I tried to make the day STOP! I took one anti-anxiety pill after another in hopes that time could just stand still. In my effort to stop time, I overdosed. My heart stopped. I was later told that my husband performed CPR (cardiac resuscitation) and called an ambulance. An Emergency Paramedic continued to work on me until we reached the hospital.
I regained consciousness. I immediately noticed a security guard by the doorway of the private emergency room where I lay—apparently to prevent me from harming myself. I wasn’t trying to end my life I just needed to stop time. I needed everything to stop. Nobody believed me.
Eventually, I was transferred from the hospital to a Behavioral Management Center—a coded term meaning: ‘mental institution’. I had a complete nervous breakdown. My journey back has been long and arduous. I freely admit… I’m not the women I once was. I never made it back to those days when I believed in a “Happily Ever After.” Those were childhood dreams, and they were gone.
A close friend told me that no one ever cries themselves to death. It was her sweet way of giving me permission to cry as much and as often as I needed. Yet, I realized one truth: perhaps we can’t cry ourselves to death but, we can surely cry our lives away. I had to choose: Live or die? I chose to live for the sake of my other youth. Now, I needed to figure out how. A life of using anti-anxiety medication to numb the pain would NOT be a choice. I had to find a way to heal. I had to begin to understand what had happened, and I had to find out WHY it happened. Only then could I decide what I could and would do about it all. I was forced to look back, to face the truth. And hopefully, the truth would help the healing begin.
Abbey was kind, caring, intelligent, empathetic, and loyal. She had a strong sense of responsibility. She was beautiful inside and outside. She always spoke up for the underdog. She disliked unkind behavior. Abbey also expected perfection from herself. She agonized over mistakes, or what she perceived to be failures. Despite my attempts to calm her, she would get so angry with herself she would beat her head against the bathtub. Her therapist explained that Abbey suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition the counselor explained was the result of Abbey’s stressful and traumatic childhood.
Abbey’s childhood was fraught with custody battles between her father and me, appointments with court ordered mediators, and forced visitations to a home very different from my own. She was threatened, teased and ignored for long hours. Her sister was instructed not to speak to her during visitations, because she (Abbey) had wet the bed and she was a “Pee, Pee baby.” Abbey endured horrendous psychological abuse. Years and years passed during which I tried to use the flawed family court system to protect my youth. For my youth, those years were filled with terror on a weekly basis.
We adults are often led to believe that youth are resilient, and they recover from trauma and stress easily. This is a false belief. Not all youth are resilient, not all youth are equally resilient, and not all youth, like Abbey, recover. With court systems that do not recognize the effects of psychological abuses on youth’s brain development and the way youth learn to think about who they are, there are countless deeply scarred hearts, false belief systems, and negative self-images.
From a clinical standpoint, youth like Abbey strive for perfection to earn love from those who matter most to them. They desperately need that love to feel okay inside, or to feel a sense of belonging. To find that sense of connection Abbey always had to have a boyfriend. If she could please them, if she could be perfect enough, and they were happy with her, she could feel loved and safe. When the relationships were challenging, her PTSD kicked in and it kicked in hard. All of those negative feelings rose up within her, leaving her feeling worthless and unlovable.
As I faced the truth, I began to get a better understanding of the “why” behind Abbey throwing herself from a moving vehicle. But there was much more that I needed to explore. I was having a difficult time understanding why my loving and positive parenting behaviors hadn’t influenced Abbey’s beliefs about herself. Why didn’t my parenting skills and behaviors override the other parent’s behaviors?
My research led me to discover the profound effect that stress and trauma have on brain development. While I can’t be sure exactly what impact the trauma that Abbey experienced in her early years had on the development of her brain, nor the decisions she made about herself, I began to understand that she likely often functioned from her limbic system (emotions), and from her brain stem (survival). It didn’t take much to provoke her when she was in challenging or threatening situations. Abbey often acted spontaneously, without forethought—a common occurrence for youth with traumatic early life experiences. Though it’s true that she had occasional suicidal thoughts, she had always been able to share those feelings with me and talk about how she would not go through with it because she knew how sad it would make me. At those times, she was able to think through the consequences of her actions by using her prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for decisions—owning her feelings while also understanding how her actions would impact others. Earlier on that final day, she spent time doing ordinary things, getting a manicure and pedicure and looking forward to the evening with her fiancé. The following day her and I had scheduled time together to shop for wedding venues. I believe, on that fateful evening, she found herself in the middle of a ‘perfect storm’—a combination of alcohol, a fight with her fiancé, and opportunity. Ruled by emotion and her need to escape the situation, her response was not a choice, but a spontaneous reaction.
I finally had some answers, and discovered some truths… could I use these to heal? I now realize, after many sleepless nights, continued bouts of crying, and unending sadness, that I will never heal completely but, I can get to a better, healthier place. Each day I remind myself that on the other side of grief and madness, is love and hope.
I decided to commit myself to my three daughters; two living, Emily and Mandi, and one dead, Abbey. I will live the rest of my life honoring what I learned from her death. I will commit myself to the young people who call me mom, and their children who sweetly refer to me as grandma, and Dr. Grandma. I lovingly refer to these youth as my “Heart Youth.” Together my love for all of them became the catalyst for my work in this book, for building Abbey’s Purple Winged Angels Foundation; and for my organization Dr. Kim’s Building XtraOrdinary Youth.
I decided that the best way I could honor Abbey’s life was to commit myself, my work, and my efforts to protecting other youth from the damage caused by a negative self-image. At the heart of my vision is to save lives, and replace the negative pessimistic thinking, that robs youth of their goals and dreams, with positive, optimistic thinking habits and behaviors that allow youth to live—ExtraOrdinary Lives!
And The Beginning…