“I met you in the dark, you lit me up.
You made me feel as though I was enough.”
-James Arthur, Say You Won’t Let Go
When I referred back to a very dark night I had one year ago in a recent post, I received an apology from one of my readers.
“Please forgive me,” she wrote, “At the time, I didn’t believe you.”
I understood what it’s like to look at someone and think he or she couldn’t possibly feel the depths of despair that you do.
But then the person puts words to it, and you suddenly feel less alone. That’s when skepticism turns to belief; despair turns to hope—you are not the only one.
It’s become my mission to talk about the feelings no one wants to talk about – the feelings we want to pretend we don’t have – the feelings that make us think there’s something wrong with us.
I’m starting these conversations close to home with my children and local students.
Each time I hear news of another child making a permanent decision to end his or her pain, my heart breaks and my mission is fueled.
Depression has touched my life from a young age, therefore I’ve begun to prepare … to equip … to inform my children.
Knowledge is power.
Knowing you are not alone is lifesaving.
Although my eleven-year-old daughter and I appear different from the outside, we are eerily similar on the inside. She is my deep feeler—a highly perceptive, creative, and empathetic Noticer of Life.
Because of the similarity in the way my daughter and I experience life at a heightened level, I feel compelled to talk to her routinely about mental health. Although she shies away from sensitive subject matters, song lyrics always open her up.
A song will play on the radio and she will maturely ask, “Is this about her dad leaving?” or “I think I know what ‘unsteady’ means in this song.”
My daughter took the death of Chester Bennington especially hard. She’d been learning Linkin Park's “One More Light” on her guitar shortly before Chester died by suicide.
“Is the person singing this song not here anymore?” she asked last week when Iridescent came on the radio.
After I said yes, a question she routinely asks came next.
“Depression runs in our family, doesn’t it?”
That question offers the ideal opportunity to talk about our family history, the signs of depression, and how it differs from just feeling sad. It offers us a chance to talk about what to do if we think we’re depressed or a friend is depressed.
My daughter seemed satisfied with the discussion … with knowing … with better understanding of the genetic fabric within.
“Thank you, Mom,” she said, as if intuitively knowing these talks are not easy—but crucial.
In addition to information, I have begun to give her tools that I wish I’d had when anxiety gripped me in the night. Like me, when my daughter is feeling stressed or worried, the feelings surface in vivid dreams.
“I can’t get the scary face out of my head,” she said last week when she came racing into my bedroom in the middle of the night. “When I close my eyes, that’s all I see.”
I ushered my child back to bed and I told her about the file folders in my brain. I have one marked “JOY” where I’ve memorized moments of joy to refer to when I need to refocus negative thoughts.
At the top of my JOY folder was a perfect moment to share with her.
“Remember going to the pet store next to the Shaved Ice place? Remember that extra fluffy bunny you got to hold? Remember how he tickled your neck and made you laugh so hard?”
I’d taken a photo to send to her Grammy, but I knew that moment would be engrained in my JOY folder forever.
“Keep talking,” my daughter said, still breathing heavily.
I flipped to another page in my mental file folders and described what I saw.
Around the fourth JOY moment, my daughter’s breathing returned to normal.
When she thanked me, a powerful thought came to mind: Gratitude is not necessary, my precious child. These moments of preparedness for surviving and thriving in this difficult world is my most important job as a parent.
I want my child to have tools for anxiety, images to flip to when darkness sets in, and a hand to hold when she thinks no one on Earth could possibly feel the same way.
She will remember that I did.
And just knowing you are not the only one can be lifesaving.
When I learned of my dad’s battle with depression in my mid-twenties, it had a profound impact on me. Years after he came through the darkness, my mom told me how she urged him to get help. My mom very well might have saved my dad’s life.
At the time, I remember thinking how hard that conversation must have been for my mom. But now I know there are certain moments in our life when our personal comfort, our fear of rejection, our lack of having the right words must be put to the side. There are just certain conversations we must have with the people we love, even if we stumble in our delivery.
I’ve often wondered why my dad didn’t tell me of his struggle himself. I suspect he thought I would think less of him.
It was actually the opposite.
I thought more of him.
And I thought more of myself.
Like me, my dad and I matched on the inside – in personality, in mannerisms, in emotional intelligence, in musical tastes, in empathy for others.
And I knew that if I had dark moments, I should also reach out for help.
And I did.
And I do.
Never have I once thought: There is something wrong with me. Instead I think: This is part of my fiber, my genetic makeup, my family history. I’ll talk to my parents about this; they will not judge me; they will know what to do because they have been here. I don’t have to be embarrassed; they will understand.
And they did.
And they do.
To this day, I can turn to my parents, now in their upper seventies, for support, guidance, and love. I could admit the most shameful truths about my choices, behavior, and inner thoughts and yet, my parents would still love me and help me.
I know this because I have grown up hearing: There is no mistake bigger than our love.
I want my children to grow up with the same message. Actually, I want ALL children to grow up with this message. As a high school special education teacher, I saw first-hand how hard it is to grow up thinking you cannot turn to your parents in troubling times. I tried to build my students up as much as possible, but there are just certain assurances kids need to hear from their parents.
This understanding is what spurred me into action a month ago. A reader of my blog sent me a letter written by a middle schooler who bravely admitted he could not stop thinking about suicide. The school corporation had received the letter from an anonymous email address and because they could not track the sender, they posted it to the entire school community hoping someone might see their child in the words.
Two lines stuck out to me most:
“I can’t tell my parents,”
“I really need someone to talk to.”
The blog reader had reached out to me for help. “You seem to know what to say to hurting children,” she wrote. “Can you help me respond to him?”
After providing her with encouragements and information for the young man, I needed to do more. I began working tirelessly on a free eBook called Words That Can’t Wait that would help parents have five critical conversations with their children.
I released the book to the world on Monday, but I am left thinking about that boy and his parents. What might be the very first words be to a child who feels desperately alone and unloved?
It’s hard to imagine our own child could be the one hurting so much, but we must consider it.
If I suspected my child was hurting, I would not waste one minute of time. I would take a deep breath and remind myself that my child needs me to try to connect today, and this is what I’d say:
Hey, can I sit with you for a minute? I’m not great at expressing myself, so I ask that you bear with me for a moment while I tell you a few important things.
I know that sometimes it must feel like I am always correcting you, asking you if you’ve gotten things done, pushing you to do well. I do that because I want you to have the best possible life you can have. But lately, I realized I need to remember that today is the most important day to focus on. And who you are right now, at this very moment, is someone I am very proud of.
I don’t say it enough, but you amaze me. You amaze me with your talents … your humor … your smarts … your heart … your energy … your courage … your determination.
You amaze me by the way you handle the pressures and challenges of school, extracurricular activities, friendships, growing up, and taking care of yourself.
You amaze me by the way you keep trying, no matter what comes at you.
The school years can hard on a person’s spirit. The school years can seem endless and hopeless at times. But you have the strength and the resiliency to get through them. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and before you know it, there will be a great, big world waiting for you. I can already see you as an adult, doing something fulfilling with your many gifts that will make the world a better place.
I don’t say it enough, but I see beyond the scores, the grades, the effort, and the outer shell to who you are becoming. I see someone really incredible in you.
Please know I don’t expect you to be perfect and not make mistakes as you grow and learn—I know I sure did. There is no mistake bigger than my love. There is nothing we can’t get through together .I am your parent; you are my child. We are on the same team; I always have your back.
One last thing, I know that sometimes it is hard to say things in person, so here is a notebook I want you to use to talk to me. Take your pain, your worries, your problems, your fears and put them on the pages. Set it under my pillow when you have something you want me to know. Your notes will help me know how I can be the parent you need me to be. I will not judge the words and thoughts you share with me. I will listen and learn from you.
I went ahead and started the journal out.
These may look like words, but they are more than words. These are lifelines for tough times. Please remember these truths:
No mistake you make is bigger than my love.
You are never alone.
I love you, just as you are today.
If you are in crisis, there is someone you can chat with anonymously right now by following this link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or calling their hotline @ 1-800-273-8255.
Dear ones, if you have not yet accessed WORDS THAT CAN’T WAIT, please do so and share this blog post with any individuals or groups you think it might benefit. (You can share from my blog or The Hands Free Revolution Facebook page.) In just a few days into the world, this little book is helping families connect and individuals heal in ways they could not before. This is what a few readers have said about the book …
“I am halfway through this eBook. I was basically sobbing. Rachel is heaven sent. What she is saying is so needed. We need to learn this way of loving and parenting. I need to. I want to. I try but I don’t always know how. Thank you, Rachel, for learning and showing.” -Lydia
“Just finished reading this free eBook written by Rachel Macy Stafford. Although she wrote it as a guide to help teachers or adults speak to children, I am currently unable to find the words to express its impact on me personally. Simply put, the book has had a profound impact, and I wish I had someone to actually say some of those words to me and mean them, without me having to ask. I am going to recommend this book to everyone I know that works with or has children, cares for the elderly, deals with the public, or has a friend that seems a bit off. This is such a special short read. I encourage you to use the link and share with others. It contains profound words that can change the course of someone’s life.” -Robin
“My husband sent me the eBook about how we can talk with our kids, and I devoured it yesterday. I actually read it in the waiting room while waiting for my follow-up mammogram. Between Rachel’s words and the other book I’m reading, I felt like I could get through a strange and stressful day. And then last night, my daughters both had moments where they needed to hear the words she wrote — that they are “loved no matter what” and “we have hard days, but thank you for being honest and trusting me with these thoughts.” They needed to know I was with them. Amazing timing. I was called back for a biopsy today, and all I could think of this morning was making sure I wrapped myself in a warm blanket. Thank you, Rachel, for your words that change people’s lives: my life and my kids’ lives.” -S.S
“If our children are the future, then Rachel has the way to love them into the sort of beings that could change the universe. Her understanding comes from trial and error, from a huge heart, a connected spirit, and the best teachers you could hope for–her daughters. She never judges you as a parent; her honesty about her own mistakes and her vulnerability in sharing them is what really allows you to trust her, open up, and let the lessons sink in. My happy family is happier thanks to her family. Please download her free eBook. Your children will thank you with all their hearts.” -Alexia
One final note: A new session of SOUL SHIFT, my new online course, starts on April 23. During the 8-week journey, I share eight painful truths I faced that reshaped my life and a small habit shift I used to begin a new, healing practice. The tools, accountability, and support you will receive throughout the course will facilitate one of life’s hardest, but greatest experiences: learning to give unconditional acceptance to yourself, so you can give unconditional acceptance to those you love. Click here to be notified when registration begins in mid-April at an early-bird price. Thank you for your love and support of my work.