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The Potential for Ants
Parenting through a teenager's mental health crisis
The photo I posted on Instagram showed a bright orange melamine dinner plate with two bits of melted cheese stuck to it, a smaller brightly patterned plate, several pieces of dirty silverware, a mostly empty bottle of sparkling water, and a jar of peanut butter. My caption read: This was today’s harvest from my teenager’s room after they left for their other home for the next five days.
My nonbinary fifteen-year-old uses the gender-neutral pronouns they, them, and their. They spend half their time with me, and the other half across town at their Mama’s house. Every time they’re home with me I implore them to not leave food remnants or dishes in their room. “I don’t want it to make ants,” I say. Of course it doesn’t work that way, but food mess creates the perfect invitation for ants, which is almost the same thing.
And the peanut butter…either they used their finger to scoop bites of it into their mouth (I love you, Ted Lasso, but ewww), or they double dipped with a spoon. Either way, now their saliva was part of the chemical environment of the peanut butter jar, which could make it go rancid faster.
I’m terrified of eating food that has any possibility of being spoiled or bad, which surely relates to being afraid to throw up. Plenty of food (mostly vegetables) die in my fridge in obvious ways that make it clear they aren’t edible. It’s things in the grey area like tortillas past their date with no visible signs of mold, or milk beyond its prime that still smells fine, that make me especially nervous. Also, leftovers. I’ve always been suspicious of leftovers.
Part of me is looking for an adult to ask whether it’s safe to risk it with food on the edge. Realizing that I’m not only the adult, but also the parent, and it’s all up to me, ups the ante on my anxiety. Eating enough spoiled food that I puked as a result wouldn’t be the end of the world. That eventuality would be just one more thing to manage when I’m already carrying so much. My stressed-out, barely holding it together parent self votes no every time on iffy food.
Aside from my food fears, my post was also a portrait of not being in control. I haven’t found a way to stop my teenager from taking food into their room, or leaving dishes, scraps, and wrappers scattered about in said room, rivaled only by every sock they’ve worn since they last did laundry. The photo showed the lighter side of all the things I’m afraid are out of control with my kid.
Not pictured were the kitchen knives, scissors, and box cutters hidden in my closet since sometime last summer when we first found messages about self-harm and suicide in their Discord chats with friends. Or the bottles of sleep meds, mood stabilizers, and anti-anxiety drugs kept in a bin on the same closet shelf where the teenager won’t find them, even though a third of the meds are theirs.
I’ll pause this tour of fears to ponder whether the meds and knives are hidden safely enough, or if I need to use the giant locking safe the hospital social worker provided when the teen was assessed at the ER for physical and emotional safety last fall. My trust in the safe was compromised when I loaded all the meds inside, including my own anti-anxiety pills, and locked them up to test it out. It took five attempts with the key to open it again, which did not help alleviate my anxiety.
Like many of my social media posts, I’m not sure what response I wanted when I shared this photo. Solidarity from other parents? Empathy? A laugh? Whatever solace I hoped I’d receive, it didn’t happen. Friends with older teenagers, or whose kids are grown or gone, commented that this was the work of an amateur. Their kids’ piles were worse; this was nothing. Maybe they meant it reassuringly or with compassion; that’s not, however, what I felt.
There’s a particular sort of pressure I experience as a parent who is also a mental health therapist. While I don’t work with kids, I do have clinical training about depression and anxiety that it seems I ought to be able to apply to my own teenager. And their Mama is a hospital social worker, married to a partner who’s worked with at-risk youth in a variety of settings. We all have knowledge about and experience with supporting other people through situations exactly this. Shouldn’t we have a head start? Shouldn’t it feel more manageable and a little less nerve-wracking? Somehow, it’s never that easy when it’s our own family.
I might have gotten different comments if I’d shared my photo with this caption: This is a picture of things I’m afraid of. Mess. Spoiled food. The potential for ants. Yes, it was only a small pile of dirty dishes and now-questionable food. No ants were made in this scene. Maybe it wasn’t that bad.
But things really were that bad for my teenager in that snapshot of time. They were in a virtual intensive outpatient therapy program doing nine hours a week of group therapy, plus an hour each of individual and family therapy. About half of our first family session was taken up with technical difficulties on the teen’s part. All three of us parents and the therapist, each in our own little Zoom window, tried to troubleshoot their sound settings so we could hear them. Throughout all this, they were also listening to music on their headphones while wearing oversized LED glasses, a Covid face mask even though they were alone in their room, and a beanie pulled down low.
I wanted to use our time with the family therapist to talk about the textbook depression-speak we’d found in their messages to their boyfriend that week. I shouldn’t be alive. Everyone would be better off without me. Reluctantly, we had begun monitoring our kid’s phone, precisely because of these sorts of statements. As parents, we wanted a plan for supporting them and help deciding whether to start them on an anti-depressant. Instead, four adults were held captive by their headphones not working and their refusal to go into the next room and be in the same Zoom square as their Mama.
After that session, I texted a friend who knows my kid and has worked in residential settings with similar youth. She summed it up well: I hate that they don’t take anything seriously but they also voice distress all the time. Yeah, I hate that, too. I also texted my two co-parents to say: I know we’re asking a lot of them and maybe they’re showing up as best they can. Is expecting them to come to session without all the accoutrements too much?
It's scary to hold all this uncertainty with my teenager and to read that they’re suicidal or want to hurt themself. For me, feeling out of control about the state of our teenager’s room sits right next to my bigger fears for their safety, the way those dirty socks and food wrappers coexist on their bedroom floor, but far more dire. Maybe what I sought with my post was for other parents who’ve been there to read between the lines and notice what I’m really afraid of. But some combination of pride and self-judgment edited out any hint from my post that there was more at play than a teenager’s messy room.
Before posting the photo, I texted it to my teen with this message: Hey Bub. These are all the things I pulled from your room after you left. Not cool! Please do not keep food or dishes in your room. Thank you!
They replied: okay okay.
I wish dirty dishes were the only problem. Even if they made ants.
If you are in crisis in the United States, you can call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, 24/7. Click here for international suicide hotlines.
Meg Weber writes memoir about sex, grief, family, therapy, and tangled relationships. She is the author of A Year of Mr. Lucky and is at work on her second memoir. She is a mental health therapist in her hometown of Portland, Oregon where she lives with her teenager and their labradoodle named Portland. Find her at www.MegWeberWriter.com
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