hurting for haley

by Lorenzo Sewanan

jen lovallo

yale school of nursing 

It’s the first day of my psych rotation. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be doing this. I’m not a psych person. I’m on the adolescent unit at Yale. Nervous and not really knowing what to expect, I initiate awkward small talk with a few patients. I’m really bad at this. I have no idea what I’m doing. One smiling, seemingly young girl laughs at my awkwardness and stumbling, stupid attempts at starting conversation. She smiles and pulls up a chair and tells me to stop being so weird. We start talking. We just talk. Her name is Hayley.

An hour must pass before I realize I’m having a really hard time confronting my own overwhelming emotions and response to her story. This fourteen-year-old—she’s so incredibly optimistic, intelligent, determined, and mature far beyond her years. She has an infectious smile and a charisma that seems to captivate anyone and everyone around her. I like her. If I was ten or fifteen years younger, I think we’d be friends. As thoroughly expected for a teenage girl, her insecurity, doubts and questions of fitting in filter into our conversation. On first impression, she could easily be your typical teenager—that is, until she talks about the overwhelming fears and intrusive thoughts she faces on a fairly routine basis.

As Hayley and I talk, she calmly and confidently recalls the bullying she faced at a mere nine-years-old. At nine, her parents allowed her somewhat-supervised online time, much like that of her fellow classmates. Unfortunately, Hayley’s time led her to discover a host of fellow classmates plotting violent acts against her and exchanging amazingly hateful words—at nine, only nine, years old. Hayley spent weeks reading and following the commentary, becoming increasingly scared to go to school with each and every day that passed. When the threats eventually detailed a time and place to put such words into action, Hayley finally printed the endless streams as evidence, told her parents, and asked for help.

Through weeks of keeping it inside, she became increasingly anxious and depressed, eventually convincing herself that ending her own life would make it all go away. She was only nine. She calmly recalls how it started—she couldn’t see knives in the kitchen, look at an electrical cord, or see any sort of medication—without immediately seeing them as mechanisms to take away her pain. She hated the thoughts and didn’t want to hurt herself. She wanted to live, but she couldn’t make them stop.

Five years later, twice weekly therapy sessions, a multitude of failed medication trials, and endless energy poured into self-preservation, she still wakes up in the middle of the night. Scared, stressed and sad, she questions taking her own life. She doesn’t. She fights it. She fights it every damned day. She’s only fourteen. This isn’t fair. How did this happen? I’m angry. I’m angry at the world and at a God that let this happen to this child. She’s still just a child. She has such a long fight ahead of her and her life has only just begun. It just isn’t fair.

I hurt for her. I choke back tears. I could have been her. I was bullied as that quiet, nerdy girl all throughout my childhood…only this had happened to her, not me. Why? Why her? Why her and not me? Really—why? She’s so much more together, well rounded, and happier than I ever was at her age. How? How…how, at nine years old, did a child survive in a world facing so much hate? It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. I just wanted to take it all back. I wanted to make her life okay again. I wanted to make her okay again.

I wanted to give her back a normal childhood. I wanted this, now, incredible fourteen-year-old girl, to be able to look at a lamp without wanting to hang herself. I wanted to find those girls, to scream at them, to show them what they’ve done. I wanted them to face the irrevocable damage they’ve caused—damage that will forever affect this child’s life and view of the world.  Nine-year-old girls. I felt debilitating pangs of anger, resentment and hatred towards these girls—girls that I would never cross paths with in my own life. Girls that, before today, I would have never known existed. I never before felt such intense feelings against children—children I didn’t even know. I’m going into pediatrics. I shouldn’t feel this way. I hate feeling this way.

This incredible child (and I emphasize, child) woke up in the middle of the night one night and couldn’t fight it anymore. Exhausted, scared and fearing she’d succumb to this battle, she wakes her parents up. At three a.m., she quietly tells her parents she needs to go to the hospital. She needs help. She can’t do this anymore. She’s tired, tearful, and really, really scared. She asks to go inpatient. She’s fourteen…and quietly, strongly, asking to leave school and be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It’s three in the morning. She’s fourteen. She’s only fourteen. She should be studying for a test in algebra, playing basketball, and wondering if that cute boy in her history class really likes her. Instead, she’s awake at three in the morning, one random school night, fighting an overwhelming urge to take her own life. She’s only fourteen. My heart breaks for her. I’m fighting every ounce of willpower I have to not cry—yes, cry—when I’m supposed to be this somewhat joke of a professional.

I’m endlessly impressed and humbled by this child. She has so much strength, so much courage, and she’s put up one serious hell of a fight. I admire her. I pray for her. I pray to a God I don’t often enough talk to, a God that, in this moment, I question standing behind, silently begging that this child never succumbs to this battle. I pray that she never loses her determination, that she never gives into an overwhelming moment of weakness, and that she never finds herself slowly winding her hands around a lamp cord. I pray that I someday, somehow, know that she’s okay, or merely alive, all the while knowing I’ll never know and likely forever wonder. I angrily question a God, or my belief in one, that could let this happen. I thank a God that simply let my path cross with hers. This child is fucking brave—really brave. I question, if I even have it in me, to be that brave in my own life. In fact, I resolve to aspire toward it…to strangely, strangely, be more like this child. I fiercely pray to this same God that I’m not this affected by every child I face, somehow simultaneously longing for and loathing the day that I’m not.

It’s only been ninety minutes. Ninety minutes—and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be the same. Only three hundred and ninety more to go, and well, the rest of my life, after this mere eight-hour shift…and I think, more than anything else in this moment, I simply pray to this God, that I can actually do this.