Updated: Sep 14, 2022
OK. So here's the thing. People have been asking me to write Vincent's story since his passing. And I have truly tried. But this wound is still so fresh that I haven't figured out how to do it for anyone other than myself. But I will share what I can, knowing that Vincent can never be summed up in a few pages of writing. And that his story is so much more than I have the capacity or words to express.
Vincet was SO LOVED. If love could have saved him, he would have never been sick. He was born to two 18 year old parents on a day that was so cold the glass inside the hospital room windows were frosted over. And from the moment we knew we were pregnant, we wanted him and loved him and tried, in our own ways, to fill the rest of his life with warmth. And while I cannot speak for his father’s side of the story, I know I spent every moment from the time I found out I was pregnant until his death 14 years later filtering every decision through the lens of, “will this help me create the life full of love and joy and purpose I want to provide for V?” (And in many ways, even after his death, I am still exploring that.)
And through (or despite) the love, as many kids do, Vincent experienced a few different traumas. His father and I split when he was 2 years old and a few years later his father moved across the country with the Navy. And even when co-parenting goes well, it can be hard on a child. (And as it so often happens, co-parenting didn’t always go well despite how hard each side tried.) Vincent also changed environments often. Different schools every few years (moving us off a dangerous street into a stable neighborhood when I was done with college and gainfully employed, living with his father for a year in Virginia, moving cities to get V away from a school system where he was getting lost and overlooked, and away from the bullying that was pervasive even in elementary school). Many people told me these changes would make him more resilient and good at making new friends over the long run. And in some kids it does. But not for Vincent. Or at least it was not given the opportunity to work out well for him in the long run.
All of these stressors, along with some strong pre-pubescent hormones, sent Vincent into bouts of anxiety and eventually depression. At first we believed these were tough, but normal transitions and we could help Vincent navigate them. These were not unreasonable thoughts and ideas as many children have tough years during puberty and make it though ok without professional help. And V had lots of different loving adults supporting him so we thought he’d make it though.
Unfortunately, Vincent made the choice to cope with vaping and self-harm. Two habits that are very hard to quit. We became aware of his choices and two prior attempts when he was caught at school with tobacco. The school was incredibly supportive, recognizing these things were symptoms of a larger problem Vincent was struggling with, and they held him accountable while reassuring him he was still loved and valued. We were able to get Vincent into substance abuse treatment, both individual and group settings, and when he was attending these sessions his outlook on life was noticeably better. He also attended weekly individual therapy sessions. Vincent was an active participant and rarely fought going, but struggled to be vulnerable enough to have the opportunity to work on the really hard, shameful things he was struggling with. But he did try. And here too his school was supportive, allowing him to miss lots of class time to attend therapy. They helped keep him accountable and supported in the classrooms and in sports. They reached out to him and me when there were warning signs or causes for additional concern.
One thing we never did get stable was his medicine. Medicating a kid going through puberty is tough and complicated on so many fronts. There are many many books out there about medicating depression and anxiety in children, so for our purposes in this post I will keep it simple and say, for many reasons Vincent's meds were never stable enough to get him relief for an extended period of time. It was tough.
But despite all of these challenges, Vincent usually presented as a normal, loving kid. He had the biggest and most tender heart, and even though he’d hit the stage where he tried to hide all of that behind a tough ‘don’t mess with me’ front, he didn’t hide it well. He was the go-to person for so many friends. I heard story after story after he passed from kids at his school talking about how he was always making people laugh and getting them to smile on tough days. How he worked hard on the sports fields and demonstrated loyalty to his team and his friends every day.
And on the other side of it, when a friend was hurting Vincent expected us, but mainly himself, to help them feel better. If a friend's sibling had run away he needed to be out there helping look. If a friend was hungry he would bring them food. If a friend wasn’t feeling loved at home he would make sure they knew they were loved and supported in his friendship. If a friend was experiencing trauma he was there in loyalty and solidarity to support them. (Which is a topic we could focus a whole different blog post about). Apparently, at one point he even brought a friend tampons (and chocolate!) because they needed some menstrual supplies. Vincent loved loving others. And his capacity to love and help others feel loved was evident from the very beginnings of his personality.
Somewhere along the way Vincent, like so many other children, lost faith in adults to help him. Maybe it was when he was hospitalized and learned right away how poor the system is at juvenile mental health. Maybe it was the times he tried to bring tough topics to me and I didn’t understand and didn’t connect in a way that he needed me to. Maybe it was COVID and watching adults handle the entire thing poorly on so many levels. My gut tells me it was a million little things- a million little ways I, and our society, had let him down in general. And that’s what caused him (and so many other children) to believe he could only rely on himself for the answers to the big things.
The Bible, songs, movies, and life tells us love always prevails. If we just keep trying, if we just keep showing love and keep showing up, we will prevail. In Vincent's case, and in the case of 14 other children in Story County alone in 2021, love did not prevail.
On Aug 14th, I came home from work excited for the day we’d planned together. Going to a farmers market and then a taco festival (Vincent was more excited for the taco festival) and then getting ready for football practice to start (his favorite sport). And then I entered his room and found him. It was clear his actions were intentional- It was his 5th attempt, and it was his final. There were signs, I suppose, but nothing that said he was struggling more than was normal. He'd had a burst of anger the night before I left for shift; we’d asked him to help put together a grill and he wanted to play with friends instead. Nothing unexpected from a 13 year old. He’d been a little quieter than normal but was still sassy and laughing and engaging in future-oriented talk. We’d been checking for self harm and there was nothing new. He’d been attending his therapy sessions and we made sure he was taking his meds while he was at my house as directed. In fact, he attended a therapy session the afternoon before he Completed, and though we knew he was struggling he showed no indicators to his therapist he was at any more risk than he’d been for awhile.
But these were all adults observing him and interacting with him. Snaps he’d sent to friends (on a phone we didn’t know he had because you better believe we had parental controls on his regular phone) indicated he was going to attempt that night. But none of the children he reached out to told an adult. In their loyalty to one another, they stayed silent and tried to help one another on their own. And there isn’t a single piece of me that can blame them. It is us as adults who have let our kids down; who have not provided them the proper framework to view these hefty scenarios though, who allowed our children to feel as though they were each other's only solution.
And my life, my love for my child, has not had a moment of feeling uncomplicated since that morning. That is why I fight so hard for these kids. This grief that I feel; the heart wrenching pain that still comes with every single breath, that one year later is only just manageable, just functional, is something nobody else should ever have to go through. And to know that this pain is likely only a small fragment of the pain Vincent felt every single day for years during his battle- I can see why he, and so many other children, have turned to ending their lives as the solution.
And because I can see it and know it so intimately, I know this fight to get our children access to the brain health support they need has become imperative and even more time sensitive.
There was more I could have done to save V. There is more we could be doing to save our youth. We cannot continue to sit by and wait for the government or other entities to help us or band aid the system. This is OUR community. OUR children. And we can no longer afford to “other” these situations. Because if anyone had the love and support they needed to survive, it was V. And it was still not enough. And his story, our story, should not be anyone else’s. And it does not have to be. If only we can find the courage to start really showing up for our kids and our community. It all begins, and ends, with us. How we talk to and about each other. How we approach difficulty and uncomfortable things. And how we love, as the verb it is.