Holding On To Hope

Sometimes when I think about it, it’s like looking through a haze, like the icy mist that clung to my windshield on the frigid drive home. Other times it’s like looking through a thick pane of glass: fragile, yet heavy. So heavy I worry I can’t support its weight, and it will shatter like pieces of a mosaic I have no idea how to put back together.

She seemed fine.

“She’s in a good mood,” my husband remarked as we drove away from the school, the little campus swallowed by the darkness and cold mist in the rearview mirror. A different reflection flashed through my mind—the image of our fifteen-year-old daughter’s smile as she headed toward her dorm building. The echo of her voice, “I love you. I’ll call you later.” I’d get a phone call, but it wouldn’t be from her. I didn’t know that then. The only thing I felt then was hope.


Hope that the coming week will be better. No concerned e-mails from staff about tears or self-imposed isolation. But hope is fickle, and it doesn’t give a damn how tightly you hold it. Hope doesn’t care how desperately you need it. Hope is intangible. A devil who will writhe and twist and slip through your hands even if you have a death grip on it.

My husband, Scott, and I thought we’d finally found the magic recipe to help with our daughter’s depression, her constant suicidal ideation that had been with her since she was nine. Sophie is a brilliant, vibrant, beautiful, tortured soul. Despite the help we’d gotten her at an early age, she made her first suicide attempt at twelve. Since then, things had only gotten worse until we found a little Quaker boarding school two hours from our house.

The moment we visited the school, all three of us fell in love with it. Set in the eastern Iowa countryside, it was the perfect fit for Sophie. It was small, there were kids she immediately bonded with—kids she could finally relate to. The staff was kind, down to earth, and they had a college prep curriculum that would finally challenge Sophie.

Sophie thrived there. She was more alive than I’d seen her in years, but by October of her second year, depression crept back in, its dark tendrils spidering through her body, her brain, whispering to her again about suicide. The whispers turned into screams, and she needed a short hospitalization. Against our better judgement, we were pressured into changing almost all her medications at once.

After a week away from school, Sophie returned in early November, but everyone noticed she wasn’t herself. She isolated herself, shut down, pulled away from the staff and students who cared about her.

Still, we had hope, especially on that cold mid-November Sunday night when we dropped her off and she happily headed to her dorm.

We’d only been home for ten minutes when I got the phone call. It was Christine, the woman in charge of the girls’ dorm. My heart dropped a little. Was Sophie already having a bad night?

Christine’s voice shook, which wasn’t like her. She was a straight talker, a woman with a tough outer shell masking her big heart.

She tried to sound calm but couldn’t hide the tremor in her voice. “Sophie overdosed on her medication. The EMTs are here with her now. She’s conscious and talking, but she’s not feeling well.”

My stomach flew into my mouth and I fought back the bile in my throat, fought against the panic that made me lightheaded. Still, I grasped at hope. Maybe she’d only taken a few pills.

“How much did she take?”

“All of it.”

I made furious calculations in my head. We’d just refilled all of her medications the week before.

She’d swallowed almost three hundred pills.

I don’t know how I didn’t pass out. I don’t know how I finished my conversation with Christine, who told me what hospital Sophie was going to. I don’t know how I hung up and told Scott everything that had happened.

The two-hour drive to the hospital was a never-ending dark tunnel where there was no light at the end. I kept thinking about the medication, especially the anti-anxiety medication that was a benzodiazepine. Overdosing on that alone could kill her.

The only thing that broke up our drive were the phone calls I made to our family and the ones I answered from the boarding school staff. The president of the school, James, had ridden in the ambulance with Sophie. He called us when he could, offering updates in his usual calm and caring way. I still squeezed hope in my fingers because each time James called, he told us Sophie was still conscious. Her vitals weren’t stable, but she was conscious.

I alternated between terror, hope, and self-loathing. Between talking to James and Christine, we pieced together what had happened. Every Sunday when we brought Sophie back to school after a weekend at home, we’d give her medications to her. She’d always taken them right to the school nurse who locked them up. If Sophie ever seemed unusually depressed, we’d take her medications to the nurse, but that night, we didn’t see the need.

Instead of taking her medications to the nurse, Sophie snuck to her dorm room, dumped every pill on her desk, and swallowed them by the handful. When she started to feel sick, dizzy, nauseous, she sought out her best friend to tell him what she’d done, to tell him goodbye. He begged her to tell a teacher or the nurse, but she refused. Finally, he found a staff member and told them what happened.

I barely remember getting to the hospital, walking through the emergency room doors. Someone led us through a maze of hallways and finally to Sophie’s room. James was with her, talking to her, trying to keep her awake.

“We’ve been talking about music,” he said. “Comparing our favorite artists. She played some of her favorite songs for me on her phone.”

I don’t know how he remained so calm. Maybe he wasn’t on the inside, but his outward serenity was a much-needed buoy in a storm where I was drowning. He apologized profusely for Sophie slipping by the staff with her medication. I didn’t blame any of them. That was on me. I never should have given her the medication to carry inside. Ever. I always should have carried it in myself.

I tried to stay calm while I went to Sophie and took her hand. Her body tremored, and she said she felt nauseous. A glance at her monitor showed just how erratic her heart rate was, how abnormal her blood pressure was. Within minutes, the monitor beeped a warning that her oxygen levels were too low. The nurse came in and turned up her oxygen.

Not long after that, the ER doctor came in and talked to us. He said by the time Sophie had gotten to the hospital, too much time had passed to pump her stomach. Her body had already absorbed most of the medication, so pumping her stomach wouldn’t help. It was up to Sophie to fight through it. The one saving grace, probably the only thing that kept her alive was that one of the medications somehow counteracted another medication.

Even with that piece of good news, Sophie was nowhere near being out of the woods. She could slip into unconsciousness, she could have a heart attack, she could quit breathing. She could still die. According to the doctor, the next few days were critical because she could develop Serotonin Syndrome, which could kill her.

Is it strange to say I hadn’t cried yet? The whole two-hour drive, seeing Sophie so fragile in the ER, still I couldn’t cry. It was as if I’d stepped outside of myself because taking it all in, sitting in the middle of my daughter truly trying to end her life couldn’t be real. It wasn’t until James got up to leave that my eyes teared up and I swallowed against the massive knot in my throat.

“Will you tell Adam thank you?” I asked, my voice thick and muted as I fought the quiver in it, fought the tears that dripped down my cheeks. I needed Sophie’s friend to know how much we appreciated him. He’d saved her life.

James nodded. “He’s a special young man.”

He was. He’d been Sophie’s closest friend since she started boarding school, the first friend she’d trusted in a long time, someone she could tell anything to.

Not long after James left, they moved Sophie to her room in the children’s hospital under very close watch, not just because she was physically unstable. They had someone stationed right outside of her door for around the clock suicide watch.

The next seventy-two hours were a strange juxtaposition. It was comforting to be in the hospital, to have doctors and nurses and specialists doing everything they could to keep Sophie stable, keep her alive. Immediate family surrounded us too. Scott’s mom and aunt came to visit. My mom and stepdad, my dad and stepmom all came, offering love and support to Sophie, to Scott and me.

It was also terrifying. Every time Sophie threw up, I was sure she was declining, that her body would succumb to the massive overdose. That’s when the mental images plagued me, making me sick. All I could picture was Sophie in her dorm room devouring the pills, like candy for the dead.

Every time her monitors beeped a warning because of low oxygen or an erratic heart rate, I panicked. The symptoms of Serotonin Syndrome were the most terrifying—wobbly, shaky legs that couldn’t support Sophie’s weight. There were muscle cramps and sometimes rigidity, all signs of the antidepressants poisoning her, the antidepressants that were meant to save her. Strong, independent, active Sophie couldn’t walk without support.

I never left Sophie’s room, sleeping in small stretches of an hour or two at night only to be woken by alarms on her monitor. I did what I needed to do hour to hour, minute to minute, second to second, because to let it all soak in, to dive into the middle of it, was too much.

Each day that she survived gave me tiny slivers of hope that I desperately clutched.

By the second night at the hospital, our family had all gone home, including Scott who had to go back to work. When alarms beeped or when Sophie threw up or cried or screamed, I was alone in those darkest moments. So many of those moments still haunt me even after four years.

All of my energy, all of my focus was on helping Sophie. I held the pink bucket when she threw up. Sometimes she was so weak and the tremors in her hands were so severe, I had to help her eat. When she needed to use the restroom, I put my arm around her, supporting her weight while her legs shook, threatening to give out in the few steps it took to get to the bathroom. She’d lost so much strength and coordination, I had to clean her every time she used the restroom.

Those were the days when hope was hard to find, especially when darkness seized Sophie’s mind and she cried or screamed because of her depression, her emotional pain was so much worse than the weakness, the vomiting. There were so many times I had to turn my mind off, my emotions off and do what I had to do. Minute to minute. Second to second.

By the fourth day Sophie’s vitals were almost stable and she’d gained some strength. I finally knew she’d be okay. Physically.

That morning while she picked at her breakfast, she looked at me, then back down at her food. “I’m sorry I worried everyone,” she said. Although her voice was soft, it was filled with conviction. “But I’m not sorry I did it. I wish it would have worked.”

Each word was like a poison spear in my chest, killing any hope I’d amassed. I’d never heard more chilling words come from Sophie’s mouth. It was clear that Sophie wouldn’t be discharged even though her vitals were stable. We’d already talked to a psychiatrist who said she needed inpatient mental health treatment. Sophie’s dark words cemented that path.

After eight days in the adolescent behavioral health unit, Sophie was released from the hospital, back on medications she could tolerate. Medications that barely touched her depression. Still, I had hope that she could go back to the school she loved, the friends and staff she loved—the ones who loved her just as much. But something changed after that overdose. Sophie lost her resilience, her fight, her determination. She couldn’t go back to school after the holidays.

I wish I could say our family’s journey has a happy ending, but four years later we’re still in the thick of the battle. Sophie has severe treatment-resistant depression, meaning traditional psychiatric medications haven’t helped. But we keep searching, keep hoping. She still wants to die, so we’re on constant suicide watch, unable to leave her alone. My life now revolves around being with her, keeping her alive until we can hopefully find a treatment that helps.

Some days are so difficult, I get pulled into the darkness with her, and I have to fight my own battles of hopelessness. Those days when Sophie cries and begs me to let her die, any semblance of hope crumbles into dust. Still, I cling to that dust, those ashes, because if I lose those last tiny pieces of hope, there’s nothing but darkness for all of us.

BETH BURGMEYER writes creative nonfiction and fiction. Her work has appeared in Ponder Review, The Ocotillo Review (forthcoming), Bending Genres, and Please See Me. She received first place in the 2018 CIBA Somerset Awards for Literary and Contemporary Fiction. She is also a fellowship recipient for Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing 2021 summer writing residency and conference. Beth lives near Des Moines, Iowa with her family and a menagerie of rescue animals.