If you were to ask Adrianne Weisberg what untreated childhood trauma and depression looks like, she might tell you about two moments seared into her memory:
1) Her daughter crumpled on the bathroom floor, dazed, numb, bleeding from dozens of self-inflicted gashes.
2) Bandages gingerly peeled from her daughter’s wrists, revealing vertical cuts a hair’s width from the artery, the closest Adrianne had come to losing Chloe, her second-born, a beautiful girl who’d spent half of her life under the weight of a terrible secret.
When Chloe was 6 or 7, Adrianne left Chloe in the care of another mom, a longtime friend with three children who offered to mind hers while Adrianne worked. What dark secrets that family carried Adrianne still doesn’t know. Two of the kids, a 13-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl, molested Chloe, repeatedly.
Chloe, now 15, never said a word. Adrianne never thought to link the caregiver’s family to the troubling behaviors that emerged: Chloe’s nightmares, her refusal to sleep alone, her persistent fear of death, and the inexplicable injuries that the agile little girl blamed on falls. A counselor didn’t pick up on the abuse, either.
“Looking back, I didn’t have the ah-ha moment,” Adrianne muses. “We knew this family for years.”
Early on, Chloe couldn’t say why she’d purposely tumble out of trees or down steps. “I remember banging my head against the wall. It was weird,” Chloe says. She understands now that physical pain provided a strange relief from mental anguish.
Falls progressed to cuts, hidden carefully under pant legs, long sleeves and layers of bracelets.
Adrianne didn’t learn about the self-harm until Chloe was 13. It took an another year before Chloe told her mom about the abuse.
There was a moment when Adrianne could have intervened: Chloe’s pediatrician in their native Ohio had discovered she was cutting, but the doctor never mentioned it to Adrianne or Chloe’s dad. Instead, she gave Chloe the number to a suicide hotline, which Adrianne stumbled upon months after Chloe’s annual physical. The mother is still furious over the incident. Other doctors have failed the family, too, with hasty diagnoses, lack of mental health training, and uttering “textbook wrong things to say” in conversations with Chloe.
Ultimately, Chloe was accepted into an intensive therapy program at the David Lawrence Center in Naples where she spent a year learning how to come to terms with her past, quiet her anxiety and move forward with her future.
“I’m one year clean as of four days ago,” Chloe announces on that October afternoon. Self-harm is an addiction, much like substance abuse.
Now, the mother and daughter share their story in order to spread awareness about mental illnesses; remove their stigma; and encourage parents, teachers and pediatricians to watch for hints of distress and to talk to kids about their feelings. Mental illness, they say, is far more common than most people imagine, striking families across the spectrum.
“(David Lawrence Center CEO) Scott Burgess said something that literally changed my life,” Adrianne says. “He said, ‘(Mental illness is) like any other illness; the sooner you can get them help, the better off they are.’ … If (Chloe) had broken her arm, we would have gotten a cast on it. But she was abused and there was no X-ray we could take. She tried to cope with it in her own way. It’s like fixing your own broken arm. Can you do that? I can’t.”