A Hidden Teen Crisis
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL)
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255);
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Text “HELLO” to 741741
Trans Life Suicide Hotline: 877-565-8860
Are you depressed?
If you are wondering if you may have depression, ask yourself these questions:
Do you constantly feel sad, anxious, or even “empty,” like you feel nothing?
Do you feel hopeless or like everything is going wrong?
Do you feel like you’re worthless or helpless? Do you feel guilty about things?
Do you feel irritable much of the time?
Do you find yourself spending more time alone and withdrawing from friends and family?
Are your grades dropping?
Have you lost interest or pleasure in activities and hobbies that you used to enjoy?
Have your eating or sleeping habits changed (eating or sleeping more than usual or less than usual)?
Do you always feel tired? Like you have less energy than normal or no energy at all?
Do you feel restless or have trouble sitting still?
Do you feel like you have trouble concentrating, remembering information, or making decisions?
Do you have aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or stomach problems without a clear cause?
Do you ever think about dying or suicide? Have you ever tried to harm yourself?
William took his life the evening of August 27, 2020. He had been suffering from many medical conditions that contributed to a high stress level and extreme depression.
He was receiving medical care for his conditions as well as mental health care with his psychiatrist and therapist.
William carried with him a “backpack of rocks”, a saying coined by his grandmother to describe everything William had to deal with in his 15 years of life.
William’s first rock came at birth. William entered the world on August 9, 2005 with his brother, Bradley and sister, Rose. He came into this world fighting.
The triplets were born prematurely, as are most multiple births, at 28 weeks. William was 2 lbs., 5 oz., and 12 3/4 inches of determination. His first 3 months of life were spent in the NICU. His struggle was just to survive.
At such a young age, he did not know how to breathe, eat, or swallow – so getting him nutrition was one of his challenges.
He was cared for and monitored for a condition called apnea bradycardia which is common with premature births. With this condition, a baby will stop breathing and their blood oxygen level will drop which causes their heart to beat slower.
After 3 months, William was the first to come home from the NICU. William’s first rock was in his backpack and he moved forward.
William’s early childhood was active and rambunctious. The triplets did everything together and got into everything together. It was during his first year of life, we discovered William and his identical twin, Bradley, each had a hole in their heart. Although not uncommon, because they were born premature, any health anomaly could become “something” serious. It was also during this time that we discovered William had a condition known as “tongue-tied”. It is a condition where a band of tissue on the floor of his mouth restricted the range of movement of his tongue. The hole in both their hearts eventually closed without incident and we corrected William’s tongue-tied condition. These were more of pebbles and not rocks in William’s backpack. But the burdens had increased.
From there, our William started to thrive. The doctor checkups kept happening and William raced to catch up to the growth curve and milestone expectations for a toddler. The triplets continued to just be toddlers. What a first year. Our William moved forward.
When we expected our triplets to start talking, we were shocked. They were quiet. Don’t get me wrong, they cried – and when you hear three crying at once it could be noisy, but those times were not often. If you knew my triplets today, they cannot stop talking. Our house was unusually quiet.
They communicated in their “Triplet Way” but did not speak. William was part of a special “team” with his brother and sister. It was a bond that, side-by-side, they helped William carry his burden. It was a blessing to witness.
We remember many times whenever William and Bradley were sad; they would crawl over to Rosie and try to sit on her lap. She would put her arms around them and pat them on their backs when they laid their heads on her shoulders. She had seen her “Gram” do this since they came into the world. This laid the foundation of those early years where Rose became a fierce protector of those boys. She was our Wonder Woman. It was funny because if Rose got upset the boys got upset. If the boys got upset, Rose would do her own thing. In fact, sometimes she would sleep through the boys crying episodes. We guess just like today, she always needed or wanted her rest!
Having triplets is like having a pack of Velociraptors. These three would look at each other, communicate the mission, and silently go into action. Even though they were learning to walk, the triplets could crawl away at warp speed. They were a team and would support each other through the trials and tribulations of childhood.
Our memories of the first years with these angels are a blur of happiness, of learning to be parents, and of building our family to be tight and strong.
William’s second rock came when he started school. Kindergarten is a change because it has so many firsts. Our kids experienced preschool at St. Marks, but kindergarten was in a “big” school. Our lives became intertwined with Crockett Elementary for many years that followed.
Right when we started the school year, William was diagnosed with Amblyopia commonly known as “Lazy Eye”. It is a condition where one eye is unable to focus as clearly as the other. For William this meant, at that point, he was basically blind in his left eye. To strengthen that eye, he had to wear an eye patch over his “good” eye for 4-6 hours daily over 3 years. As you can imagine, this led to many ER trips for stitches because our boy ran into everything. For the most part, his classmates embraced him as just “William” but the bullying started that first year. It was mild teasing, but it started a long road that grew darker and harder to travel as the years passed. His kindergarten teacher embraced and nurtured him. We surrounded him with love and tried to “explain away” the teasing. With the second rock firmly in his backpack, he took it in stride and moved forward.
His third rock also began to surface in kindergarten. It was when he started the little reading books. Having three little ones excited about doing things at home was fun. In our elementary school, we as parents were asked to spend 20 minutes each night with our child reading these little 5-10 page books. We worked together as a family as everyone pitched in to help. From our big boys to “Gram” and even Grandpa – it was a family effort to read with the triplets. It quickly became apparent that William was struggling to read. We started to see that it took William 20 minutes to get through 1-2 pages. It took him a week to read a “sight word” book. We hoped it might be because of his “lazy eye”.
By the end of Kindergarten, Connie Bagley had come into his life. She was the Dyslexia teacher at our elementary school. She started testing William early. She came to know what we knew – William was a bright, articulate, sweet, funny, and sensitive boy that had indications of Dyslexia. Although hard to diagnose at a very young age, we were not sure if it was Dyslexia or maybe his lazy eye. By first grade, Mrs. Bagley began pulling William out of class to work with him. He often spoke of that time. We began to refer to Connie as William’s fairy god mother or commonly as the “William Whisperer” because when he would get frustrated or “difficult”, she could get him to do what he was supposed to do. In fact, we used to tell William “What would Mrs. Bagley say?” or “What would Mrs. Bagley think of this?” many times throughout his life. We had mixed results. William found the support in Mrs. Bagley he needed, and, in many ways, she helped carry that backpack in those early years and built a bond with him that continued throughout his life. William knew that any time during the school day, he could go see Mrs. Bagley. She would see, listen to him, and help him – sometimes just to tell him to “straighten up”.
He felt powerful because she told him he was powerful.
Mrs. Bagley told him about all the beautiful ways dyslexic learners have changed the world. Our William knew every day when he walked into Crockett Elementary School there was someone there that loved him unconditionally and supported him and could fully understand him.
We want everyone to know that William’s love of turtles started during this time. We spoke of the tortoise and the hare story. We often told William “Slow and steady” when he struggled to read. We all said being fast was not important – getting to the goal was important. His mantra became “Slow and steady wins the race.” This is when he, tortoises and turtles became intertwined. When William, with his sport-goggle-glasses and a patch over his eye, embraced “turtle power”, he felt like he had a shield and superpowers. It was uniquely William. It was one of those small moments in life that had the biggest impact. It had a “butterfly” effect – a ripple that continued throughout his life.
As with any superhero, there are powers that enable great things. Connie Bagley awoke that power in William when she introduced a program called Learning Ally. This wonderful program started in 1948 to help soldiers who lost their sight in combat. As they evolved they included other reading disabilities, including Dyslexia, which enabled William. This innovative program assists Dyslexics by highlighting each individual word while it is being read via audio. It takes away all the other text and allows a dyslexic to read one word at a time.
Many people do not understand Dyslexia.
It is not just that words jump around on a page, it is that EVERY WORD is a sight word. Where you or I may recognize a space between words — or have an ability to sound out words, Dyslexics cannot. To reiterate, every word a Dyslexic encounters is a sight word. This means, when a Dyslexic sees a word, they have to know it so they can read it in that specific instance.
Dyslexia is never outgrown.
Dyslexia is not something that can be changed.
Dyslexia makes reading exhausting.
Dyslexia makes learning exhausting.
There are many, many brilliant Dyslexics in the world that have learned to thrive.
Empowered by Learning Ally, William won reading awards at his school as well as national awards for reading from Learning Ally. William passed his 3rd grade STAR test, which is the standardized assessment test for the state of Texas. As a matter of fact, when he left elementary school, not only did he pass the STAR, he was held as exemplary—and he was reading at an 11-12th grade level. He was amazing, and now looked ready for anything. We were amazed at the volume and size of books he devoured.
Dyslexia became his third rock. It was a rock William accepted because it came with Mrs. Bagley and he moved forward.
As elementary school progressed William was also diagnosed with Dysgraphia. This would become his fourth rock. For those unfamiliar, Dysgraphia is a learning disability that results in unusual and distorted handwriting. William hated to write, his dexterity was poor, and he really just struggled to hold a pencil correctly. As a parent, you save so many things your children create. We found one item from William that was a Mother’s Day craft project. It was called “Recipe for a Loving Mom”. We passed it around to everyone in the family to try to make out the words he had written. We settled on “Love”, “Happiness”, “Determination”, “Bold” and – what we think may be “Confidence”. We do have to admit the last word is a little dicey because it could just have been squiggles.
It was in 4th grade that William learned to advocate. Once again, Mrs. Bagley had awakened a passion and duty to advocate for himself and others. He qualified for learning “accommodations”. William could quote the law – section and statute. He became fierce at it. It gave him confidence which he channeled into two of his causes – advocating for the rescue of tortoises and for those with disabilities. It was also during this time the bullying intensified. Having accommodations puts you “out there”. He encountered kids who thought he was dumb because he had to have things read to him, or well-meaning adults who thought they could be the one to rescue him from a lifetime of messy handwriting, or the people who thought he was taking advantage of his accommodations.
William’s fifth rock was ADHD. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with executive function and development. This was discovered in therapy. We tried everything to help him. Our kids remember the “gluten free” phase of our lives with a stomach churn. We were hoping that medication was not the only answer. For our William, that was the last answer. We started him on a very low dose medication that helped him. The therapy, the medications, and the love all gave William some ways to soothe the growing anxiety. He was able, at times, to focus. Williams fifth rock was a heavy one and he moved forward.
We were concerned about junior high, and actually left our home district initially. This turned out to be a big mistake. We thought we found a district with a comprehensive Dyslexia program at the junior high level. This was not the case. William started Jr. High ready to go in August of 2016 and by Labor Day we were in the hospital. In the first few weeks of school William was having more and more issues with not feeling well. We saw his pediatrician, we did all the usual things, but they could find nothing. Our pediatrician never thought it was nothing, he made sure it was not anxiety, and we moved into trying to figure it out. The Sunday night before Labor Day William was having a lot of pain and had a slight fever.
Off to Dell Children’s in Austin we went with the fear he may be experiencing appendicitis. By the next day the surgeon told us it was not appendicitis but looked like Crohn’s disease. In one sentence the doctor told us “Don’t Google that, stay off the internet, I’m turning you over to Pediatric Gastroenterology”.
Nine days later we left the hospital with a boy who was now on infusions that would happen every 6-8 weeks for the rest of his life.
The team of doctors grew and the appointments every month increased. Our Dyslexic, ADHD boy had to navigate a new path.
He was in less pain with the rapid infusion of the biologic medicines, but he still had pain.
Crohn’s Disease became the sixth heavy rock in that backpack. William now got a whole new set of accommodations in school and started trying to figure out what all this meant. He learned about bathroom issues, and grew tired of talking to people about his poop. He spent a lot of time in the nurses office and he learned where all the clean restrooms were in school.
Again he experienced the well-meaning people trying to tell him he felt “ok”.
They told him he did not need to leave class to go to the bathroom.
There were those who gently approached us and asked us to convince him not to leave class to go to the nurse or the bathroom.
We were back in our home district before Christmas. William came back into a place he thought would be familiar. He would be back with his friends, his city, and in his home district.
But Junior High is hard, and he struggled to find his way, as do many kids.
Now he was different.
In middle school he did not have a “Mrs. Bagley”. He did not fit in with his old friends and struggled finding new ones. His sweet, quirky, awkward, and off beat personality that we all loved did not fit in so nicely in junior high.
He had many caring teachers that took him in and cared for him. They understood how much he needed support and a boost.
There were others who did not.
The bullying intensified and we were ready to put sixth grade behind us.
William started 7th grade with a fresh fighting spirit. He joined athletics, and the Cross Country team. William was able to attend some practice and worked hard but he hurt.
He complained of aches and pains. His coaches encouraged him.
Couch Jones would run alongside him. The cross-country race he was able to complete, which he came in really late, was like one of those inspiring movie scenes. His team and many of the parents rallied to cheer him on yelling and cheering as he crossed the finish line. He may have been last, but that experience lifted him that day.
By November of that year his seventh rock came when he was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
By January, his eighth rock was a diagnosis of Fibro Myalgia – all the inflammation had him in constant pain.
He started taking weekly injections every Friday that made him sick, which is why he took them on the weekend, so it interfered less with school. Now he had yet another set of appointments with specialists.
Now he was more different.
These two rocks weighed heavier in that backpack he was carrying.
At this point his backpack was physically too heavy for him to carry.
We noticed that he could not carry his real physical school backpack.
His Grandfather got him a rolling backpack. He thought it was cool until kids would kick it when he went down the hall.
With 2 new diagnosis, he got a whole other set of accommodations. He was now very different.
The bullying became a regular thing.
He did not have friends to eat lunch with often and his isolation increased. He worked hard to stay on task and finished the year with his grades strong. The toll was visible, and he stated to slump in his posture and was always looking down.
The medicines William took postponed puberty for a time. This was to help his body reduce the inflammation in his joints so his growth would be less impacted.
He started 8th grade ready to go and we quickly realized his ADHD medicine was not working.
No problem, this one was still a relatively low dose and we had room to adjust — but that did not work for William. Puberty started to kick in, and standard ADHD medications did not work.
He started getting frustrated, resentful, and angry with nowhere to point it at.
We changed medications.
It did not work.
We found another specialist to see and help with treatment.
William got new medications.
At this time he was also diagnosed with anxiety and depression – deep enough to merit medication.
These were the 9th & 10th rocks in his backpack.
His anxiety that had always been there lurking under the surface started coming out in many, many ways.
He obsessively washed his hands.
He did not like anyone touching his things.
Insignificant things became major issues.
His entire 8th grade year was a struggle.
A struggle for accommodations, a struggle with bullying, a struggle to figure out who he was now.
When we found out he was not getting his accommodations he begged his mother not to intervene.
He said every time she made a “big deal”, things got worse.
People try, but it is exhausting to be patient with a 13-year old sometimes. Other kids picked up on the eye rolls, the sighs, the overworked irritation that was shown on teachers faces when he advocated for himself.
Some kids were relentless, and many times those that were not relentless, ignored him.
Nobody was in his corner. His siblings were not always around to support him.
Eventually, he stopped advocating.
He stopped demanding his accommodations.
He put up his flag and he started to surrender.
At the end of 8th grade William’s numerous appointments took their toll. He did not want to go to physical therapy, occupational therapy, or acupuncture. The only appointments we could get him to continue with were his therapist, his psychiatrist, his gastroenterologist, his ophthalmologist, and his Rheumatologist. These were monthly and his absence from school grew and he struggled to keep up.
We started anxiety and depression medications and stopped worrying about ADHD.
Ninth grade was a repeat of eighth grade – except for a few bright experiences that started to shine . He started Robotics club in 9th grade and joined ROTC. He was part of the ROTC Cyber Patriots team.
He barely finished 9th grade and he moved forward.
Over the summer he gradually started to withdraw from all the things he loved, for the last 3 weeks we could not get him to focus on things other than video games.
Nothing else mattered.
In early August, William turned 15, and he had a plan. A plan for success in 10th grade. However, as school grew closer, his anxiety increased.
We noticed he was struggling to concentrate on even the things he loved.
On the Monday before he took his life William visited his Ophthalmologist to check on his eyes.
William had been seeing this brilliant doctor since he was 5 years old. She knew every millimeter of his two beautiful blue eyes.
She saw something different.
As mentioned before, William was smart – his ability to grasp things just by listening was how he made his way through school.
William did not take notes.
William did not study.
No Dyslexic wants to read notes and listening had always worked for William.
His doctor said it was just a change in his optic nerve in his right eye. She did not see any irritation, nothing outright that she could clearly identify.
She said she wanted an MRI to see what was behind the optic nerve in his dominate eye.
William asked her “In my right eye?”
She said “Yes, your dominate eye.”
We had requested an in-person doctor’s visit to check his eyes because William started driving a bit (he was 15) and he complained he needed a new prescription because his vision was a bit blurry.
Remember all those long days and years of patching his eye we mentioned earlier? His good eye was patched all those years.
They patched his good eye so that if anything ever happened to that eye, William would not be totally blind. He had to force his left eye to see just enough so he could function. It really was not that good.
When William heard that his optic nerve changed, we think he felt that 11th rock fall into his backpack.
No good thing ever come out of extensive testing for William.
In his anxious state, it weighed on him.
The last day of William’s life was bright for us as a family. It was filled with some great moments. William hugged and kissed everyone in the house at different times throughout the day and he told them how much he loved them. He did his chores – which was unusual.
He went through his chore list with his mother and walked her around the house to make sure she approved. He was so involved in making sure he got everything done he would not sit down for dinner. What we know now is William was just getting things ready.
We went for an evening walk and when we returned our lives were changed forever.
William was gone.
His backpack was empty now.
The rocks no longer weighed him down.