No Longer a Child
Trigger warning: suicidal thoughts Wesley wanted to scream. His parents were fighting again. Last week, it was about not cleaning the...
Trigger warning: suicidal thoughts
Wesley wanted to scream. His parents were fighting again. Last week, it was about not cleaning the bathroom properly. This time, it was about visiting family. Even through his closed bedroom door, he could hear their shouting.
“You say I never visit your side of the family,” his mom shouted, “but when I want to go, you say you’re busy!”
“You can’t tell me the day of!” his dad shot back. “Do you just expect me to drop everything I’m doing? You can go by yourself!”
“That’s not the point! I want you to come with me, and you won’t make the time!”
“Oh, of course it’s all my fault, and you’re playing the victim like you always do!”
This would go on forever. There was no way Wes was going to get any homework done. High school was hard enough without the drama at home. At least his younger brother and sister were out with friends. They didn’t need to hear any of this. Their parents usually did a good job of keeping their tempers in check around Peter and Melanie. But the tension was there, like a pot of water simmering on the stove. All it took was something to turn up the heat and cause the water to boil over.
Wes had seen his parents erupt at each other over and over again. They didn’t try to be as careful when it was just him in the house. Maybe they thought he was old enough to handle it, or maybe he was just so quiet that they forgot their filters. He never got between them when they fought, but he still felt like he was caught in the middle.
He might as well have been invisible.
He needed to get away from his parents and the toxic environment they created in their fights. Wes would’ve bet that all of his gray hairs were because of his parents and not school. After changing into running clothes, Wes went downstairs to the kitchen, which also doubled as his parents’ battlefield. His mom was at the sink, washing dishes. She picked up a knife, and Wes feared she would wield it as a weapon. His dad wiped the counter, but there was one stain that wouldn’t come out no matter how much he tried. They launched words at each other like bullets, the air thick with anger.
Wes grabbed his keys and muttered, “I’m going for a run,” more to himself than to them. They paid him no mind.
As he said—invisible.
After inserting his earbuds and selecting his running playlist on his phone, he took off. The music blasted in his ears and drowned out the other noises in his head. He kept running and didn’t stop, even when he got to the park. His focus was just to keep moving. If he stopped, he would start thinking, and he didn’t want to think about anything right now.
Wes’s feet struck the path that curved around the park. His heart beat faster to keep up with him. Blood roared in his ears, and sweat rolled down his neck and back. Someone might have waved at him in passing, but he didn’t pay attention. He ignored the other runners, the couples having picnics, and the parents pushing their kids on the swings.
God, why are there so many people here? Why do they all look so happy?
If his parents were here, they would plaster on fake smiles. They should win an Oscar for how well they acted in public versus at home. Wes’s friends always commented on how perfect his family was, but they didn’t know the truth. They only saw what was projected to them—the warm greetings, the compliments, the food that was laid out before them when they came over. His friends were an audience that cared only for the movie and not what went on behind the scenes.
Wes slowed down to a jog before coming to a complete stop. He planted his hands on his thighs to catch his breath.
So much for not thinking.
He took a few gulps from a nearby drinking fountain. A shaded spot under a nearby tree called out to him. Wes paused his music, plopped down on his back, and closed his eyes. A dog barked in the distance, its owner trying to calm it down. A woman on the phone asked the other person if they were still on for brunch tomorrow. An earthy and sharp scent that could only be weed wafted past him. That was his cue to snap back to the present.
Wes opened his eyes and sat up, wrapping his arms around his legs. A breeze blew through the park, cooling his skin. Clouds drifted lazily across the sky. A few flowers poked their heads out of the ground, heralding the start of the new season. Spring was supposed to be the season of new beginnings, but his mind felt trapped in ice and snow. So much had changed with his parents. Perhaps it was always bad with them, but he only recognized it when he got older.
He was supposed to be worried about passing his classes and going on dates, not the drama with his parents. Graduation was two months away, but he dreaded it more than anything. He wanted to move out and figure out how to be independent, but that would mean leaving his parents and not being there if things got worse.
He thought about all the different ways someone could be considered an adult—a girl getting her first period, a bright-eyed 16-year-old brandishing their new driver’s license. Or graduating high school and moving out, as Wes mentioned before. It could be landing your first full-time job. Maybe it was going to the bar with a real ID and ordering your first legal alcoholic drink after turning 21. Those were all plausible. Those were all normal.
For Wes, it was none of the above.
He became an adult when his parents stopped loving each other.
Once upon a time, they were in love. They had a whirlwind romance filled with bouquets, handwritten letters, and secret rendezvouses in the middle of the night. They got married, bought a house, had three kids—everything they ever wanted. Then it all changed. In a cruel twist of irony, being together is what caused them to fall out of love. The first time Wes noticed it was when he was ten. He had woken up in the middle of the night and wanted a glass of water. At the top of the stairs, he heard his parents talking. His mom said their marriage was more tiring than rewarding. His dad said they had to stay together for the kids, and his mom agreed. And then it turned into an argument about how much money the other person spent that week.
Minor disagreements turned into vicious spats filled with the very words his parents told him to never say. Sometimes, his mom and dad wouldn’t talk to each other for days, and it made family dinners more than awkward. About three years ago, his dad started sleeping in the guest bedroom downstairs. He said he preferred it because it was cooler, and Wes believed him. But when winter came, he didn’t go back to his old room. Now, Wes knew better. Now, he knew that they couldn’t even stand to share the same bed. His heart hurt for them. Seeing them act so coldly toward each other twisted his insides.
He looked up. His cousin, Nina, stood in front of him, taking a sip from her boba. She wore a blue denim jacket over a yellow dress that fluttered in the wind. Her blonde-streaked hair was tied up in a ponytail. She looked more ready for spring than Wes felt.
“I saw you while I was walking. I waved, but you looked like you were on your way to beat someone up.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Sorry. A lot on my mind.” He paused. “My parents are fighting again.”
Nina peeled off her denim jacket and spread it on the grass. She sat down next to him and offered him her drink. “Wanna talk about it?”
Nina was a few months younger than Wes. They practically grew up together. Their adventures consisted of saving each other from talkative aunts, doing homework together, and consoling the other with sushi and ice cream when they went through a breakup. Their close bond was a result of being each other’s given and chosen family, a privilege not many shared. She was his best friend and the only person who knew about his parents.
Wes swirled the boba, peering at the tapioca pearls as if they held the answers to all his problems. He drank some and handed it back to Nina. “I just needed to get out of there.”
“More yelling and no talking?”
“You know it. They’re Asian—they don’t talk about their emotions, so they don’t know how to process their emotions when they’re feeling emotional. They just go straight to unfiltered anger. Very healthy.”
Wes loved his parents, but they were not his go-to role models on how to express feelings. They told him boys didn’t cry, which made him feel bad when he did cry. The only time he’s seen them shed any tears is when they cut onions. It took him years to reconcile the fact that it was okay to be upset, no thanks to his parents.
“If only they would go to therapy or marriage counseling,” Nina said.
“And pay all that money to talk to a stranger about their problems?” Wes scoffed. “You might as well tell them to buy toilet paper at somewhere other than Costco.”
“Do you think they’ll get a divorce?”
Had anyone else asked that question, Wes would have gotten defensive. Then again, no one suspected there were problems to begin with that even warranted consideration for a divorce. He was grateful he could drop the facade with Nina. She also had a traditional upbringing, so she understood how he felt for the most part. There were parts of her life she had to hide from her parents. They expected her to marry a man who could support her, but she had no interest in that. Wes was her confidant, and Nina was his.
Wes shook his head. “No, it wouldn’t be practical for either of them. My dad makes sure the house and the cars are in top condition, and my mom cooks all the food. Without him, she’d be stranded on the side of the freeway. And without her, he’d starve. Logistically, they need each other to survive.”
“How romantic,” Nina deadpanned.
When he was twelve, Wes’s mom had picked him up from school. After they pulled into their house, his mom asked, “If your dad and I got divorced, who would you want to live with?” The question was a punch to the gut. She had said it so casually, too, in the same tone a mother would ask their kid what flavor ice cream they wanted. He told her he couldn’t answer that and ran to his room before she could ask again.
A child walked by with his parents, holding on to their hands. His squeals of laughter rang through the park as they lifted him off the ground. A spark of envy shot through Wes. It gnawed at him every time he saw a happy family. He wanted to go back to being a blissfully ignorant kid. He missed taking naps and running around the house without a care in the world. He missed his parents watching movies together and taking them all out to eat.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” Wes said abruptly, startling Nina. He gripped the grass beneath him.
“Do you want me to just listen or offer my opinion afterward?” That question changed the game of their relationship when they first used it last year. Sometimes, you just needed to vent and not be talked down with logic and reason.
“Listen, please.” Wes took a deep breath. “A few weeks ago, my parents were fighting again. Three days later, they still hadn’t said a word to each other. My mom went to work, and I was watching TV with my dad. Out of nowhere, he told me he hates fighting with her. He still cares about her but thinks she doesn’t feel the same way. He feels like she takes him for granted.”
Wes yanked out clumps of grass as he spoke, watching them fly away in the wind. He had kept the next part to himself. The thought of sharing it made him nauseous. But if Wes didn’t tell Nina, it would fester and kill him from the inside.
He stared straight ahead. It was easier than looking Nina in the eye. “My dad said there are times when he just wants to get in his car and drive to a cliff.” Nina tensed beside him. He tried to keep his voice steady, but he could already feel it cracking. “And… And he… He thinks about jumping off.”
Whatever wall Wes thought he had built to ignore that day crumbled into dust. There was no way anyone could ignore that. Pretending otherwise was a short-term solution for an ongoing problem. If it were a movie, this would be the part where the mom walks in and asks what’s wrong, and the dad shares his feelings, and they reconcile, and they all live happily ever after. But this was real life.
“Wes,” Nina started. She clamped her mouth shut, remembering his request to just listen. But that didn’t stop the tears from forming in her eyes. His dad was her family, too; this affected her almost as much as it did him. She scooted closer and wrapped her arms around him. He sank into her hug. As much as it hurt to relive the memory, the tightness in his body uncoiled when he told her.
Nina let go, and he finished the story. “I just sat there. I was trying to process what he told me at nine in the fucking morning.” He sighed. “Then I got pissed. I yelled at him. I said, ‘Seriously? If you kill yourself, what about the rest of us? What about Melanie and Peter and your siblings and the rest of your family? You would be so selfish.’”
Wes ran his hands down his face. “He didn’t say anything. He told me to wash the dishes. Can you believe him? Acting like he hadn’t just dropped the worst truth bomb in history. Afterward, I went to my room and cried. Mel heard me and asked what was wrong. I told her my friend’s dog died, and I wasn’t taking it well.” He shook his head. “And that was that. My dad hasn’t brought it up since. Now I’m worried that every time they fight, he’s going to get in his car and not come back.”
“I’m sorry, Wes,” said Nina, her voice almost a whisper. “That is… Never mind, you know what it is. Why didn’t you tell me?”
He shrugged. “I wanted to ignore it. If I said it out loud, then it would mean it actually happened, that my dad has those thoughts. I wasn’t ready for it to be real. But it hurt more to hold it in.”
Nina nodded. “I totally understand. Thank you for telling me.”
“Wanna know what else sucks? He was honest about his emotions for once, but he told the wrong person! I’m sick of being their emotional garbage can. If he tried to share that with my mom, I know it would blow up into another fight. If they would just communicate with each other, things would be so different. Things would be better.” That’s what he wanted to believe, anyway.
“I know you told me to just listen, but this is serious.” She stared into him. “You have to talk to them, for their sake and yours.”
In Wes’s head, he knew she was right, but his heart was still in denial. “What if it leads to another fight?”
Nina tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “It very well might, but what if it also leads to change? Isn’t it worth trying at the risk of failing instead of not doing anything and letting it get worse than it already is?” She squeezed his arm. “They’re your family, Wes. You shouldn’t have to go through this. Melanie and Peter are going to figure it out eventually if something isn’t done.”
Her words caused something to click inside Wes. It was the feeling of putting in the last puzzle piece after days of toiling away at it. He had always viewed the situation as just his parents with him caught in the middle. Peter and Mel were on the periphery, safely tucked away from the toxicity. They were in middle school, but they were so much more perceptive for their age. It was only a matter of time before they discovered the truth; Wes suspected they had inklings that something was going on. He didn’t want them to go through the same stress that he had. Lying to them wasn’t protecting them; it was just delaying the inevitable. It was his job as their older brother to prepare them and be honest with them. All this time, Wes had been searching for a reason to take action, and now, he finally found it.
“I know that glint in your eye,” Nina said with a smile. “You got this.”
Wes hugged his cousin. “Thank you, Nina. You’re the best.”
She tossed her ponytail. “And don’t you forget it. Call me after?”
“Will do. Wish me luck.”
Wes had declined Nina’s offer of a ride and ran back home. He wanted a few more minutes to himself to process what he and his cousin had discussed. There wasn’t time to shower and change into clothes that weren’t covered in sweat and grass. Wes had to do this now before he lost the courage.
His parents were still in the kitchen. The silence between them was louder than their argument this morning. His mom was taking inventory of the fridge and writing a shopping list of groceries to buy. She tapped the pen against her lips. Her raven hair fell to her shoulders. She sported the new maroon cardigan Wes had bought her for her birthday. Instead of saying thank you, his mom scolded him for wasting his money on her, but she wore it often. She pulled out a carton of eggs to look inside, and Wes saw the arms that had held him and his siblings.
His dad sat at the dining table with his laptop, browsing car parts on Amazon. His calloused fingers prodded and swiped at the screen. Tufts of hair poked out from his otherwise bald head. He wore a faded t-shirt and shorts from before Wes was born that he refused to get rid of. According to him, if it wasn’t ripped or transparent, it was still wearable. He squinted at the small text of the screen, forgetting he could enlarge it. Wes spotted the wrinkles around his eyes, formed from years of laughter and worry for his children.
Wes loved them with all his heart, but things needed to change. He couldn’t count on either of his parents to extend an olive branch. He was tired of being the most emotionally aware person in the house. Being caught in the middle gave him ulcers, but it also put him in the unique position to be a mediator. If they weren’t going to go to a marriage counselor, he would play the part. He didn’t know where to start, but he felt like addressing his dad’s thoughts was a good launching point. Then they needed to talk to Melanie and Peter, who deserved to know more than anyone.
It was a lot for a senior in high school to take on, but Wes was nothing if not determined. If he could help salvage the pieces of his family, then he would do everything he could. He wasn’t going to go into it with blind optimism, either. Some things were too broken to be fixed, and Wes had to be ready to accept that if it came to it. But one step at a time.
“Mom? Dad?” They both looked at him, and he steeled himself. “We need to talk.”
Note from the author: This piece is based on a friend’s true experience. He gave me permission to adapt it into a story. The goal was not to write something performative or derivative regarding thoughts of suicide. On the contrary, I wanted to highlight that anyone, even Asian parents who rarely discuss mental health, can struggle with mental health. Moreover, these battles not only affect the person experiencing them but their loved ones, as well.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, consider talking to a friend, family member, or therapist. You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24/7, at 1-800-273-8255. For those outside the United States, follow this link for international hotlines. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of available resources but merely a starting point.
Editors: Nikki J., Emily X., Claudia L., Lillian H
Cover source: https://bit.ly/3xZNvta