For the modern parent, the smartphone is both a terrifying window into the world of teenage experimentation, and a way to keep tabs on teens who wouldn't otherwise share what they're up to. (Katherine Streeter for KQED)
Few things are more painful than watching people we love harm themselves. Most parents go through some iteration of this experience when their children become teenagers, but some families suffer more than others. One mom in Berkeley, Donna, found herself caught in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with her daughter, Cindy, starting in middle school. (To protect the family, we’ve changed the names.)
When did the trouble start? The stories differ, depending on how you define trouble.
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Donna recalls the moment she spotted the first sext on her daughter's phone, while driving with her two girls in the car. Cindy was 13 at the time, and her younger sister was in the back seat, so Donna didn't say anything out loud, at first.
"I looked over. My daughter was in the front seat. She was holding her phone. You know, she kind of scrolled through. But well, my first thought was: Why is there a male torso on my child’s phone? And then I thought to myself: Oh gosh, it’s, you know, this is happening.”
That's just the sexting. "I would see sometimes text conversations," Donna says, "between her and someone I didn’t know, and I assume, actually, that she didn’t know. If I could ever really see the whole gist of a conversation, I would gather that the person on the other side was a boy or man, who eventually would lead the discussion to something sexual, and then it seemed like she would kind of stop."
What Donna Ultimately Realized Was Happening
"I really wanted attention," Cindy says. At that time, she adds, "I didn’t really care how people thought of me. Like, I’m going to text this guy a million times until he stops replying, and then I’ll find the next one."
Cindy was an anxious kid, and a year into middle school, she found herself socially excluded by a group she calls the Abercrombie Girls, in reference to their focus on fashion. Cindy describes it as a “Mean Girls” situation. “I was always at the edge.”
So Cindy sought out boys, and men, consciously aware they were interested in sex, regardless of what she told her mom.
"It’s so easy, you know?" Cindy says. "Snap the picture and send it. It takes nothing."
Cindy is hardly an anomaly. Sexting is a common practice among teenagers, and grownups everywhere are struggling to catch up. Some law enforcement agencies treat sexting an under-age girl as a criminal offense, but if the sexter is a teenage boy, that can come off as heavy-handed.
Donna warned her daughters about the fact that photos are forever on the Internet, but Cindy was favoring the bad information she got from girlfriends, who told her guys were unlikely to forward her photos if she had sexual photos of them: a kind of mutually assured destruction pact.
That turned out to be a naive assumption. But even after Cindy knew better, even after she had been publicly embarrassed, she kept sexting. Even after one of the older guys she was chatting with threatened to come find her, she kept looking for new, strange friends.
Donna never really stalked her daughter. She openly checked Cindy's phone once a week in middle school. But Cindy was much more careful about what she shared with her mom, regularly deleting incriminating evidence that could get her grounded or, at the very least, forced to endure a lecture.
Cindy wasn't a big fan of social media, but Donna checked the feeds of her daughter’s Facebook friends nonetheless, looking for clues about her daughter’s life that Cindy wasn’t choosing to share with her. Donna also installed K9 Web Protection, filtering software that blocks sites and then emits a loud dog bark.
The cutting was the first clue that Cindy’s anxiety and depression were overwhelming her. Cindy fell in with a couple of girls at school who were also suffering from depression. They were also cutting themselves, and cutting themselves competitively with each other.
Cindy described her first scars as evidence of an encounter with a cat. That excuse worked only once, and her tolerance grew over time, so she needed to cut more often "to get the same relief."
"They look like what they are: razor cuts," says Donna. "So they’re very thin, and precise -- but they can get a little deep. I know, it’s horrible."
Soon after the cutting began, Donna lined up a therapist, but Cindy didn't take to the woman. She was formal, the kind of therapist who likes to review her notes at the end of a session -- with a 13-year-old.
“It wasn’t more damaging," Cindy says now, "but it just wasn’t helpful -- and that was a critical time.”
All this was before high school.
Listen to more of Cindy's reflections on middle school:
Berkeley High School
"Unfortunately, high school didn’t go as well as we had hoped for her," Donna says. "She started out strong her freshman year, but by her sophomore year, she had gotten again with a group that was kind of fringe -- not exactly motivated in school, and they were smoking a lot of pot."
“It’s so easy to find," Cindy says. "Everyone had this unlimited supply. I almost always got it for free in the beginning."
By sophomore year, Cindy was smoking, by her own estimate, eight or nine "blunts" a day -- and then drinking on top of that. There was also a one-month flirtation with cocaine, but that wasn’t her main drug.
Despite all this, Cindy was still getting A's and B's in school. She was taking care of business. "I was the only kid who went to class of the friends that I was with, ’cause I knew that If I started getting bad grades, my parents would notice."
"There are kids who are very combative with their parents," Donna says. "They’re 'I hate you, Mom,' and they’re fighting. We were never like that. She would tug at my heartstrings, versus push me away. We tried to rein her in. 'You can’t go to this party, and you can’t hang out with so-and-so.'"
But Donna found it hard to lay down the law for any length of time. "You become a jailer, which is not fun," she says.
Why didn't Donna simply take away Cindy's phone or Internet access? Cindy answers it best. "She really thought that if she punished me, I'd hurt myself." Also, the phone was a valuable surveillance device for Donna, a way to keep tabs -- however limited -- on her daughter.
For example, Donna recalls following Cindy via GPS down Telegraph Avenue one Halloween night after dropping her off at a party.
"She was probably trying to score something," Donna recalls. "I kept texting, 'Where are you?' and she kept telling me, 'Oh, at this other party,' and I could see the little dot moving around. I said, 'You know, I’m just coming to get you.' ”
"Things started to go downhill," Donna continues. "It just went downhill really fast. I realized, again from looking at her phone, that she was financing her pot use by selling it."
At this point, Donna had tried talk therapy, anti-depressants, dialectical behavior therapy -- "a common form of therapy used for kids who cut" -- which involved a year of classes for Cindy and Donna in Oakland at Clearwater Clinic.
Ultimately, nothing they could do in Berkeley seemed to be working. "I feel like, at a certain point, I didn't know who she was," Donna says. "Someone who's using drugs and abusing alcohol, there's a lot they have to hide and a lot of manipulation."
Cindy agreed to go to North Carolina for 2½ months to attend what’s called a wilderness therapy program. There, Cindy was separated from everything: her friends, her drugs, her makeup and, of course, her iPhone. Such a dramatic intervention doesn't always work. Some kids are literally dragged to wilderness school, and the therapy doesn't take. But Cindy says she loved her experience at Trails in North Carolina, and would even do it again.
As part of her therapy, Cindy had to write letters home cataloging everything she'd done in the previous years. The letters were shocking to Donna. "I probably shouldn’t have trusted her as much as I did."
Donna was genuinely surprised at the level of Cindy's drinking, despite a couple instances in which she vomited in public, and one time when she blacked out in a public park. A friend carried her to his home and called Donna from there.
Cindy's stint at Trails was followed by a therapeutic boarding school, Spring Ridge Academy, in Arizona, before she finished high school in the East Bay. She's now a freshman at an East Coast university.
Mother and daughter are on good terms these days. "I will never not regret the pain that I caused my mother," Cindy says. "I always knew that she loved me. She cared enough to repeatedly go through these things with me and not give up."
This podcast features music by Yoga Meditation Music ("Healing Singing Bowl") and Dave Porter ("The Morning After" from "Breaking Bad").