ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jennifer Hodge needs to tell you about her daughter, her quiet, sweet, beautiful, girl – the way she smiled, the way she did cartwheels across the living room floor, the way she seemed so much wiser, so much older, than her 11 years.
The way she died.
The way she waited for the family to go shopping at Wal-Mart, scratched out a note in pencil on loose-leaf paper, wrapped an orange extension cord around her neck in the garage of her family’s home in Albuquerque and jumped.
She left the note on the garage floor next to a card she made for her mom.
“I am sorry,” she wrote. “I love you and all of my family but I do not like this world. I’m sorry. Happy Mother’s Day.”
And, yes, it was Mother’s Day, though Hodge doesn’t think her daughter Karen Ward chose that day in particular. It was, she thinks, the first time Karen had the chance.
“How many times did she say, ‘I’m going to do this’ and something stopped her at the last minute?” Hodge wonders. “This time, there was nothing to stop her.”
No one to stop her.
But how do you stop something so unthinkable when you don’t know it’s there? How do you fight the monster when it doesn’t show itself? How do you imagine a world so dark and hopeless that an 11-year-old takes herself out of it?
“I didn’t see that she was having problems,” Hodge said. “I didn’t see she was falling apart.”
Hodge’s longtime boyfriend, Randy Caudell, a kindergarten teacher, psychology student and a father figure to Karen, didn’t see it, either.
“This is my line of study,” he said. “And no, nothing. The signs weren’t there, except maybe in hindsight.”
Which makes Karen’s death all the more painful. And frightening. It’s scary what a smile can hide.
Karen, her mother said, was a silly girl, brilliant and beautiful. She learned to read by age 2. She was a fifth-grader at Hodgin Elementary, where she earned good grades – so good she was tested for the gifted program. She was a gymnast. She had blond hair and blue eyes like her idol, Taylor Swift, to whom she devoted an Instagram account.
She had friends. She loved her family. She was in good health. She had dreams.
“She wanted to be a doctor,” her mother said. “A cardiac surgeon to fix her grandfather’s heart.”
Any changes in mood were barely perceptible and attributed to the onset of puberty.
Weeks after Karen’s death, Hodge opened her daughter’s Kindle and was shocked to find a secret her daughter kept in an account on Instagram – a photo-sharing website.
The account was listed under the name IM-DYING-INSIDE123 and contained troubling images of despair, bullying, pain and Karen’s inner thigh and belly covered with thin, bloody slashes from a razor blade.
“I am a cutter,” Karen wrote in her profile. “I’m ugly, fat and depressed. My life will end someday.”
It was not the Karen her mother knew. Hodge had never seen the self-mutilation, the blades, the anguish, the bleakness, the bullying.
But Karen’s 191 Instagram followers and the 178 people she followed had.
Here was a horrifying subculture of joyless, broken youths who instead of commiserating seemed to coerce each other to use that one ounce of power they had over their lives, and that was to end them.
But what had brought Karen to such a desperate place? Hodge said she suspects Karen was bullied after reading a note from a school chum that read, in part: “Karen, … you may have had enemies and haters they will regret what they did to you.”
But Karen never said a word about bullies, Hodge said.
“I thought she was happy,” she said.
So this is also what Hodge needs to tell you: that parents must be aware that their child’s despair may come without the signs mental health experts warn about, silently, secretly blooming in the bowels of toxic social media sites, spreading like cancer.
“What I would say to parents is, be nosy,” Hodge said. “Even if you think you are already monitoring their cellphones or their Kindles or their Facebooks or Instagrams or whatever, know that it may not be enough. Keep looking.”
Hodge and Caudell also advocate for teaching children early on the skills of resiliency and problem solving.
“We teach our kids math and science but not emotional intelligence,” Caudell said.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24 and the sixth-leading cause for those ages 5 to 14, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
“We are seeing more and more adolescent and younger suicides,” said Al Vigil, who with wife, Linda, run Survivors of Suicide, a volunteer support group in Albuquerque founded in 1978. “This is not an anomaly. Just in the last year, we started working with four families who lost children who were 11 and 12.”
One of those families is Hodge’s.
Talking to others whose loved ones committed suicide has helped, Hodge said. And now, she thinks, it is time to talk to you, time to urge you to hear those young ones who may silently be screaming.
“We need to talk about this to erase the stigma of suicide, to find solutions,” Hodge said. “We need our kids to feel they can talk about this, too.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.