The following is a recent interview between Kristian Hawk (13), his mother, Tina Johnson, and Lindsay Harris. Trigger warning: this article contains references to suicide.
Lindsay Harris: How old were you, and when did all this start?
Kristian Hawk: When I was born.
Lindsay: Ok, fair enough, that’s good!
Lindsay: What’s your earliest memory of struggling with something?
Kristian: When I was in school. I was struggling with learning and paying attention.
Tina Johnson: Since the time he could articulate things, we noticed that something wasn’t 100% right. Looking back, I think the reason we didn’t pursue it was that he did really well academically. He is super smart. But he struggled socially, and it was just little things. So his pediatrician and I decided we’d keep an eye on it. Time went by, and he started school. He really struggled with focusing, so we did some testing and got a diagnosis of ADD.
Lindsay: Kristian, when you started having trouble focusing, was that hard for you or was that just the way things were?
Kristian: It was hard for me because I didn’t really know anything and it was hard for me to do good in school. And I’d get in trouble.
Lindsay: What kind of things— were they saying you weren’t paying attention? What’d you get in trouble for?
Kristian: Not being able to sit still.
Lindsay: What grade was that?
Kristian: Uh, first grade.
Lindsay: And how did it feel when your mom and dad started having you checked out?
Kristian: It felt like something was wrong with me. Like I wasn’t the same.
Tina: When we found out about his ADD, there weren’t a ton of options for kids that age—and there still really aren’t. Eventually, he was prescribed medication for the ADD and it helped, but you have to adjust. It’s not, “Here you go, this is going to fix it forever.” So, once we felt like we had that under control, we started noticing other stuff. He seemed sad all the time. He seemed really lonely. And he had a lot of anxiety about things he really didn’t have control over.
Lindsay: Do you remember that? What made you feel that way?
Kristian: I didn’t have a lot of friends in school. I was alone. And I’d usually just be by myself because I was shy to ask people to be my friend.
Lindsay: Did you feel safer at home?
Tina: He struggled socially. When we put all of those things together – the social struggles and the anxiety – all the boxes were checking now. This felt like a “forever” period of time where we were doing and trying all of these things. Nothing ever really seemed to work well. So, we took him out of public school.
Lindsay: How did that feel, when you left public school?
Kristian: It felt weird at first, not having to wake up every day. I eventually got used to it.
Lindsay: Did you miss being around people?
Kristian: Yeah, kind of.
Tina: After I took him out of school, we went through a period of just lots of life transitions. I got married. We moved. There were all of these things. And that’s when we started noticing that he wasn’t doing well. Things were starting to spiral.
Lindsay: And what did that look like?
Tina: Angry outbursts. Very extreme highs and lows. And then I got pregnant, and that was the final straw.
Lindsay: Kristian, did you feel like it was too much change? Can you tell me how you felt during all of this?
Kristian: Sometimes I had angry outbursts. But as I’ve gotten older, those have stopped. I only have them sometimes.
Lindsay: Do you know what drives that? Or what you’re feeling when that starts to happen.
Kristian: Yeah, when my mom gets angry, I just have an outbreak out of nowhere.
Tina: When those things happen, Kristian, how does your brain feel when you have those outbursts?
Kristian: It’s telling me that we have to get angrier than her.
Tina: I’ve actually never heard him say that before, that’s super helpful. He was eight when I got pregnant. We started to notice that he was making some really harsh comments. There was one that tipped the scales for me when we found out we were having a girl. He didn’t want a baby sister, he wanted a baby brother. We explained to him that we didn’t have a choice – we have what we have. Kristian said, “Well, we could just kill it and try again.” I was alarmed. Really alarmed. So I got in touch with the doctors and asked, “What do we do here? This is extreme. We have a new baby coming. We have to make sure everybody’s safe.” They referred us out to neuropsych, and that’s when they tested and found out he has high-functioning autism. When we found that out, the bells just started going off. This is what we had been missing. With the research I’ve done and what we’ve been told, for high functioning kids, it’s a lot harder to notice because they are verbal. They just have weird things…
Lindsay: Yes, things that are neurodivergent. I think that’s the term they use. There are things that are neurotypical and there’s neurodivergent. So there are things that your brain does differently, Kristian.
Tina: Yes, he had some ticks. And he had some obsessive compulsive (OCD) stuff. But after they told us about the autism, everything made sense. It was so clear after that. But this completely turned our life upside down, because autism is a lifestyle change. It’s not, “Take this medicine and you’ll be better.” It doesn’t work that way.
Lindsay: Was the ADD medicine helping at all?
Tina: It helped, yeah. So at that point, we knew the issues we were facing, but we had to figure it all out. It felt like we were put down at the bottom of a mountain and had to climb back up.
Lindsay: When was that?
Tina: That was in 2018 – he was 8. That’s fairly late for a diagnosis of autism. We spoke very openly to Kristian about his diagnosis and what was going on. Kristian, when the doctors told you that you were autistic, how did you feel about that?
Kristian: It felt strange. Like knowing that I would live a completely different life other than you guys. Like not being normal.
Lindsay: You know, it’s not that you’re not normal. You’re just different. There’s this type of normal, and then other types of normal. When you heard the doctors talking about it, did you feel like they understood you better?
Kristian: Yeah, kind of. I didn’t think they understood me at first because they didn’t know me like my parents.
Lindsay: Now that you know you’re autistic – now that you know who you are – do you feel you can relax at all? Is it different?
Kristian: Yeah, it feels kind of different. Knowing I don’t like loud noises.
Lindsay: Yes, and that’s part of who you are.
Tina: We’ve learned things along the way. We know that he doesn’t like noises. Nine times out of ten he has headphones on because that’s how he blocks it out. So, we’ve figured some things out as we’ve gone along.
Lindsay: Kristian, do you feel like you can ask for things now that you know more about yourself? Are you able to say, “I don’t like that, can we stop it”?
Tina: He’s done a lot of work to figure out what the triggers are for him.
Lindsay: Kristian, what else have you learned about yourself?
Kristian: That I’m different, and I’m ok with that.
Tina: Kristian, when you get really anxious or you feel yourself getting angry, what are the things that lead up to that? We know that noise is hard for you to deal with. What are some other things?
Kristian: People fighting or arguing.
Lindsay: How about when you’re at church? Do you like being at church?
Kristian: I do. But I don’t like going into the Big Room as much because there’s a lot of noise. I feel better when I’m serving because I don’t have to hear all the noise.
Tina: Which age group do you like to serve with most?
Tina: We know that when cousins come over, it’s a trigger for him because it’s loud. And he knows that. So he’ll go and shut himself in his room. At first we struggled, worrying if people would feel like we were being rude, but he knows what works for him. Kristian, you also have a hard time with the way things feel, especially when you eat. That’s hard for you.
Kristian. I’m on a chicken diet. I eat a lot of chicken. And pizza. Sometimes I eat what mom cooks.
Lindsay: What about on the positive side? Are there things that really make you feel safe and comfortable? Maybe some habits you have that you like?
Kristian: Yeah, I recently got a new four-wheeler and I like to ride that sometimes. And I play video games a lot because I feel safe there, knowing that it’s a fictional world that seems cool to live in.
Lindsay: What about B. Smalls? Do you like your cat, B. Smalls?
Kristian: Yeah, he’s like a kid to me. And my bearded dragon, Rango, is too.
Tina: You really like animals.
Kristian: Yeah, I do.
Tina: You seem really calm around animals. Why do you think that is?
Kristian: Because they can just be free and live in a world knowing that they don’t have to go through the bad life that humans do sometimes. We take care of them, we feed them.
Tina: If you could hang out with an animal or hang out with a person, which would you choose?
Tina: Why is that?
Kristian: Because I feel like humans talk more than animals.
Lindsay: And you’d rather not talk?
Lindsay: That’s fair.
Tina: So our journey continued and required so many doctors, so many appointments. We knew we had to go to all of them. When we met with neuropsych, they put a lot of things into perspective. They made us feel better about some of the choices we had made, like pulling him out of school. They said he probably does do a lot better at home than he would in school because of the ADD and autism. It looked like things were getting better. We were getting into a really good routine which is a HUGE thing for him. Changing the routine is really difficult for him, so we have to tell him well in advance. So things seemed to be getting better, and then we had an incident. Kristian, do you want to talk about that?
Kristian: I don’t really remember it that much.
Tina: I almost wonder if that’s a trauma response, that he doesn’t remember. I don’t know if he doesn’t remember because he’s just told himself he’s going to block it out, or if something happened that caused him to not remember. But this was at the peak of COVID. It was early in the morning – still dark outside. I could hear this whimpering sound, and I got up to go check and it was him. He was really just out of sorts. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. He said that he had had a bad nightmare, and that he was seeing things. At that point, I was thinking he had just woken up and was confused. So we went back to his room, and he was really uneasy. I stayed up with him to make sure he was okay. We sat in the living room and hung out. Hours went by and he just didn’t seem to be getting better. Things were rapidly going downhill. He was hypersensitive to noises, seeing stuff all around. I knew that something was really wrong. I called my sister-in-law and said and asked for some help. I knew I needed to take him to the doctor. So she came over, and while I was on the phone with the doctor, she came to me and said she had found his ADD medication in his room. That’s when I started questioning and realized that he had overdosed on the medication.
Lindsay: Wow, that’s so scary.
Tina: Yes, so this went in a whole new direction. The doctor said we needed to go to the emergency room, and that, in itself, was crazy because of Covid. Kristian was in this bad place and couldn’t tell me what had happened. I was really freaked out, and we couldn’t have anybody with us. When we got to VCU, they started doing some testing and found that he had a lot of the medication in his system. A LOT. His pulse was out of control—the medicine is a stimulant. While they monitored him, we had lots of doctors come in and talk. Once Kristian got to a place where he was able to put things into words…Kristian, why did you take the medicine?
Kristian: I felt like I didn’t have a purpose in life and I just didn’t want to be there anymore. And I was scared. I really was.
Tina: I think that at the point he realized that he had really messed up, things were already spiraling. So getting anything out of him was impossible. They monitored him really closely because there was a space in there where we didn’t know what was going to happen. The psych team came to talk to us and determined that it would be best if he went to an inpatient facility. But of course, because of Covid, he wouldn’t be able to have visitors. They wanted him to go straight there from the hospital, and we wouldn’t even be able to see him.
Lindsay: Oh my goodness. That’s gotta be so hard to even make a decision…
Tina: Even thinking about it now, I can’t….
Tina: My heart just sunk.
Lindsay: Yeah, feels like there’s no win.
Tina: Yes, what do you do? You want to help your child, but not leave them by themselves. And what I kept trying to explain to them was that I knew my kid better than they did. If they took him to an inpatient facility, it would be more traumatizing than anything. But on the other side of that, I knew we needed to get help. And that was the quickest, fastest option to do that. So, we sat on it for a little bit, and I prayed. I prayed, I prayed, I prayed. Then the doctors came back and said that actually we didn’t have an option. They said that when we brought him into the facility, we pretty much relinquished our control of him.
Lindsay: Well that’s not helpful either.
Tina: No, because at that point I was thinking I’d never bring my kid to the ER again. And time was going by, time was going by. They told us, you have six hours here. You need to do what you need to do in that amount of time and then he’s going. As Kristian started coming down from this overdose, I explained to him what was going on and he really started to struggle. He was like, “Are they really going to take me away from you?” Kristian, how did you feel about that?
Kristian: It was scary. The thought of being away from my mom.
Lindsay: Of course.
Kristian: It was tough. She was the only person I could see and it was scary knowing she wouldn’t be able to see me anymore.
Tina: So in that short time frame they gave us, I cashed in so many favors and so many phone calls, trying to figure out what my options were. I thought, “This cannot be it.” I brought him in because he overdosed and needed medical attention.
Lindsay: But now you’ve lost control.
Tina: Yes, I had lost control. I talked to so many professionals and they all basically said the same thing. The last doctor we talked to—while the transfer paperwork was being done—I pleaded with her. I told her that he would be my responsibility. I was working at the church then, so I didn’t have to leave the house. I could work virtually. I could be with him 24 hours a day. We were willing to send his sister away so that she was safe. We would do whatever they told us to do so that we could take him home. She told us that the doctors would have to talk about it. She couldn’t make that decision on her own.
Lindsay: Kristian, how does it feel talking about this, are you ok?
Kristian: Yeah, I’m ok.
Tina: Does it make you nervous to talk about it?
Kristian: I don’t know, it just feels weird, saying my feelings out loud.
Lindsay: Yeah, it’s not something we do very often, is it?
Tina: In the end, they decided they would let him go home, and we had a list of things we had to do in order for that to happen. But we got him home. And I don’t know if I’ve ever lived in that much fear. The few weeks after that…I don’t even know that I have words for it. I finally got to this place where I understood that it was out of my control. I could only do what I was doing. Even saying that out loud now is super difficult. It’s like saying, if it happens, it happens. That doesn’t feel good.
Lindsay: And what do you do?
Tina: Yes, what do you do? Since then, there has been lots of therapy. Lots of juggling medication, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. And just figuring out Kristian. What’s going on, what got you to that point. He’s done a lot of work. I just had an appointment with his doctor this week and she said, “I can’t believe where he came from. He went from this person to this person and it’s incredible.” I don’t know that Kristian realizes that sometimes – just this huge gap from where he was to where he is now. He still struggles sometimes. There are things that he’ll always struggle with. But I think that he’s starting to accept that this is who he is. And I would like to say that a lot of it came from therapy, but some of it came with age. Like realizing that this is ok. And I think knowing that there’s other people who struggle this way is helpful for him. It’s helpful for us as adults, right?
Lindsay: Absolutely. Do you know any other families with the same diagnoses, just because you’ve been in therapy nearby?
Tina: Yes. And Kristian if I’m wrong you can say so, but I think that therapy has taught him that he has to try and put forth the effort. He has to put himself in uncomfortable situations, like talking to people. If you want to have friends, you have to talk to people.
Kristian: And I have a lot of friends now.
Lindsay: Kristian, I’ve noticed that in you. I see you saying hi to people and approaching them and doing things that are signature to you now. That’s a big deal, that you’ve worked so hard to take those steps.
Tina: It’s been helpful to have student ministry at church. He went in with these kids and they know him now. And he knows them. There’s that level of comfort. And like you said, I think when people see that he’s putting an effort into this and then vocalize that to him—that they see him, they see that maybe this isn’t easy for him, but they see him trying—I think hearing that does wonders for him. It’s like people are saying, “You’re doing a great job.” Kristian, if you had to say how you feel about the status of your mental health right now, what would you say?
Kristian (smiling): It’s pretty bananas.
Kristian: I mean it’s on and off sometimes. Like I’m in my room making noises and pretending I’m somewhere else sometimes.
Tina: Do you feel like it’s better under control now?
Tina: Do you still struggle with feeling like you don’t have any worth? Or what’s the point of being here?
Kristian: I do. I’m not going to say I don’t. But don’t we all sometimes? I mean…no one’s perfect in this world.
Lindsay: But you feel like you have it under control?
Lindsay: Do you feel like you have people to reach out to if you’re feeling that way?
Kristian: Yeah. I mean, I have a family.
Lindsay: You’ve done a lot of hard work. Do you feel like you’ve done a lot of hard work?
Kristian: Yeah. If you count sleeping as hard work.
Lindsay: You have some wisdom and some humor there, my friend.
Tina: Do you feel as lonely or sad as you used to feel?
Kristian: Sometimes, but not a lot.
Lindsay: If you could share one thing you’ve learned or one thing that would help somebody that may be struggling like you were struggling, what would you tell them?
Kristian: Well, this world isn’t perfect and it might never be, but everybody is different. You don’t have to change anything about you. If you like what you have, don’t let anyone say anything different.
Lindsay: That’s wisdom right there.
Kristian: Yeah—Kristian 2023.
Tina: Do you feel like the things that you’ve experienced and just learning about yourself and what works for you—do you think that those things could help other people? Or even your story and your journey? From not having a clue what was wrong and then taking the pills and where you are now—do you think that that journey, that story could help someone else?
Kristian: I mean, it might have some bad stuff to it. But yeah, maybe. I mean, I’ve made it here, might as well keep going.
Lindsay: What’s your favorite thing to do?
Kristian (smiling): Is that a serious question?
Lindsay: Yeah man.
Kristian: Sleep, eat, lounge.
Lindsay: Those are good things.
Kristian: I’d like to try to perform a back flip some time.
Lindsay: Have you ever done that?
Kristian: No, not yet.
Lindsay: I need you to let me know when you do that.
Tina: Last summer, he went to a summer camp and that was the first time he had ever done anything like that.
Kristian: And I really enjoyed it.
Lindsay: Yeah? What was your favorite thing about that?
Kristian: Everything. I made some friends. We laughed together, goofed off. I liked the teachers there too. They were obedient sometimes and sometimes funny.
Tina: And since then, he’s joined 4H. He’s not on a stage giving a speech, but the things that he’s doing are HUGE for him.
Lindsay: Kristian, it takes courage to step out and try new things. Is it worth it?
Kristian: Yeah. I mean I used to think I didn’t want a baby sister, but look at her now. I take everything back.
Lindsay: Do you love her?
Kristian: Yeah. She might get on my nerves sometimes but I do care about her. And I want her to have a good life. If any man breaks her heart, I’ll break his.
Lindsay: Alright. Yeah, every sister should have a brother like that. I’m really proud of you. And I’m really thankful that you were willing to share and talk. Even just being willing to talk like this takes a lot of courage and vulnerability, so thank you for doing that. Anything else you want to share and make sure people know?
Kristian: You can do anything you put your mind to. And you may go through some bad things in life, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years as a teenager, it’s just be happy. And be peaceful.
Lindsay: How do you stay peaceful?
Kristian: I just think of life and how I’ll be in the future. We might not have flying cars, but we have Teslas and that’s close enough.
Lindsay: Alright, yes! Cool.
Tina: Have you found something that makes you feel more at peace? Is there something that you do that makes you feel more at peace? I know at one point you liked doing sticker books. That was a big thing for you. And recently you started writing music.
Kristian: Yeah, I do like doing the sticker books. And I write rap music. And maybe some country if I want to play guitar.
Lindsay: Tina, anything else you want to share?
Tina: I know the story. But hearing him now that he’s older and time has passed and things have changed—hearing him speaking of what happened and where it started, it’s a different perspective when you can hear it from him. I could have told you the entire thing, but it’s different. It’s a good reminder to me that everybody’s story is their own. And no one will be able to tell it like they will.
Lindsay: I’m going to ask you the same question you just asked him. You talked about being the most fearful you had ever been. This has been a journey for you. What would you tell another mom in an untenable situation like that?
Tina: I think probably the most helpful thing for me was finding people who had been there. And it wasn’t much, but the time that I spent talking to Beth made a world of difference for me. It really made me see it from a different place. Finding people who can relate and living in a space of being transparent is so helpful. I just had to say, “This is what our life is. It’s messy sometimes.” It doesn’t make sense to some people, but this is our life. Accepting that your family is different from someone else’s is good, too. Having a community matters. It’s cliche, but that was the thing that got me through that time. Having people that I could unload the bus to. And doing it truthfully. Beth asked me some questions that, in the moment, I felt like I couldn’t answer. But when I did, it was huge. Huge! And admitting that things weren’t ok. I think that, as far as mental health is concerned, it’s still so taboo. And I don’t know if that will ever go away.
Lindsay: For people that have not experienced it, especially in the way you have, going through it as openly as you can and seeking help as much as you can is much more freeing and better than the alternative.
Tina: So many people ask me, “Well how could he be so unhappy that he wanted to commit suicide?”
Tina: For me, I think, “I would never ask someone that.” But for a lot of people, if they’ve never been through this or they don’t deal with it in their personal lives, they don’t get it. Because the reality is, he was a young boy. What do you have to be unhappy about? But the reality is…
Lindsay: That’s mental health. And starting to acknowledge that and be transparent is how you build awareness and teach others.
Tina: For parents who are dealing with it, I think it’s important to just get to a place where you can accept that this is your life.
Lindsay: Yeah, and just doing what you can to live into that, not be ashamed, or try to hide it.
Tina: The more that I talked about it, the easier it was for me and the more people started asking questions and wanting to understand.
Lindsay: Thank you Tina. Thank you Kristian. You’re going to help some people because you are willing to talk about it. Thank you so much.
For more resources on mental health, check out the following resources:
Mental Health Meet Ups – happening the week of March 19 at every campus
God Said Ask For Help – an article about depression
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