Tiffany Morones-Suttle opened the door to her 11-year-old son's room and stopped cold.
There stood the raven-haired boy, his body slumped but strangely erect as he stared, still and silent, at his bunk bed.
"Michael?" she said, sensing something wrong but not understanding what.
"Michael!" she finally screamed as the situation snapped into focus.
Her son wasn't standing. He was hanging from the rail of his bunk bed by a black neck tie — the one he'd received just weeks earlier for his first violin recital. He had worn it proudly then with a crisp white shirt and black vest. Now it squeezed his throat like a noose.
Hysterical, Morones-Suttle scooped up her son while his 13-year-old brother, Angel, raced into the room alerted by his mother's cries. He frantically tried to loosen the knot while his mother held Michael's weight in her arms.
The tie, which had been bound multiple times, wouldn't budge. Angel ran to get a scissors but, in the few seconds he was away, his mother had managed to slip it over Michael's head.
She breathed into her son's mouth, trying to revive him, and yelled for Angel to go next door to the fire station.
"Michael, Michael, Michael," his mother screamed, shaking her son as blood poured from his nose and soaked his blue footie pajamas.
She felt no breathing, no heartbeat, no pulse. Her son's face, his beautiful face, was blue.
Seconds passed, maybe minutes — it's hard to know since time lost meaning that night — but one of the firefighters arrived so quickly he didn't even tie his shoes. He immediately administered oxygen and defibrillated Michael's heart. An ambulance was already en route.
Morones-Suttle watched helplessly. More responders arrived and joined the effort to save her son. Eventually, they loaded him onto a stretcher and wheeled him out the door.
Five-year-old Xavier, who had been watching the drama unfold, looked up at his mama.
"I miss Michael," he said.
That was Jan. 23.
Eleven weeks later, the brown-eyed boy who should be in school with his peers now stares blankly into space from bed after his suicide attempt left him in a persistent vegetative state.
Nearby sits his mother, whose presence at his side is as constant as her determination that no one else endure such a tragedy, which is why she granted to The Clarion-Ledger her first in-depth interview since that heartbreaking discovery.
She hopes offering a candid look at her son's situation can curb an epidemic affecting thousands of families every year across the United States.
Michael had hanged himself, Morones-Suttle said, because of relentless bullying at school. He is not alone. In the short time since her son's life-altering decision, an estimated 5,200 U.S. children ages 10-14 also attempted suicide according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.
An estimated 56 of them died.
Serious suicide attempts among middle-school-aged youth have risen 55 percent in the past decade, CDC data show. They landed more than 24,500 children ages 10-14 in U.S. emergency rooms in 2012 alone.
Although Michael lives in North Carolina, his case gained national attention in part because of an energized community of My Little Pony fans rallying around him — Michael loves My Little Pony, an obsession his mother said triggered some of the bullying at school.
His case also has captured the attention of people in Mississippi, where several residents follow his recovery on Facebook and at least one has donated funds toward his care, according to the family.
In Mississippi, 32 children in Michael's age group have died from suicide in the past decade alone, state vital statistics show. Bullying was blamed in many those cases, just as it was in Michael's.
But as with most things in life, nothing is that simple.
Bullying alone usually won't drive adolescents to suicide, said Scott Poland, a nationally recognized expert on bullying and suicide prevention. But it can be the last straw to push them over the edge. By the time they decide to end their lives, most youth have endured any number of risk factors — family conflicts, extreme poverty, significant loss, mental illness, exposure to previous suicides or a family history of suicides.
Michael's case was no exception.
Born June 23, 2002, Michael was the second of two sons for Morones-Suttle and her then-husband Ian Morones. The couple had met when Morones-Suttle was in high school and married when she was 16; he was 21.
Although they were in love, the decision to marry was somewhat forced. Morones-Suttle was caught being intimate with her sweetheart in the home of her aunt, with whom she then lived. The aunt gave her a choice: Marry or move out.
Morones-Suttle chose marriage.
One year later, the couple welcomed their first son, Angel. Michael followed soon afterward. And about six months later, the marriage ended, leaving Morones-Suttle a single mom with two little boys and an unreliable support network.
Although she had an extended family, Morones-Suttle was wary after a lifetime of neglect and abuse. Her drug-addicted father had abandoned her, her mother left her to be raised by grandparents, and her grandfather's sudden death rendered her grandmother despondent and unavailable.
Morones-Suttle bounced around a lot after that. At age 10, she went to live with her mother, then back with her grandmother, then she said her stepfather sexually abused her. She said she reported her stepfather to police, but he wasn't charged because of lack of evidence. The situation depressed her so much that, at 14 years old, she attempted suicide by Xanax overdose and landed in the hospital.
After she recovered, she fled to California to find her dad. He abandoned her a second time, leaving Morones-Suttle in the care of the aunt who gave her the marriage ultimatum.
Five years later, she found herself raising two kids solo while working several jobs and attending college at the same time. The family moved around a lot, struggled a lot and had faced numerous challenges.
Not an easy life for Angel and Michael.
"It wasn't until I had Xavier that I came into my own as a parent," Morones-Suttle says. "I really grew up and realized I needed to make better decisions and be a better mom. I was always there for my kids and did the best I could."
Still, Morones-Suttle made sure to establish a happy and loving home for her kids. Photos show outings at the beach, family fun nights at an arcade, birthday parties at the swimming pool, and trick-or-treating with pals. Michael and his brothers smile in almost every shot.
The boys each have their own distinct personality. Angel is hard-nosed and stoic. Xavier is sweet and snuggly. Michael is energetic and silly; he wants everyone to laugh.
"He makes up the worst knock-knock jokes," Morones-Suttle said. "He is always singing and dancing and skipping about. He has the stinkiest feet you'll ever smell."
Michael also has Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which Poland said is common among youth who commit suicide.
Kids with ADHD typically lack the proper support at school, leading them to feel like social and academic failures, Poland said. And they're impulsive enough to do something drastic about the situation.
Michael was diagnosed at 4 after almost getting kicked out of preschool for his behavior. Medication kept him focused enough to get good grades, but Morones-Suttle said the school failed to make special accommodations despite her repeated pleas.
At home, his constant motion would sometimes drive his mother crazy. "Just settle down," she would think. Stop moving. Looking at her son now, confined to a hospital bed, she'd give anything to see him run wild.
It's unlikely he'll ever be able to do so again.
Because of the severity of his brain injury and his lack of significant progress thus far, Michael's chances for substantial recovery are poor, said Tobias Tsai, a pediatrician and rehabilitation doctor who led Michael's team of therapists at Carolinas HealthCare System's Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, N.C.
Children with the best outcomes typically wake up within a few days of their injuries, start moving around and talking within a week and then continue to make gains from there, Tsai said.
Michael, on the other hand, hasn't shown purposeful movement or the ability to understand simple commands two months after his suicide attempt — although there have been at least a few instances where it looked like he might have.
Or it could have just been a coincidence. He needs to show consistency to say for sure.
"In terms of what he's doing functionally and what he's working with a therapist on right now, there are higher-level skills like walking and talking," Tsai said. "But we're really starting from the ground up. For example, the physical therapist is working with him on controlling his head. Just controlling his head against the force of gravity, even that is difficult for him."
Michael also damaged the part of his brain that processes visual input, meaning he likely is now blind except for a small area to the right of his visual field that appears to detect changes in light and high-contrast colors.
And because the brain has a limited capacity for healing, Tsai said, the damage he sustained is permanent.
Hope still exists. Michael is young, and his brain could still develop alternate pathways to process information.
Doctors at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, who received Michael the night of his injury, initially thought he would die before dawn. When he survived, they said he probably wouldn't live through the week. When he again survived, they predicted he'd need a ventilator the rest of his life.
Michael not only can now breathe without a ventilator, but he had his tracheostomy tube removed recently, a huge step for someone in his condition.
"My hope is that he will continue to blow through these projections," Morones-Suttle said. "But it's one of those things that you prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
Because no two brain injuries are alike, it's impossible to accurately predict Michael's potential for recovery, Tsai said. Some kids with the slightest injuries have the worst outcomes and those with the most severe damage make miraculous recoveries.
"Time will tell," he said.
If Michael had previously contemplated suicide, his family didn't know about it. After his attempt, Morones-Suttle says she pored over his text messages and Internet search history, looking for any clue he was depressed or wanted to die. She found none.
But his friends from Zebulon Middle School, just east of Raleigh, N.C., told her recently that Michael worried deeply about his reputation among peers, especially as it concerned his fascination with My Little Pony.
Marketed primarily to young girls, the My Little Pony franchise that includes toys and a television show was Michael's latest obsession. He especially liked the character, Pinkie Pie, a silly and energetic pony with whom he felt a kindred spirit.
Although My Little Pony has a growing male fan base, called Bronies, some children apparently thought Michael's affinity for the brand was girly and gay. They teased him.
So Michael created surveys he distributed to classmates at school. He asked questions like, "Will you still like me if I wear a My Little Pony T-shirt?" His closest friends answered yes. One even shredded the survey because she thought it was ridiculous –— of course she would still like him.
But Morones-Suttle had no idea this was happening until the children disclosed it after her son's suicide attempt. She still doesn't know all the details, including which students were involved or how long her son endured it.
"I know he was bullied and I know he was picked on," Morones-Suttle said. "Besides that, he didn't share anything with me about what was going on."
Not even on the day he hanged himself did Michael reveal much beyond his growing fatigue of the situation.
He had come home from school that Thursday in a funk, his mother said. Irritable and argumentative, he picked fights with his siblings and wasn't his usual happy self.
After dinner, Xavier and Michael were doing homework together when Michael spilled red juice on his younger brother's worksheet. Xavier freaked out and an argument ensued.
"I was doing dishes, heard the screaming and came in there," Morones-Suttle said.
She separated the boys and sent Michael to his room to cool off, then went to talk to him five minutes later.
"What is going on, Michael?" she asked.
He finally broke down.
"I am so tired of people at school calling me gay because I like My Little Pony," he told her.
He looked tired. Defeated, actually.
"I told him it doesn't matter," Morones-Suttle remembers. "You can either tell people you like My Little Pony and go about your business and if they're not your friends because of it, then they weren't your friends anyway. Or you can hide it."
She said she loved him no matter what, told him to take a bath, go to bed and relax for the rest of the night.
So Michael bathed and slipped on his pajamas. But then he came into the kitchen to sharpen a colored pencil with a scissors. His mother told him no way, not with scissors, wait until that weekend when she would buy a pencil sharpener.
He insisted he needed it done that night, so she told him to look for different colored pencils in the living room. After finding none, Michael returned to his bedroom and shut the door.
That was the last time anyone saw him before his life forever changed.
Morones-Suttle finished the dishes, settled in to watch Xavier and Angel play LEGO Batman on the Xbox and then heard a thump. It sounded like a door slamming, and she figured Michael was still upset. She was going to fuss at him but decided against it. Just let him cool off, she told herself.
That decision haunts her today.
"I don't think that was the closet door slamming. I think it was him hitting the side of the bed or the bed hitting the wall" as he hanged himself, she said. "My parenting instinct had kicked in. I wanted to go check on him, but I wanted to give him a chance. I feel a sense of responsibility as a parent that you should never doubt your instinct."
Like most schools nationwide, the one Michael attended has an anti-bullying policy that prohibits harassing and bullying behavior. It also requires students and staff to immediately report any incident of suspected bullying and for all complaints to be promptly investigated.
The policy then lists appropriate disciplinary measures for the perpetrators.
It was adopted by the Wake County Public School System in 2004 — four years after another Zebulon Middle School student, 12-year-old Christopher Joyner, hanged himself in the gymnasium bathroom. In addition to having a host of mental health issues, Christopher had been bullied at school, according to his family.
Since then, the district and its individual schools have raised awareness about bullying. But Morones-Suttle said it obviously isn't effective in stopping the behavior.
"There is anti-bullying stuff all over the school," she said. "But what good is it if there are no tools to help prevent it. I really feel like our children are not being set up for success."
Morones-Suttle said she never reported any bullying to the school because Michael hadn't revealed to her the severity of the issue. He also had insisted he could handle it himself.
In hindsight, she said, she wishes she would have taken a more proactive stance. And while it's too late to stop her son's suicide attempt, she has vowed to do everything in her power to stop others.
Morones-Suttle recently founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and promoting the well-being of youth. Called The Michael Morones Foundation, its focus is more pro-child than anti-bully. It's a significant distinction, she said, because just banning bullying won't work. Children need to feel safe and loved first.
Her cause has resonated with people worldwide who are sending donations to the nonprofit, currently under the umbrella of the Triangle Community Foundation until it gets its own 501c3 designation.
It also has attracted the support of acclaimed stage and screen stars like Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart, Mary-Louise Parker and Megan Hilty, who have joined a host committee for an event Monday benefiting the foundation.
It's called Broadway Battles Bullying at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.
"It's amazing how many people genuinely care about someone they don't even know, and it inspires me to do as many good things as I can," Morones-Suttle said. "If we can help one kid or one family, it makes it better."
Morones-Suttle, who left her job as an account manager at Advantage Truck Leasing to care for Michael, sees herself taking a more active role in the foundation as her son recovers. She hopes one day he will be able to join her in some capacity.
In the meantime, her sole focus is on Michael.
Michael left Levine Children's Hospital on Tuesday and will continue his therapy in an outpatient setting at his new home. The family recently moved into a house rented to them by friends from Garner United Methodist Church; it was too painful to stay in the house where Michael tried to end his life.
Michael will get one hour of services per day — a drastic reduction from the five-hour sessions he was receiving at Levine Children's Hospital. Medicaid paid for his hospital stay and will pay for some post-release therapy, but the family will be saddled with all of his other lifelong expenses.
It's a burden lessened in part by the support of people, including complete strangers, who have sent money for Michael's recovery to a special bank account established in his name through MichaelMorones.org.
Well-wishers also have sent cards, emails, videos and toys. Many are getting My Little Pony tattoos in honor of Michael at one of dozens of tattoo parlors nationwide that donate profits from the work to the family.
Most of them post photos of their tats to the family's Facebook page for Michael, which has more than 7,200 followers.
Morones-Suttle decorated Michael's hospital room with the toys and cards. She shows him the videos and reads him the messages of support, hoping he understands the outpouring of love and that it will help heal him in some small way.
This isn't the life Morones-Suttle envisioned for herself or her son. But it's one she is determined to make matter.
"This situation has put everything in perspective," she said. "It is not OK, and never will be OK until I have my kid back 100 percent, but I'm trying to be a better person because of it, and we're trying to be a better family because of it.
"I have to stay positive. I have to, for Michael."
To contact Emily Le Coz, call (601) 961-7249 or follow @emily_lecoz on Twitter.
SUICIDE ATTEMPTS ON THE RISE
Suicide attempts that landed youths in U.S. emergency rooms have risen 55 percent among 10-to 14-year-olds and 35 percent among 15- to 19-year-olds during the past decade, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.
SUICIDE WARNING SIGNS
Before attempting or committing suicide, many people will exhibit one or more of the following behaviors:
• Talking about wanting to kill themselves, or saying they wish they were dead
• Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun
• Feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
• Having the feeling of being a burden to others
• Feeling humiliated
• Having intense anxiety and/or panic attacks
• Losing interest in things, or losing the ability to experience pleasure
• Becoming socially isolated and withdrawn from friends, family and others
• Acting irritable or agitated
• Showing rage, or talking about seeking revenge for being victimized or rejected
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention