Looking Back, Part 2

A conversation with a friend about this post brought up an interesting point. If you recall, I had some surprising reactions from old classmates at my high school reunion.

She said, quite wisely, “Did it occur to you that they simply didn’t know what to say? I mean, the last time they saw you, your mother had just died.”

Huh. An interesting thought. I have to say this possibility did not occur to me. Were they just uncomfortable? Maybe. Since I left for college soon after graduation, I hadn’t seen most of these people for more than 20 years. I’ve had those 20 years to recover, but their memories of me may be stuck back in 1989.

The concept of other people being uncomfortable around me simply because of my mother’s suicide is not new. Unfortunately, it is also not confined to old high school classmates. Even new friends, ones who did not know me at age 17, find it difficult to relate to me after learning about my mother’s illness and death.

I’m thinking of one in particular — who is otherwise a wonderful and compassionate person — making awkward conversation about my experiences with a mentally ill parent after I shared some details with her. Soon afterwards, our friendship simply started slipping away. It might be too much to say that she now avoids me, but we are not as close as we once were.

I do believe, if you come from a family without mental illness, that it might be hard to relate to someone who shares the disturbing and painful experiences with you. I find it sad, though, that the result may be more feelings of isolation and rejection for those of us who do.

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Preview of Susan Klebold Speaks

I’m a long-time subscriber to O Magazine. This is a bit out of character for me — my magazine subscriptions are usually limited to Newsweek, Consumer Reports and (thanks to a ton of expiring frequent flier miles) Entertainment Weekly. I’ve never been a faithful Oprah show watcher — I usually work when she’s on TV during the day. But after my old boss handed me a copy of the first issue of O Magazine to “steal some design ideas because you know Oprah can afford to hire the best,” I’ve been hooked.

I know, thanks to a ton of press coverage, that the upcoming issue has an exclusive interview with Susan Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine students who plotted the killings, then committed suicide. The issue has not hit my mailbox yet, and all I have to share so far is an insufficient preview link on O Magazine’s website.

However, not reading the article hasn’t prevented many people from commenting on its content. I was surprised to read a number of comments on the initial AP press story where people were absolutely ruthless in blaming this woman for her son’s actions. I’m not going to link to them here — they don’t deserve that level of publicity. Google it yourself, if you really need to know.

However, I have one thought to share on this topic, and I’ll save the rest until I read the article for myself. First, Susan Klebold did not kill anyone. Her son did. Her son was clearly mentally ill. And as much as people would like to believe otherwise, no one has control over anyone else. Not even mothers over their own children.

It’s one of the biggest challenges of mental illness, and suicide in particular. People ask: How could so-and-so have let this happen? The answer is they probably didn’t LET it happen. They didn’t have control over what did happen. One person can never fully control another’s thoughts, feelings or actions. That is why suicide is so hard to prevent.

Yet our society does not see things that way. There is a need to assign blame. And the families of the mentally ill person are first in line for the blame game.

I have a lot more to say on this topic after I check my mailbox this week. Stay tuned.

Looking Back, Part 1

Last weekend I attended my 20 year high school reunion. Since my mother committed suicide three weeks before I graduated from high school, this event held a lot of mixed emotions for me. These emotions will take some time to sort out, so I won’t even attempt to do it in one post. Here I simply give you some basic facts.

I grew up in a small town (around 25,000 people). I was not particularly popular in high school, but some of my friends were. I didn’t belong to any specific group, and as I was desperate to leave both high school and my hometown for college, I was also somewhat disconnected. I had an older boyfriend already in college, and I was really biding my time until I could get that diploma and get out.

My mother had been diagnosed as bipolar earlier that same year. Her behavior, particularly a period of acute mania, had become more and more odd over the past few months, and people had noticed. How much, I’ll never know. It’s a small town. People talk. Sometimes they even get the facts right.

I didn’t talk about my mother’s suicide afterwards to anyone at school, even my closest friends. How many knew the truth and how they found out, again, I’ll never know. What always surprised me was how few people asked.

My sister warned me beforehand that people at my reunion may not remember that my mother had died or how. I think she was right. Certainly no one mentioned it to me, not that I expected them to.

Most people were warm and welcoming at the reunion, which I found to be a nice change from high school. There were exceptions though. Three notable ones, in particular — one definitely a part of my former circle of friends, one more on the fringe and a third who wasn’t really a friend, but whom regarded me with such hostility 20 years later, I was baffled. Could these snubs be related to my mother’s death? After 20 years, are there still people who regard suicide as something so shameful that it requires ostracizing a survivor? Have we really come no farther after all this time?

Now, I could have been imagining it. A high school reunion is hardly the best environment for such an experiment — there’s far too much going on. Unseen forces could have been at play. I will never really know. I will probably never see those three people again. But it has given me much to think about. It’s why we started this site. I would never wish what happened to my family on anyone else. The only way to prevent that is to talk about uncomfortable things like people giving you the cold shoulder in social situations, where their motivation may have been related to your association with mental illness. It’s sad. It’s heartbreaking. It pisses me off. But I’m going to talk about it. I hope you will too.

Suicide Prevention Walks

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds Out of the Darkness community walks around the country to raise money for its suicide prevention programs. The money raised goes to fund research, education, survivor and awareness programs — both to prevent suicide and to assist those affected by suicide.

Click here to find a walk near you!

Welcome to Families of the Mentally Ill

We started this site as an Internet resource for the families of people with a mental illness. Our mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s at age 45. Armed with only her nursing textbooks and some terms we picked up at the numerous doctors visits, our family tried to navigate the medical care system and my mother’s illness. Sadly, she committed suicide several months later. Michelle was 17. Denise was 14.

While progress has been made over the past 20 years, we feel like our nation is very behind in understanding and treating mental illness. We are not medical doctors, psychologists or social workers. We are just two people who loved someone who had a disease. We dedicate this site in memory of our mother, and we hope to offer a way to support other families who are going through similar ordeals.