Susan Klebold Speaks, Part III

There is one sentence in the O Magazine article by Susan Klebold that resonants with me like no other. When discussing her feelings as she learned more about her son’s terrible actions on that fateful day at Columbine, she writes: “I concluded that he must not have loved me, because love would have prevented him from doing what he did.”

This reaction is natural after experiencing a tragedy that was caused by a loved one’s own hands. It doesn’t require a event as devastating as Columbine to feel the shock and horror associated with suicide or murder-suicide. I also felt the same way after my mother committed suicide in my childhood home — she must not have loved me, or she never would have done that. This feeling was reinforced by the careless words of a therapist in later years, in which she expressed her shock that my mother would kill herself in our home — unusual, she said, because women are usually careful to commit suicide in an area where a family member is unlikely to be the first to find the body.

I, of course, had always wondered what it would have been like if I or my younger sister had opened the door to the garage that morning. Instead my father is the one who has to live with the image of my mother hanging from the rafters of our garage. We escaped that pain, but not the clear message that our love was not enough to keep my mother alive.

Yet more than 20 years have passed since that day, and new levels of understanding have emerged. Don’t get me wrong — like Susan Klebold, “I will never know why.” But I understand the destruction caused by mental illness a little better now than I did at 17, and my mother’s actions now prove to me how ill she really was. I also understand, as Susan writes in her article, that “we should also remember that even if someone is exhibiting signs of suicide risk, it may not always be possible to prevent tragedy.” Each person’s capacity for free will overrules good intentions from others. You should try to help (and I hope you do), but you may not succeed.

I suspect if Susan could talk to Dylan, he would tell her that he did love her, and that he always loved her. I think love has very little to do with his final actions. His illness was so far advanced at that point, love could not have saved him. That concept is difficult for other people to grasp. Instead they search for simple reasons to explain the unexplainable. Mental illness is not easily rationalized because, by its nature, it is irrational.

Those of us who are left behind are not given answers that will satisfy us. There is not just one event, nor is there just one action that caused the Columbine tragedy; and there is no simple solution to preventing suicide or murder-suicide. That’s a very uncomfortable thought for most people. We much prefer the illusion that we have some control.

It is much better, I think, to give up this notion of simple explanations and work towards finding the underlying causes that lie much deeper than our “fix-it-quick” society allows. Investing in finding the root causes of mental illness is something we’ve waited far too long to do. If we want to learn something from Columbine and the other, much smaller, tragedies that occur on a daily basis, let it be that maybe our health care system is missing chances to help people in complicated situations by prescribing simple solutions (i.e., a bottle of pills).

Like Susan, I don’t have the answer. I wish, after 20 years, that I did. I’d like to say that I appreciate Susan Klebold’s courage in publishing part of her story. I believe she speaks the truth, and I empathize with her pain, as well as the pain of all of those who suffered from the actions of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. There are no simple lessons that we can take from these events, but by sharing her story, Susan has done what we all should to help others in similar situations. Silence is the enemy. Talk about it. You are not alone.

Susan Klebold Speaks, Part II

Continuing on this discussion of the Susan Klebold article in O Magazine, I’d like to address a particularly poignant paragraph. To read the original for yourself, O Magazine has thoughtfully posted the entire story online.

In her article, which is aptly titled: “I Will Never Know Why,” Susan talks about her son’s suicidal thoughts that were one of the factors that led to the Columbine tragedy:

I believe that Dylan did not want to talk about his thoughts because he was ashamed of having them. He was accustomed to handling his own problems, and he perceived his inability to do so as a weakness. People considering suicide sometimes feel that the world would be better off without them, and their reasons for wanting to die make sense to them. They are too ill to see the irrationality of their thinking. I believe it frightened Dylan to encounter something he did not know how to manage, since he had always taken pride in his self-reliance. I believe he tried to push his negative thoughts away, not realizing that bringing them out in the open was a way to conquer them.

It’s important to recognize that you can never fully comprehend what another person is truly thinking. When you are the family member of someone who is struggling with mental illness, this is doubly true. People can say one thing and think another. They can say, “I’m fine. I’m over it. I was having a hard time, but I’m better now.” They can look you in the eye, and you can believe them. Heck, they may even mean it at the time. But that doesn’t prevent them from walking into the next room or waking up the next morning and starting to plan their own death.

I think any survivor of suicide can understand Susan Klebold’s sentiments. We also will never know why. The reasons will most likely never make sense to anyone else, because as Susan writes: “They are too ill to see the irrationality of their thinking.” Well said, Susan. Well said.

Susan Klebold Speaks, Part 1

A few weeks ago, I heard about an interview with Susan Klebold in the November 2009 issue of O Magazine. If you read my earlier post on this subject, you’ll know that I had an opinion on this article before I read it. I pointed out that Dylan Klebold is the one who killed the people at Columbine as well as himself. Susan Klebold is not a murderer. She is, however, the family member of someone who had a mental illness. Because it is clear to me that her son was mentally ill. I think we can safely assume that anyone who commits such terrible acts is mentally ill. Depressed for sure, and perhaps other illnesses as well.

I was initially apalled by some of the reactions to this interview. People commenting on the initial AP story showed no mercy, and oftentimes just downright cruelty. And this was before the article was printed!

I’ve read it for myself now. I initially was under the impression that the article was an interview with Susan Klebold, but she actually wrote it herself. I commend her for the courage to do such a thing, given that the comments I saw probably only scratched the surface of what she’s been through. Indeed, in the first part of this article, she talks about this very subject: “I was widely viewed as a perpetrator or at least an accomplice since I was the person who had raised a ‘monster.'”

This comment struck me as a central issue facing families of the mentally ill. It is, perhaps, elevated by the fact that Susan was Dylan’s mother, and parents are viewed as being responsible for their children’s behavior in our society. It is also central to the guilt so common in families of the mentally ill — we often mistakenly believe that we have some sort of control over our loved one’s thoughts or behavior.

Let me make this point clear. We can influence other people. But no one can CONTROL someone else’s THOUGHTS or BEHAVIOR. Anyone hanging around with a toddler can testify that they wish they could. But it is impossible. We are born with free will.

Yet we often hear the same question after any tragedy associated with the mentally ill: “Why didn’t someone DO something about it?”

Let’s stop for a moment and consider what it must be like to be Susan Klebold. How many times must she have been asked this question? How many times must she have asked herself this question? Really, does anyone think that if she KNEW what her son was going to do, that she WOULD NOT have done everything in her power to stop it? That she wouldn’t have disabled his car, searched his room, called the police or followed him to school that day, hanging on his pants legs?

I think any survivor of suicide would agree that they would have done anything to stop the tragedy IF ONLY THEY HAD KNOWN. But they didn’t. Suicidal people don’t send out memos with their planned time and method. The fact that she didn’t know, that she didn’t see the signs is completely believable to me. The fact that a teenage boy did not share his most desperate internal pain with his parents is also completely believable to me.

Yet Susan Klebold does not let herself off that easily. She admits that “I mistrusted everything — especially my own judgment.” Not to mention, “It was impossible to believe that someone I had raised could cause so much suffering.”

Wow. I understand that. How difficult was it for me to believe that my mother could commit suicide with her two teenage children in the same house. Did she not understand the pain she would be bringing into our lives?

No. She did not. It doesn’t take a Columbine-sized tragedy to feel the pain of loving someone who is mentally ill. Susan Klebold, unfortunately, has to deal with it on a national level, given the media attention focused on the tragedy surrounding her son, his friend and their actions. I see many parallels between her experiences and the families of the 33,000 other Americans who commit suicide every year.

More on this subject to come…

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.

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.