Book Review: Reversible Skirt

Reversible Skirt, by Laura McHale Holland, is a heart-breaking memoir about one young mother’s suicide as seen through the eyes of her youngest child, Laura. A toddler at the time of the tragedy, Laura is initially bewildered by the changes swirling around her family, including the appearance of a new stepmother, who is simply passed off as the same person to the children.

The author has done a masterful job of capturing the thought process of a young child as she struggles to make sense of the changes in her world. The tragic events of the girls’ lives aren’t over, unfortunately. The abuse they experience as they grow and confront of the truth of their mother’s death and their father’s choices can be painful to read. Yet it’s worth persevering, because the book ends with Laura and her sisters finding strength and peace in adulthood.

Reversible Skirt describes a time in our not-too-distant past where mental illness and suicide were swept under the rug. While we have made some gains as a society, the situation will feel familiar to those of us who have lived through mental illness in our own families. What was most intriguing about the book was how the author and her sisters forgave their abusive stepmother after everything she did to them as children. Their ability to survive and recover from their challenging childhoods is uplifting. The capacity they show for forgiveness is truly inspiration.

Thoughts on Our Culture’s Treatment of Suicide and Mental Illness

Sometimes other people say it best. Today, a local politician talks candidly about his experience at a memorial service for a young man who committed suicide. Definitely worth a read. Here’s a small snapshot:

We are still a long way from a fool-proof medical treatment for depression, but we are even farther away from having the social and cultural understanding necessary to maximize the effectiveness of the treatments we have. For all the breakthroughs we’ve made in the field of mental health, too many of us still tend to believe that if a problem is in your head, it isn’t real.

Yet even the best treatment sometimes fails, and you wind up in a room filled with people each remembering the phone call they meant to make, the e-mail they were going to answer or the invitation they kept planning to extend. It’s unrealistic to believe any of that would have changed the outcome, but it is human to think so and may even spur us to be more thoughtful and attentive to others, at least for a time, and that’s something.

But when those left behind assume too great a burden of guilt, it compounds the suffering and distorts the reality of this terrible illness. By thinking we could have somehow deflected the fatal act, we are granting it a degree of consciousness and deliberation at variance with reality and empowering it with the further capacity to unfairly continue inflicting pain and injury on others. After all, no one blames the empty chambers in a pistol for not coming up in a fatal game of Russian Roulette.

Click here for the full story.

Murder-Suicide: Rare, Sad and Difficult to Predict

My community recently experienced a murder-suicide where a father took the lives of his two young daughters. I did not know the family, although acquaintances of mine did. One of the girls is the same age as my son. This, unfortunately, enables my over-active imagination to picture his face as a victim of a similar crime. I feel deep empathy for the girls’  mother, whose life was immeasurably changed just a few days ago. It makes me feel like someone punched me in the stomach, and I can only imagine how she must feel.

I’ve also been trying to imagine what the father must have been feeling and thinking before he committed this act. This is far more difficult. According to sketchy media reports, he was despondent over a pending divorce and suffered from depression. But millions of people get divorced and millions of people are depressed. And yes, millions are suicidal. There must be something more — something that pushes someone over the edge to commit murder of the people they love before they take their own life.

I was reminded that as a teenager with a bipolar mother, a therapist once told me that someone who is suicidal can also be homicidal. I didn’t fully understand this information at the time, although now I realize that she was warning me that someone who was contemplating suicide may consider it an act of mercy to take family members with them to prevent their suffering. In other words, she was trying to tell me to be careful.

At the time, I thought the idea was ridiculous. But then, I also couldn’t have imagined back then that my mother would eventually succeed at taking her own life. The unthinkable does happen. I’ve always thought that one of my mother’s twisted thoughts prior to her suicide was that she felt we would be better off without her. She couldn’t have been more wrong. I can only guess that the perpetrator of a murder-suicide commits murder as a perverted sense of altruism.

I’ve looked up research on the Internet, but studies on murder-suicide are far and few between. Murder-suicides are rare, thankfully, and the circumstances do vary. The researchers agree on some basic points — the perpetrators are typically men and involve firearms. A history of mental illness, particularly depression is common, as is domestic violence and economic uncertainty.

But none of the studies I’ve seen have helped with understanding why it happens and how to help others who are in danger. Like other forms of mental illness, what causes someone to commit murder-suicide is mostly unknown and therefore difficult to predict.

I hope we can find a way to help. Because the unthinkable does happen.

U.S. Army Responds to Suicide Risks

I was fascinated to read this AP story about the U.S. Army’s attempts to address suicide among their ranks. What a brave man Army Spc. Joseph Sanders is for stepping forward and becoming the face of this campaign. I found his story to be inspiring, and at the same time, I suspect it is more prevelant than he knew at the time.

I’ve never served in the military, but I grew up next door to a military base. My husband’s family has a long history of military service, and I have some idea of the type of environment and culture that comes with the military life. I can’t imagine a more difficult combination of elements that could spark mental illness while at the same time limiting a person’s ability to seek help. I found it heartening that the U.S. Army is at least giving it a try.

The pressure in the military to “be strong” is part of the very culture of the institution. It is not limited to any one branch of service, one country or even one era of human history. For the U.S. Army to change the message and try to address the problem is quite the “about face.” (Pun intended. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)

This story hits home for me in a very personal way, because I know a military vet who is currently suffering from depression. He lives the “be strong” motto through and through. In his case, just like many others, it is preventing him from seeking treatment for his illness. For him, I want this campaign to be just the tip of the iceberg. I want him to feel like it’s okay to ask for help. I want him to know that asking for help doesn’t make him weak. In fact, it’s the opposite — it requires great strength and courage to seek it.

I’m pleased the Army is making an effort to provide more mental health services, and I hope they dedicate the resources necessary to make it work. Keep up the good work, soldiers. And to Army Spc. Joseph Sanders, I salute you.

Help for Teenagers Affected by Suicide: Break Through the Static

My local paper ran a story about a new nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teenagers who are affected by suicide. This organization, called Break through the Static, defines its mission as creating “a caring community aimed at helping teenagers survive, heal and grow after losing a loved one to suicide. At Break Through the Static, teenagers will experience a safe and encouraging environment designed to strengthen their emotional and physical health through positive peer and adult relationships, and by joining with other teens to share and cultivate their unique talents and interests.”

Wow, I wish this group was around 20 years ago.

In fact, I find it a little disturbing that it took this long to develop such a group. It shows, yet again, the large hole in support services for people who are directly affected by mental illness.

If you are a teenager who is affected by suicide, or you know one, please check out Break through the Static. What an amazing resource for an under-served group of people. We are not alone.

The Long-Term Impact of My Mother’s Suicide, Part III

This the last part of a three part essay where I explore a few of the issues in my adulthood that stem from my mother’s suicide when I was 17 years old. Read Part I and Part II.

Becoming a mother myself—something I put off until my early 30s—held an enormous amount of risk for me. I instinctively knew the stability I had tried so hard to create would be at risk by starting my own family and being responsible for another small life. Yet the birth of my son was the most profound moment of my life. Parenthood has let me discover more about my mother, nearly 20 years later, because my children have brought me a new level of understanding about her life and her death. I know now a mother’s love for her child can be etched on her very soul, yet love doesn’t always prevent her from making decisions that are resolutely against her child’s best interests. In only three years, I’ve come to know my mother on a different level. I’ve heard her words come out of my mouth. Seen her temper in my flashes of anger. And in the most despondent moments of post-partum depression, I glimpsed the void that must have made her tie the rope and jump.

Even today it is hard for me to accept my mother’s last decision. Having children of my own, it’s impossible for me to see how she could have made that choice. It is unthinkable to me to simply walk out of their lives, leaving me with one of two very undesirable possibilities. My mother was so sick that her instincts were completely skewed and she thought we would be better off without her. Or she never loved me like I love my own kids.

The second is the reaction of the wounded child, and its large flaw is the changing nature of the parent-child relationship. It’s far more complex than I ever imagined, or could ever have felt, at age 17. I suspect this complexity will simply increase with time as my children age and our relationship becomes even more multifaceted. Years of analysis, of therapy, of pharmaceutical assistance and of late-night philosophizing with my sister have not dispelled one truth: I know my mother loved me, even if her death felt like a choice to leave me.

Then I’m left with the first, and still undesirable, reason. Suicide is excruciating for the people left behind. It is the ultimate act of abandonment for a child. Sometimes there is no happy ending. Sometimes parents are sick. Sometimes mothers leave by their own choice. Sometimes parents die. It is a painful truth, and I face it every day.

I’ve had to deal with a lot of painful truths in my life since my mother died. My children have four grandparents, although one is not biologically related to them. My father remarried four years after my mother died. I won’t pretend his choice was an easy one or his decision didn’t tear apart the fragile bonds we rewove after my mother died. Yet, after years of strife, I now see my stepmother as a valuable asset, filling her role in a way that I’m not sure my own mother would have managed. She is an excellent grandmother. And my children adore her. When Grandma comes to visit, I’m happy to put them in her care, knowing they will be adored and loved. I am grateful for her presence in my life and in theirs.

Also, being happy with myself also creates a bit of a conundrum for me. My life is the result of my mother’s death and the choices I made since that day. If I like who I am now, I cannot wish away the pain and tragedy of her death. I cannot deny its influence in making me a stronger, more resilient person. It has brought me much closer to my sister, who has become my dearest friend. It propelled us to better ourselves, working through college and graduate school, taking on challenging careers, and attempting to make the world a better place. It brought me to the man I married and the two adorable children we created. I look at the good in my life, and I see how it sprung from the pain. The paradox does not escape me.

I hope my experience provides some comfort for others who have experienced tragedy. When I watch my children sleeping safety in their beds, I think about everything I want for them. First and foremost, I want them to have a safe and happy home with healthy parents. What’s more, I wish all children around the world could have the exact same thing. I don’t want any family to go through what we did. Since that wish is unobtainable, I have to settle for telling this story in order to help others know that even in painful times, there is still a chance for good. Recovery can and will happen if you work toward it. Life does not necessarily give you what you want or what you deserve, but you can find good in life again. I survived. I am living proof.