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.

Looking Back: 22 Years Without My Mother

22 years ago, my mother tied a noose in a piece of yellow rope, then ended her life in our garage.

For those left behind, our lives were split into two. Before and after. After was a much darker and more confused world. We spent many of the early anniversaries of her death mourning — wallowing — in grief. Anger. Frustration. Regret. Confusion. Incredulity.

Then on the 20th anniversary of that dark day, my nephew — my mother’s grandson — was born almost to the minute on the same day she left this world. It was a cosmic wake-up call. Let her go. Let the grief go. 20 years is enough time to mourn.

It sounds easier than it is. We are still working on letting go of this day — letting it be only my nephew’s birthday, a celebration — instead of marking another year without my mother.

It takes time. Time doesn’t exactly heal all wounds. But the scars do fade a little more.

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.

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.

Uncertainty: Emotions Involved When You Love Someone with a Mental Illness

This post is the first of an ongoing series where we discuss the emotions involved in loving someone with a mental illness.

When I look back over my mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder, the most enduring emotion is uncertainty. I never knew what lay beyond the door. Which way will the pendulum swing? Will I come home to the depressed person, unable to function, or the hyper energy of a mania phase?

Sometimes she was irritable as hell; other times she was in a state of terrible, manic happiness. The stages themselves also offer varying degrees of uncertainty—will the mania manifest in relatively minor levels of incessant talking or out-of-control surges of activity? When she talked about her ideas and plans in a manic phase, I couldn’t tell what was real and what was an illusion of her disease.

The uncertainty seemed to increase as my mother’s illness continued. On her good days, I wanted to believe that she was finally, “Fine,” as she promised. I wanted to believe we had found the right doctor, the right pill, the right diagnosis. I wanted, in essence, the uncertainty to finally become certainty.

Except that never happened.

Each time, I let myself believe we had found the answer. And each time, I let my guard down, and then after weeks, days or sometimes minutes, I somehow ended up in the same place I was before—full of uncertainly about my mother and her illness. I never knew where I stood with her. Instead I tiptoed around her or tried to avoid her altogether.

I had to learn to deal with the uncertainty, which remains even years after she died. I mourn for the lost innocence that let me believe I could somehow fix everything—if I only tried hard enough. I know better now.

I believe this particular emotion is not unique to this particular mental illness, although bipolar symptoms in themselves lend to a huge amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty is perhaps the cornerstone of dealing with mental illness. The uncertainty of the disease transfers across to more uncertainty about treating it, and to coping with its effects. Never knowing exactly what the right thing to do is. Never knowing if you did everything you could do.

Never knowing anything again with certainty.

Breaking the Cycle of a Mentally Ill Parent

My sister and I spent a good part of last evening talking about our parents and our childhood. This is not particularly unusual when we get together. She has a better memory than I do, and yesterday she told me a few new stories that I didn’t remember. Even after 20 years of adulthood, she can still surprise me sometimes with new details.

I love these long, introspective conversations where we dissect small events and hypothesize on everyone’s thought process at the time. We are both parents now, so the actions of our parents are interesting to us in new ways. And, probably surprising to most people, it’s not our mother’s death that is the hot topic of conversation. Instead, it is her actions as a mother of small children that we find more interesting, probably because of the number of small children in our lives today.

It feels grossly unfair that our mother is not here to share in this conversation. At the same time, I wonder if my sister and I would be having these conversations if she were alive today. There is a lingering possibility that my sister and I would not be as close as we are today if our mother was alive; that our close bond was forged in tragedy alone. And our mother’s very presence may eclipse these conversations because she would be here to answer the now unanswerable questions.

I realized during this conversation that, even 20 years later, I still harbor some resentment and anger towards my mother. Not from her illness and her death, which were terrible and tragic, but from the very beginnings of our relationship as an unplanned pregnancy and spirited child. This animosity is completely missing in my sister, whose birth and personality meshed better with our mother’s plan for her life. And I realized that my mother’s mental illness, while a significant factor in my childhood, is not the only issue.

I tell you this because a lot of people find this blog by searching for information about the effects of mental illness on children. I can tell you from firsthand experience that there isn’t much information out there. The truth is that my mother’s illness is only one factor of our relationship that still resonates. Her actions as a young mother in an isolated military community with a daughter whom she didn’t plan on are far more relevant in my life today.

Our parents’ actions affect our lives. There’s no doubt about that. But the children of the mentally ill have choices too. I’m no longer a child, and I don’t blame my mother’s actions for any problems that I have in my life. I do try to learn from them, and with effort, avoid repeating the worst of them. I’m responsible for myself now.

That responsibility means I need to deal with that anger towards my mother that lingers more than 38 years later. I have resources. It’s time to use them again. Because that anger may be playing out in subtle ways in my relationships with my own children. I don’t have any control over my mother’s actions, but I have control over my own. Understanding the difference is one of the key elements to recovery. You can’t choose your parents. But you can choose how you parent your own children. Breaking the cycle is hard. But it’s worth it. I’m worth it. And my kids are worth it too.

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.

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

This the second 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 one here.

I’ve lived more than half my life without my mother now. How I got from the 17-year-old girl to the 35-year-old mother of two is a story that would encompass more than book or two. I can confidently say not everything in my life is a reflection of my mother’s death. However, after becoming a parent, I’ve realized my actions do reflect her life.

My sister and I jokingly refer to these situations with our catch-all comment: “Does EVERYTHING have to relate back to HER?” We’ve been through enough therapy to recognize the glint in a therapist’s eye when we get around to the inevitable conversation about the bipolar mother who takes her own life. It is the fact about us most people use to define who we are. And for a long time, my mother’s death was how I defined myself. That changed with the birth of my son. I am now a mother first, and being a motherless daughter has shifted backstage.

Yet being a mother without a mother does affect the way I parent my own children. I don’t think this is unusual. In fact I highly suspect I’d be revisiting issues from my childhood even if my mother was living today. It’s a journey all children must embark upon—learning to not repeat the mistakes of our parents when we become parents ourselves. (And in turn, make our own mistakes.) But I suspect because my mother was mentally ill, I pay more attention than some other people would. The biggest “mistake” I don’t want to make as a parent is dying too early. My inability to control accidental deaths or catastrophic illness leaves me with a constant feeling of unease. Because I know, from experience, you can wake up one morning and your world is upside down.

I do take comfort in the many loving people in my children’s lives, and I know the seeds are already sown for them grow into happy, confident adults even without me. I also know, from experience, tragedy doesn’t always result in more tragedy. Many people thought losing our mother to suicide would undo both my sister and me. But it didn’t. Today both our lives are as average as they can be. They are full of bedtime stories and client meetings. Making dinner and watching mindless television. Husbands who are as steady as rocks. Children who alternatively charm and frustrate, usually in the same minute. The normalcy of our lives is a testament to my mother’s work before her illness and death. One year of tragedy did not undo the 16 years of reliability that came before.

This stability in our lives today is not accidental. After the chaos of my mother’s last year and the turmoil after her death, my sister and I purposely designed our lives to honor calm and commitment and dependability. We want to feel safe. We’ve done our best to insulate ourselves from potential storms. We know we can’t prevent it. We do our best to prepare for it, a common reaction for people who have experienced tragedy young.

To be continued…

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

This the first 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.

My 3-year-old son is sitting beside me on the bed holding Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat. We are in the midst of the bedtime ritual—stories and talking before it’s time for lights out. I decided the moment is right to explain his mother and father are leaving on a short trip, and Grandma and Grandpa will stay with him and his baby sister for a few days.

He listened carefully, then said, “You left me.”

This statement made no sense to me, but after three years of parenting, I’m used to it. “When did Mommy leave you?” I asked.

“You left and Daddy put me to bed and read me the elephant book,” he said.

I realized he is talking about last night, when I went to the gym and Daddy was responsible for bedtime. “Yes. I did. But I came back.”

“Yeah,” he grinned at me, his whole face crinkled with glee.

I looked straight into his hazel eyes and said without hesitation, “Mommy will always come back.”

As I heard my own voice say the words, my stomach turned over. The lie violated a pact I had made to myself on the day he was born: to be honest with my children. And it is so huge, I am shocked by my own words and the conviction with which I said them. Who knows better than I that Mommy doesn’t always come back?

Even months later, I continued to dissect this evening in my mind for clues to why it resonated with me. I shared the exchange with my friends who have children; and they were quick to appease me—I’m a parent of a small child and I wanted to reassure him. It was a simple statement his three-year-old brain could process; because in spite of my ever constant worries that I will meet an untimely end and my children will be left without their mother, the odds are against that happening.

While I left these conversations temporarily feeling better, later I realized these friends all still had their natural parents. Of course they could easily dismiss my concern. For me, the answer would never be simple.

This scene, which occurs in nearly every household with a preschooler, triggered a different response from me because of my mother’s suicide. Two factors were at play for me in this simple scenario. I know my ideal of being honest with my own children stems from those chaotic last months with my mother when I was never sure what was true. Was she sick? Was she fine, as she insisted regularly? Was it a hormone imbalance or a chemical imbalance in her brain? Was it both? The answers to these questions will never come. I’ve accepted that now. The best I can do is accept the full truth of the situation. Something was wrong with my mother. And she chose her own death as the solution. It is brutal. It is the truth. And I’ve learned to value the truth in spite of the pain it brings. In turn, I try to be truthful with my children to save them from the painful realization I had at 17—that I could not trust my own parent.

The second element in this scenario relates to my greatest fear—that I will die before my children are grown. I would never wish on them what I have endured—not only the life-changing events missed by my mother, but the thousands of small moments: the care packages that never arrived at my dorm room, the birthday cakes selected alone because no one else thought to do it, and the midnight phone calls to commiserate about colicky babies. These little things hurt more than the empty seat at the wedding and the pitying looks in my friends’ eyes when I explain no one is coming to help after the birth of my first child because my mother is not alive and no one else will do.

To be continued…