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…

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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…

Telling Others About A Family Member Who Has Committed Suicide

I’ve struggled with one question for 20 years: “How do I tell my new friend that my mother committed suicide?”

It always comes up eventually, so I have to prepare myself. Not because I’m ashamed of my mother. I’ve come to terms with the circumstances of her death and accepted it as a part of my history.

But when it comes to dealing with other people? I wonder what their reactions will be. Will my new friend still want to be friends or will I be stigmatized because my mother was mentally ill? Will she be able to see me, not my mother’s death?

And now that I have “mommy” friends, will they feel like they need to protect their children from someone with mental illness in her family? After all, most people are afraid of mental illness, and most people calm their fear through avoidance. It makes them feel like they can control the situation.

As my sister mentioned in an earlier post, we grew up in a small town, a small pond where our mother was a fairly big fish. For years afterward people saw not me as an individual, but as my mother’s daughter. Even today I sometimes find that my relatives look at me and see a reflection of their own pain of losing my mother. I’ve learned how to diffuse those situations with charity and – I hope – a bit of grace.

However, when it comes to telling someone about my mother for the first time, I still have to brace myself for their reaction. I’m so used to the surprised and shocked expressions that I can’t just say, “She committed suicide.” I feel like I have to break it to them gently, as if their feelings are more important. I have to make a face or sigh; I am compelled to prepare the other person for what I’m about to say.

Part of me thinks, why should I worry about making the other person comfortable? But I guess that it’s a defense mechanism that makes me more comfortable. I can react in a preemptive way so that they know it’s a sensitive and important subject. I also can avoid pretending to be stoic, which can also close off any further discussion.

Most importantly, if I tell the truth, I’m bringing light to a subject that most people want or feel they need to hide.

Secrecy is not an option for me. I hope to be an example of openness and the beauty of survival, and I hope to inspire others to do the same.

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.

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.