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.

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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…

Coping with the Holiday Blues

The holidays are upon us. I was pleased to find in my research that the rumors of increased suicide attempts during the holiday period has been proven inaccurate. In fact, the opposite seems to be true — with more people reporting improvements in mental health, possibly because we typically interact more with other people during this season than during the rest of the year.

But what if, due to no fault of your own, the holidays reflect more about what you’ve lost than what you have?

That was my feeling about the holiday season for many, many years. Memories of happier times did not comfort me. I went through the motions, but felt like Christmas — the major holiday of my childhood — was simply another day where the thing I wanted most (my mother) was missing.

Not only was the thing I wanted unobtainable, but gifts in general felt like a poor substitute. Carols? Cookies? Reindeer? Nah. Didn’t do a thing for me. I was looking for something that could not be found in a store or under a tree or even in a church.  Like the first part of the song, “Where Are You Christmas?”, I had changed, but the holidays were a chain to my past.

This is my 21st Christmas without my mother. That’s a lot of crappy holidays. Too many. But I’m please to report some improvements over the past few years. The major reason is the birth of my own children, who are enchanted by the magical side of Christmas. They believe in Santa, and I love watching their excitement. It has brought a new joy into the season. Hang around with young children during the holidays. It’s much more fun.

I’ve also focused less on myself and more on others.  Giving to others is one relatively simple way to find the spirit of the holidays when it feels like it’s missing. I make donations during this time of year. They are small, but I make sure they count. I give to people and charities doing work I believe in. I donate time to organizations that make a difference. In helping others, I help myself reconnect with what is truly important in our lives. And in this economy, the need is greater than ever.

I also have given myself permission to give up parts of Christmas that feel more burdersome than celebretory. I made three batches of simple cookies instead of 10 batches of those tasty, but very complicated, recipes handed down by my grandmothers. Our dinner is also simplified — only the dishes we truly enjoy will find it to our table this year. No homemade gifts from me either — great idea, but I don’t enjoy crafting enough to make that my priority. I still do Christmas cards because I enjoy receiving them, but the letter inside is printed from a computer instead of handwritten (my preference).

Another idea that I like is simply skipping the holidays. Leave the decorations in the attic, find someone to pick up your mail, get a cheap flight and hotel on the Internet, and then take off for someplace tropical. If the holidays are painful, I think doing something radically different is an okay way to cope with the situation. I confess that I have not put this option into action, but I reserve the right to in future years.

My own experience has led me to believe that time does help.  Those 20 years of cruddy Christmases are not a life-long sentence. Each year is gets a little easier as I find ways to make the holiday season reflect what I feel is important. It’s a journey, not a destination.

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.

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.