Have you ever been in a social setting and said, “I think it’s time we take this party to the next level and share our personal experiences with depression and suicide”?
Of course not. It is spoken policy in many a watering hole to stay away from conversations of politics and religion. It is an appropriately unspoken policy that mental illness and suicide are a bummer, so keep it to yourself. Sometimes the toughest battles we face are the ones we feel obligated to fight within ourselves.
Speaking about intensely personal struggles is difficult. Getting emotionally naked in front of other people is unnatural, but it’s also the most effective way to take control of your toughest battles.
I encourage everyone to share your stories throughout National Suicide Prevention Week. And continue doing so for all the weeks that follow.
I’ll start. This is my story.
July 6, 1995
When my stepmother got off the phone, her face was red and it was clear she had been crying. I asked what was wrong. She thought about speaking, but shook her head as more tears rolled down her face. She held up a hand and mustered a faint “I can’t,” while pushing open the screen door and quickly walking outside. My brother and I followed, but kept our distance.
Neither my brother nor I had ever heard my father scream like he did when he heard whatever she told him. We’d heard him yell, but this was no yell. Yells are purposeful. Screams are reactionary, and this one seemed to cause a ripple in the otherwise calm summer air. Seeing our stepmother cry was scary, but knowing the news from that phone call could elicit that sound from our father was absolutely terrifying.
To this day I don’t remember walking back into the house, but I remember sitting in the living room – my brother and I on the couch, my dad sitting on the edge of the chair next to us, leaning forward with a nervous intensity I’d never seen.
“This is the most difficult thing you’re ever going to hear,” he said, followed by a brief pause while he worked the heavy words toward his shaky lips.
“Your mom died.”
Six years earlier, my mother suffered a devastating brain injury when her car collided with a county vehicle that had run a stop sign. A month earlier she had remarried. It was a week before Christmas. She was 29 years old.
After years of physical therapy, two things were clear about my mother’s recovery: 1) she had exceeded all reasonable expectations, and 2) her own expectation proved unreasonable – to physically and emotionally reclaim her pre-accident self.
On July 6, 1995 – three days after my 13th birthday – my mother ended her life.
There is nothing easy about being 13. It’s the beginning of a long journey to the person you will become. It’s an age of searching and vulnerability. A time when the desire to fit in can cause you to let others define you. I put all my energy into blending into the background, choosing anonymity over being defined by the person who was no longer around, but very much with me.
I wanted to be overwhelmed by girls and football like most of my friends. Instead, I spent my adolescence wondering why she did it, and what, if anything, I could have done to prevent it. I pondered heavy questions: do people who kill themselves really go to hell? And if he doesn’t intend to reunite me with my mother one day, what fucking use is this God character anyway?
Many loss survivors go through the same fruitless process.
In adulthood, I’ve settled on the realization that her pain was greater than any of us, even the closest to her, could have known. While her tenacity and recovery inspired us, we didn’t have to live in the body she was left with. We didn’t have to live with a mind that came back quick and witty, paired with a mouth that never caught up. We weren’t stuck with legs that would never be as sturdy as they were in the albums containing clippings of her high school basketball excellence. She was able to drive – an important milestone in her journey to independence – but feared her shakiness could lead to an even more devastating accident, one that may include her children, setting them on a journey she had been tormented by for the better part of a decade.
In the end, I think she acted in a way she believed would set her free from the pain. That was understandable. I fear, like many who take this road, she also believed she was setting the people closest to her free from the burden she believed she had become. Twenty years later, that is as devastating as it was on July 6, 1995.
But twenty years later, I can say that out loud. And it helps.
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.