I’m going to be a truth-teller about this whole thing. Air out a bit of dirty laundry. Offend a few people. Make people judge, love, or be pissed off at me. This won’t be well written and it may be all over the place but these are MY feelings. In the past, I have been asked to delete such personal posts from social media by certain people. I’m not planning on doing that this time. This is my suicide survivor experience and I wanted to share it. Here goes.
Sometimes I feel guilty about even calling myself that: a suicide survivor. My mother and I did not have a typical mother/daughter relationship. We loved each other but we were estranged, if you will, due to her mental illnessES. Other family members raised me since the age of four. So, during the almost 17 years since her suicide, I’ve asked myself the question: Was I even close enough to my mother to qualify as a suicide survivor? The answer is yes. Hell, I came out of the woman’s womb.
It’s actually ironic that Robin Williams’ death has sparked this need of mine to get my story out. When I first realized that I was starting the grief process, I was sitting in a movie theater with a friend. We had gone to see What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams. It had only been a few months since my mother died and I was feeling mostly numb about the whole thing. I actually remember being proud of myself for only crying about it a few times. Anyway, I welcomed the chance to get out of the house. I didn’t even know what the movie was about. I just wanted to see it because everything that Robin Williams is in is excellent, right? From what I can recall, it was mostly about death. I don’t even remember the story line exactly. I think there was a couple that had a child that died and the mother couldn’t bear the grief so she killed herself. I never even made it to the ending because I was crying uncontrollably and had to leave because of the scene involving Robin Williams’ character visiting the place where suicides go after they die. It was a pit; a pit of thousands of heads that were planted to the floor in this dark awful place. Only their heads were there, not their bodies. I remember there being a lot of groaning and horribleness. See, I do not believe that people who commit suicide go to hell or any place like that. I’m not sure what happens but I didn’t want to imagine my mother going to THAT place. It was too much, too soon. I left. I’ve never watched it since and never had the desire to finish it. But I remember that the emotional outpouring I had sort of helped me get my s*** together, move out of my grandparent’s house, and then I started figuring out what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of life I wanted for myself. I was 21 years old.
My mother had been sick her whole life. She’d never actually been diagnosed with a mental illness until much later in her life (bipolar disorder and depression mixed with a dash of schizophrenia), but EVERYONE knew there was something wrong with her. Except for her. She made living with her pretty difficult for everyone. First, her parents and her two sisters and then myself and I guess, my father, who has his own litany of problems but that’s a whole other essay. Of course, I never heard the stories about my mother’s childhood until I was much older. I remember hearing about her chasing one of her sisters with a knife, being verbally abusive, making lots of bad decisions that led to school suspensions that led to changing schools, yada yada yada. Those stories painted a picture of a crazy person. My grandmother held nothing back when she would talk about my mother. Every comment about her was negative, usually. But she didn’t understand that my mother’s illness completely prevented her from acting normal and being a good parent. And here’s my definition of a good parent: One who protects, nurtures, encourages, empathizes, sympathizes, heals, teaches, embraces, communicates with, spends quality time with, leads, comforts, and LOVES their children. I feel that my mother loved me and I’m sure she desperately wanted to be the one to take care of me, but she couldn’t. She was unable to properly do any of the things listed. She had limitations that her illness set upon her; limitations that could have been lifted had she realized that she was sick and taken the necessary steps to get well. Medications and therapy are ESSENTIAL, people. For a long time, I blamed my mother for not being self-aware and not being responsible for taking care of herself. I mean, her illnesses were TREATABLE! But her lifetime of denial, I believe, was due to the social stigma associated with mental illness. Who wants people to know that their brain is sick and that you have to take lots of medication for the rest of your life? Wouldn’t you just rather people think you’re quirky, dramatic, and the life of the party? I would, who wouldn’t. I’m not sure that society will ever be rid of the negative stigma regarding mental illness. It really is your everyday treatable disease. I’m also not sure that we will ever be able to rid the world of suicide. The reality is that people, including the famous, have been killing themselves since the beginning of time. But it is certainly PREVENTABLE.
Could I have prevented my mother’s suicide? No, not alone. I really feel that had my grandparents known what to do at the first sign of despair, her road to good mental health would have been possible. It was the 60’s. Back then, having someone like that in your family was shameful and no one talked about it. There was no guidebook on how to help someone like that. They did the best they could, I guess.
Although I don’t think she had a “death” wish, I feel like my mother had a constant “I want to end my pain” wish. She tried to kill herself five times, succeeding on the fifth. Attempt 1 was when she was a teenager with a bottle of aspirin. Attempt 2 was with a bottle of sleeping pills during her divorce from my father and it changed the course that my life would take. I was four years old. My father had moved out of the house so it was just my mother and I. I woke up one morning, alone. I went to my mother’s room and found her sleeping, unable to wake her up. No biggie, I thought. I went about my business playing and got myself dressed. I attempted a few times to wake her by hopping on the bed, sitting on her, and holding her eyes open with my fingers. Still nothing. Oh well. I went to the kitchen and poured myself some Cheerios. I would try to wake her again and still nothing. The day was slow and it turned into night. The phone rang and it was my uncle who lived in the subdivision next to us. Me answering the phone must have alarmed him because the next thing I remember is my uncle coming over and piling my mother and I into his orange VW van and taking us to the hospital to get my mother’s stomach pumped. The next time I saw my mother was a few months later in some sort of mental rehab facility in a conference room with other family members present. I moved around a lot after that. She would get well, I’d live with her, then my dad, then her, then grandparents, then her, then my grandparents again. It was nuts.
Attempts 3, 4 and 5 all happened within months of each other. Attempt 3 was during the spring of 1997. She was hitchhiking in Florida and jumped out of a moving vehicle going about 60mph on an interstate. This attempt left her with some brain damage that really made attempts 4 and 5 inevitable. After she was released from the hospital, she went to live with my grandparents while I was in college in Wisconsin. In August of 1997, I ended up moving back in with them as well and looked forward to living under the same roof with my mother again. But she was different. Way worse than she had ever been. Seeing things that weren’t there, hoarding food, not bathing, chain smoking, drinking heavily, and not ever coming out of her room. Clearly sick. That December, I planned a trip back to Wisconsin for New Years. My mother was supposed to take me to the airport but she had gone missing the night before. In my haste to remove myself from the situation, I begged my grandparents to take me to the airport anyway. I left. I got word that they found her in my grandparent’s car in a national forest parking lot the next day. She had taken a bottle of my grandfather’s heart medication and survived. She agreed to check herself into a mental hospital that day only to check herself out because they wouldn’t let her smoke. The next night, on New Year’s Eve, she took a gun to her head and ended her life in my grandparent’s home. The fifth and final attempt was successful. No messing around that time. My grandparents had chosen not to even call me and tell me. A friend that had heard the news ended up tracking me down and I was on the next flight home. They were ashamed and angry and hurt. I’m sure they had survivor guilt, but of course we never talked about it. I felt sorry for them. I had been spared the carnality of it all because I wasn’t there. They had to deal with the discovery of the body, the coroner visiting the house, the team of people coming in to clean up, and worst of all, losing their baby girl. There was no obituary. No funeral. My aunt said a few nice words and read a poem. We cremated her and buried her in the family plot. There was no urn, just a thick plastic bag and a cardboard box. Shame. Anger. Hurt. They can sometimes make you want to just sweep things under a rug so you can hurry up and move on.
I’m glad I am writing these things down because the more I read them and say them to myself, the more I can start to believe that they happened. I often have dreams where my mother faked her death and I’m super pissed and say “What a shitty thing to do to your kid!” See, I still don’t understand all of this. Yes, I’ve raised money for research on preventing suicide, donated my time, offered my advice and comfort to other suicide survivors but I still have questions about where I stand on the whole thing. One of the first times I had to ask myself how I REALLY felt about suicide was during the Sandy Hook School massacre in Connecticut recently. I found myself saying, “Why couldn’t that a**hole Adam Lanza just kill himself instead of shooting all of those little innocent babies? Why couldn’t his mother just have him put away since he was so crazy?” That’s terrible, right? I guess those questions and doubts started popping up because I became a mother five years ago. Becoming a mother is a feeling like no other. It is a gift from God. All I want to ever do is to care for and protect my children from harm. I want to put them in a bubble. I love my children and my husband and I display all of the qualities of a good parent that I listed earlier. I feel that protecting your child is job number one when it comes to being a parent. Use good judgment and don’t put them in harm’s way. My mother should have had a “plan” when she left me all alone that day, right? Couldn’t she have sent me to a friend’s house for the night, gone to a hotel, whatever? Didn’t she remember that she had a sleeping little girl tucked in bed with her blankie and teddy bear in the next room before she swallowed a bottle of pills? What the hell, selfish lady? But all of the articles I read and people I talk to about this say I can’t call suicide a selfish act. Ok. What can I call it then? A lapse in judgment, a mistake, a waste, a cry for help? Seriously, someone tell me because I don’t know. Because suicide leaves us survivors all reeling and roaming around asking questions that go unanswered and leaves gaping holes in our lives that will never be filled again. Yes, there are the lucky who find peace with it but does the journey to find peace have to be so hard? It’s been 17 years for dang sake. I wanna be done! I’ve got s*** to do! Two kids and a husband and a dog take a lot of work, not to mention taking care of myself!
Now, eventually I’m going to have to talk to my children about their grandmother. I still really have no idea what I’m going to say. But I do know that mental illness runs in families. You better believe I will be on this mess like a hawk. I have no shame in hauling my children to therapy. I’ve been to therapy and I know the good it can do. I will take every necessary step to prevent this happening to anyone in my family ever again. It’s my duty as a mother, wife, and a human being.
I’m sure that Robin Williams’ family did everything in their power to help him with his struggles. He probably had every kind of help resource available to him that money could buy. It’s a terrible thing to happen to a family. I don’t really don’t know what to say. I don’t want to offend anyone. But it IS a waste. Our world was funnier with him in it. He was so talented and bright and was such a joy to so many people. So was my mother.