A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
My mother attempted suicide.
I’ve never written about this, and I would have liked to delve into it in a more literary way, but this is merely a public service announcement. I’m scared of going too into the moment. Even now, all these years later, even with her dead (from cancer) for seven years, it still hurts in places I’m not sure light will ever, ever find.
It’s a very long story about a 16-year-old girl who had a nice day out with a nice boy she liked and who got a kiss and came home happy. I had had a fight with her earlier in the day over something stupid – I was at a girl’s house whom she did not like in the least, and she tore a strip out of me on the phone when she knew I was over there.
For the first time ever, I didn’t run right home and try to make up with her. Instead, I spent the whole day walking all around town with this guy I so liked. Inevitably, I returned home. The blow-out fight occurred, and instead of my being the peacemaker I’ve always been, I said, “Fuck it. She’s out of control.” And then I played on the computer for an hour or two.
She barked at me to bring her some sherry. Obediently, I did. And then I went off and did my thing. I was pretty pissed, but after about a half-hour or so, I decided I couldn’t ignore the fight and resolved that I’d go in and smooth things over and explain to her what really happened, if she’d only get a grip and finally listen.
I opened the door to her bedroom to find her seated cross-legged at the head of her bed with a hand full of her sleeping pills and the bottle of sherry in the other. She shoved them into her mouth, not seeing me. I leapt across the room and belted her across the face, sending the pills flying. She was stunned. I grabbed the booze from her and started picking up the pills, and that’s the last thing I remember of that day. All I remember now are the emotions that found me then and dug a deep, deep hold on me in the months and years to come.
I told no one in my life. I kept that dark secret for far, far too long.
The thing about suicide is that there’s a real stigma. There’s a lot of shame, as if you’re some kind of damaged product because you couldn’t hack it in the real world. How much of that is societal versus internal is really debatable, depending on who you are and where you are.
As a bystander, a family member or friend, as someone who loves them, you feel the need to protect them by keeping the secret. God forbid shame come upon them. If keeping that secret means they don’t have to deal with shame on top of the horrible depression that drove them to that, then by god, that’s what you’ll do. Right?
Wrong. Don’t. I did. I hurt every goddamned day as a 17-year-old. It was more than two years before I stopped wondering. “Where the hell is she? She’s supposed to be home. There’s no note. Did she drive the car into a telephone pole? Jump off a bridge?”
I’d panic daily. That’s what we do when we’re scared for the welfare of a loved one. If you’re involved with someone delving deeper into depression, if you know someone is suicidal, that’s not a burden you need to carry alone, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all. There are crisis lines. They provide a world of help when you think there’s no place else to turn. Me, that’s the only place I turned. They told me to talk to her doctor, and I wish I had. I didn’t.
It would be two years later, when violent rage overtook my mother for no good reason, and she hurled this heavy metal block at my head, missing me by an inch. The wall was cracked open where it hit. I can’t imagine what it would’ve done to me had it hit me.
Being a well-read girl, though, I had heard about this drug called Halcyon, and I finally realized my mother was having a chemical reaction to her sleeping pill. I confronted her, we threw the drugs out, and while she’d battle depression until her death, it never again got out of control like that.
The only time we ever discussed that attempt of hers was about nine years after it happened, in the weeks leading up to her death. I’d just taken a three-week long road trip solo through the western US and got a lot of thinking and writing done. At the time, we didn’t know her death was imminent. I told her how much it’d fucked me up and for how long, and how I discovered I was still angry that she’d used me in that way, and told her so.
Her response? She apologized, but said she remembered nothing. Not a thing. Most of those two years were lost in a fog.
I guess my point is two-fold. One, don’t assume that someone has meant to bring anguish to you through their selfish actions. Sometimes, they’re just in such a disconnect that they don’t know any better. Sometimes, forgiving needs to happen on your part. (But if they’re hurting you repeatedly, or physically, you need to seriously consider walking. She had two events, and that was all. Between those, we had a good life together.) Two, you cannot expect to carry burdens alone. Some secrets are not made for keeping. Reach out to friends, and if you feel you can’t, use the crisis line. Had I done so, my mother wouldn’t have gotten violent when I was 18.
But we live and we learn, and sometimes we’re just lucky enough to hear about someone else’s experiences before we have to endure them ourselves. Learn from mine. Don’t be alone when you don’t need to be.
1. Crisis lines are found in almost every city of every province in Canada, and I would assume the same to be true for the US and many other forward-thinking countries.
2. I now never, ever let an argument fester. I never, ever go to bed angry. I talk through everything. Time heals all wounds? Conversation’s a pretty good start, too. You never know when someone’s tether’s gonna come undone.
3. I cannot recommend William Styron’s brilliant book Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness enough. In it he chronicles his chemically-induced descent into suicidal tendencies. I think it should be mandatory reading for anyone confronted with depression — theirs or a loved one’s.