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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

On Suicide

Yes.  I know.  Normally I joke or rant or sometimes use hyperbole with excessive exuberance.  Today, not so much.  Today, I read two articles today about depression and suicide which prompted me to be serious for a change.

The first article was from the perspective of Christine Chubbuck's brother, Greg.  Christine was a media personality who during a 1974 morning show on television, shot herself.  A link to the article is here.  A lady who suffered from bipolar disease before it was widely diagnosed, she was unhappy with her life.  There were various problems mentioned in the article from the mental illness to romantic issues to the possible inability to have children.  I'm not certain why she chose to end her life so publically, but she did, and now there a few movies cropping up about her.  Her brother describes her as "An interesting, gifted, flawed person."  What a sad way to remember a loved one.

I feel for the family.  Their loss touches me in a way most people aren't aware.  My mother killed herself in 1979.  She didn't do it on live television.  She didn't do it in front of a crowd.  Specifically, she left our family house, went to her mother's house, borrowed my grandmother's .22 pistol, and put the barrel in her mouth.  She left a two-word note underneath her glasses on the table in front of her.  "Forgive me," it said, and I've often wondered what happened to that note.  I'm not certain if I wished I'd kept it or not.

There was a tiny article in the local paper a few days later about our mother's suicide that offended my sister and me terribly.  I remember that we called up the paper's offices and said something anonymous and nasty to them.  (Upon reflection that was silly, but we felt better.)  I didn't get to say that she was an interesting, gifted, flawed person.  Much, much later, I remember her being a kind person, but a person who kept her nose in a book, and ignored what was happening all around her.  (Which is ironic considering my present profession.)

At the time of my mother's suicide, I was fifteen years old, a sophomore in high school, gleefully trotting myself down a dark path of rebelliousness.  I can't say how much my mother's death was a wakeup call, and forever changed I became thereafter.

The other article I read was written by a woman who discusses her experiences with mental disease and the effects of its impact on her life.  Stephanie Land speaks about what it was like to commit herself in a psychiatric hospital and the aftermath of financial responsibility.  See the article here.  I also took a look at some of her blog articles, which are just as compelling.  See her website/blog here.

Recently my daughter asked what happened to my parents, which proves that the past is never really past.  My father died in 1972 when I was eight.  His death was primarily due to a heart attack caused by arteriosclerosis.  (Those fried catfish done him in.  Sorry, Dad.)  Answering what had happened to my father came naturally if ruefully, and doesn't bother me.  When it comes to answering about my mother, I had to be a little more discrete.  I wouldn't have thought that I'm ashamed of my mother's death by suicide, although at one point in my life I was very much aware that I was wretchedly mortified to admit it.  So in the present, it was more like I didn't want to sully my daughter's head, which leads down that same mental path that suicide/mental disease is something that is inherently dirty.  I don't remember my exact words to my daughter, but it went something like, "My mother was very unhappy.  Because she was so unhappy she thought that she should die.  I've often wished that she talked to me or someone else about it instead."  And my daughter was very understanding.  I dislike lying to my daughter so I try not to lie about things like death and taxes.  (The whole Santa Claus/Easter Bunny/Tooth Fairy is making me itchy under the collar because she's gotten to the age where the holiday cat should be out of the bag.)

In a similar manner, I told my daughter the truth about her grandmother.  I didn't go into detail.  I didn't specify how and why, and I could have because when my grandmother found my mother's body, she called me up.  I ran the half block to her house and opened the front door to see my mother on the sofa with blood coming out of her ears, nose, and mouth.  My grandmother was washing her hands in the sink, and I didn't immediately understand what had happened.  I rushed to my mother's side, thinking she'd had some kind of stroke, and I checked her pulse.  Much later, the EMTs were standing in front of her body laughing about something and I screamed at them to get out of the house because her death was not something amusing.  This is very likely the most dreadful memory I have in my life.

And therefore I came to the conclusion that even now, some 37 years later, there is still a tinge of shame in the manner of my mother's death.  I don't like to say that I am.  I certainly can't change what happened, but I can change the way I think about it.

The impact of my mother's death continues to be felt.  Not only did it color my life (I have two degrees that relate directly to the circumstances of her death) but I've suffered through three episodes of major depression in my life, including a five year period directly after her death.  I don't know if my family was aware of my problems or that they chose to ignore them, but I remember getting advice like, "You should make more friends," and "You should just go out more."  I had to work myself out of my depression, and I had to do it in a way that I would never recommend.  My marriage was one of several keys to my recovery.  HIM, the man to whom I'm married, may never know how much he truly helped me.

Mental illness continues to be swept under the carpet like a redheaded stepchild that must be hidden away in a closet when visitors appear.

For those of you who need help, here's the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-273-8255.

The link to their website is here.

I wish this had been an option for my mother.  Or for myself for that matter.