Some years back I wrote an anonymous blog post on another web site. It was a deeply personal post about suicide and mental illness and I even shared it here, but I kept it at arm’s length. I said it was composed by a ‘guest writer’ because I was too scared and ashamed to admit that the story was my own. If anyone saw through my juvenile ruse, no one said anything.
On February 5, 2003, my mother, aged 59, committed suicide. To be clear, she overdosed on a plethora of prescription pills and became the forerunner in what would come to be known as the “Opioid Crisis.” I’ll never know if her suicide was intentional, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. The net result is she’s not here, I’ll never get to talk to her again, and my children will never get to meet her. To put it bluntly, it sucks. Every single day of my life, I miss her and it sucks.
At her funeral, only one person — my great aunt — asked what had happened. I think everyone else was walking on eggshells, taking pains not to upset us. (“Us” includes me, my two siblings and my father.) I remember tripping over my words and stammering out a response. “Her heart gave out,” I said, which wasn’t really a lie, but it wasn’t the truth either.
I felt ashamed of myself for lying by omission, but I also wanted to protect my mother. I didn’t want her suicide to be the headline of her life, the one thing that stood out to people. That’s what often happens when people kill themselves; it becomes the main thing people remember about that person. My mother was so much more than that and it felt like a disservice to relegate her to that oblivion.
Six months after my mother’s death, my uncle, my mother’s younger brother, committed suicide with a gun, a path that, unlike my mother’s death, definitively answers the question of intent. A of couple years later, my cousin followed my mother’s lead and died from an overdose of prescription pills. Then there are the odd family stories I’ve heard over the years, stories always told in a whisper. “Aunt Jean died at 28. She choked on a sandwich.” “Uncle Joe didn’t mean to drink that weed killer. He was mixed up and we got him to the doctor in time.”
When I take a clear-eyed look at my extended family, I see a group of people held in the grip of mental illness. Things that I was told were accidents I now know were suicide attempts, some of them successful. So why, in a family so clearly devastated by an illness, are we so afraid to call it by it’s name?
This week two famous, beloved individuals committed suicide – Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Every time I hear of a suicide, my heart rips a little. I always want to go back in time and somehow find that person and tell them, “Don’t do this. I’ll sit with you today and through the night and tomorrow and the next, but don’t do this. Please.”
I don’t want to hide from this illness any longer. It’s robbed me and my family of our very soul. Looking away, not talking about it, only gives it more power. No longer. I won’t hide or be afraid anymore.