The author on a hike. Photo: Courtesy of Mary Pembleton
“How’d your mom die?”
Time stilled a little. This question from my precocious five-year-old, a child already versed in the inner workings of procreation, who’d interrogated me relentlessly about God and evolution and sewage processing at the tender age of three, would, I knew, blossom into an onslaught of queries until the truth slipped out if I didn’t answer him directly right now.
I glanced at his green eyes in the rearview and they stared back, intent. This moment: I hadn’t expected it so early in his life.
“Well,” I began. “My mother had a disease, just like Dad’s father had cancer. But this disease was in her brain and it made her very sad. And she didn’t get the help she needed in time to feel better. She was so sad for so long that she chose to die.”
Since the very beginning of motherhood, I’ve vowed to answer my children honestly, because I remember what it felt like as a child to have serious questions skirted. It sent a clear message: We do not talk about this because it’s shameful. And the shame soiling my mother’s struggle with mental health, and ultimately her suicide, contributed to it.
Tissues damp with salinity lay in piles next to her bed in the mornings, but in the house where I grew up, we all suffered from our respective problems quietly, shame-fueled, behind closed doors. I knew the meaning of the word depression from an early age because my mother whispered it into my ear in explanation of the apathy that accompanied my father’s chronic pain, along with a request that I do not talk about it.
I didn’t want my mother’s suicide to be stigmatized with shame in the minds of my children, who I’m confident will experience their own mental health struggles if biology and genetics and family legacy is any indication, and the science supporting my assertion is well-established.
“So, she killed herself?” my son asked.
He stared out the window at the passing trees. “What is it called?”
“What?” I asked.
“Depression,” I told him, “It’s called depression.”
Depression and anxiety and suicidality, I would’ve told him if he were older. Three words I’ve felt the impact of from a young age, not only by witnessing my parents’ but by experiencing them in my own body. But I didn’t tell my mother or father what I was feeling when at the age of 12 I plummeted into a hopeless and inexplicable desire to die: I’d learned from their example. This was not something we talk about.
The additional trauma of my mother’s suicide when I was 17 meant that by the time I made it to adulthood without proper treatment or therapy, I was limping.
“You know how I always think you’re going to die when you’re sick?” I asked my son several years after our initial conversation in the same Prius. His brain was a bit more developed then, his legs stretching nearly all the way to the messy floorboard. “That’s anxiety. Unreasonable worry that’s hard to control. And I inherited it from my parents, and they from theirs.”
“Like when I had strep and you took me to the hospital and told me you’d buy me a dirt bike because you thought I was dying,” he said.
“Just like that. I’m trying really hard in therapy to learn how to challenge myself when I feel really scared and start thinking that way. I’m trying a new medicine that I hope will help, too,” I told him.
I offer this transparency so he can see that though I do struggle, I seek help for my struggle, so that he may one day do the same. Because early in motherhood, I didn’t know how to get help, and my children were collateral.
When our sons were toddlers, I remember lying in bed next to my husband, shivering with anxiety under the comforter and staring up at the whorls of paint on our ceiling. “There’s another measles outbreak,” I told him. Cold sweat pooled in my armpits.
“So, get them vaccinated.”
I wanted to, but I was so scared I was going to hurt them. I couldn’t live with myself. But I also couldn’t live with myself if they got measles either, or spread it to someone vulnerable.
“I need help,” I said, hot tears rolling over my temples into unkempt hair strewn across the pillow.
The more my children grew, the more the anxiety grew to match it, and the clearer it became that I did need help, and a lot of it. So many of my initial parenting decisions were based on a belief that I would inevitably do something to cause their deaths, a belief established in the wake of a death I felt was my fault.
Self-blame is all-too-common in suicide survivors. It may be a cliché, but for good reason. The resounding question being, “What could I have done to save them?”
What motivated me to seek treatment: I wanted to do better for my children. To break the cycle. I loved them more than anything and wanted to give them only the best. To give them a chance at a different outcome than my mother. To give me a chance at a different outcome.
I started seeing a therapist who specializes in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which allows trauma victims to resolve trauma’s negative effects through bilateral stimulation of the brain. It is helping me dismantle the stunning numbness that set in when my mother died, as well as a young adulthood of missteps and guilt and paralytic anxiety.
In our traumas so often lie gifts and pearls of wisdom and takeaways. The traumas themselves barbed and twisted and ugly, but given the proper resources to navigate them, to grow the healing parts of ourselves bigger and stronger than what’s hurt and battered us, we can learn so much about ways we don’t want to live, and how to live from a place of clarity of goals and awareness of my biases. My own traumas taught me to mother intentionally and decisively rather than from a place of fear. To get the damn shots. To take a breath and challenge my thought patterns instead of taking my kids to the emergency room for a fever.
The gift of my mother’s suicide is this: While I cannot control genetics or biology, I can, have, and will work hard to accrue the proper tools to contend with our family legacy of mental illness. And my hope is that I can pass these tools down to my children, to add to our wrought family legacy of suffering the very resilience to fight it with.
This article was originally published online in January 2020.