It was a year ago that I got clear just how profoundly my brother’s suicide nearly 30 years earlier had affected my life.
I’d started to think about its impact on my health when I read Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s The Last Best Cure in 2013 and, in July 2015, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Biology and How to Heal. That summer, I told myself I needed to go off and do some serious work on healing. To write and cry. To get support.
And then my mom had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. Her fate was unclear for weeks and into months. I flew out to be with her in the hospital. Slowly, she improved, but the focus and energy of everything had shifted.
I did start seeing a therapist wasn’t up to unearthing work when my mom’s health crisis was bringing up so much and nothing was certain. I did, however, put effort into my physical health and the health of my oldest child, as I’ve written about here.
So that is something.
But last year, when my ten-year-old child began struggling in a way we could not understand, I felt the presence of my fourteen-year-old self ever stronger. It prompted me to write the essay below, which I read this past May at the DC Listen to Your Mother. The experience of writing was cathartic in its way, but it hasn’t fixed everything.
Two nights ago, while I was at a PTA meeting that talked about safety threats for children in the digital age, my child apparently began complaining yet again about how restrictive we are with screen time and how unfair it all is.
I imagine there was some amount of guilt about having left the school-issued iPad outside when I arrived to drive both kids to the older’s therapy appointment. And having forgotten gym clothes earlier in the day after two weeks of not needing to change during a classroom health unit. (Yes, I took them to school so there would be no lunch detention but said it would never happen again.)
I think about how much more social media exposure is to come, and I think about what an absolute puddle I would have been if I had to contend with an online presence when I was a teen. I mean, I was already a wreck, but I don’t know how I could have survived the internet. I can barely survive it now, struggling as I do with every happy-go-lucky post or photos from trips and even all the lovely mindfulness memes out there. I’ve handled them better in the past few months, maybe a little numbed from some of my herbs and supplements, but when I have a day like yesterday when I awake feeling a little shattered, it’s still hard.
I winced when a friend tagged me as an individual instead of tagging my website about a class I was teaching. I don’t feel like I can completely cut ties with Facebook at this time, but I do envy the people who feel they can, and have.
So when I heard this report on NPR about screen time past two hours increasing teen’s likelihood of depression and suicide, well, my first thought was not to get scared but to actually share it with my child. This is not just me, I wanted to say. I am not just annoying and a bad and restrictive mom. I am a person who spent hours alone watching television as a child and is still trying to undo that damage. I do not want to do damage to you, not for today, or for your future self.
And by God, I do want there to be a future self.
So when I pulled up the screen time & depression link piece on the WAMU website, this related post popped up on the sidebar: “After a Suicide, Sibling Survivors Are Often Overlookeded.”
I don’t know if people who know me think I talk about my survivorship too much. It was the subject of the one piece I’ve had published on Scary Mommy and of the Listen to Your Mother piece below. Yes, it was 30 years ago. But no, I’m not done processing it. I went to one Survivors of Suicide meeting with my parents back in 1987 and didn’t see a therapist until five years later, when I was a severely depressed college freshman. My now-husband came into my life just months after that, and I feel in some ways like I am younger now than I was when we met.
Things shift with each day my child gets closer to the age I was when my brother died. I wasn’t in a good place before it happened, and things certainly went downhill after that. There was a while in my late 20s and 30s when I could tolerate or even enjoy my birthday, which comes in early March, just a week after the anniversary of his death. But I struggled to fete myself at 40 and the dread of my 45th has already begun, more than four months ahead of time.
I wrestle with the question of what I want for me and what I want for my children to experience and to see. There are some areas of alignment, but I also feel it’s next to impossible for me to really heal the way I want to and still be their parent. That’s why I can’t bring myself to participate in activities or groups that promote self-care and nurturing mama and all that. I respect them and think they are great, but they make me feel like even more of an outsider than I already do.
I can also get a lot out of self-help books, but I get a little stuck every time a writer talks about how cherished they felt as a child or how they had such supportive and influential adults in their lives. I can’t draw on memories of feeling carefree or nurtured or of believing everything will be okay. And I am having a hard time cultivating this for myself and for my children.
I did a lot of work on mindfulness and self-acceptance when I was trying to heal from a thyroid disorder in 2004, and that was great. I felt like I could accept whatever was to come, even if it meant not being able to conceive. I was in a good place. But I had no idea that once I had children, their very existence would trigger me on a daily basis and have me fluttering back to the challenges of my childhood and adolescence.
It pains me to think that my experience of being triggered is influencing their experience of who I am as a mother and, more importantly, influencing their beliefs about themselves.
I am working and thinking and processing and not, in this moment, crying. But neither am I certain of the path forward.
Here is the piece I read in May at Listen to Your Mother DC 2017.
Words to Live By
I’ve decided that all mothers have some phrase, some collection of words, some precept that guides our parenting. Yours might be something common in your community, shared by others. Or it might be unique to you, still jagged around the edges. Maybe yours is so clear – even cute – that you’ve put it in a frame or on a vision board. Maybe it’s something you heard from your grandmother or you read in a book of poems in college. Maybe it’s something you’ve shared widely, garnering laughs or emojis on social media, or maybe it’s something so private, you wouldn’t even whisper it.
Maybe this sounds peculiar, and you’re thinking, I don’t have a phrase. I don’t do mantras. There’s nothing that can sum up or speak to the entire complexity that is my life.
I know. I didn’t realize it myself. Not really. It wasn’t until last fall when my 10-year-old son went through a particularly rough time that the words rose up to the surface like a bloated fish you want to look away from but can’t. It occurred to me that, whether I liked it or not, these words lay beneath everything I did – everything I do – as a parent.
It was something my mother said, maybe only twice, possibly only once. But it seemed like more. Her offering echoed through the decades, bouncing around in my head like a refrain. The further it got from the original, which was probably spoken 30 years ago when I was 14, the more eerie it sounded. I’ve been rewinding a tape in my head to the spot where my mom first said:
“I hope you never lose a child to suicide.”
She didn’t mean to be hurtful. What she wanted was the opposite of hurt. But her words took on the flavor of a warning, like tea that has a bitterness that seems subtle until you try to cut it with sugar and find that you can’t.
When you’re 14, you’re not thinking about your future angst as a parent. You’re thinking about the angst that is your everyday existence. This is true of most of us at some level, if even your brother hadn’t just killed himself a week before your birthday.
It’s natural for 14-year-old girls to think a lot about themselves. And to think their mom is embarrassing or some kind of mess. I was no different. Things were just made more messy by the fact that I had seen my mom and dad and my other three siblings grapple with the grief of losing their son and brother, who was 23 when he chose to end his life for reasons we’ll never know.
Before I became a parent, I made a conscious decision to try to heal some of my hurts and to break unhealthy family patterns. Well, it wasn’t totally my idea; my body had a health crisis that triggered me to dig in and do some work. And I did, but now that my children are getting older, it’s clear there is more work to be done.
I’m one of those parents that other people probably think meddles too much. I try to be hands-off on some things that seem more optional. For example, if you see children sporting stylish clothes, matching socks, or even combed hair, they are not mine. But I’m pretty hard-core when it comes to things that have been big for me – like nutrition and anything affecting health or emotional well-being. When other people say things like, “Kids are so resilient!” or “Oh, he’ll be fine,” I don’t nod. I have evidence to the contrary.
Lots of folks I know try to put perspective on our overly concerned culture, noting all the unhealthy things they did as a kid, followed by “… and I turned out okay!” That just doesn’t resonate with me. Mine are not people who just “get over it.”
I don’t know what made my brother end his life, but I always understood what it was to feel painfully bad. When there’s a family history of depression and chronic illness, shrugging doesn’t cut it. I’ve worked a lot to get over things but am realizing, as my children pass through ages I remember with increasing detail, I still have a lot of work to do.
Before I became a parent, I set the intention to value my children’s health and happiness above all else. This seemed hopeful back then, but it wasn’t until my son showed up as a troubled tween that I realized my parenting was underpinned more by fear than by possibility.
“I hope you never lose a child to suicide.”
It’s a cautionary tale, a threat about what might be lurking around any corner. There’s no way for any parent to know which alleys are dangerous and which are just shortcuts.
We tell ourselves there are hurdles we get past. Into the second trimester; made it to 36 weeks; mom and baby are doing fine. But that’s just the beginning. There’s never really any time in parenting to sigh and say, “Okay, now I’m done.” Not for anyone, not as long as we live.
Sometimes moms who are in the thick of it, especially with young ones underfoot joke, “Today, I kept everyone alive!” I know. I’ve said it, too. But really, I hit the end of each day and am more relieved that my children decided to make it through. It’s like wrapping a gift in doubt.
The phrase that’s been guiding me is not one I chose. It was handed to me by a person in pain, and even if it was said out of a kind of love, it’s got tentacles around my heart, and it’s time to pour salt on them or do whatever will make them wither and let go.
My past will always be my past and maybe it will always have some sway over my future, but it doesn’t have to define my future and my children’s future.
I owe it to my children to find another guiding principle, something that is true but not limiting. Something that will help them – and me – grow without fear. Something that helps me share with them not what I hope they will escape but what I hope they will embrace.