Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Darkness and Light: The Suicide Blog

My mother, who died in 2001, would have been 65 years old this past Sunday. I say died because that's what happened to her. She didn't 'pass away' as people are so fond of saying, as when an elderly person drifts off to peaceful sleep and simply doesn't awaken. Most people in my life know already that my mother took her own life. They may or may not know that in our last conversation she was angry and disappointed with me, and that I was the one to find her body the following day.

I've come to understand that this is a more common experience than many people realize. I've never been a part of a suicide survivors group or anything like it, but I've still had two girlfriends who lost their mothers this way and several acquaintances who have lost loved ones to self-harm as well.

Homecoming Queen, 1965
When I was young and my mother (who battled her whole life with trauma and mental illness) would threaten or attempt to kill herself, I would run a gamut of emotional reactions, ranging from absolute desperation to keep her alive, all the way to a self-protecting cold acceptance. The first was totally unlivable; the latter became a hardness within me that I have both battled against and called upon for strength in later years.

Even now, I cannot imagine the kind of pain she must have been in: how desperate she must have felt herself, or how in her calmer moments she must have regretted the behaviors that put such a distance between us. In my calmer moments, the naive writer inside me thought suicide was sort of a romantic, noble end. I thought of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf and their tortured beauty. Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in protest of the Vietnam War. Romeo and Juliet.

The reality, when it came years later, felt both shocking and inevitable. I was stunned and saddened by her death, but also ashamed that I felt something else on both our behalf: relief.  After years of threats and attempts and close calls, decades of walking on eggshells and bending myself into impossible knots trying to avoid this very thing... the thing had happened. It could never be undone, and it could never happen again. As we said goodbye and scattered her ashes in a garden, I could not hold back the thought: It's done. She can never hurt me like this again.

It does hurt again, though. Over and over. I've written before about the longing I feel almost daily for my mother - whether it's the mother she was or the mother I wished for, I will never be sure. When I first heard my sons' cries in the delivery room, they echoed with her absence. She missed comforting me through a painful divorce, she missed meeting the true love of my life and father of my children, she missed my journey to Judaism and all the richness that has come with it. She has missed about a thousand nights or days when I have wanted to pick up the phone to call her: for advice, for comfort, for a laugh, for the gossip she was always willing to relate (with her own peppering of outrage, of course).

My parents, Huntsville, AL 1973
She missed the death of my father, with whom I firmly believe she was always in love and vice versa, even years after their divorce. I like to think they're together now, watching our kids and laughing at our trials. These things could be any story of a parent lost early, except there is an additional and painful element: choice. She chose to miss these things. At least, that's how it feels in my moments of anger.

Survivors of suicide are entitled to our anger. Nothing hurts quite so much as being left voluntarily by someone who was supposed to love you forever. You find yourself constantly wondering what you could have done differently, how you might have saved the person from their pain. You wonder what you did wrong. And all the platitudes and kind voices and "there, there, it wasn't about you," in the world don't make that feeling go away. At least not entirely.

Thirteen years later, and after working in a profession in which part of my job was to prevent people harming themselves, I have come to realize something else about my mother and others like her. It's almost ironic that my mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder) because in her true self state, she had almost no filter, no ability to be disingenuous. Maybe her brain needed to allow her to be more than one person because she had no ability to be anyone other than herself on purpose.

My mother didn't tell little conversational white lies or make small talk like the rest of us do. She didn't pretend to be interested when she wasn't, and she could not turn off the caring and empathic part of herself that reached out to all those in pain. If she asked "how are you?" it's because she really wanted to know. She could not walk away from a homeless person with a story to tell. She could not watch her poor neighbors go hungry even when she could barely feed herself. Until my father insisted that she stop, she picked up hitchhikers in our family van, even with my brother and me in the backseat.

For Mom, there was nothing about herself that was better or higher than anyone else, nothing that could be kept separate from the injustice she saw in the world. In the psychology realm, we would label this as a 'boundary issue.' That is true in terms of her own mental health, but it's also true that the world needs people like my mother. In many ways, her giving of her whole self to the world around her was the living example of the human spirit. She was the embodiment of the Jewish concept of Tzedakah, which means both 'charity' and 'justice.'

We need her and others like her, even though they wound us so deeply by not caring enough for themselves. My mother gave herself over to pain because that was her experience of reality, and yet she kept her faith in God, the world, my brother and others (and, I hope, in me).

I believe there are people in this world who feel things more deeply, more personally, than most of us can bear to do. Whatever the reasons, whatever the causes, they carry with them a kindness and vulnerability so deep that it is both a treasure and a burden. They either don't have or don't use the protective filter that "healthy" people use to turn off pain and heartache so that we can function. (Don't get me wrong, the world needs us, too -- someone has to keep things working and stay strong for those who are not strong themselves).

I believe we have to learn from those among us like my mother, those who might be labeled as 'too sensitive,' 'impractical' or even 'crazy.' We can learn from their artistic talents, unbridled empathy and sense of justice, because we need those to maintain our basic humanity. We also have to help ground them and keep them safe and strong when we can.

But we can't always.

Sometimes their burden is simply too much to bear. Sometimes the depth of their feelings becomes an abyss from which they cannot return, even though they might desperately want to come back to us. Sometimes we must stand at the edge and say goodbye, realizing that we cannot change who they are, nor can we alter or even fully understand their fate. We have to bear our own burden of their loss, with as much grace and genuineness as we can muster.

When my mom died, the world truly lost a light of love. It was extinguished in the darkness of her own personal torment, gone to a place I cannot know or understand. As for me, I will keep my filters and boundaries and "healthy" mental state - such as it is. I will stay strong for my family for as long as I am able, because hers will not be my fate. But I will think of Mom when we put coins in our Tzedakah box, and whenever I have an opportunity to create justice in my own little corner of the world.

I cannot bring her light back to our lives, but I can try to rekindle it in the family she never got to know. We can build on her legacy, and in that sense, the light will never really go out.

No comments: