I drafted this post dozens of times in my mind as I went for my morning run. I thought about it as I showered in the mornings. I debated about whether to write it at all. Obviously, I wrote it and put it here in my blog. The debates and drafts are finished. Here is the story I wasn’t sure I would ever reveal so publicly:
Twenty-one years ago today, April 12, 1989, my father committed suicide. He went out on his boat in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, jumped off the side, and was gone forever.
That’s the basics, but like any story there are details. Also, like any story there are different versions. This is my version and how I remember it. My Mom and my sister have their own stories of what happened and I am not writing this to hurt them or bring out anything they don’t want others to know. I finally decided to publish this because I hope it can prevent others from becoming members of the club no one wants to join: Survivors of Suicide.
Here is my story: I got the call from my sister at 3:00 AM. She told me Dad’s boat had been found and he wasn’t on it. She said the Coast Guard was looking for him and I should come home. I was away at college and home was a four hour drive away. I hung up the phone and I just knew what had happened. I called her back and asked for the details. She didn’t want to tell me they had found a note from him on board. I wouldn’t let up; I wanted the truth. Finally she told me , “He left a note”. That was all she needed to say. I knew the rest. I hung up and started screaming. I woke my roommate and my friends in the apartment across the hall.
I don’t remember much about that night after that. My friend drove me home. We stopped for coffee once and I cried the entire way. I knew my life would never be the same. I knew I would never see my father again. I knew I hadn’t saved him. I felt terrified and angry and numb. The worst part was in some infinitely small part of myself I knew this was going to happen. I just didn’t know when or how. In the greater part of myself I had been hoping I was wrong.
He gave me clues to how he would leave us. I remember him saying, “I didn’t think I’d live to see forty. Now I don’t think I’ll live to see fifty.”
I asked him why, “What makes you say that?”
“I just know,” he answered. Ever have a conversation like that with your dad? I hope not. It was creepy, like foreshadowing in a book. But in life, if you are really bothered by what you fear may happen in the story, you can’t skip ahead a few chapters. You just have to wait. My sister tried to talk to me about how worried she was about Dad. I ignored it. I was away at college and my view of my family was skewed from miles away. I conveniently worked to stay ignorant and stubbornly avoided talking about it with her. This tactic backfired in the worst way possible.
My Dad was an alcoholic. He had a lot of demons and skeletons in his closet. He battled depression, perhaps even bouts of mania, and alcohol was his self-medication. His father abused him physically and emotionally when he was growing up. My Dad told me his father used to kick him down the stairs and tell him he wouldn’t ever amount to anything. You don’t need a degree in psychology to know that will do damage. My Dad’s temper caused my Mom, my sister and I to walk on eggshells when he was around. My Mom and Dad fought every night at dinner for years because he would pick a fight with her. When he died, he had run our family into debt. He couldn’t see a way out. He had mortgaged our house to keep his business afloat and was desperate. I’m sure he felt he had failed.
But I loved him. He was charismatic. He had a wicked-fast sense of humor and had a big, booming, infectious laugh. He could tell a story that would captivate an entire room and was an incredible dancer. He was my greatest cheer-leader. Everything I accomplished made him incessantly proud. No matter what he had going on in his life, he would shelve it and gush over what I had done. I can still hear, “Well, that’s just fantastic, Eileen!”
I look just like he did. I can still imitate him. I often heard “you’re just like your father” as I grew up. It took me years of therapy to understand that most of the times when people said this they meant it in an admiring way. I was his favorite. This was no secret. My sister is my Mom’s. That’s just how it was in our family. Maybe it disturbs my Mom to look at me and see my father looking back at her. It’s not easy moving into adulthood when the person you are most akin to kills himself. This has been beyond confusing to me at times. He used to tell me to work to be different from who I was. To stop being so much like him. Ouch. And I also see his point.
These similarities and his advice to change, made the post-partum depression I had after my third son was born a frightening experience. I took anti-depressants to regain my stability. Admitting I was depressed was one of the scariest things I had to do. All the times I heard “you’re just like your father” became condemnations instead of praise. I was petrified at what this meant, but I couldn’t live with the alternative: me being my depressed self. I took medication and I felt better. It made me wonder what could have happened if my Dad had discovered “better living through chemistry”, as my friend calls it. It would not have erased all the debt, and he still would have had a lot of work to do, but it may have saved his life. Always the “what ifs”….
I battle with mild depression at times and this scares me to my core. I saw what severe depression did to my father. When I am depressed I can see how much my Dad must have been hurting, how irrational his perspective became, how defeated he must have felt. I understand his desperate attempts to “keep it together” and the constant “if only” conversations he must have had with himself. When I am depressed the “if onlys” are endless and the cycle is debilitating, but I’m lucky. I have found a workable solution with herbs, exercise, and meditation and it is relatively easy to manage. Others who battle with severe depression have to work hard to find the right medications for their condition and the side affects may be unpleasant. I admire people who work to find a solution to their chemical imbalance. It is difficult, but they are worth the effort.
We know more every day about the brain, the chemical systems in our bodies, and how this can affect our mood. Cancer patients receive chemotherapy. Diabetics inject insilin. People with heart problems take blood thinners. Others need medication for a chemical imbalance. Not because they can’t “keep it together” or “tough it out”. They need it because their bodies don’t process brain chemistry correctly. Period. No one chooses this situation. It chooses you, either from genetics, as a reaction to events in your life, or a combination of both. Do you have pre-conceived, negative ideas about people who use medications to regulate their depression? Are you avoiding it for yourself? Get educated and get over it. The negativity about this medical issue is lessening, but there is still room for more understanding.
I wrote this and finally hit the publish button because I hope my story can help. If you are someone who is debating suicide stop reading this immediately and pick up the phone. Find someone who will tell you that you matter, because you do. If you think you don’t matter to someone, you are wrong. Seek the medical attention you deserve. Medication can help. If you are using suicide to seek revenge, think of the people who won’t understand your vengeance, the ones who will only miss the you-shaped hole you will leave on our planet. My Dad never picked up the phone. He never asked for help. He never got the chance to hear others tell him that he mattered, and he mattered to a lot of people. There was standing room only at his funeral. (I told you he was charismatic.) He didn’t reach out to anyone, and those who were there to pay their final respects would have been willing to help.
I wish someone could have helped him.
I wish he didn’t try to self-medicate.
I wish he could have danced with me at my wedding.
I wish my sons could have met him.
I wish he could see all I have accomplished in the last twenty-one years.
I wish I didn’t know what it was like to be a survivor of suicide.
More than anything, I wish he had sought help for his problem and gotten medical and psychological attention.
It’s the club no one wants to join. You only become a member because someone else signed you up. Don’t sign up the people who love you to be members of this club. I have no formal training in how to prevent suicide, but others do. Find them now to get the help you need. Please. Your life may be a mess, but no mess is worth stopping your life entirely. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, or it is a permanent solution to an on-going problem, but it is not a good solution. There are other answers.
If you have survived a suicide, I am so sorry for your loss. I don’t know how you feel, or the details of your story, but I know how much suicide ripped me apart. I know how hard I work every day to be positive, pay it forward, be kind, help, and leave the darkness I experienced behind. I do all these things to honor my father and move away from the deep sadness I felt for years after he died. I wrote endlessly in journals. I have run miles and pounded my anger and hurt into the ground under my feet. I have cried more over losing my Dad than I have cried over anything in my life, but I will tell you this: the pain changes.
Suicide leaves behind a devastating hurt. The grieving process is different than a death from natural causes. In states it is a crime. In religions it is a sin. It is an act you commit. You don’t just do suicide, you commit it. The recovery is horrid. If you recently lost someone I can tell you after twenty-one years I feel differently about his death now. When it first happened, I just kept getting out of bed in the morning and going to bed at night. Most importantly, I had people in my life who never, never, never, never let me give up having faith that I would find a reason to be happy again. People who are not a part of my life anymore, but were crucial at the time: Megan, Chris, Barry, Lois and countless others. I knew it would take work, but I eventually stopped feeling as guilty, as angry, as mutilated by his death. You are worth that work. Keep going. Find others who can help. Talk to people. Read books that help. Keep getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. The weeks, months, and years will accumulate and your grief will change. At least it changed for me.
This anniversary is a benchmark for my life. Up until now, I lived most of my life with a father. From now on, I will have lived most of my life without one. He passed away just before I turned twenty-one. This year my grief span turns twent-one. The irony of my grief being old enough to go out and get a gin martini-up (his favorite drink) isn’t lost on me. Alcohol played a huge part in my Dad’s unhealthy life. As I look back on the last twenty-one years I see everything my Dad missed and I see how much I have missed him.
I did not write this for pity, attention, drama, or to glorify suicide. I only wrote this to try to help someone who may be hurting on either side of a suicide -the sides of someone debating it, or recovering from a loss due to it. Seek help for your hurt. Your feelings are normal, but they can be changed and managed and the despair can be lessened. Don’t be ashamed of how you are feeling or what someone else has done. It is only a shame if you choose not to do anything to change it. Blessings to you and yours, and your precious life.
Finally, this can only help others if shared. Please pass this along to anyone who could benefit from this story. I truly appreciate your support and efforts.