Meant for Many Things
The story of what happened to my mom used to feel trapped in my mouth; I would have rather choked on the truth than spit it out. When she died during my freshman year of college, my stock response was that her death was “sudden.” A response that was not entirely false, but certainly nowhere near fully accurate. This secret, and our many others, meant safety and a way to cope. But the truth is that my mom committed suicide, and it’s complicated.
The month of September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month — something that, full disclosure, is a mixed bag of emotions for me. I have many deep and occasionally rage-filled thoughts regarding the lack of available mental health resources to prevent suicide in the first place. I also feel strongly that a discussion around suicide “prevention” must include a discussion that includes situations, like my mom’s, where the existing preventative measures didn’t work.
My mom was a red-headed, green-eyed, and brilliant giver of a human (no takers here!). She loved stand-up comedy, watermelon, and swimming off the Southern California coast. And she believed deeply in karma — crossing her (or her children) was 100 percent a mistake, 100 percent of the time. Her life had the potential to be hilariously expansive and bright. I wonder, extremely often, what her world could have looked like if she had been able to feel healthy and free. What if it would have been in her favor to be honest about her experiences with depression and addiction and substance abuse? What if it was the norm for everyone in her life to be open to hearing about the pain that lived inside her mind and heart every day?
What if it would have been in her favor to be honest about her experiences with depression and addiction and substance abuse? What if it was the norm for everyone in her life to be open to hearing about the pain that lived inside her mind and heart every day?
Death doesn’t just happen to the dead. My brother and I now live in a world without the most critical of people — our mom. She missed our college graduations and our panicked phone calls about what to be when we grow up. She’ll miss our weddings and watching us be parents. I have visions of a hypothetical daughter my mom will never swim with in the ocean. It’s a peek into the darkest corner of my brain, but it’s also my reality.
My experience with mental health — both my mom’s and my own — has been, well, complicated. My mom’s inner pain reached its peak near the end of my senior year of high school. Her days spent in her dark bedroom became more frequent, the number of incoherent, prescription drug-laced phone conversations increased, and an attempted suicide mixed itself in with my spring semester.
I road blocked myself from friends and family, only sharing a selective fraction of the truth. I threw away college acceptance letters and scholarships and instinctively opted to live at home. I left prom early with an excuse that my mom had the flu. I believed if I kept myself close to my mother, she would keep herself close to me. I trusted her love for me was enough to throw away every pill, empty every bottle, and shed the unrecognizable shell she had become.
But it wasn’t enough. And I learned fast that while my mom may have ceased to exist, stigma around her method of death was entirely alive and well. The few times I attempted to share “what happened” I was met with uncomfortable stares and silence. The 19-year-old version of myself equated the lack of acceptable dialogue around suicide and mental health with shame in admitting I was the girl with the mother who chose to leave her daughter. In those moments of what felt like complete and total solitude, all I wanted was to know another 19-year-old girl whose mom had killed herself.
The 19-year-old version of myself equated the lack of acceptable dialogue around suicide and mental health with shame in admitting I was the girl with the mother who chose to leave her daughter.
Time moved forward year by year, but grief had a very deep desire to envelope itself around my entire college experience. Two months into my senior year, my boyfriend — and, quite possibly, the most purely kind person to join us on Earth — died in a scuba diving accident, prompting a level of internal agony I thought was impossible for a single human to experience.
For the first time, I wanted to scratch and claw my way into wherever my mom had disappeared. I was sure she was the only one who could understand the emptiness I could not articulate. Despair was real and opting out of existing, opting out of pain, seemed more reasonable than I care to fully admit. But during this period of murky desperation, my anger over my mom’s ultimate decision shifted to one of understanding. I could finally (but thankfully, not fully) understand how it was possible for her to reach a place of permanent resignation — especially given that she deeply felt the mental health systems in place had failed her.
I could finally (but thankfully, not fully) understand how it was possible for her to reach a place of permanent resignation — especially given that she deeply felt the mental health systems in place had failed her.
My senior year of college can best be described as a void — I auto-piloted myself to graduation and tried to figure out what was next. I feared making plans, as I was convinced I would be disappointed. I was scared to allow myself too much time to pause and think; if I kept myself overwhelmed and all consumed with other things, I wouldn’t have the energy to acknowledge how deeply I missed my people. Also, forget getting too attached to others. The prospect of losing one more person was not an option.
I like to say that New York City saved me. When I moved to New York, I knew a total of three other people living in the Tri-State area. I cannot overemphasize the freedom that came from no one knowing me or my former life. I could be and become anyone.
I met friends, took classes, and dove into work. Being fully present anywhere but in my own mind is what kept me afloat. And this is what has ultimately, eight years later, led me to reevaluate how I have coped with death and the need to better care for my brain. My job for the last few years has, at its core, been focused on sharing the stories, voices, and impact of young global health leaders. It’s shown me the power of storytelling, and sharing, not only to affect change, but also to heal — most importantly, to heal myself.
I still remain close with the mom of my boyfriend who passed away. She’s wise and brave, and has made room for me in her life even though my relationship with her son has, obviously, changed. I recently made the decision to leave my job at an organization that feels more like home to me than any other space in the world. I’ve decided to take a solo leap into the unknown. Many months ago, I called her for advice and guidance, as I was very sure I was throwing all of my future opportunity and current ambition to the wind. (Side note: Is this what every 27 year old feels like?)
Her response was this: “I know you may not believe it now, but it’s more likely than not that you are meant for many things.”
In that moment, I had never been more grateful for the combination of events I have experienced in my life thus far — both awesome and excruciating. Death is a taker, but it’s a bit of a giver, too.
When my mom died, I wish I had accepted then what I’ve made peace with now. If I were to have a call with my own mom to panic about what I want to be when I grow up, I feel rather confident I would tell her I want to be meant for many things. I want to connect with every 19 year-old-girl whose mom committed suicide. I want to write and record and share every detail of what it really feels like to experience loss, or to believe that your own mind is betraying you. I want to allow myself the freedom to feel my own pain — and risk getting hurt. I like to think my mom would have relished having a kid who wanted to make space for sharing the darkest parts of what it means to be alive. In that darkness, I hope she would have finally found a glimmer of tiny, but still shining, light.