Today is the last day of Suicide Prevention and Awareness Week. I think the cause deserves a whole lot more than 7 days, but it will expire today for most, and the rest of us will continue to live in this week for the rest of our lives.
I’ve received a number of emails in the past week since I posted some personal stuff, stories of survivors, emails thanking me for giving them something to relate to, people asking for more writing to give them something to read, to understand, to feel better about. I have more writing, some published on the blog, and some personal, but when pulling from the archives in the past days, I thought to myself, why keep them on my computer? Why not just give a family another side to my story?
I think I wrote about this 7 years ago but can’t find it, and so I’ll share something. The year after my father killed himself, I was rock bottom. I was depressed. I was drinking heavily and blaming him, finding myself lying on cold floors crying, sitting on floors staring through walls, screaming in pillows, fighting fights against no one but myself. It was a very scary and rough time for me, but I survived. Somehow, through the support of others and through a voice in the back of my head that whispered, just keep going, I was able to get up off the floor and find a purpose, and find a way to survive a tragedy I never anticipated would diminish my spirit and bring me to a low so crushing that sometimes it hurts today, just as it did in the moment I knew my life had changed.
I went to a shrink in the years after my father’s suicide attempt and his death. I went on medicine, Zoloft for depression, and something I can’t remember for anxiety to curb my panic. I sat in sessions twice a week to detail the enormous pain and guilt and regret and relief I felt in my father dying. I said things that normal people would not comprehend. I felt alone. I felt angry. I wanted to give up and succumb to a situation I didn’t fucking ask for.
And then I threw myself into a community of people just like me. I made friends who had worse stories to face every day–people who saw suicide first hand, in front of them. People who didn’t have strong relationships, people who didn’t have support. People who wanted to die themselves. I will be honest, I’m a train wreck still some days. I don’t think, at 9 years in, I’ll ever be able to rectify this situation. I don’t think I’ll ever be ok, and I’m fine with that. I’m on medicine still, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. I need to see a therapist, because if I don’t, I will literally choke someone most days–the disclaimer here is that I am just a loose cannon, not so much a pained child missing her father. I am broken, I am incredibly defeated some days, I am an emotional mess, but I am here. And I am alive and happy. Not always, but usually. It’s ok to be a bit of both, and if anyone tells you something different, you have 100% authority to tell them to fuck the fuck off.
And so, this is important: I decided one day, after a string of a million bad days this–
My father killed himself. He did not kill me.
I will never let his decision or pain kill me. And I hope, truly hope, it will never kill someone else. So on the last day of Suicide Prevention and Awareness Week, here is one last bit of writing……
The First Time
It could have been that two hours or twenty that had passed and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
I had never before let my body falter and crumple so completely that I slid slowly, back against the wall until I landed on the cold, dirty linoleum floor. I’m sure I slammed the door, but never heard it. I don’t think I heard anything as I stared through the wall that day, the one that temporarily blocked me from the rest of the world.
I was severely in shock, and if I knew shock were a luxury, or how quickly it would pass, I would’ve closed my eyes and wished harder that this paralysis would stick. I pounded the back of my head on the door, to the beat of the insane pounding in my head, until I snapped back to a voice telling me my mother was on the phone again. I think that might have been the point I decided to give alcoholism the true shot it deserved. I did not want to talk to my mother again, and I didn’t have the energy or desire to come up with words for eyes filled with pity that began to watch me. I wanted a drink, and I wanted another one ready.
I coped the way anyone would have, drinking bottomless three dollar white wine and smoking a disgusting amount of cigarettes effortlessly. I almost ate the cigarettes as I stared straight through the ghost in front of me I knew would not leave.
As I set the empty bottle on the table, I added hollow to the list of emotions that were new to me. Hollow and fuzzy, due to the excessive wine consumed so quickly. I was thoroughly drunk and I was content because at that point I think the only thing I knew for certain, as I blacked out on my couch, is that love and hate are the only two emotions that can make someone feel the exact amount of pain simultaneously.
I ruined an hour of completely productive unconsciousness by coming out of my wine induced fog. On the line was my father’s shrink with no answers. His lack of concern annoyed me. I was sure this was somehow his fault. It had been a day of exceptionally horrible phone calls, and phone calls are exactly how this story began.
I answered the voice mail my father had left on my work phone, expecting story, a request, and update. I never predicted the blow that is deserving of the now second worst moment of my life. I had never heard the voice on the other end, one with such decisive insanity.
“I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to go home and take care of this, take a vacation from the world. This isn’t your fault. I’m so proud of you. Take care of your sister. You’ll be ok.”
I began to plead, childlike, a child begging for more time in front of the tv, with a toy, I pleaded with such desperation that I, like a toddler, began to sob. I negotiated. I offered to drop everything and come home to help take care of problems I didn’t realize existed. I shouted, I foamed at the mouth, I fought for breath, I fought unsuccessfully to buy time; the only think I thought could be on my side. I fought for life, I fought against death. Words shot out of my mouth only on autopilot.
“Please don’t do this. I love you. I need you.” How selfish we are a the face of death.
And as I frantically pounded the wall next to me, pounded with such force that made my knuckles hurt, I made no progress, I was needing for someone to help me, needing for someone to believe in me, believe in humanity and he told me, “You’ll be fine. You don’t need me anymore. Take care of yourself. I’m sorry. I love you.”
And then, unable to stop him, my father hung up the phone. I looked up, realizing I was kneeling on the floor in the middle of our cubicle filled office. Papers were thrown everywhere, my chair knocked over, phone off the hook. I looked up to find five horrified faces staring back at me, unable to process any of what just happened, not knowing I had screamed over and over again for help. Catching a glimpse of myself as I stood up, I realized my life was crumbling before me, I would never be able to face these people in front of me again, not in the same way. I was broken. Makeup bled from my eyes to my chin. My hair matted to my face, entwining itself with the spit and helplessness I had expelled sometime during the phone call. I was ruined, truly fucking ruined, and I had no idea the road I would follow in years to come.
I called back, non-compliant to his requests, hysterical, and sure I could fix this. But I couldn’t. He wouldn’t let me try, and again I heard the dial tone. The silence pierced my ears.
My roommate dragged me to her car, my lifeless body slug over her arms, and she tossed me to the back seat unwillingly, I wanted to go somewhere, but nowhere, but had no choice, as I had to go home, I had to face the music. I sobbed and fought for air erratically. I smoked four cigarettes in twelve minutes. I don’t remember making it into my apartment. Behind closed doors, left with nothing but the racing of my thoughts and worst fears, I tossed a picture at the wall, screamed violently into my pillow, clawing and ripping at the feather stuffing, and then, not knowing what else to do, I locked myself in the bathroom.
I suppose before the story continues, I should be straight about a few interesting traits my father possessed. He was bipolar, a recovering alcoholic, an occasional drug addict, a pill head, a hothead, and aside from all that, an older, sadder me, and one of my most favorite people in the world.
I was well into college, cynical and jaded, by the time he was finally diagnosed bipolar and depressed. There were hundreds of times his undiagnosed behavior enraged, confused, upset me. There are only a handful of times it ripped me apart and branded me for life.
The times when he punished my mother, no saint herself, or when he never came to get Katie and me for our Wednesday night stay, those instances all hurt the same. And sure, I remember the happy Wednesday night sleepovers, but they seem so fictional sometimes, so far gone.
I would wait, alone, in my driveway, with my glove, my rag doll Lolly, or my newly graded homework assignment. My stumpy legs would wander up and down the driveway, not yet recognizing the effectiveness of pacing. I would check the flowers, or the grass, the mailbox, the wood on the side of the house. I would wait, insisting, often silently willing him to come, as I counted the cars pass me on our desolate back road in the country. Sometimes my mother would look out the window and smile, and I’d smile back and wave, refusing to see her disappointment, or accept defeat to mine. He’d come. I wasn’t going back inside. But darkness would come, seventy-three cars had passed, the grass never grew an inch, and he never came. I was seven and it hurt then as much as it still hurts now.
Over a decade later I was twenty-one and in college, but still not nearly far enough away from home. My mother announced one day in her, I’m pretending to give you options as adults, voice that she was off to California for three months, to accompany my stepfather while he fixed submarines thousands of miles away. Accompany, you should know, was her attempt to work on her marriage, something I was violently angry about, because as a child, you do not understand the different between leaving to fix marriage and leaving and just leaving. I never understood this until later in life, when I found through my own struggles, that marriage as a concept was ridiculous, so hard, and like a second job in itself, a constant struggle to redetermine the values and goals and personalities of people who once so easily loved each other with passion on a scale that made Romeo and Juliet seem like novices.
And off she went.
My sister and and I took care of the house that summer. I was carefree and unconcerned with parental affairs, and focused more on the summer’s newly found potential. My sister quickly retreated into her comfortable mode of abandonment, and filled quickly with resentment, pity, and hatred. She was rage personified. We did manage perfectly that summer, though, with the exception of one colorful instance, of course caused by my undiagnosed, bipolar father.
I chose to take a boyfriend on a vacation California, to visit my mother and stepfather. He flipped out, my father, in his perfectly psychotic fashion that was, to the day he died, his signature move. He berated me, tore me apart effortlessly, accusing me of abandoning my duty as substitute mother of my sister. I am, and proudly so, my sister’s protector, and always will be, but never her parent. He lived fifteen miles away, but so easily passed such an undesirable torch my way. And I refused.
My refusal, as always, ignited the flame that was my hell. I suddenly became the money sucking leach, slut, just like my mother. I was irresponsible, and a disgrace to our name—which by the way, fell near the bottom of things I cared about in life. I was instantly hated, disowned for the millionth time, banned from the lives of my father and his wife, the one that stayed out of our family drag out sessions. But I went anyway, happily, because fuck him. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, soaking in the sun and drinking the margaritas of Tijuana. Tequila is a great fuck you when you need it.
I paid for that decision for four or five months. I don’t remember how long, but I know more time has passed now, in this silence from this latest debacle. He tried to kill himself, I tried to save him and I was being punished with his silence.
Years may pass, surroundings may change, but never patterns, and certainly never people.
Chris, my boyfriend at the time (now the Mr.), showed up at Beck, the fabulous new Belgian bar in DC, to pull me outside to tell me something. I wanted him to just come in and have a beer. It was delicious Belgian beer, with too high of an alcohol content, but even that wasn’t convincing enough. He wouldn’t take my beer and when I saw my car parked outside, working and waiting for me, I got distracted and excited because that damned car never worked and how did it get here? I ignored his pretend dislike for beer and got in the car, wondering how he got the night off from his second job.
He said he had something to tell me and he used the tone that’s only reserved for cheating and death, but he looked sad, and when my stomach dropped, all I could muster was a flat, What. And then he said the words I knew would come one day. He said the words I had never been able to prepare myself for.
“Judy called me Heather, and I’m sorry, your dad is dead.” The word dead lingered in the air.
I shook my head violently, making a face of disgust and disbelief when I countered, “No. No he’s not. I just talked to him and he called and I didn’t call him back. No, he’s not dead.”
I was pleading with Chris and myself and I suppose God, who I was sure either doesn’t exist or hated me and either way, I didn’t care.
He just stared at me and let it sink in, and when I lost my mind one minute later, he tried to grab me and apologize and explain that Judy had called him so that he could tell me and I would not be alone when I hear the news. I wanted to be alone. I wanted him to shut up. I wanted her to be a liar. I wanted to go back in the bar and pretend no one but me ever existed again, for all of time.
I was alone the minute the words escaped his lips. Companionship would never change that. I am still alone, and it’s been nine years.
Three weeks later I finally sat down and tried to tell my father how I felt. I refused to speak words to him so a letter was all I could muster.
I know it’s taken me weeks to write a letter to you but you know how I am, lazy and self-absorbed. I’m sorry I didn’t write you sooner. It’s been a long three weeks and there’s a lot to tell you.
I’ve done my best in taking care of Katie and Judy. I know you expect me to keep everyone strong and let them know that everything is going to be okay. I’ve tried. I really have. I just wish you had told me how, because I’m having trouble figuring everything out at once.
Judy told me when I was with Chris. Well, Chris told me first. He said, “Heather, I’m so sorry but your Dad died today.” I didn’t believe him. I told him no, absolutely not. I had just talked to you, and no, you were not dead. Not fucking dead.
I knew he wasn’t lying, so I called Judy I asked to speak to you. I needed to talk to you and I need to hear you so you could tell me yourself that you were alive and just sitting on your end of the couch, reading the paper and waiting for dinner. But she said you weren’t there to answer the phone. “So he’s dead,” I stated, because I know you didn’t get hit by a car or die of natural causes, I knew. “How did he do it?” I asked, because the pain I felt was unbearable. The moment that Chris said he was so sorry but it was true, you were dead, an emptiness consumed me. An emptiness you created.
I waited three weeks to write to you because part of me refuses to believe you left me without saying goodbye. I came home from being in Maine a week to help take care of things, to watch over Katie and Judy, to find clues as to why you’d do this to me. And I was convinced. You must have sent a letter to me instead. You could not have left a note that didn’t include one word about me. That would be cruel and horrible and all I wanted was for someone to tell me was that you left something for me that said, I will miss you. I loved you. Goodbye. I’m sorry was all I wanted to hear. I was certain that there must be something waiting for me in my mailbox back home. I raced there as soon as the taxi brought me to my door. I left my suitcases outside, sat alone on the floor and I opened all the mail. Every piece. I threw them all on the floor. I looked at every one of them again. I was shaking and begging the bills and advertisements to magically turn into a letter from you, and they didn’t. They fucking didn’t. You hadn’t written to me. You left me in silence. You left me to deal with more than any normal person could even begin to comprehend. I didn’t even know where to start.
I just don’t understand. I can’t. I can’t accept the fact that the closest I’ll ever be to you again is when I go to your house, to sit in your sports room to look at the velvet bag. You’re in that bag, Dad. You’re in that goddamned bag in an urn that wasn’t meant for you yet and I don’t know if I can do it. It’s crazy because I want to take you out and shake you. I want to dump you in a big mess on the floor and I want to sit there and say all the things I never got a chance to. I’ll tell you every funny story I have. I’ll tell you all the family gossip and my craziest life goals. Remember when I told you I wanted to be an Olympic diver? I can find something like that again. I’ll talk until you come back. I want to shake you and let you out so you can please come back. Please, come fucking back. It’s a sick, insane, horrible thought, I know, but I don’t know how to bring you back and I’m really trying to be strong but I don’t know if I can do it.
You weren’t supposed to be gone yet. I’m only twenty-seven. I need you so much. I’m trying so hard to be strong and move forward like you’d want me to but my head hurts, Dad. I’m scared and sad and confused and shit. I just…I just need you. Please, PLEASE tell me how to do it without you.
You know, Chris drove me twelve hours through the night so I could be the one to tell Katie. I know she’s my responsibility but Jesus Christ, Dad. How could you leave without telling her you love her, telling her you weren’t mad, giving her peace in knowing her father really didn’t just kill himself without saying goodbye? I hate you for doing that to her. It makes me despise you. It makes me so violently angry that saying something like, I’d kill you myself if you hadn’t already done it, sounds rational to me, but would surely horrify others, so I keep that sort of inner monologue to myself.
I can take this Dad. I will get by. But her? She hadn’t talked to you in years. YOU DID THAT TO HER. YOU FUCKING DID THAT TO HER AND THEN YOU LEFT HER, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE. I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for making me tell her the worst news of her life. It was the saddest things I’ve ever seen and it fucking killed me to watch her crumble at my feet.
She saw us out the window when we pulled up. I knew she’d see us. You know she’s like a spy, Dad. Always watching out her window like you did. You’re both bizarre and paranoid. Chris drove me twelve hours, you asshole, twelve fucking hours I sat in the passenger seat thinking of how to tell her you were dead a day ago. I hate you, I hate you for that. I will always fucking hate you for that.
I arrived just as the sun rose that morning. I smelled of booze and cigarettes and fucking shattered dreams. I pulled into her driveway mere hours before she was to go on a vacation she saved and planned for, a vacation I was not part of.
She saw me the minute I pulled in. She flew out the back door, like a flash from the window to the stairs, and she bolted down the stairs with an excitement I was there to ruin, you had made me ruin. She didn’t even bother to put anything on over her pajamas and she ran so fast you could tell she was excited and surprised and she thought now, because I was there, that I might be going with her.
Do you know how long I had to sit and comprehend and dwell and come up with the words I was supposed to say to her? Do you? Let me remind you. Twelve hours, Dad. Twelve fucking hours of sitting in my car, refusing the sedatives my therapist though my husband should give me. Twelve hours of silence and darkness on 95 that will forever make me hate driving that highway. It made me sick. It was a million times worse having to tell her and ruin her life than it was even having heard it myself.
She knew before I even said a word. She stopped fast when she saw my face. I didn’t cry and I tried to smile. But I couldn’t. I just stared at her, trying to take a mental snapshot of her face. It would be the last time I’d see that glimmer in her eyes.
She already knew and she went from blank to hysterical instantly. She held up her hand and said firmly, “No. Please tell me you’re not here about Dad. Please tell me nothing happened to Dad.”
Goddamn you. I couldn’t fucking tell her no. I just stood there. I grabbed her hard and held her tightly while she tried to squirm away and said softly, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Dad killed himself yesterday. Dad’s dead.” And then I held my breath.
She dropped to the ground, out of my arms, and clawed and slammed at the wet grass, barely able to wheeze familiar words of regret. “No. Noooo,” she wailed. “I never got to talk to him. He called me and I didn’t call him back. I didn’t call him back.” She was shrieking and pleading with herself that this wasn’t her fault and I hate you for making her feel like that.
We’ve all had weeks now to convince ourselves against the fact that it’s not our fault, because someone didn’t do their job, and one of us could have made it better. I don’t know whose fault it is anymore, Dad. I don’t even know if it’s your fucking fault. I want to hate you and blame you and not myself but I’m just so sad. My chest hurts and I can’t swallow and nothing seems exciting and I wait all day long just so I can find a way to sit by myself at night to cry. I didn’t know I could ever feel so, so empty.
And that was week three as a suicide survivor.
That was all I could muster on paper to say to him. I wasn’t ready for anything else.
I had the rest of my life for the rest of the story to unfold. And it started to, eventually, slowly, and painfully. What was still undetermined was whether or not I would survive it all myself.
***Please email me at The Heather Chronicles, firstname.lastname@example.org, if you need to talk, if you have a similar story to share, or if you’re broken. I am always, always here, to help another someone survive this tragedy we face as suicide. ***