Disclaimer: This story contains details of suicide and mental illness that may be triggering to some.
“What is the first memory you have as a child? The first one that allows you to nearly experience it in your mind over and over again: the colors, the sounds, the smells. For me, it was when I was 8 years old. I sat in an OBGYN waiting room for what must have been 2 hours. I wasn’t wearing a watch, but I was reading, and I remember thinking to myself if it lasted much longer I would finish my Babysitters Club Super Special. Still, it was weird. I had been to many appointments with my mom, but this one seemed to be taking FOREVER.
I watched the door open and close, ladies come and go, but none of them were her. My dad eventually came to get me, we walked across the street to the hospital where mom was about to have an emergency complete hysterectomy, and I finished that book just as I had started it, in a waiting room. This was the day that opened the door to my mother’s spirit leaving this world.
My mother was someone who spread her joy in everything she did. She loved music and danced around the house doing chores with the radio blaring The Eagles and Elvis. Each summer, she coordinated a home economics-type of summer camp where she shared her knowledge of sewing, baking, and cooking with my sister and me, and our friends within the community. And she never missed a chance to plan a get-together with friends and cousins, preferably in a sunny location with water. But my sister says it best when she says it was as if the music just started fading into the background and her dance with life ceased after her procedure.
It didn’t happen overnight—the change of her spirit, that is. It was months and years of a slow change and an eventual diagnosis of bipolar with schizophrenic tendencies. Although her body no longer possessed the ability to naturally produce hormones, she had refused to engage in synthetic hormone replacement therapy for fear of developing breast cancer, a very large and heavily published concern in the late eighties.
No one really knew and we never will for certain, but her doctors, in an attempt to provide answers, provided a few possible situations. First, her genetic makeup could have always included mental health concerns, and the sudden and traumatic removal of her womanhood could have ‘triggered’ it. Second, her brain could have gone into an ‘overdrive’ of sorts trying to get her body to produce estrogen to no avail, and thus created a persistent chemical imbalance.
Imagine, if you would, a brush fire you are trying to put out—you are holding the hose at the edge of the fire with a friend at the faucet. The faucet has been turned on and your friend yells to start spraying, you yell back no water is coming. You continue doing this back and forth, not realizing there was a disruption in the path, the hose had been cut in half and was flooding your beautiful garden. This is how I visualized what was happening with my mom through my counseling and post-death research. Her brain was on full blast trying to put out the hormone imbalance fire in her body, and in turn, killed her beautiful spirit.
She ran away for the first time just before I turned 9. She had been driving down the road and heard a message through the radio station, and then someone passed her and flipped her off. I don’t know what the message was, or what the gesture did to her, but it resulted in her driving straight to the airport and heading across the country. My dad called family and friends for days until he found her, and in her mind, she was on a vacation. She promised me she would make it home for my birthday and life went on. My birthday arrived and I was so excited to see my mom, I was invited over to a neighbor’s house to play while my dad went to work and their mom, a childhood friend of my mom, made me a birthday cake. My grandma came to get me and I ran out the door, so excited to see my mom, but she wasn’t there. Instead, my grandma was carrying a package, a stuffed bunny (not the furry kind, but one made from a canvas-type material you would find at a craft fair) with a note from my mom: ‘Sorry I couldn’t make it home in time, Happy Birthday!’
This was the first of many disappointments which became the norm in our life living with mental illness. She ran away one other time I remember, both times leaving my father in a sudden predicament of raising two girls and needing to maintain his professional obligations to ensure a consistent stream of income. Her departures meant not only had she used the bank accounts for unplanned travel and irrational purchases, but also the inability for her to hold down a job, thus eliminating one source of income.
Upon her return each time, my dad would seek help for her and she would be prescribed medication. During the good times, glimpses of my mom would return. She attempted to build a community and find hobbies to keep her mind occupied, as she was not working. She became engaged in a local church and she and I were baptized together. I felt as if my mom was coming back.
When I was 12, things began to change again. One summer day, when mom and I were home alone together, things just seemed off. I was practicing meeting lines for a service organization I belonged to and they included references to the Bible. My practicing had clearly gotten on Mom’s nerves, as she yelled at me to knock it off and get my chores done. While standing at the sink washing dishes, she came up behind me and told me to stop trying to control her. When I asked her what she was talking about, she told me I was talking about God, and because God started with a capital G, it was made up by the government as a way to control people, and so I was clearly a spy for the government trying to get to her. I finished my dishes, called my dad, and he came home to talk with her. He calmed her down, and as he returned to work he told me she was going to take a nap and I should just quietly watch TV or read a book, which I did. Until I heard a shot.
I stood in front of their bedroom door for what felt like forever with my hand on the knob, trying to get the courage to open it. Eventually, I did, and there stood my mom, outside of their back patio door, holding a shotgun. I didn’t know what to do, but I slowly walked forward and asked her what she was doing. Somehow, I managed to talk the gun out of her hand and convinced her to lie down. My dad still hadn’t made it back to work and cell phones weren’t much of a thing at this point (I’m that old, folks), so I left a message for him to come back home as soon as he made it to work and started calling neighbors until I found one at home, another childhood friend of my mom’s, who came to my rescue and sat with me until dad got back. After my dad returned and I shared what had happened, they took me home with them to play with their girls while Dad took Mom to the mental hospital for more intensive intervention.
The cycle of good days and bad days continued for years. There was as least one other possible attempt of suicide I know of that my cousin and I intervened on, and other hospitalizations. Eventually, doctors seemed to get the medication combination under control and mom was able to dip her toe into work again as a substitute, and later a permanent school secretary. While she still wasn’t ‘herself,’ our family was able to move through daily life without fear of extreme and irrational behavioral swings. Mental health was even less openly spoken about than it is now, so even though things were better, I never discussed Mom’s issues with my friends in high school. Honestly, I remember being embarrassed by her illness and always worried the good would give way to the bad, so I rarely invited friends to my house through high school. Instead, I spent most summers at the homes of friends and families and tried to create a ‘normal’ childhood for myself.
In my junior year of college, I was called back to my apartment from my friend’s house around 10 at night. My aunt had driven 2 hours to tell me my mom had taken her own life. I remember the room spinning as I screamed and fell to my bed. It had been years since my mom had any kind of severe episode and she had called me the night before; I had not returned her phone call. The fear and guilt I could have stopped her had I just answered the call, returned her call, set in almost instantaneously.
It was in the short months after her passing I realized even more so how unaccepting and shameful the world views mental illness, particularly suicide. People who I loved, who I expected to be a source of love and support, told me my mom had gone to hell because of her acts of selfishness. As I continued to mature and become an adult myself, I became what some would call hyper-independent. I was afraid to ask for help or verbalize having a bad day for fear of perception I, too, may have a mental illness, and I avoided building relationships.
After all, if the person I loved so dearly could choose to leave me, why would I let myself be vulnerable once more? I told very few people about my mom taking her own life. I spoke of her mental illness but never in great detail or to the extent it truly affected my childhood. But then this world turned upside down—we shut down, we isolated. As an educator who had been saved by the people who worked in the schools I attended, I shuddered at students losing access to schoolhouses. Schools are more than just a place to learn about addition and how to read; they are the stability and joy many of our youth need. I was a child you wouldn’t know needed help looking at my family tree, or where I lived. There are thousands of children just like me.
The twentieth anniversary of my mom’s death was this past February, and my sister and I decided it was time to share our grief and move beyond any shame we had been carrying with us for two decades. Each of us told a different story for ten days on our Facebook profiles with the hashtag #GiftsFromMom as a way to honor her and bring awareness around the ripple effect of mental illness.
In the good days and years, our mom gave us the gift of love of music, water, and baking. In the darkness of her illness and death, we learned the value and gift of memories and focusing on the good times rather than dwelling on the lows; they were a part of her story, but they are not her story. The greatest gift I received from my mom is a servant’s heart, both by her actions of intention during the good times, and in my desire to be a light and helper as I was blessed with during the bad times; it is what led me to be an educator and to now to share my story and advocate for normalizing the conversation around mental health.
This time in our lives has made me realize I have another way to serve others, to stand alongside those who are in the fight, for those who are hoping they are enough, for those who are praying it is a good day, for those who wish they could fix things.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kimberly West of Roberts Ferry, California. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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