The first time I lost a friend to suicide, I was confused. I was 15 and we were in a play together. He was the lead actor, and though I was not his leading lady, we spent a lot of time backstage together, talking, playing cards, and flirting. I had no idea anything was wrong, no inclination that he even had suicidal thoughts. Our performances were scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday. He shot himself on Wednesday.
No matter how many times I replayed the previous days and months in my mind, I could not make sense of it. He was tall, strong, blonde, and handsome. He played on the football team. Girls hung all over him. He was the lead in the school play. I couldn’t imagine what could have driven him to end a life that seemed so perfect.
It wasn’t until I experienced my own suicidal thoughts that I understood the complexity of suicidal ideation. It can occur even in those who seem to have it all. Looks can be deceiving, and depression can be crippling, convincing you that you have nothing to live for.
After the birth of my second child, I developed severe postpartum depression. I had two babies under the age of 2, both of whom cried all the time and needed me constantly. I felt crushing guilt from not being able to do enough to meet their never-ending needs, and the lack of sleep and changing hormones kept me balancing precariously on the edge of a breakdown.
The breakdown finally happened one afternoon while I was in the basement trying, unsuccessfully, to play with my 2-year-old. He got mad because I wasn’t playing “right” (three sons later, I still haven’t mastered how to play with cars “right”). He threw himself on the floor and started screaming. Mid-shriek, he sat up, grabbed a wooden block on the floor next to him, and threw it at his baby brother. Any thread of sanity I was still holding onto disappeared. I snatched the block, and without thinking, threw it back at my son. I watched in horror as it hit him in the head.
He erupted into sobs and the tension broke. I pulled my little boy to my chest and apologized over and over again while internally berating myself for being a horrible mother. I didn’t deserve this child. I didn’t deserve any children. I was the worst mom ever born. No other mother would ever have behaved as badly as I had — rinse and repeat.
That night, as I lay in bed, I considered killing myself for the first time, and I continued to have suicidal thoughts off and on again for close to a year. I was sure my children would be better off without me.
Something stopped me from acting on these thoughts though — something that hovered like a shadow in the back of my subconscious, just present enough to keep me alive. At the time I couldn’t put it into words, but in the years since, I’ve been able to pull the shadow out of my subconscious and into the light. I was willing to die to benefit my children, but I was also willing to live for them, even if it meant suffering with feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.” In my experience, that’s true.
I knew, deep in my soul, that while someone else might be able to care for my children, no one would ever love them the same way I did. So, as imperfect as I clearly was, I was willing to endure pain and depression to make sure my children knew they were loved.
It’s been more than a decade since that time, and I’m still not a perfect mother. I get grouchy and say regrettable things occasionally. I have the attention span of a gnat. I hate to cook, and my memory is virtually nonexistent. One of my children’s favorite pastimes is sitting around the dinner table making each other laugh with stories about my maternal failings. But each of my sons knows he is deeply loved, and that’s something.
My boys are now in, or approaching, their teenage years. I’m starting to see indications of the men they’re going to become. And I’ve been startled to discover that many of their best qualities are a direct result of the shortcomings I loathe so much in myself. I never have to ask them whether or not they have homework. They’re accustomed to me forgetting, so they’ve become responsible for it themselves. They all know how to prepare dinner for a family of six. And they have learned how to respectfully defend themselves when someone, like their mother, says something hurtful.
My children are thriving not just in spite of my flaws, but also, in part, because of them. And I’m grateful I’m here to witness that.
Be the Voice to #StopSuicide. September 5 to 11 is National Suicide Prevention Week. To learn more, visit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
If you are currently having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).