What I Learned from My Mother's Suicide

For years I blamed myself. Now I'm grateful.

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I was 13 years old when I first realized that my mother did not want to live. One night during spring break of eighth grade, I woke to the dog barking and red and yellow lights splashing across the walls. When I peered out my window into the darkness, I saw my father standing beside an ambulance in our driveway and EMTs loading my mother—screaming and thrashing, strapped to a gurney—into it.

The next day, my father drove me to a friend's house. The sunroof was open and the blue sky rolled along above us. Your mother is sick, he said, trying to soften the impact. She overdosed on her medication and drank a couple of bottles of wine. She had to get her stomach pumped. I asked, Did she swallow the whole bottle or just a few pills? The bottle, he said, the whole bottle.

Then my father began to cry, something I'd never seen him do.

My mother's depression made her mean, easy to ignite. A sarcastic remark about her key lime pie led to a suicide attempt the night of my high school graduation.

The day after she was hospitalized, I returned from my friend's house to find that my mother was back. Resting in her bedroom, she looked tired and withdrawn. Fragile but beautiful. She never spoke to me about what had happened; neither did my father. He wasn't much for processing things or grappling with heavy emotions, so we simply carried on.

That was the first time I ever knew how serious my mother's condition was, but I had long sensed that something was amiss. She would spend entire afternoons napping in her bedroom and my brother and sister—5 and 11 years younger—and I knew not to disturb her. In sixth grade, I snooped through her medicine cabinet and discovered Lithium, Diazepam, and Antabuse. I looked up the medications in The Pill Book I found in her closet and learned that she was being treated for depression, anxiety, and alcoholism.

With her long black hair, blue eyes, and athletic 5-foot-9-inch-frame, my mother was striking. She was sensitive and shy, and I don't think she realized how charming she was, how easily she could win people over with her wit and kindness. Because we moved around the country for my father's job, from California to New York to Colorado, my stay-at-home mom lost touch with her friends and was often lonely. But in motherhood she found happiness and a sense of purpose. More than anything, she loved being with her young children. Our adoration filled the void in her self-esteem.

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She held onto to us so tightly that by the time I reached adolescence I chafed under the weight of her love and need for my affection. It was hard to spend time with her then. She didn't like to do many of the things mothers and teen daughters do together—shopping for clothes made her feel fat, eating at restaurants stressed her out. At home, my mother's depression made her mean, easy to ignite. Borrowing her hairbrush started an all-out fight. A sarcastic remark about her key lime pie led to a suicide attempt the night of my high school graduation. We loved each other deeply, but we didn't know how to get along.

Her depression fueled my tumultuous adolescence. By 16 I had been arrested for underage drinking and smoking marijuana. My driver's license was revoked for reckless driving. I dated men almost twice my age. From the outside, I had it all: popularity, boyfriends, varsity letters in field hockey and lacrosse. But in reality, I saw a therapist once a week and took anti-depressants. I was angry and hurt by my mother's illness, anxious about her moods, and I drowned my emotions in alcohol and drugs. My mother took my behavior personally and saw my headstrong independence as a profound rejection. She'd lash out harder; I'd drift further away. It was a devastating paradox.

Many families have a secret around which they orbit; my mother's illness was ours. My parents never discussed her health. We never staged an intervention or solicited the help of family and close friends. We didn't know what to do. I once asked my dad if we could send her someplace to get well. "You can't just send mommies away," he responded. Who would take care of us and keep things running at home? What would people think? We just pressed on as best we could.

In college, I straightened out. Leaving home offered me the space I needed to mature, and I wanted to prove to my parents—and myself—that I was capable of being more than just a wild child. I had a 4.0 GPA, a steady boyfriend, and had reined in my partying. Though I went to school about 45 minutes from my parents' house in Denver, living apart gave my mother and me the breathing room we needed to actually enjoy each other's company. Lifelong equestrians, we began to ride together again. Galloping through the mountains and fields outside the city, she seemed at peace.

Nobody could answer the fundamental question that underpinned it all: How do you make someone want to live?

But while our relationship had changed for the better, her depression had not. Over the course of her life, she attempted suicide four times (that I'm aware of). She took many types of medication, read self-help books, and saw therapists and psychiatrists, including one of the country's leading experts on suicide—but her sadness, for the most part, persisted unabated. Nothing seemed to break the cycle of her unhappiness, and nobody could answer the fundamental question that underpinned it all: How do you make someone want to live?

One late afternoon in early June just after my junior year of college, my mother was cooking twice-baked potatoes for dinner. As she pulled them from the oven, she asked me to take my 11-year-old sister to a movie. I'd just broken up with my boyfriend and was in no mood to go to some lame pre-teen flick. What I wanted was for her to love and soothe me, to tell me everything was going to be okay. I snapped back, "I don't want to go to a fucking movie." That lit the fuse of what became a maelstrom of rage—we aired years of resentments about one another. "You're selfish!" she screamed at me. "You've always been so mean to me!" I shouted back. I ran upstairs to my bedroom. She followed me and then, in a flash of anger and exhausted by the years of tumult between us, I yelled at her, "I don't want you in my life anymore."

Twenty-four hours later, she was gone.

I have spent much of the 15 years since replaying those words, trying to remember every last detail of the days leading up to her death, trying to figure out if she bought the gun before or after our fight, trying to understand what part I played. For a long time, I blamed myself. Despite all the things that I would come to know—that she first attempted suicide at 18, that she'd been hospitalized countless times, that fights between mothers and daughters are normal and natural—I couldn't escape the fact that I had yelled those awful last words.

I was desperate to absolve myself and I thought if I understood her better, maybe I could. A week after she died, I met with her shrink, who told me that suicide was my mother's destiny, and that the timing had, in all likelihood, only 1 percent to do with our fight. Still, that 1 percent felt like a guilty verdict. Then he told me: "The thing she talked about most was you kids growing up and not needing her anymore. She got so much joy from mothering." That both relieved and deepened my sadness. Though there was some solace in knowing how intensely she loved me, the fact that I caused her so much grief was devastating.

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For a while, I collected every picture I could find of her, scanning her eyes for sadness. Was it there then—at 14? 28? 36? When did it start? I searched for clues in the journal she started writing when I was born and tried to know her, and us, better. I met with psychics, ordered the police report from the day she died, and pored through every last detail of the note she left for us, too personal to ever publish. But with every answer there were only more questions.

For many years, I waded through depression and anxiety, grief and guilt. Just as I had done as a teen, I partied all night and told myself I was having fun, trying to free myself in all the wrong ways. I worried that I would always be alone. With that gruesome episode in my past and a genetic predisposition to depression, who would want to marry me? I chased happiness across the globe, moving to France, Greece, and the high mountains of Colorado, but my pain followed me wherever I went.

I had to stop chasing her story and start creating my own. I quit drinking. I ran a marathon. I climbed the Matterhorn.

I damned myself for not being a better daughter, for being such a self-absorbed, misbehaved teen. But mostly, I missed my mother, and tried to figure out how I would live the rest of my life without her.

Eventually I did find some relief, though it didn't come in a bottle or by unearthing a long-lost clue. Instead, it came by making peace with what I could understand: me. Over many years of therapy, I've realized that I can never really know why my mother did what she did, and I've slowly started to forgive myself for any part I played. Yes, I was an unruly teen, but my behavior wasn't unpardonable nor was it the sole source of conflict in her life. My mother expected something of me that no child could deliver: to never grow up and away from her. To adore her always and unconditionally. Mostly I realized that it wasn't one event that turned her from life to death, but a lifetime of circumstances that culminated in one fateful choice.

In order to move forward I had to make my own choice: to stop chasing her story and start creating my own. I quit drinking. I got off all my psychiatric medications. I ran a marathon. I climbed the Matterhorn and skied off the Grand Teton in Wyoming, one of the most difficult backcountry ski descents in North America. I followed my dream of becoming a journalist. I fell in love. Along the way I discovered something my mother never could—that cultivating myself was the best antidote for my grief. Now, her death no longer defines me. Yes, I am my mother's daughter, but I am also a writer, athlete, sister, friend, wife, and, recently, mother.

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In March, I gave birth to my first child, a daughter. The nine months leading up to her birth brought thoughts of my own mother—and a new kind of grief over her death—back to my doorstep. I was struck by a primal longing for her, heartache that things had gotten so broken between us, and a fear of what kind of mother I would be. But then something happened during those long hours of labor before my baby was born. The feelings of loss morphed into something else altogether: a deep sense of gratitude. I recognized that my life had to have unfolded exactly as it did in order for me to be in that moment, welcoming this sweet girl into the world. My daughter was offering me an invitation to the future, one free of the darkness of the past. I had to let go of my history. So with each contraction, each push, I envisioned releasing all of the hurt, guilt, and sorrow of my childhood, and watched it wash away like a wave carrying out the tide. After two and a half hours of pushing, my future was here—a warm little body on my chest, 7 pounds 15 ounces. I'd never felt so whole, or so free.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or contemplating suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255.