“Why are all those lights on?” my mom said, as she pulled up. “Hop out, open the garage door,”
The garage door had been broken for weeks and you had to push and lift at the same time to get the damn thing open.
I felt a chill down my spine as I got out of the car.
I took a deep breath and pushed. What was behind that garage door has forever changed my life.
When I was 22 years old, I was working my first “real” job in San Francisco and living at home with both my parents. My father, a graduate of Harvard Business School and who had worked as a senior vice president in commercial real estate, was not working. While I was “playing dress up” at my new job, my father was slipping into a deep depression that we weren’t recognizing as such. My father was a bright, serious, Type-A, personality who had defined success by his career and once that was gone, he was adrift. He started to pull away from us emotionally, and living with him was, for that entire year, one of the most difficult things I’ve ever delt with. When you’d come home, you’d never know what you were walking into. Sometimes he would be crying, sometimes ranting, yelling at my mother, fighting with me. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t want to come home.
When I was growing up, my father was like Don Draper from “Mad Men.” Not the womanizing Don Draper, but the man who left for work every day in a crisp, starched white shirt and tie, briefcase and overcoat. He expected his dinner on the table when he’d come home in the evenings and I remember we weren’t to disturb him while he watched the nightly news. But the weekends were ours; he would take us on adventures all over the city, from parks to the beach, Stowe Lake to our favorite spots for a turkey sandwich and a scoop of mint chip ice cream. He was the guy you went to when you needed advice on a difficult situation and he was the one who took me to buy all my dresses for every formal event in high school and college. He would tell us what life was like growing up in San Francisco (how his father, an electrician, had wired their tree house) and about all the political parties he’d go to with my mother. He taught us table manners, the importance of shaking hands and looking people in the eye, and how important education was.
In 1998, those Brooks Brothers pinstripe suits and shirts hung idle in the closet. I knew something was really wrong when he was no longer shaving, had dropped an enormous amount of weight and could barely get out of bed.
One afternoon, I heard a strange clicking sound in the upstairs hallway. I followed the noise to my parents bedroom where my father was sitting on the corner of the bed, holding a handgun.
“Dad. What are you doing?” I asked, cautiously.
“Oh, I’m just looking at it.” he replied.
I told my mother when she returned home from the store. She hid the gun.
While work was going well for me, my dad was getting worse. We were fighting a lot and I remember getting so frustrated with him. During one argument, I picked up a shoe and launched down the hallway as he was closing his bedroom door. It left a huge gash. He stopped, looked at the hole in the door, looked at me, and closed the door. This is when I knew I had really lost him. The old dad would’ve screamed at me, scolded me, gotten enraged that I wrecked something in the house. I remember feeling this terrible fear that my world was turned upside down. I WANTED him to yell at me. Because then it would’ve been a sign. That he was himself. That he was having a “normal” parent reaction. He was gone from me.
On a cold night in February 1998, I got out of my mothers car, lifted up the garage door and found my dead father. While my mother and I were at a friends house, he hung himself. I started screaming at the top of my lungs and I took off running until my legs eventually gave out on me and I collapsed in the middle of the street.
This is my story. I’m not telling it for you to take pity on me. I’m not telling it because I’m trying to shock you. I’m not telling it because I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m telling it because of the lessons my father’s death has taught me; that he died not from suicide, but from his illness. It’s taught me that you cannot take anything for granted, because it can be gone in a second. It’s taught me that there is no shame in feeling depressed, sad, alone or abandoned. Most importantly, it’s taught me that silence is dangerous. My mother and I told no one what was going on at home and that isolated us from understanding that we all needed help, not just my father. We needed the support to understand that his mental illness is ultimately what drove him to take his own life.
Losing a parent to suicide is a wound that heals but you’re left with a faded scar; your life changes dramatically and you have to find your new path. You have to find a way to start living your life again. Really living. And letting go of the “what ifs,” the guilt, the fear, the shame and the silence.
If there’s anything I want you to take away from this post, it’s to not be afraid. Don’t be afraid to seek help. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t be afraid to scream out. If you get the feeling that something is wrong is someone, ask them. If you feel that something is wrong with you, seek support. Understand that you can’t fight a battle by yourself. Have faith; in yourself and in others that you can and will get through it.
You are not alone.
I have lost too many but I’ve gained so much. The love and support of terrific friends, relatives and a wonderful husband and son. I have cried and mourned but have gained an inner strength that has brought a lot of clarity. I feel like I can tackle anything. My loss has not made me less of who I am but it has shaped who I am. Made me more of who I am. Helped me see that everyone has “something” they’ve battled or are currently battling. I am happy, but importantly, I am free from the fear, free from the shame. Free from the silence.
You are not alone.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1.800.273.8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness: http://www.nami.org/