My Father’s Death. I’m posting this with hesitation.

In November of 1989, my father committed suicide.  It was years before I could dredge up an “and that’s good because….” about Daddy’s choice.

I won’t go into the grim details.  What I will share is this:

My former husband and I had recently moved from Delaware to the Chicago suburbs.   East coast friends Sally and Frank were planning a Thanksgiving visit. I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing them and sharing our Thanksgiving holiday.  I had just carried in a mountain of groceries when I got the phone call.  The caller? My mother’s close friend Grace.

I distinctly remember that moment.  The grocery bags piled on the counter, waiting to be unpacked. It was an unusually bright day, sunlight streaming in the kitchen windows.  A ringing phone was odd.  We knew few people.  At that time the phone was a land-line on our white built-in kitchen desk.  Even today, with crystal clarity, I can visualize the random papers on the desk, my blue date book, kids crayoned artwork strewn across the surface.

Grace imparted the horrifying facts and my life was forever changed.  Yet, I wasn’t wholly surprised at the news.

The summer before our move I dreamt mother was calling me, begging for help.  She was sobbing, pleading and repeating, “Please, someone help me. Someone, anyone…I need help.”  The following day I phoned her and shared my odd dream experience. She began to cry, saying, “Thank God.  I have been praying somebody would hear me.  I am terrified.”

Daddy had forbidden her to tell anyone what was happening to him.  In a whisper, she spilled her fears.  He had been behaving weirdly.  Pacing, muttering obsessive thoughts, voicing suicidal ideas.  Mother was frightened and unsure where to turn.

My father was clearly losing his mind, a mind he was very proud of.  During World War II when he applied for Navy service his IQ was tested. He was told his was among the highest the Navy had ever measured.  The prospective loss of his brain horrified him.

She and I took my reluctant father to the family doctor, Perry Mitchell.  He suggested a psychiatrist.  At first, Daddy stubbornly refused to go.  In the 70’s he had told me “admitting to mental health issues is too much to live down” citing the Thomas Eagleton scandal.  Missouri U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton had been hospitalized on three occasions for depression and had undergone electroshock therapy.  He was presidential candidate George McGovern’s running mate.  The revelation of Eagleton’s mental health embarrassment destroyed McGovern’s chance of election.  This had convinced my father one never reveals such issues.   Finally, we prevailed and Daddy saw the doctor.

Shortly after that doctor’s visit, my little family moved from our home near mother to the Chicago suburbs.

My parents continued to seek treatment.  Tests were run.  Ultimately hospitalization was recommended.

In September of 1989, my father was committed to a Wilmington, Delaware psychiatric hospital.  I flew home.  Mother and I visited him daily.  On the community, room wall hung a large white board.  On it was drawn a big pyramid.  The names of the patients were written with the “healthiest*” patients names on the bottom of the pyramid.  The “strangest/most flawed*” (my words, not theirs*) were at the top.  My intelligent father was at the apex of that grim triangle.

One young man wandered the halls, greasy lank hair in his vacant eyes.  He tried to hand a filthy comb to everyone he passed.   That young man’s name was on the lowest level.  Daddy was humiliated.

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I have no memory of the exact words explaining the tiers, but their intent wasn’t lost on anyone.

Following his hospitalization mother brought him home.  He paced the circle of their first floor all day, every day.  Through the kitchen, into the dining room, living room, family room and back to the kitchen.  Each trip through the kitchen he would bend over the sink and drink from the faucet. Then he’d be back to pacing.

The day he died he left a rambling, illegible suicide note.  It was scribbled in pencil on a piece of aqua blue construction paper.

Following his death, it was concluded he’d likely been ill with mad cow disease aka Creutzfeldt-Jacob.   He was diagnosed by his symptoms which included seizures, dementia, radical personality changes, paranoia, and hallucinations.  A definitive diagnosis would have required brain biopsy, but that wasn’t possible.

My poor mother was so broken by his death, but she was stoic and kept her head up.  Suicide is a shameful death. Following a suicide, individuals avoid the mourner.  They avert their eyes, stammer uncomfortably, and give a wide birth.  Mother felt isolated by her shame.

Fast forward four years and I had my own suicidal episode.  Clinical Depression  She came to the mid-west to take care of our kids while my husband worked.  They visited my locked-down, dismal hospital.  That poor woman….I cannot imagine her terrible fear that I might make the same gruesome decision.

Now I’m coming to the “this is good because….” part of my Dad’s death.

Even at my lowest point, I remembered the horror of losing a loved one to suicide.  The depth of my sorrow is forever etched into my heart.  I simply could not, would not inflict the same trauma on my kids.  Due to my father’s illness and fatal final action, Matthew and Maureen didn’t lose their mother when they were thirteen and ten.

Daddy, I love you. Someday,  hopefully, none too soon,  I’ll see you on the other side.

 

Clinical Depression

 

In 1993 I suffered severe clinical depression. It took years to find the “…and that’s good because” of that illness. At the time I felt ashamed of my inability to be happy. I had all the trappings intended to make for a joyful life. I had–and still have–two beautiful, healthy kids. My son was thirteen at the time, my daughter was ten. I lived an affluent life in a gated country club community. Fancy cars, fancy clothes, fancy travel.

But I couldn’t stop crying. No one knew I was so ill. I was the master of slapping on a smile and faking happiness. Sure, there were signs that old friends would have recognized, but we’d moved away from old friends shortly before the illness began. New friends commented on how much weight I was losing and how good I was looking. Ultimately I became concentration camp skeletal.

I was suicidal.

Each day I would fake being happy mommy long enough to see my kids off to school. Then I would crawl into the bed and curl up in a fetal position. I made it my rule to stay on the bed, reasoning if I got off I might make a fatal choice. When they arrived home, I resumed that odd grin until they went to bed at night.

Ultimately I was hospitalized. Upon arrival attendants took my picture. The result showed a shrunken woman, hollow cheeks, sorrowful eyes. She was wearing a strange toothy grin.

Shoelaces were confiscated, as were make-up mirrors and any other items possibly used to inflict harm upon ourselves. All medications were put under lock and key.

My first night I had a nurse seated by my bed throughout the night to make sure I didn’t suicide. The following morning I was awakened by frightening, deafening pounding from the room next door. Anger management class. The pounding was rubber bats against pillowed chair seats.

The following three weeks were a series of classes.

Anger management–I did my fair share of pounding. I found it was very therapeutic.

Art therapy–I used only black pens. Sometimes I slammed the pens so hard the felt tips were ruined, other times were weak little scribbles.

Group Discussions–Patients were seated in a circle and would take turns discussing our feelings. I had long since forgotten how to feel my feelings. I was unable to feel joy, only just learning to feel rage. I had stuffed my feelings. Piled on top of them was a boatload of pain. One man never opened his eyes. I wondered how he navigated the hallways. I have since tried his technique and now understand how it is a brilliant coping skill. One more way to keep the world out: Just don’t see it.

Sing-a-longs led by a jolly guitar playing minister. All the songs were Christian. I remember one, “This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.”

Private counseling– One on one with very gentle psychologists.

The patients included a long distance truck driver, John, who blamed himself for his son’s death. John had given his son a new car. Days later his son was killed in that car trying to beat a train.

Laura, who was committed for a mandatory three days. She had attempted suicide following an affair with her boss. The man rejected her. Her Jehovah’s witness family shunned her.

Doris, who had run away from an abusive home at thirteen. By fifteen she had given birth to a baby who died shortly after that. She was anger personified, often skipping classes or, if she did come, she flounced into the room with a scowl and contributed nothing.

One woman, whose name I have long since forgotten, had to spend her first night in a padded room. Her hands were bound so she couldn’t scratch herself. A camera on the wall recorded every movement to a television posted at the nurse’s station.

She was suicidal over the loss of her teenage son. Each visiting day her husband and pre teen daughter would come. Dad would spend time with his wife while the daughter would sit, stricken and alone, in the visitor’s area. My heart broke for that young girl. She must have felt she alone wasn’t a loveable enough child to make her parents happy.

For years I experienced intense shame about having been in a mental health hospital. It was embarrassing to have become crazy.

Now I’m coming to the “this is good because….” part of my clinical depression journey.

The mental health hospital I was committed to offered two treatment options. One option looked to me like a nut-hut crazy madhouse. The other choice a spiritual Christian model. I now understand my nightmare hospital experience was the first step in my journey to belief in a higher power.

That three-week experience–two weeks inpatient, one week out—was a turning point in my life. Sure, there were still miles and miles to go before I learned to trust my higher power and live the life I now have–A life filled with abundance beyond anything I could have believed possible back in 1993.

There were years of therapy following my hospitalization. Robin, my skilled psychologist, gently guided. She taught me assertiveness skills and how to recognize my feelings. She told me to close my eyes and imagine situations from several sides. Following each assessment, I was to take stock of my physical self. Were my shoulders tight? Was my breathing shallow? My body’s tension or lack thereof would give me answers my mind couldn’t manage.

Eventually, I made the most important wellness choice–leaving my twenty-eight-year marriage. Which led me back to church, back to prayer and back to simply breathing in and out. I learned to be quiet. I learned to trust that God put me here for a reason. I don’t know the reason. I don’t have to. I just have to say, “Hey God, put a neon light over the door you want me to walk through.”

And God always does.