When a loved one suffers from a mental illness, it isn’t like having cancer. It isn’t black and white, and there isn’t one way to think or feel about it. The only thing we survivors can do is make an effort to conduct our lives in a different way and share our experiences so that others know they’re not alone.
Per the National Center for Health Statistics, suicide in the U.S. has surged to the highest level in 30 years and the rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, has jumped by 63 percent. According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a first-degree relative of a person who has committed suicide is five times more likely to attempt or complete a suicide. I’ve seen this firsthand in my family, where there has been a suicide in every generation for the last half century.
Born to parents who had been married for nine years and growing up in an idyllic Maryland suburb just outside Washington D.C., I got a solid start in life. But within a few years, my home life began to unravel. In addition to depression, diagnosed in the 1960s, my mother suffered from the far more debilitating Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) — a disease marked by emotional instability and dysfunctional relationships — and prescription drug addiction.
BPD is a psychiatric illness that’s notoriously difficult to treat (and took approximately two decades to correctly diagnose). Despite being in therapy since her early 20s, over the whole of my childhood, my mother declined rather than improved. I was 8 years old the first time she told my younger brother and me that she planned to swallow a bottle of pills.
The worst thing about my mother’s illness was its inconsistency. If she was an awful parent all the time, maybe I could have just walked away. But instead, she alternated between worshipping and loathing me, fiercely protecting me in public and then verbally abusing me in private, holding onto me tightly and then pushing me away. My childhood was punctuated by endless groundings for infractions real and imagined, humiliating scenes at the doctor’s and the grocery store and violent confrontations about my weight (too high) and personality (too dour). Still, my mother was everything to me, and I panicked at the thought of losing her. My life was a game of control, and as long as my mother was alive, I’d won.
Until one crisp November afternoon, she wasn’t. My mother ended her life in 2007, when I was five months pregnant. It was almost immediately after I set a boundary for the first time in 30 years, telling her that the health of my unborn baby had to come ahead of anything else.
Through all the hospitalizations, all of the times my family and I sent the police to her door in the middle of the night, all of the times she did or said something that I’d add to the collection of wounds from my childhood, all I wanted was for my mother to be out of pain.
I’ve spent the last several years visiting Chicago residents who have lost a family member, significant other, friend, co-worker, etc. to suicide, and have realized that the risk of a “domino effect” is real. After suffering decades of chaos and heartache, I felt a duty to reach a hand toward those who aren’t sure if they can and should go on.
A career writer of nonfiction, I decided it was finally time to publish the memoir I wrote about my mother, called A Good Soldier. Wishing to protect my children from learning about this story before they are ready, I used a pseudonym.
Today, I live in Oak Park with my family. I use the secure base of this wonderful community to advocate for better mental health care and awareness throughout Chicagoland. The Book Table has been kind enough to stock A Good Soldier, and I’ve made a few local appearances. If my work can help just one person cope better with an often impossible situation, then putting my story out there is more than worth it.