It is my hope that sharing this personal reflection will be of help and support to countless others who have a family member dealing with mental illness and have lost a loved one to suicide.
It has been over two decades since you left this world, choosing to leave it by your own hand. We never had the opportunity to reconcile our very complicated relationship and I have come to terms with that. Today you would turn 75 and that milestone has motivated me towards some reflection.
For much of my young adulthood I blamed you for the trials in my own life- my inability to access emotions, my inability to love and be loved, my seeming to be adrift in a world that I was ill prepared to face. Although painful, I have learned a great deal because of you.
By any reasonable assessment, my life as a child was not easy. I never knew from one day to the next if I would come home to a loving mother or a screaming shrew that would emotionally and physically abuse me.
For some reason as a child, I believed that becoming the person that you wanted me to be, by becoming the perfect child; I would somehow earn your love. Love was difficult for you to give or accept. It was a futile attempt because perfection is unattainable and love was an emotion that was totally alien to you.
In the early months of 1976 I had the most profound moment of my life. Although I always knew, you finally confirmed what I had felt, that I was not the child of a marriage but of an affair. Suddenly I saw my world of the previous 18 years crash around me- it had all been a lie. My sense of self was in shatters and I had never been all that confident to begin with.
That moment in 1976 was my emotional bottom. I described it to a therapist as feeling in a moment like my veins had been flushed with ice water. It would either be a moment of condemnation or redemption- I would either, break into a thousand pieces and never heal or I would engage in reflection and use the confusion, solitude and shattered ego as a starting point for a life that would have meaning.
Your life was a profoundly sad one. I don’t believe that you ever had a moment where you were totally and completely happy or content. The demons you lived with made your life hell and transferred to your family a life that was fraught with emotional chaos. I was not comfortable with emotional chaos so I stopped feeling.
I excelled in academics because I thought you would love me if I was the best. It was a horrible motivator for education. But fortunately through that pressure I fell in love with learning. My intellect was both a gift and a curse. It was a curse because I could rely completely on my head and totally ignore my heart. My heart was not a place I was willing to go- it was terrifying. It was a gift because it also gave me the tools to recognize that I had to reconcile my heart and head and that if I didn’t, my life would be lost.
My memories of childhood were not all negative. On the contrary there were moments that I cherish. If it was a good day for you I would come home from school to find you willing to talk about my day over milk and cookies. Admittedly there aren’t many of those cherished moments and they all came into question when I realized that my world had been a lie for 18 years.
When my life was thrown into chaos, I was told by you and my father that I was an adult and I should just get over it. Pull myself up by my boot straps, buck up and be a man.
You would be happy to know that I did eventually do that. Your complicated role in my life actually motivated me into intense reflection, awareness and understanding.
Because life was sometimes akin to living in a modern day Greek tragedy that road to redemption was clearer to me than it might have been if I had lived in an average family (if there is such a thing).
Because of those difficult times I learned the lessons of truth, love and integrity in very profound ways.
After allowing myself to feel the pain that I experienced; I finally was open to love- most importantly I was open to being loved and thus able to love.
I realized that the lack of love I experienced had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t because I was a bad person or a bad son. And I realize also was not your fault. At your core the act of loving someone was a terrifying prospect- one that would expose you and that was intolerable for you since you had no sense of self worth.
Your life of melancholy – filled with fear and self loathing is still profoundly sad to me. My heart aches when I think of how alone you must have been because you couldn’t let people in. You were so guarded, so afraid so broken.
One of the lessons I learned was that no matter how difficult life with you was and how unloved I felt, I know you did give as much as you were capable and that I do love you, unconditionally and that I am at peace with all of it.
Life is a series of events that eventually leads us to where we are at the present. Those events, no matter how difficult, have made me the man I am today. I am content, my life is filled with love, and I have dedicated my life to helping, in some way, to make this world a better place.
Your legacy to this world is a son and daughter who were challenged by your personal demons and overcame them and learned from them to become loving and decent people. Ironically it was due to those challenges that we became who we are today.