Ten years ago, my 19-year-old daughter committed suicide.
It happened on a brutally hot night, in July, in Charleston, South Carolina. Janis had attended the College of Charleston for her freshman year, and decided to stay there in an apartment off campus, rather than come home to Myrtle Beach for the summer.
She went into a closet, attached a leather belt to a hanger rod, and then secured it around her neck.
When it comes to suicide, some warning signs are obvious: self-harm, for example. Others are more subtle: giving away something that was once coveted, or neglecting personal hygiene. Maybe those things can be brushed off as “just a phase,” or maybe they’re indicative of a plan that you just can’t see. That plan might be suicide.
I keep coming back to one such warning sign, one that is so obvious now. I don’t know how I didn’t see it: not worrying about future consequences. My daughter grew apathetic about homework due dates, when all of her life she had been so conscientious; money problems that were sure to crop up were ignored. It was as though the thought of any impending doom in the future didn’t matter.
Things have changed a lot in ten years. I’ve stopped tormenting myself about not having the ability to stop my child’s suicide. I was so ashamed of myself. You see, the signs were obvious with my daughter. They were glaring. She had said, more than once, “I’m worried I’m going to kill myself.” I thought of her as my little drama queen, and I treated her worries as such. She also injured herself. She was a cutter, and when I found out I didn’t make her write a 20-page essay on "why I shouldn’t cut myself," — my standard punishment when my girls acted out. I had an attitude that less is more. Less punishment would be more effective, I thought. If I showed her compassion by letting her off easy, she would pay it forward and let me off easy. She would stop hurting herself.
Mental illness was something I had been raised to shy away from. I am from an era that didn’t talk about it. Schizophrenia ran in my family, and at the age of 25, I was blindsided with the illness. I had been groomed to pretend that I was normal. I understood that the repercussions would be awful if I let people know about my issues. For half of my life, though, I thought I was Jesus’s sister. Ironically, I’m kind of normal now... normal and kind, I think.
Kindness. I am amazed at the lack of it. Especially after someone suffers the loss of a child.
One evening, in a suicide survivors group, I listened as a mother described her agony. Her young son had shot himself in the entryway of their community. Not long afterward some neighbors called to complain. I don’t know if it was the mess that he left that bothered the neighbors or they felt that the stature of the community had been diminished. Whatever, their apathy amid this family’s crisis was unbearable.
My brother-in-law was so fed up listening to me cry he told me “to get over it.” His wife, my youngest sister, learned to hate me. It almost seemed like she was jealous of my pain, maybe just sick of my tears.
An old friend let me know that people who kill themselves are just trying to hurt the living. Well-meaning, perhaps, but hurtful all the same. My daughter was not trying to hurt me. She was depressed.
Fortunately, most people are not cruel. They go out of their way to try to heal another’s pain. My oldest daughter called every day to make sure I was all right. My best friend called every night and listened to me cry for hours so I could finally fall asleep.
My other sister showed up frequently to fill up the fridge and cabinets, even though she lived 10 hours away. My neighbor, my friend for years, made sure that my lawn was mowed and the trees and bushes were cared for. For years, I didn’t even notice. Then I did.
After ten years, now I notice. The kindness that others have shown me has helped me to forgive myself. Forgiving myself is a wonderful thing. It’s brought me back to life.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255, anytime.
Nadine Murray is a writer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and the author of "Memoirs of a Schizophrenic Goddess."