Wednesday 27 April 2011

My Mother Tried to Commit Suicide

My memory of the details is foggy. After all, it happened 39 years ago and anybody who could tell me anything about what happened is no longer with us. So, as I sit here mulling this over, I realise I have few facts but a lot of speculation.

I vaguely remember Dad telling me he was going to out to look for Mom. I don't remember this, but I'm guessing she left a note which prompted his search. He eventually found her. She had gone to his office and climbed into an outside container meant to hide the unsightly trash cans from neighbourhood. Dad took her to the hospital and had her stomach pumped. I can't say whether whatever she took would have actually killed her but nevertheless, there was the intent.

What happened afterwards? Counselling? Visits to a psychiatrist? I don't know. I do remember that the issue was never brought up; at least not in front of me. Then again, I don't think I ever talked with my mother about this incident. I headed off to university shortly after this occurred and I never again lived at home for any length of time.

Nevertheless, I have at times over the years thought about my mother and this incident as I have discovered, or maybe conjectured, that I have gotten more of my genes from my mother than from my father. Physically, no doubt, but temperament, personality, mental make-up, ah, it seems we share some common traits.

My mother was born in 1929. She grew up in the Great Depression and suffered the loss of her own mother when she was 8 years old. Grandpa remarried however that didn't work out as well as it could have. Appearances can be deceiving, but I'll leave the story of my grandmother to another time.

The main point was that my grandfather decided to not send my mother to university. It was a waste of money as my mother would just get married and that would be the end of it. I think this always gave her a sense of inferiority in the community where she ended up. My father was a medical professional. We lived in what I have since grown to appreciate was an upper middle class neighbourhood surrounded by similar people: doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. Just about every wife in the neighbourhood had a university degree except my mother. How many were stay-at-home moms like my mother? I'm not sure. I know a couple who worked; heck, one was a doctor like her husband, but I think this being the 1950s, it was common for wives to not work.

In looking back on all this, I can't help thinking of the era, the 1950s and the 1960s, married to a professional, etc., I get the idea of the Stepford Wives, robotic wives who are pleasant but vacuous, designed to serve but not necessarily participate. I don't think this satisfied whatever craving my mother may have had.

My mother was, for lack of a better word, an artsy fartsy personality. - I know that expression "artsy fartsy" has a pejorative sense to it and I'll come back to that in a moment. - Mom did some painting and some sculpting, took lessons even, but never dove into it. She dabbled. I wouldn't say she was passionate; she had not been truly bitten by the bug. She liked to read, talk about "stuff", and was a good socialiser. I could characterize the decades of the 1950s and the 1960s as idyllic, but then again, I was only a kid and what the heck did I know?

I still remember this vividly. I was 16 years old. There was some sort of family get together with another family up the street and my mother had a touch too much to drink. I found her being inebriated to be both embarrassing and annoying. I distinctly remember her telling me to "loosen up, have fun". Her dancing around with some other teenagers struck me as being, well, stupid.

In the subsequent years, I was witness to my mother being drunk and I mean really drunk, a couple of times. In retrospect, I am sure she had a potential to becoming an alcoholic. If she stayed out of the danger zone over the years, I wonder if this had a lot to do with my father. He was one of those salt of the Earth, traditional type of guys, and I don't think I ever saw him intoxicated. Not once.

In 1971, Mom decided she was going back to high school. She had originally completed high school with a four year secretarial diploma. Unfortunately, at that time, the 5th year was a necessary requirement for university and I think she had gotten the idea of possibly going to university. My final year at high school had me seeing my own mother in the school hallways. We didn't have any classes together; ah, that might have been just a tad too weird.

Now for what I think may have been the straw that broke the camel's back. It's 1971. The hippie era of the 1960s may have been over, but I certainly had enough people in my immediate circle of friends who were continuing to live that sort of lifestyle. And drugs were a part of that time and of that social circle. Now let me be clear, I was a weekend hippie. Yes, I'd go to concerts with a group of friends, get stoned, crash at somebody's place on a Saturday night, but I was still the son of a professional living in an upper middle class neighbourhood. I was playing at it, but I wasn't being a full-blown hippie.

My mother found me one evening and guessed that I was high. I think she then asked and all the kids confessed to having done a little experimenting. Now us trying a few drugs was in no way a reflection on her parenting skills. Heck, at that time, if you had not tried drugs, you were the exception to the rule. Nevertheless, I have speculated over the years that this peccadillo on my part, on our part broke her in some way. If she doubted herself, if she undervalued her contribution to the family, if she suffered from a sense of inferiority, her children having tried drugs was a clear indication that she had also failed as mother.

My mother was a wonderful mother. You couldn't ask for a better one, but over the years I've come to realise that while children are dealing with their parents as parents, they completely forget that their parents are also individuals with hopes, dream, and aspirations just like anybody else. I am convinced that her finding out I experimented with drugs pushed her over the edge. Her suicide attempt happened a few months later.

Years later, I remember talking with my Dad about various things and the topic of Mom came up. Keep in mind that we rarely talked about what I'm sure one would label as personal stuff. It wasn't that he wouldn't or couldn't, but I understood that for my father, there were no real personal issues to discuss. He was a very even keel type of guy. He had a good career. He made good money. He travelled; he socialized; he didn't really want for anything. What was there to discuss? Life was good.

Nevertheless, for my mother, it wasn't the same. She wanted to talk. She wanted to feel. She wanted to do something, achieve something, but whatever that was, it was never clearly articulated. She dabbled, but there wasn't a clear lifetime goal like my father had. Dad went to university, got a degree, got a career, and became a professional; he was living the dream. Mom, no.

Coming back to talking about this with Dad. He said he would have supported her in anything she would have wanted to do. When she wanted to sculpt, he got her lessons and set aside part of the house for her work. When she tried painting, he did the same. She just never stuck at it. She had talent and I'm sure she could have done something with art, but she didn't stick to it. What was the missing piece of the puzzle?

My Dad also told me they had discussed divorce. But why? What was missing? What was she looking for? I do remember her one time, and I think just one time, revealing that she felt Dad didn't want to or was incapable of communicating with her; that he was cold. Really? As I said above, for Dad life was good. What was there to talk about? Was this one of those glass half full half empty things?

I have heard tell of women for whom being a mother is the be all and the end all. They define themselves as mothers and if their child doesn't measure up to their expectations, their life isn't complete; they have somehow failed. In light of that, I am stunned at the stories of other people. I recently heard the tale of a mother whose one and only son became a heroin addict in his late teens and spent five years in jail. He got out and came back to live with his mother then went back to drugs, stole from his own family, and finally his mother had to turn him in. His mother told me that during a visit with him in jail the second time; he told her he was better off in jail as it provided him with a structured environment away from drugs. How does a mother live with such a thing?

My mother lived another 25 years. She died prematurely from lung cancer as she was a smoker. I do not remember ever talking about Mom's attempt with either my mother or my father. If you ask me why, I would have to honestly say that I don't know. How do you bring up the topic of one's attempted suicide?

Final Word
I had not thought about this family event for years, but something I read recently reminded me of it. As a child, even as a grown child, I seemed to have this tendency of thinking of my parents as being my parents. When I became a parent, I became aware of the fact that I had step-children looking at me as a parent. However, the realisation dawned on me that yes, to them I was a parent (step-parent) but I was still me, just another guy with his own hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Yes, I was a parent, but I was still your run-of-mill average guy trying to get along in life and figure things out for himself. Did my step-kids understand that about me? I didn't seem to clue into that about my own parents.

Sometimes I think back on my parents and wonder about their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. What were their successes; what were their failures? I'd certainly love to talk to Mom about her attempt and why she was so desperate at that time. By the way, my mother never completed high school. She never did go to university. I'm sure Dad would have supported her in any endeavour, but she never again tried anything major. Why not? Did she "give up"? What did she do for those remaining 25 years?

I said I seem to have gotten my genes from my mother. I'm a bit of an arsty fartsy type. Good? Bad? Thinking about her makes me think about myself and ask if there are any lessons to be learned.

About ten months before her death, about four months before she was diagnosed with cancer, she went to a sculpting studio for a few lessons and to do some work. She completed a piece for which she made six finished glazed copies for each member of the family. It was a partially abstract piece of a woman holding her arms out as if she was praising or blessing something or possibly about to hug somebody. My mother called it, "Joy". Out of it all, out of 66 years, she left behind her husband of 46 years, her children, and a little "Joy". If I had the chance, what would I ask her? What would I talk to her about? I'll never know.


Wikipedia: Suicide
Suicide (Latin suicidium, from sui caedere, "to kill oneself") is the act of a human being intentionally causing his or her own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair, or attributed to some underlying mental disorder which includes depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism and drug abuse. Financial difficulties, troubles with interpersonal relationships and other undesirable situations play a significant role.

Over one million people commit suicide every year. The World Health Organization estimates that it is the thirteenth-leading cause of death worldwide and the National Safety Council rates it sixth in the United States. It is a leading cause of death among teenagers and adults under 35. Rates of suicide are higher in men than in women. There are an estimated 10 to 20 million non-fatal attempted suicides every year worldwide.

Wikipedia: List of countries by suicide rate
Canada: 11.9 per 100,000 (2005)
United States: 11.1 per 100,000 (2005)

StatsCan: Suicides and suicide rate, by sex and by age group
There were 3,611 suicides in Canada in 2007 or 11.0 per 100,000.

StatsCan: Leading causes of death
There were 235,217 deaths in Canada in 2007. Cancer accounted for 30% of deaths, and heart disease, 22%. Stroke, in third place, accounted for 6%. Ranked in order, the other seven leading causes of death were chronic lower respiratory diseases, accidents, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease and suicide.

my blog: Alcoholism: I'll drink to that!

I wrote this essay and after having read it over a zillion times, I'm still not sure I've said what I wanted to say. Maybe sometime I'll come back to it; maybe sometime I'll just start again from scratch and see what comes out.


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1 comment:

Unknown said...

oh william, i'm so sorry ... it sounds like your mom was tortured with her own journey that unfortunately combined you in it.

i know how rough life can get ... i'm glad you shared this