By a childhood survivor of parental suicide attempts.
The Unintended Consequences of Parental Suicide…
Declaration of intention. I am not wishing to cast a blanket of despair on any parent who is suffering with thoughts of it all being too much. With my whole heart I pray for peace in your heart and mind. My intention is to share what this one child perceived, who survived two parental suicide attempts.
The title should read ‘the unintended consequences of parental suicide attempts.. I suppose in my case it would be more appropriate.
In 1965 or 1966, I was 5/6 year old, brown haired, browned eyed plump girl living with my Irish mom — a Liz Taylor look-alike, my dad a handsome charismatic Italian, and my blond haired blue eyed brother who was one year older. We lived in our 3 decker in the Greendale section of the city of 3-deckers; Worcester, MA.
My mother wrestled with my fathers gambling addiction and his affinity for beautiful women by escaping with the only release she knew, Schlitz beer and Kent cigarettes.
My memories take me to seeing my little girl self taking a note from my mother’s hand with her instructions to give it to ‘Pike’ at the packie. I would walk by myself or with my brother past the other 3 decker’s of Watson Ave knowing it was a sort of secret mission, a sort of walk of shame that I was performing as she was unable to do it herself. I’d walk the few blocks on Gold Star Boulevard and enter the beer stenched packie of Pike’s Liquor’s on Gold Star Boulevard, past the displays of beer and alcohol, past the displays of potato sticks and peanuts to the counter and hand the note to ‘Pike’. He’d look at me with impatience and hand me the six pack and pack of Kent’s with a message for my mother, “tell your mother she has a tab”. Ugh.
Those days ‘ Of Wine and Roses’ were filled with fighting at 2 am when dad would return home from the theatre, smelling like Jean Nate and hearing words I knew were bad but never knew what they meant. The next day my mother would tell us she was going to kill herself, that we’d be better off without her, that she wanted to die. I was 6 years old. I’d plead with her not to die.. not to leave me, not to leave us. I’d tell her I’d be a good girl, and I’d get right to work cleaning and being silent. I’d get a stomach ache and plead to stay home from school. My first grade report card shows 60 absences. I had to stay home to make sure she didn’t die. It was my job. My duty. On the days I did make it to school I would shake uncontrollably and often cry without being able to tell anyone why — because I didn’t know how to say it — and because of who my dad was there would be no effort to intervene.
One night or early morning in 1966 or 65 my brother and I would hear the fighting, we’d hear her screaming, “I hate you !! — I hate you!!” and I’d open the door of our bedroom that looked into the den, I’d watch as she took the sharp jagged edge of a Maxwell house coffee container lid and slit one wrist, then quickly the other wrist, the blood splattering up to the ceiling, and across the black-painted art sculpture of ‘comedy and tragedy’ masks that was on our otherwise bare walls. She’d scream “my babies, my babies, I want my babies..” and I remember my mother being led out the den door to the front porch by men in uniform. I think I remember her in a straight jacket sitting on the sidewalk in front of our house — I’m not sure if it was the same incident or not. The white scars on her wrists would remain her entire life. She wore them like a badge of honor. Every time I saw them they crushed me.
Our neighbor Mary would come to our rescue, We’d go with Mary and her family for a couple weeks till I then went with my best friend and her family in the 3 decker behind us. My brother would go with another family on Ericson Street. Every day I’d ask for mom, and one day we’d get to see her.
She had been gone about 3 months when my dad would take my brother and I to see her on the 4th floor of St Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester. The psychiatric unit. I remember being so happy to see her.. skipping down the long hall with the blue stripe on the outside of the building, my father and brother following behind me. The nurse opened the double doors and my mother was sitting on the edge of a small bed .. in a ward of beds.. in paper pajamas, and paper slippers… I was so little — but I already knew what those paper slippers meant. She didn’t recognize me, I don’t remember if she recognized my father or brother, she smiled sweetly. She was 31 years old and had just had 14 electro shock therapy treatments.
After she came home I would seldom go to school. I had to watch her. She let me stay home often, I was so far behind in school that year I’d never catch up. My report cards showed 70 days absent that year and D- in every subject. I was never a problem in school, even when I was there.
I was mesmerized by her suicide note. She kept it in her dresser draw. Folded up neatly with her gorgeous cursive writing. I can’t remember if the note was for the first suicide attempt or the second. It said, “tell Johnny and Diane it wasn’t their fault”., “tell Johnny and Diane I love them”, “that some day they will understand they were better off without me”… I was so small but I knew that wasn’t true. I knew we needed her in our life every day. I couldn’t imagine a day without her. No matter how much chaos was in our house or how many days she spent alone in her bed.
She found a recovery program for alcoholism, and did very well for three? years. Somewhere along the line she was prescribed barbiturates. She fell in love with someone in the program, and my father put an end to that love affair. It was 1969, and with a broken heart and broken soul she again felt life was too painful. That’s what she would tell me when I was old enough to understand. That some people feel that one more day of life is just too painful.
The second attempt.
I’d hear my father scream in mid afternoon during Easter season of 1969 — ‘Patti, oh no Patti, no no no’’ Diane !! Diane !! help me !! Call Mary!! “
God bless Mary. Our neighbor.. She put up with our crazy. Dad called Mary, and he and I dragged Patti off the bed and I see my 9 year old self dragging her limp body on one side of her while my father had the other side of her, dragging her back and forth in the parlor and their bedroom till the ambulance arrived. She had dressed herself in her new baby blue, geometric-design angora tunic and solid baby blue angora pants with white leather boots — Nancy Sinatra style, and the empty pill bottle was by her side. Mary came running, the calls were made, we went to the neighbors..
Patti would come home two weeks later. During that time I stayed with a family where I witnessed child abuse in a way that shattered me. A step dad was so aggressive to his step daughters it terrified me. My presence didn’t help an already strained situation there. I was certainly a burden to their household as much as the wonderful Christian mom tried to hide it.
There is also the unintended consequence of the sharks that are lurking when no one is watching. They know who is unattended, who is too little to watch out for themselves — they are experts at opportunistic moments. My moment came at the hands of a family acquaintance. Someone I saw weekly as a child. He molested me when I was six., on one of those days I was sent to the store with a note..
Somewhere in those early years I stopped dreaming, maturing, wanting. I feared for her life every day of my life. I would run home from school when released from the patrol line to make sure she wasn’t dead. In high school I participated in nothing. I belonged to zero clubs. I went to work as early as I possibly could to help support our struggling family with the jobs a high school kid can get. Waitressing and retail. By junior high the wings of this little bird who had dreams of being a marine biologist would gradually wither and shrink with no chance of spreading, soaring, flying.
When Senior year came around and classmates were going to colleges, my grades would not support even applying to a community college. I felt I could not burden my parents with my dreams — the realization of being a marine biologist long gone. I was going to work full time in one of the neighborhood factory offices and was so happy to make 245.00 a week in 1980 with benefits.
I am often asked if I had any anger. The answer is and always has been, “no”. But, I do know that the suicide attempts stopped me from growing — from exploring — from wanting to try the world. I dove into ‘task’ mode at too young an age.
My mom would go on to counsel over 300 women (and men) in her program. Our phone rang at all hours for her, sometimes someone needed to hear those words I’d come to hear so often: “just hold on one more day”.. “if you can just hold on one more day, it will look different tomorrow”.
I would be 48 years old when I understood why Patti was so young, and so broken. Although I knew as a child she came from a broken home with an alcoholic father — the understanding would come when she and I admitted my dad to the hospital who was having heart trouble. During coffee at the hospital cafeteria she told me the details that I couldn’t bear, and wished I didn’t know. But the details made it clear why she was fighting the demons so young in her life that would lead to her suicide attempts and electro-shock treatment.
As a child who survived a parental suicide attempt(s), I always watched myself for signs.. and if they came I’d hear her voice. In my life I can count two times I seriously thought of taking my life. Once was over twenty years ago. The other, more recently during a very long drawn out saga and difficult time in my life. I hear my mom say, “if you can just hold on one more day”… those days did pass. Like so many in the mud of it, I was afraid to tell my husband — who had seen the worst tragedies as a firefighter, I was afraid to tell my children, one a social worker, the other a firefighter. I didn’t want them to look at me the way I always looked at Patti. But, I did tell a dear friend who called me and hearing his voice made a differnce. I didn’t want my husband to look at me the way I looked at Patti, like I was broken. Funny thing is, I was broken. I thought of my kids, and my grandkids, and not wanting to cripple them. I’m grateful I had Patti’s lesson to fall back on.
For all the walking wounded.. please tell someone… sometimes the words won’t come.. but if you can tell someone you feel ‘broken’.. they will understand what you’re trying to say.. please, hang on — one more day..