Mom leans over the sink, applying mascara to her long lashes. She thinks she knows what I’m going through because her dad and brother committed suicide, but it’s not the same. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be 13 nowadays, or how it feels when the boy you’ve had a crush on since sixth grade dies suddenly, horribly.
I don’t look up when I mumble that suicide is selfish.
Fast, she’s got hold of me, startling me. She grips my upper arms, her face in mine, and shouts that she never wants to hear me say that again. Through tears, she tells me suicide is not selfish.
I squeeze my arms closer to my sides, edging back from her intense dark eyes.
She claims that my friend was depressed and that’s why he killed himself. People who end their lives are in more pain than you can imagine, she says. Then she lets go, stands and looks away.
I say I’m sorry, considering that the cute boy who cracked jokes in English class could have been suffering.
Like her father, my mom fought depression for many years before she took her own life. After she passed, I found a folder jammed with dozens of articles she had cut out and saved. One clipping, dotted by faded yellow highlighter, said children who have a parent who dies by suicide are six times more likely to die in the same way.
The National Institute of Mental Health lists family history of suicide or mental disorder as two of 10 risk factors for suicidal ideation. Studies of identical twins indicate up to 50 percent of suicidal behavior may be inherited.
My children never had the chance to meet my mom. She died before they were born. But on my fragile days, when my smallest boy looks at me, I’m haunted.
I tell my new psychologist that five of my blood relatives died by suicide. While I tick them off, I give no hint of the images flickering behind my composed facade.
“My grampa,” the shed at my mom’s childhood home.
“My uncle,” a former soldier disabled by multiple sclerosis crawling from the house to the barn to milk his cows.
“My mom,” a black vinyl body bag on a gurney being wheeled out the front door.
“My aunt,” my cousin’s small pickup parked askew in the middle of the front lawn, the driver’s door ajar.
“And my first cousin,” a round boy with laughing cheeks bursting through a farmhouse screen door.
Though I have had a panic disorder for most of my life, I have not inherited Mom’s depression. I don’t have her large, wide-set eyes either. As a child, it pained me when strangers praised my mother’s and sister’s remarkable eyes, ignoring mine. Now, the pain is because my youngest son bears a marker for suffering — the eyes of family members who have attempted or died by suicide.
My 9-year-old has my husband Mark’s bony frame and square chin. His brown ringlets and introversion are from me. His older brother is more extroverted. When our 10-year-old is anxious, he seeks help. But when our younger son is struggling, he cocoons, crawling from room to room under his lovey Dinosaur Blankie. He isolates. He hides. He shuts down, and I am helpless.
My instinct is to hover over my boys and grill them about their feelings. If I could, by sheer force of will, pluck out the double helix that makes them prone to a mental malady, I would be free to imagine their futures without an underlying dread that they won’t survive puberty.
But it’s not just death that scares me. A life of agony might be worse. I imagine having a teenage son who can’t feel joy. I push away the thought of him as a man experiencing the best moments of his life with an emptiness inside that never fills. Malnutrition of the mind can lead to broken relationships, addiction and an immutable fixation on dying, all of which my mom battled during her 48 years.
Our youngest argues with Mark and me about how much more he loves us than we love him. When he lies in bed at night, he thinks of evidence to convince us that we can’t possibly understand his depth of love for us. As we back out of his room, he repeats, “love, love” while we shut the door, hoping he’ll stay in bed.
As I snuggle him on a Saturday night, we face each other on our sides, his knees scooped into my belly.
He says he has a question.
I wait for him to go on.
He asks why, if heaven is so great and everything is so bad here, we don’t all just go to heaven.
My heart palpitates at the seriousness of his tone.
I consider asking him directly if he’s thinking about dying. Sometimes I wonder if I overreact to simple questions. But what if my fear is justified? What if he believes dying is better than living?
Mental illness can and should be treated like physical illness. Yet, when it comes to my sons, I’m guilty of treating manageable disorders like they are terminal diseases. When I need a reality check, I substitute their predisposition for mental issues for a risk of a heart condition or some other somatic ailment. It divorces me from alarm over my sons’ age-appropriate outbursts and fickle emotions. If my child had a bad heart, I’d put my faith in God and medicine. I’d rest in the knowledge that, no matter what happened, I would not be blamed or asked to perform the surgery that could save him.
I cling to a concept — genetics are not destiny. I need this reminder, and the Internet provides it through fact-based articles and published scientific studies.
Genetics are not destiny. And my boys haven’t lost anyone they love to suicide. In this, they are not like me. Or my mom. Or my aunts, uncles, sister, brother, cousins.
Perhaps the key to protecting my children is caring for my own mental health. If they don’t lose a parent to suicide, they won’t be as likely to continue the pattern. Maybe, if I focus on wellness, my grandchildren won’t fear mental illness as a family curse, but will understand it as a condition that can be overcome with treatment and support.
Although my son has my mother’s eyes, I can guide how he views the world and his place in it.
Kelly Meldrum is a writer living in Michigan. She is writing a memoir on living with mental illness in a family scarred by multigenerational suicide loss. Find her on Twitter @KellyMeldrum.