The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My dad killed himself when I was 13. He hid his depression. I won’t hide mine.

Amy Marlow with her dad, Doug McDowell. (Photos courtesy: Amy Marlow)

When you walk into the laundry room and find your father hanging, you know that life is never going to be the same. That is a sight you can’t unsee and a pain you can’t unfeel.

I was 13 years old and still a little girl. My dad was my hero – a Vietnam vet, a Michigan grad, a Springsteen fan. I remember being a kid, flying down the road in his Oldsmobile with the windows rolled down and the music cranked up. I looked over and he smiled, his blue eyes sparkling and his black hair blowing in the wind. He played the trumpet and I played the sax, and we would sit, side by side, blaring out duets that sounded amazing to us and probably awful to anyone else.

I was 13 years old and I didn’t know about depression, didn’t know that my dad had struggled silently with his mental health for years. I didn’t know the name for what started to change him. Why he became so tired, so withdrawn. Why he seemed weighed down with a heavy sadness. I didn’t know why the light went out of his eyes. The music had stopped and in its place I heard a deafening silence.

So like a little sponge I absorbed what I sensed. I absorbed the unnamed sadness, I absorbed the undercurrent of fear and anxiety. I took it all in and I didn’t ask why and nobody offered an explanation. I sensed the pressure build and build in our home until it felt like the charged atmosphere just before a tornado.

Wrung with a fear that I couldn’t name I finally asked him, “Dad – what’s wrong?” His blue eyes clouded over as he said, softly, “I…don’t feel good.” Needing to know more, I asked, “When are you going to feel better?” He said nothing as his eyes filled with tears. I had never seen him cry before and it scared me. I raced out of the room and slammed the door like the teenage girl that I was. I expected him to follow, to explain.

He never did.

Three days later, he was gone. My childhood ended and I became a survivor of suicide loss and a trauma victim. At first the suicide felt unreal, as if somehow it could still be undone. When a policeman explained to us what had happened on the morning of my dad’s death, I interrupted him and asked, “Can’t you bring him back? Is he really dead?” He choked up as he said, “No, darling, I can’t bring him back. There’s nothing I can do.”

The pain was so enormous that it felt just as physical as it was emotional. Almost immediately I began experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had flashbacks to the moment of finding my dad in the laundry room. I couldn’t get the image of his hanging body out of my head. I lay awake at night, terrified that if I fell asleep another tragedy would strike my family.

And I struggled to understand why, why, why. Why did my dad kill himself? Why did he leave? What made him do it? I didn’t know how to reconcile the father I loved with the man who had inflicted so much pain on our family. On me.

From my 13-year-old perspective depression was to blame. I viewed it as an unstoppable evil, not a mental illness. As he had become increasingly and more obviously sick our family never discussed it. I had no frame of reference for the symptoms I saw until just hours after he died. At which point I associated depression with dying. Mental illness seemed like dangerous business and I knew one thing for sure: I didn’t ever want to have it.

In this video produced by the World Health Organization, writer and illustrator Matthew Johnstone tells the story of overcoming the "black dog of depression." (Video: World Health Organization)

There is no road map for surviving a suicide loss, especially for a seventh grader. My mom got me professional help – I went to therapy. But when I talked with the counselor about my dad’s death I felt detached, like I was describing somebody else. I couldn’t seem to connect the words that came out of my mouth with the pain that I felt in my body.

Talking to most people about my dad’s death was at best uncomfortable but usually unbearable. I hated the awkward pause that almost always came after I said the “S” word — suicide. I dreaded the awful question about how he killed himself. I was asked if we did enough to try to save him. Once, an acquaintance called my dad a coward for giving up and leaving his family. Worst of all was being told that they couldn’t understand, that they just couldn’t imagine. “Try,” I would think to myself, “try to understand. Because it did happen. It’s my life.”

[One woman’s bold challenge to those with mental illness: Declare #imnotashamed]

So as time went by I stopped talking about my father. I took the pain and the trauma and the shame and I shoved it way down deep inside of me. I was tired of having to make other people feel comfortable when I shared, rather than feeling supported and understood. And I was tired of the sadness, tired of the bone-deep pain that never seemed to go away. I became a master at avoiding my dad’s name in conversation. I stopped thinking about him, I stopped missing him, and after a while it started to feel like I never had a father to begin with.

Through my teens and twenties I carried that pain inside of me like a sleeping dragon – I knew it was in there and I tried my best not to wake it up. Life went on – I was a smart kid with lots of friends and a sparkling personality. I went off to a top-tier college and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude. On the surface, everything looked good.

But when I was 22 my mom was diagnosed with cancer and the terror and anguish came roaring out. Paralyzed with fear that I would lose my other parent, I stopped eating. I couldn’t sleep. I would drive around the Beltway for hours, sobbing and listening to the same sad songs on repeat. I told my therapist about my behavior and she said, “Honey, I think you have depression.”

My diagnosis felt like a death sentence. My dad’s suicide left me feeling suspicious and fearful of mental illness. I saw how bad depression could get – I had lived the worst-case scenario. I didn’t want it to become my problem and I certainly didn’t know how to deal with it. Depression felt more like a family curse than a legitimate health issue that demanded treatment. Although I felt conflicted I agreed to start medication and I continued in therapy.

But acceptance was still a long way off.

For most of my twenties I lived in no-man’s land. Part of me knew that I needed to take depression seriously and the other part of me wanted to run and hide. And though I tried my hardest to push the pain of my dad’s suicide away, it was always lurking just below the surface. At 27, I got engaged and in the process of wedding planning our minister asked how I wanted to include my father in the wedding. “He’s not invited,” I snapped back. Surprised, she asked if I had forgiven him, if I had made peace with his death. “No,” I said, “no I haven’t found peace. I don’t even know what that means.”

I seemed to have inherited my dad’s ability to over-perform at work and keep depression hidden. We were both highly successful in our Washington, D.C., professional lives – he was a brilliant labor lawyer who filed hundreds of briefs for the Supreme Court and I was a communications director, a rising star at every job I held. Mental illness didn’t feel like a topic I could share at work. Like my father, I was fearful of what others would think, if it would limit my opportunities or damage my reputation. So when I struggled with the wet-blanket sadness and gripping fear that characterize my depression and anxiety, I didn’t tell my colleagues. I pushed myself harder and smiled even bigger. Like so many people who live with mental illness, you never would have known.

Finally, at the age of 31, the sleeping dragon woke up. Under the advice of a doctor I tapered off my antidepressants in the hopes of getting pregnant.

[Love on Lithium: What happened when I told my girlfriend I have bipolar disorder]

After six months of struggling through withdrawal and becoming more and more depressed I bottomed out. I felt myself losing control – the sadness and anxiety and shame and trauma of the past 18 years seemed to hit me with the force of a tsunami. Panic overwhelmed my body and I felt like I was going to die. “Catch me,” I said to my husband as I gripped both his arms, “catch me. I’m falling.”

And fall I did. That first panic attack was the beginning of a long and slow dive into a year-long mental health crisis. I often thought that I had descended into hell and I didn’t know how to come back. Unable to stabilize and feeling unsafe I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital. Twice. I spent nearly six months in a partial hospitalization program. I quit my job. Once again my whole life changed.

But as I sifted through the ashes of my career, my self-confidence and my sense of meaning, I found some nuggets of truth. Getting so sick forced me to accept that depression and anxiety are real illnesses – not my flaws and not my fault. I found that treatment was helping me and that recovery was possible. I dug deep and finally accepted that I could live with depression. I could cope with anxiety. I came to see that depression didn’t have to end with suicide. And growing into these truths helped me to find compassion for my dad.

I made a promise to myself as I got stronger: that I wasn’t going to hide my depression any more.  I was going to say the “S” word out loud. I made this vow not only for myself but also for my dad, because I want to share what he wasn’t able to. For years I have been haunted by the legacy of his obituary – printed in The Washington Post – which made no mention of suicide and listed his cause of death as cardiopulmonary arrest.

Hear me now: I’m not ashamed of his life or his mental illness or his suicide. The burden of silence ends with me.

As I drove home from work tonight, “American Pie” came on the radio – one of my dad’s favorites by Don McLean. Even though it’s January I rolled the windows down and turned the music up so loud it hurt my ears. I sang along and let myself cry, let myself feel the pain. The sky was on fire with a brilliant sunset, streaked with bursts of orange and magenta and purple.

A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music
used to make me smile

Are you out there, daddy? I hope you’re flying free.

In loving memory of Douglas Sidney McDowell. Aug. 31, 1942 – May 1, 1996.

Amy McDowell Marlow is a 20-year survivor of suicide loss and lives with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. She writes about her journey through mental illness at Amy is a certified peer facilitator with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Northern Virginia and through NAMI shares her story in the Washington metropolitan community. A native of Northern Virginia, Amy lives in Reston with her husband.

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