“All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” (Isak Dinesen)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, suicide is shrouded in secrecy. Like other secrets, can’t we refuse to keep the secret? How can we ever heal if we hide?

Last week, a friend of mine jumped off a downtown high-rise building to end her mental torture and free herself from the inner hell she’d lived for the past few years. My friend Mary and I would often go many months and not see or talk to one another. It was just that kind of friendship. Sometimes distant, still ongoing, and long term.

I first met her about twenty years ago, right before she was pregnant with her first and only child. She left behind many friends and acquaintances, and a nineteen-year-old daughter, a play date for my oldest girl when they were both little. Their sleep-overs at ages five and nine meant on any given morning they’d have kid-baked pizza for breakfast and afterwards in Mary’s back yard, sky high trampoline flights and landings closer to the spine-breaking metal spring edges than I could bear to watch. These memories stand out for me as much as Mary’s ending.

Her suicide carved the deepest of pain in my soul yet somehow in this last week since her death, I still feel her presence as if butterflies, fairies, and elves float around. Kooky concept I know but I’d rather sense this mystical in the air than other images left behind.

Over time I’ve lost several friends and also a family member to suicide. I don’t know the kind of torture and prison they must have lived, for my instinct drives me to look up and glance around when I’m in the dark. I ache for anyone who loses hope. So far it’s never happened to me. Maybe it’s because of my extreme beginnings in prison but as long as I can look up, around, and beyond myself, then I can get up. I hope it stays that way but I’ve learned there’s no guarantee. When the options are insanity, institution, or death, who knows what we’ll choose until we’re there.

What’s helped me a little is to learn about “the secret.” I’ve learned it goes way back. The earliest recorded suicide was 1046 BC when Shang Zhou, the last king of the Shang Dynasty of China, set fire to his palace and remained inside. Suicide touches a lot of us, with

• An estimated 4.5 million survivors in this country. (AAS)

Mary, at least, is out of her living hell but what about the others down the road who will make the same choice?

  • There are twice as many deaths due to suicide than HIV/AIDS. • An average of one person dies by suicide every 16.2 minutes. (CDC, AAS)
  • There are four male suicides for every female suicide. (CDC, AAS)
  • There are an estimated 8 to 25 attempted suicides to 1 completion.
  • 1 in 65,000 children, ages 10 to 14, commit suicide each year.
  • The strongest risk factor for suicide is depression.

As a several-times-over survivor left after suicide, not much helps me grapple with it other than talking, and also silence and private meditation, and a wide umbrella of friends and family. Mary still lives in a part of me. Mary, a name I now feel in my bones, which I’d never thought much about before this. It was my given middle name at birth, Madlyn Mary, before my adoption when I became Deborah Kate as a toddler.

Besides a personal association with her name, Mary left me two unexpected legacies. One, a coincidence. Or maybe not. Today I dug around looking for a file on a shelf packed with miscellaneous folders and I came across the box where I’d stored my pen and ink greeting card line, which I created many years ago and since discontinued. Dancers in Tutus. Somehow I know Mary wouldn’t mind my tutus along side grief. The coincidence lives in the two I found, mourning, and secrecy.

The second legacy she left to me has altered my world. My outlook on life changed from the second I learned of her suicide. I have no idea how this happened. I’m not the most patient person sometimes, but since her death, nothing annoys me. Not one person, place, or thing can spark any anger or irritation from me right now. This might change but for now my priorities about what matters have shifted.

Along with the deepest of grief and anguish about how Mary’s life ended, I’m left with an interior calm I can’t explain other than she handed it off for me to carry. No “What if…” and “If only…” Only mourning, and doing what I know to survive. Write, dream, draw, talk, and seek silence.

I don’t need answers about anything right now. My friend doesn’t either. I honor her freedom from her living hell. May her memory be for a blessing.

Already I’ve received a blessing. I haven’t felt one teeny bit of criticism about anything or anyone from the second I learned of her death. Not one.

I hope it lasts.

21 thoughts on “Altered

  1. Bonnie-Ann

    Beautiful, Deborah. Beautiful.

    Yes suicide is considered a secret, a shame that we hide within our culture of smiles and perfections. I am one of the 4.5 million survivors. I am grateful for each day, yet I still believe that suicide can be a viable option in life. At this point I have intellectualized it enough to have significant discussions with the spiritually learned about which is the greater burden on my soul: remaining here accumulating the pain of the struggle or dying by my own hand and thereby gaining the heavy karma of that action. I have not been convinced that one outweighs the other.

    I have told very few friends of my past actions or recurrent thoughts, and none of my family. When I have told anyone they either dismissed the notion as impossible because it didn’t match the image they have of me, or it so frightened them that the relationships were forever altered. They seemed to carry a great fear that they might trigger me, or be ill-adept at “saving me” should the need occur. The burden of either seemed too much to bear, and so they sought safety by fading from my world.

    Telling someone you have attempted suicide is, in this way, akin to telling someone that you were raped. Both speak volumes about the person by the very nature that they are here and able to talk about it. Yet both are feared and thereby shunned, leaving the person to carry them in silence.

    I attempted suicide. When I had moments left to live a pilot light type of flame appeared in my belly and began a discussion with my gut, purposefully telling my brain to be quiet. The flame asked simple questions and guided my gut to see the falsehoods that I had based my decision to die on. In the end, my gut took charge of my mis-functioning brain. I am grateful for that flame.

    Twice since then I have seriously contemplated the benefits of ending my life. Each time the quirkiest of things happened that showed me, unequivocally in the moment, that I indeed was choosing life. Each time an opportunity to die presented itself out of the blue, such that no one would ever know suicide was being considered and so my family and friends left behind wouldn’t have that pain to carry. Both times I took immediate action to stay alive. Both times I got the message, I wanted to live. Well, ok.

    I’ve grown to understand that a mind edging close to suicide does not inhabit the same space as the rest of their community. I used to shake my head and say “But I’m a college graduate. How could I have been so confused?” It happens. I wish the family and friends left mourning the completed suicide’s actions could understand this. Chances are they could not have heard you even if you said the most perfect words to them. Yes, attempt those words. But please don’t judge if they aren’t absorbed as you would hope.

    Life and Death ride my shoulders most days. I listen to their dialogue with curiosity. I do not outright judge one better than the other. The instinct to look up and out when things are dark is not natural for me. But I will consider it. I might give these two shoulder riders something new to talk about.

    Thank you Deborah, for this place to speak my secret. It is the first time in 15 years I have felt safe and un-judged enough to do so.

    Peace to you, to Mary and to all who loved her.

  2. Susan Rodgers Hammond

    A beautiful beautiful tribute to your friend, Mary. What a remarkable gift to find these exquisite dancers…now…in this time of profound grief. It gives weight to the notion of how thin the veil that separates us, the living and the dead. Thank you for using your gifts, Deb, to express the inexpressible. I would also like to say that Bonnie-Ann’s response is remarkable, too. Filled with insight, wisdom, truth, and courage.

  3. Roger Green

    I had a friend whose husband committed suicide. She told this lie to her two small children, and I repeated it so often that the lie became the truth (even to me), for a time, until they were older and she told them the truth.

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