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By Maybelline Jones
All happy families resemble one another. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
~ Leo Tolstoy
The last time I had dinner with my parents it was a typical family affair –- the only difference was that there was an outsider, my fiancé, there to witness the spectacle.
Mom had roasted a chicken; Dad dominated the conversation. My father escalated, as he always did, usually without much of a reason. He screamed at the top of his lungs, pounded clenched fists, then stormed away from the table.
“Fine,” he yelled, in a voice raspy from overuse, eyes wide and wild. “None of you care. I might as well go down in the basement and kill myself, end it all.”
My mother, brother and myself had heard it all before; we avoided eye contact and fidgeted, waiting for the tirade to ultimately end. This was our normal. This was just another day. This was Dad being Dad.
My fiancé grabbed my leg under the table and looked at me shocked.
“I don’t feel comfortable here,” he said, casting a sideways glance at my father, whose chest was still heaving. “I’m going. You can come with me or you can call me when you are ready to go and I’ll come and get you.”
I stood up, blinking back tears. “I don’t want to be around this either.”
I knew that I had changed everything. My family was miserable, but it was our misery, a unifying force -– blood is thicker than water, after all. Now I had dared to rebel.
* * *
I’m not sure how old I was when I learned what the term suicide meant, but I know it was far too early. I remember sharing secrets with a first-grade friend: “My grandpa committed suicide,” I whispered in her ear. “That means he killed himself. Pinky promise you won’t tell.”
My father’s father was by all accounts a larger-than-life kind of man, known for raising hell at home and around town. He ran on liquid courage, an alcohol addiction he battled most of his life. It was after he finally cleaned up and got sober for a few months that he shot himself in the head. My father dug the bullet out of the wall and kept it in a teacup in his gun cabinet.
I learned much later in life, that heavy drinking is sometimes just a symptom of a more complicated mental illness, not a problem fully unto itself.
When I met my fiancé, I carried a fifth of Captain Morgan wherever I went. I had just graduated from college, but had no job prospects other than the dingy club I bartended at. I drank too much, sneaking shots at work while pretending to use the cash register and keeping the place open as my own personal after hours club.
I slept until 2 every afternoon, woke up, combed my hair and started it all over again.
I knew that my discontent, my depression was deeper than it had been for some time. I didn’t realize I was sliding downhill into a major nervous breakdown. I had no idea that in a few short months I would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, prescribed a handful of pills every night made to fix the dreadful void in heart and soul. I was living my life as I always had, trudging through the dark times and embracing the bright moments as they came, though they always burned out too soon –- following in my father’s footsteps.
* * *
I didn’t fully understand how strange and unhealthy growing up with my family had been until I moved out of my parents’ house. Life was always tumultuous -– my father’s capricious moods ruled over all.
When he was happy, he was charming, intelligent, funny. But mostly he lived angry, depressed and drunk. His violent rages were intense –- I once drove my mother to the emergency room before I even had a driver’s license; he had broken her nose by throwing a shoe at her face.
When my father was depressed or angry, he often spoke of suicide, sometimes in reference to his father (the only time I ever saw my dad cry), but more often about himself.
I vividly remember sitting in the car with my mom as a teenager, singing a lyric from Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”: When I’m with you I feel like I could die and that would be alright.
"Do me a favor and don’t sing that around your Dad,” she said. “He’s having a hard time right now and that could push him over the edge.”
I recognized my own mental health issues at 15 -– I spent a whole summer depressed in bed, no friends, little food, endless tears. I thought about suicide constantly and even went as far to hold a razor blade against my pale wrist as I soaked in a warm tub.
Another time I held a handful of pills in one hand and a glass of water in the other, but thinking of the horrible mess I’d turn my parents into always guilted me out of taking my life. When I asked my parents if I could see a therapist, my father gave me a disapproving look.
“Psychiatry is a made-up science for weak willed people. You have to learn to live with yourself like I have.” I never asked again.
Likewise, my younger brother struggled. As soon as he was able to walk and talk, he mimicked my father’s blind rage, unhappiness, his obsession with ending it all. His emotional problems were deep and dark for someone so young –- how many 7-year-olds threaten to end their own life?
But we were living in a madhouse, ruled by a crazy man. Our illness was the norm, suicidal discussion was typical small talk. How can you recognize how fragile your mental health is when you have nothing healthy to compare it to?
It didn’t take long for my fiancé to realize that I needed more help than he could give me. He encouraged my work with a therapist and made sure I took my meds as prescribed. When I told my father about my diagnosis and how it could be hereditary, he laughed at me.
“I thought you were smarter than that,” he said, disgust apparent on his face.
Six months into my mental health recovery, I made a bold decision to cease contact with my family. The only hesitation I had was my brother. I knew he wouldn’t be healthy living with my parents, but I couldn’t do anything to help him. Contact with him kept a direct line open to my parents, and I couldn’t handle it. He was fully entrenched in their crazy, so I had to let him go.
* * *
The phone rang far too early on the morning of September 15, 2010. My stomach turned before I even picked it up. The news was crushing -– my brother had shot himself in the head. He was 22 years old. I howled on my living room couch, hot tears burning my face. I sobbed, all the while thinking, “It could have been me.”
I think about my brother all the time, question how I could have acted differently, what I could have done. Was I too selfish? Could I have changed anything? Today I am healthy and happy. My marriage is strong and my moods are stable.
I saved myself, but I couldn’t save him. Unfortunately, that has to be enough.