10 Years Later: What My Father's Suicide Has Taught Me

Most of the time, I feel like I'm getting ready for another gunshot in the night, another life-changing morning when I'll have to figure out how to pick up the pieces and stand tall in the sunlight of my own, personal, post-apocalyptic world.
Publish date:
September 19, 2012
addiction, depression, fathers, suicide

In the fall of 2002, I was an angsty 14-year-old living a double life.

By all appearances, I was an average rebellious high school student. But my nights, I spent in terror.

Often, I would sleep with a large kitchen knife under my pillow, or clutched in my right hand. When my parents started fighting, I would gather my two small siblings into my bed and let them sleep while I stood watch, clutching my knife and turning it over and over again in my hand to keep myself awake. I would stay like that until dawn. Then, I would calmly dress myself, help my siblings get dressed, make sure they were ready for the bus on time, and begin a new day.

I thought everyone lived like this, with secret, dark murky worlds that they fell into. It never crossed my mind that we were abnormal in any way. I just thought that everyone had agreed not to talk about their home troubles -– an unspoken social contract.

I always knew how my father was going to die. He had told me, my mother, my siblings for years that one day he was going to kill himself. He once wrote a suicide note and gave it to my then four-year-old sister, saying she was the only one who cared about him.

My father got worse toward the end of his life, but he wasn't always a wreck. I have fond memories of being out in nature with him, learning about the forest, how to track an animal with nothing but your instincts and observations. He became much more erratic after the rest of us moved in with my maternal grandmother and he was left alone with just his thoughts in a big empty house that had held a family for over a decade, with no more noise to distract him from the voices inside his head.

He started drinking a lot heavier. I remember once, when visiting him, I found nothing but beer in the fridge, the cupboards empty. I asked when he had eaten last and he responded that he couldn't remember.

My father's exploits couldn't have gone unnoticed in the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. With more bars than churches, it's a town with an old-school mentality of live and let live. Families take care of their own, clan-like. In all the beatings my father handed out, only once did I ever see a police officer -- and that was the time I called them myself. One steamy summer night, my father had cornered my mom in her car and wouldn't stop hitting her. I remember watching her head rock back and forth with each blow -- and seeing her become more limp each time.

I have no recollection of what I did next, but I was told that I called 911, told them my father was trying to kill my mother, then went outside with a kitchen knife and threatened to stab him if he didn't stop.

Two months later, he would beat me to the punch.

On the night of November 15, 2002, my dad loaded a handgun, walked into the kitchen/dining room, and put a bullet through his skull. He didn't die right away. Interesting fact: Shooting yourself in the head is a very inexact science. A few millimeters off and you're just as likely to end up a vegetable as a corpse. My dad did a little of both.

He was life-flighted to a hospital in Pittsburgh, about a four-hour drive away. When we arrived, they put my whole family (about 15-20 people) in a special “grieving room.” I had shut down.

I didn't cry. I felt very calm, clear, and collected. I remember eating aspirin, one at a time; crunch-crunching and feeling a satisfying acidic taste on my tongue. Everyone around me was crying, illogical, and overly emotional. I was angry.

His decision to end his life was the most selfish act I could think of. I told myself I could understand why he wouldn't want to stick around to hang out with my mom and I, but my younger brother and sister, both under 10, could have used a father in their life -– even a fucked up one.

I did go in to see him once. He was in a coma, essentially brain dead, hooked up to tubes and strange machinery that made his lungs inflate in a uncanny, clockwork way. His face looked like someone had hit it with a baseball bat: a swollen mass of purple flesh. He was already dead to me.

The months following my father's suicide are hazy. I remember walking through the hallways at school and people parting, making way for the girl from the crazy family. Nobody looked me in the eye for a long time. My friends didn't know how to process such a tragedy (they were only teens, after all) so they, too, gave me a wide berth.

I wandered between lucidity, when I despised everyone's pity, and numbness, when I was just too tired to give a damn anymore. I kept a bottle of Tylenol with Codeine in my locker and would take shots of it between class. The hate within me blossomed to new, terrifying levels. When someone you love dearly dies via suicide, you learn true hate -- or at least, I did. I learned just how much you can despise someone while missing them, how you can simultaneously wish someone was burning in hell while wishing they are forgiven in some type of heaven. I despised my father for taking the coward's way out; I despised my mother for not leaving him sooner, or putting him in jail where he might have gotten the help he needed. I hated the general population of that town that looked the other way long after it must have been evident that we were not safe in our home.

I also blamed myself. He used to call at odd hours of the evening, drunk, to tell me he had taken too many pills or had finished a six-pack and was loading a gun to shoot himself. I would hang up and he would call again, over and over. Eventually, when the phone rang late at night, I would automatically answer, “Hello, city morgue.”

Later, when we went to pack the house up, there was a large bloodstain on the pinewood floor.

The blood and brains had soaked in, and the stain was growing a strange, greenish-grey, fuzzy mold. Something new was beginning from where something else had ended. I scrubbed that patch until the mold was gone, but it kept growing back, over and over again. My biologist friend has told me that molds can populate both sexually and asexually. Some can survive extreme temperatures. Certain types of mold are damn near impossible to get rid of, once they've taken root in the home. Mold knows how to survive.

These days, I rarely feel close to anyone, other than my husband and a small selection of friends. I've learned not to make plans, because life throws you too many curve balls. I've learned how to duck, dodge, float -- whatever is necessary to keep going.

I can do well for a while, sometimes a year or so, before things really start to crack and fall apart. I'm good at making emotional glue, but life provides a lot of solvents. Most of the time, I feel like I'm getting ready for another bomb to drop, another gunshot in the night, another life-changing morning when I'll have to figure out how to pick up the pieces and stand tall in the sunlight of my own, personal, post-apocalyptic world.

I've learned the most sneaky way to crush up pills in a public bathroom, how to load a syringe for a friend, how to spike a vein. I've acquired a textbook knowledge of pharmaceuticals: how they interact with your brain, with each other, what to mix to get the best high. I've learned how wonderful it can be to feel nothing at all.

And I've learned how to fake it. I now understand how those close to my father may never have realized the depths of his depression because emotionally troubled people get good at hiding their inner hurricanes.

This isn't an article about suicide, addiction or depression. This is an article about believing that there's something more out there. This is an article about knowing you have the power to change your own life. When you've hit bottom again and again, the only conclusion you can come to is that you've gotten very, very good at pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I'm trying to get better, to feel more in control, and to be a happier person.

Mold-like, I will keep coming back. I can take the glaring heat and frigid cold.

I've learned how to be a survivor.