It was a blustery February morning, and just a few days before my 40th birthday, when my cell phone rang. I thought perhaps it was someone offering me early well wishes. But it was my mom, calling with news that would forever alter the course of my life.
“Hi, Mom,” I said as I sat down. “How are you?”
“Not good,” she whispered like a frightened child sharing a dark secret. “You know I’ve been feeling really down lately.”
“Yeah,” I said softly, matching her breathy tone.
She was talking so quietly that I cupped my hand over my left ear so I could hear her.
“I just swallowed a bunch of sleeping pills,” she blurted out.
My eyes widened as I sprung to my feet, nearly tripping over my toddler.
“A bunch? Like, how many?” I asked.
“I dunno,” she replied. “A lot.”
I raced to the kitchen, my hands trembling as I fumbled to dial 911 from the landline while trying to keep Mom talking to me on my cell.
A few moments later, I told her that the paramedics were on their way. She mumbled something incoherent. I could already feel her drifting away.
“Can you hear me?”
Numbing silence filled the line. Desperate to keep her awake, I continued talking, my voice growing louder each time I spoke.
“Are you still with me? Mom? Mom!”
Sensing the intensity to my tone, my 8-year-old son asked what was wrong. I wanted to comfort him, but I had to keep focused on Mom. Meanwhile, my toddler, who had only just realized his grandmother was on the phone, threw his goldfish crackers to the floor and pleaded to speak with her. He reached for the receiver with his tiny, cheddar-stained hands and shrieked, “I talk to Ga-ma!”
“Not now,” I said gently.
Both my boys burst into tears as my mind raced with worry. I paced the floor and repeatedly asked, “Are you still there, Mom? Keep talking to me.”
But I only heard a hint of monosyllabic mumbles, then a thud.
I stopped for a moment and stood beside the sliding glass door, shifting my weight from my right leg to my left as I stared out at the falling snow. I kept my eyes fixed on a specific tree branch in an effort to still my mind even as my restless stomach churned.
The wind whipped wildly, which made the snowflakes look as if they were engaged in a vicious game of tug-of-war. Blowing in umpteen different directions, the blustery scene depicted my current state of mind: frenzied, scattered, unsettled. My anxious eyes darted back and forth between the ticking clock, my wailing kids, and the straining pine trees in the backyard.
Finally, I heard the paramedics in the background and for the first time in forever, I took a breath.
I shot off a text message to my brother.
“Call me,” I wrote. “Mom just tried to kill herself.”
Even as I hit “send” with my quivering thumb, the moment seemed surreal. Did this really just happen? How? Why?
As I drove to Missouri, I tried to imagine what was running through my mom’s desperate mind as she ingested an entire bottle of sleeping pills. I envisioned her in her soft flannel pajamas, sitting on the cold tile bathroom floor, swallowing one handful of pills after another. My eyes squeezed shut and a lump formed in the back of my throat. I knew clinical depression was scary, but I’d never seen it up-close-and-personal.
When I stepped inside the hospital room, Mom’s eyes revealed a mixture of sorrow, regret, guilt, and fear. I sat next to her on her bed. She clasped my hand in hers, gripping it tightly.
“I’m sorry,” Mom said softly, staring at the floor.
It’s okay,” I replied.
The truth was that it wasn’t okay. Not even a little bit. But what else could I say?
I stayed with her for several days, trying to soothe her by offering hugs and encouraging her by offering advice.
“Go to group therapy. Go to individual therapy. Do anything and everything to help you feel better,” I suggested. “Snarf up every resource possible.”
But instead of concentrating on getting better, she seemed more concerned with how her behavior would be perceived.
“What will people say if they find out what I did?” Mom asked, her eyes brimming with tears.
After she was released from the hospital, I went back home to Indiana. The following month, I was cautiously optimistic when Mom invited me, my husband, and our sons to visit her for her birthday and stay through Easter weekend. I took it as a good sign that she wanted to reconnect with her grandsons, so we packed our bags and drove west.
Though it was great to spend time with Mom, she was anxious and unsettled, worried that the kids might make a mess in her house. This was a far cry from the woman who in the past would often jump into the lake to entertain her grandsons. She spoke slowly and methodically yet still stumbled on her words. She seemed uncomfortable in her own skin. She wouldn’t even sit down to eat meals. Instead she stood by the sink, nervously nibbling at her food like a rodent.
One morning when the house was quiet, Mom approached me and said meekly, “Christy. I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
I didn’t want to rush her or force her, but I was desperate to hear what she had to say.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you,” she said, squeezing my hands as if to relay some sort of message to me through code.
“Honest about what?”
She opened her mouth, but no words came out. I pressed her a bit more.
“You can tell me, Mom. Whatever it is, I’ll help you. What are you not being honest about?”
“We’d better get ready,” she said tersely, releasing my hands. “The boys want to go to the zoo today.”
Just like that, the moment was gone.
At the zoo, the kids had fun seeing the animals and riding the train, but I couldn’t get past the vacant stare in Mom’s eyes. It was like she was looking past everybody—like she wasn’t all there. Anytime I tried to engage with her, I’d get the same response: “I’m tired.”
That evening after tucking the boys into bed, I asked Mom if she wanted to talk. She looked at me with a pained expression, like she was gripping a hot plate without a pot holder.
“Well, I…um, I,” she muttered.
I don’t know if she couldn’t speak or wouldn’t speak or what was going on. But her mind definitely seemed muddled. I knew something was gnawing at Mom, but I didn’t know how to pull it out of her.
When I laid down to bed that night, tears welled up in my eyes as I confided to my husband, “I think Mom may still be suicidal.”
I hated to admit it out loud, and yet, I could sense a definite heaviness to her spirit.
“Why do you say that?” Eric asked.
“I can’t put my finger on it, but she’s definitely not herself. She’s apologized profusely for trying to kill herself, but earlier today she told me that she’s not been completely honest with me, and when I asked her what about, she clammed up. Have you noticed how empty her eyes look?”
“What do we do? Your dad won’t listen. He’s adamant that she’s getting better.”
“But clearly she’s not. I wish I could get her to confide in me, but I feel like us being here is stressing her out more,” I said. “If the boys’ energy is causing her anxiety to spike, maybe we should take off and let her and Dad have a quiet holiday weekend.”
“Okay,” Eric agreed.
The next morning, I found Mom in the kitchen. She wasn’t eating, cooking, or doing dishes. She was simply standing in her housecoat staring into space. Until she caught a glimpse of my oldest son. Then her eyes moved to him and she watched him intently, like she was memorizing his every move. She did the same when my younger son entered the room. When I sat down, she acknowledged me with a weak, forced smile like she was using every last bit of energy to keep from crying.
I approached her and said softly, “Mom, we’ve decided to leave early.”
“Here in a few minutes,” I said. “Eric’s packing the car.”
Confusion, sadness, and relief simultaneously spread across her face.
“Why today?” she asked.
“I can tell you’re struggling, Mom, and I know the boys have a lot of energy. I want you to be able to rest so I think it’s best if we get out of your hair.”
Her lips began to quiver, her brows furrowed, and she said with palpable remorse, “I’m sorry, Christy. I’m so sorry.”
It was a phrase she had repeated numerous times over the past three days so I didn’t think much of it. I replied in the same way I had all weekend—by telling her, “It’s okay.”
We hugged and I told her I loved her.
“Things will get better,” I whispered into her ear. “I promise.”
Those were the last words I ever spoke to my mother.
Six weeks later, my phone rang again. When I answered, I heard my dad’s voice, low and scratchy, say my name, followed by a long pause.
“She did it again,” he said quietly.
My gut clenched as all the color drained from my face.
“What?” I asked.
“She was doing better. She seemed stronger….” he said, his voice cracking.
My entire body began to tremble.
“It’s far worse this time,” he continued. “She swallowed hundreds of pills of all different kinds.”
My knees buckled.
“No-no-no-no,” I repeated.
How could this be happening again?
“I’ll jump in the car,” I told my dad as tears sprang to my burning eyes. “I can leave right now and be there by midnight.”
“Even if you left now, I don’t think you’d make it in time to say goodbye.”
Wait. What? Goodbye? Oh, Jesus!
My breath caught in my throat as my heart splintered.
When I got news in the middle of the night that Mom had died from the overdose, my world faded to grey.
Why? Why? Why? Why?
A thousand other questions bombarded my brain, but this was the predominant one. I could not, for the life of me, make sense of the fact that my sweet, loving, kind, compassionate mom would choose to take her own life. It defied logic and left me feeling helpless, hopeless, and hollow. How was I supposed to go on? How was I to let go of the guilt that gnawed at me round the clock? How was I to ever smile again? None of it seemed possible.
“Everything’s possible with God,” well-meaning people told me. But their platitudes and looks of pity only pissed me off. They didn’t know what it felt like to be leveled by grief. Though friends encouraged me to find peace through prayer, I did the opposite and gave God the silent treatment. What did I have to say to Him, anyway? I was angry that He had not only taken away my mom but that He had allowed her to exit the earth in such a terrible, tragic way. Having been a Christian all my life, I’ll admit it felt strange to cut Christ from my life, but I didn’t know what else to do. Many days, I found myself curled in the fetal position, sobbing and gasping for air.
Over the next six months, everything was a chore—driving, cooking, reading, even sleeping. Then one night I fell into a deep slumber and was met by a vivid dream that seemed to carry with it a distinct message.
I was at home when suddenly bright blue skies began to darken as a slight breeze tickled the shutters. Instantaneously, the sky transformed into a greenish-black hue. A small hiss followed a rumble, then a booming crash. The ground shook with a sinister force. Giant tree limbs snapped. Heavy shutters broke. Tin mailboxes crumpled. Wooden dog houses cracked. As the wind continued to howl, dirt, debris, and trash swirled through the air like frenzied snowflakes. Fence sections and lawn ornaments crashed through windows and dented car doors.
The scene was chaotic and scary. I glanced out the window, helpless and weak. Then, just as quickly as it built, the storm died out, and the world grew eerily still. I stepped outside to assess the damage and my jaw dropped at the sight of the devastation. Our beautiful house—a house I had always perceived to be strong and indestructible—was now a shell of its former self.
As I walked the perimeter of the house, I saw that it was uprooted from its foundation. It became evident that we wouldn’t have access to power or water anytime soon. It was going to take a lot of time and effort to rebuild this foundation—to start fresh. As a result, we would not be living comfortably for quite some time.
There was a silver lining, however. Despite such extensive damage, we determined that we could stay in the house, which provided a degree of comfort.
I stood in stunned silence, beholding the wreckage that surrounded me. I couldn’t believe the massive devastation that had leveled my life in the blink of an eye. But…I had survived.
For the first time since Mom’s suicide, I woke up with a sense of peace. I knew I would still face challenges and cry countless tears. But I had survived the worst, and though my foundation was shaky, I was still standing. And I could feel God standing beside me.
In the weeks and months ahead, I began surrounding myself with others who needed love and support, and, together, we journeyed through our pain: we shared tears, smiles, and embraces, and we held one another up, day in and day out. I learned that being in a community is perhaps the most important piece of life’s puzzle when it comes to maintaining a healthy existence. I also found that even in the deepest, darkest pit of despair, one can find a sliver of light, a glimmer of hope, a hint of peace. And that is what propels us forward, enabling us to breathe in, breathe out, and carry on.