Series – Climbing Out of the Hole – A Story of Mental Illness
Christ, what have you done?The Pass – Rush
I have a receipt for $618.50 dated October 3, 1951—a tiny scrap of 68-year old paper, with that old paper smell. Woodsy. Paper doesn’t smell like that anymore.
The receipt was some of what little I had for a long time to prove my great-grandmother Regina had existed. It is for funeral expenses that my grandmother had paid for her mother’s funeral after Regina had killed herself. I found it in my father’s files after his funeral decades later. That scrap of paper and two photographs, one of which I pasted, incorrectly, into a family tree for a school project, represented an entire life.
My father had never really spoken of her. He’d never spoken of any of his family and I didn’t know why. I didn’t even know he had sisters until I was 11. After Dad’s death I learned from Mom of Regina’s suicide when my father was 17—in the house he had grown up in. In the house that I had grown up in.
My father found her, in the room that was the den when I lived in that house. It’s still hard for me to grasp the history of that den. I had done my homework in that room. I had written term papers in that room. I had created that family tree, pasting Regina’s photo onto craft paper, in that room.
I wanted to know more about why my great-grandmother had taken her own life. I started digging on the Internet through ancestry sites for public records. I found the newspaper article of her death, the coroner confirming death by her own hand, and that she had been in ill health. I talked to my only living relative who had known Regina in life and she told me what Regina had done to end her own life. She had secured a cord around her neck and the back of the sofa, and then rolled herself to the floor, strangling herself. A slow, deliberate, and I can only assume painful way to die. It takes several minutes, some sources say as many as seven, to die of strangulation. You gotta want it, and Regina had wanted it.
Yes, Regina had been in ill physical health, but she had also been depressed. Despondent is the word used to describe her. Two years after her death, my father was drafted into the Air Force. After a short time, he’d been granted a hardship discharge, the result of a letter-writing campaign to get him out so he could care for his mother. One of the letters said that his mother had such severe diabetes that it caused “mental aberrations” that had once landed her in a mental hospital. The fear was, given her own mother’s suicide, that without my father there, she might do harm to herself.
Someone set a bad example. Made surrender seem alright,The Pass – Rush
I never knew any of this growing up and into my twenties. It would have been useful information. It might have helped me understand my own depression, my own suicidal thoughts. It might have helped me understand, and perhaps empathize with, a distant, moody, angry father who seemed to not love me or anyone else, including himself. I might have blamed him less. I might have not hated him as much as I had at times. It might have allowed me to find forgiveness for him while he was still alive.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.Soren Kierkegaard