The Family Secret

November 21, 2017 |

November 21, 2017 – When I was 8 years old my uncle died by suicide.

I remember sitting in the family living room with my twin brother during a hot summer day watching a cartoon about rabbits, when I heard the phone ring. That was followed by the most heart-wrenching wail I have ever heard, coming from my mother. My father immediately entered the room in a stoic and serious manner and told us our uncle had died. He told us not to say anything to our mother, and quickly left the room. I felt shocked and didn’t know how to react.

Nothing was explained to the children in our family: just that our uncle had died and we weren’t allowed to come to the funeral.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens, sitting in a counseling session to treat my own depression, that my mother revealed to the therapist (in front of me), that my uncle had died by suicide. Once again, I was in shock. I was angry at my mother, and my entire extended family, for keeping it a secret from me. I was confused as to why it had to be a secret at all, especially because I was dealing with my own depression and anxiety. It seemed like something I should be aware of as a part of my family health history.

I dealt with generalized anxiety symptoms and some mild depressive episodes throughout high school. It wasn’t until I was in college, though, that my severe depression began. It began to disrupt my life, and my plans for the future. This is also when my suicidal ideation began.

The thoughts were fleeting and far apart at first, but gradually over the years they became worse. I had never experienced anything as dark as this in my life, and I couldn’t seem to control it. No matter what I tried, no matter how many positive thoughts I forced into my mind, I still woke up wishing I was dead.

The hardest part to understand is that I didn’t always want to hurt myself; I just wanted to stop existing. I wanted people to understand that I didn’t want to cause my family any pain. I didn’t want to hurt anyone else. I just wanted to stop the pain. These thoughts happened even when I simply felt numb.

As I isolated myself more, my suicidal thoughts grew darker and closer together. I became more vocal about my thoughts. It landed me in the hospital multiple times.

A couple of things kept me alive during my darkest time. One of these things was my family. My mother became my fulltime caretaker for several months during my darkest depression; I felt I couldn’t give up on her. The other thing that stopped me from doing anything about those dark thoughts was the concern that maybe I wouldn’t die. What if I went through with one of my ideas, but I didn’t die and was critically injured for the rest of my life? That would be worse than the hell I was already in.

Only when I expressed this sentiment to my mother did she realize the seriousness of the situation we were dealing with.

Suicidal thoughts come and go now with my depression. After a period of “wellness,” I almost forget what it’s like to be suicidal. After the first few days of it coming back, it feels like an old habit.

Just like a recurring physical health condition, it’s something that I have to continually manage.

17 years ago when my uncle died by suicide, attitudes about mental illness and suicide were much less progressive. That being said, we still have a long way to go to de-stigmatize suicide and mental illness. The attitudes and beliefs that have been ingrained into our society are slowly changing through the growing awareness that mental health is just as real as physical health; but there is still work to be done.

Maybe the adults in my family felt they were protecting our innocence when they didn’t tell us exactly what happened to my uncle. A death by suicide is often accompanied by grief, guilt, anger and a whole variety of other complex emotions.  

One thing I wish more people would realize is that suicide is not selfish. Suicidal thoughts and mental health conditions are not things to be ashamed of.

It’s also important to know that there is hope when you are suicidal. It may not seem like there is hope; in my situation, I didn’t feel any hope at all for a long time. But I was able to find my way out from a very hopeless and dark place and get to the other side. If I could do that, anyone else can, too.

You are worth living, even when you don’t know it.

A previous version of this article appeared on Psych Central’s World of Psychology Blog.

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