The Silent Shame of Suicide

Shame is a terrible thing. When you feel too ashamed to share how you are really feeling with anyone, it is a terrible dilemma to be in. Some of this shame I know too well myself from having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder since a physical assault in 2012 and being too ashamed since then to say so as if I had created the condition myself. People shame us with their love of all things sunny and funny as if being “real” and “depressed” or otherwise hurting is a sin. It is not.

Just today in the bank I was so proud of myself for speaking out. The line was 40 deep and I began to overwhelm and panic, started visibly shaking which prompted a staffer to come out from her desk and ask me if I was alright. No, I told her, I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and all these people are panicking me. She took me into her office, helped me reset my forgotten password so I could use the bank machine. Only when I was at the bank machine did I realize the money will be dispensed in twenties and I did not want my rent all in twenties. Back in the now much shorter line I went to be served in a little under 15 minutes.

Just a few years ago I was afraid to say I have PTSD lest I be blamed, shamed or otherwise abused for having something I did not want or ask for. I suspect my mother, always known for being such a strong woman, felt shame when she thought of committing suicide and this shame prevented her from sharing her thoughts with the very people who could have supported her through that very dark period of her life. My hunch is she did tell one or two church going friends who likely shamed her further because according to some faiths “suicide is a sin, a coward’s choice.” Talk about silencing the suicidal. It is not a sin.

Those are very faulty religions if you ask me. We are only human. We are allowed to have faults. If we had no faults we wouldn’t be human. I cannot know what my mother was thinking but as a grown woman who often reflected on finding her when she attempted suicide, I can guess what she was going through.

Our dad was a good looking musician in his leisure time and a hard working machinist who won some awards for his music. The inevitable groupie followers developed and some of those led to liaisons that were poisoning my parent’s marriage. Our family left Ontario when I was 11, we five of my parent’s children packed into the back seat of an old boat of a car that had seen better days but carried us to the west coast of Canada.

There, I am sure, my mother’s plan was to start a new life free of the women who still found out our west coast address and wrote my father love letters as well as hate mail to my mother. Sadly, dad could not find work on the island we resided on so he left home to find work on the mainland. We only saw him weekends after that and sometimes not even then. This led to the inevitable end of my parent’s marriage when my father met and fell in love with another woman.

Some time after this I overheard him, emotionally, telling my mother he still loved her, too, that he loved them both. Still, he ended their marriage to remarry and left us alone, broke and with a mother in such pain she could not see a future past it. I suspect we had come as far west as possible and the only other option was to return to Ontario where we had left so much family behind to arrive out west where we had none. Or jump in the ocean.

For me, I will always think of my mother’s suicide attempt as jumping in the ocean. Going back was too painful, too shameful, I believe, and facing a future with no job, five children staring at her for sustenance and guidance, and the love she made the move for now gone from her life. In those times there weren’t a lot of options for women. Many simply sought out a new man. Our mother told us she would never love anyone as much as she loved our father so this wasn’t a viable option for her.

On the night she attempted to take her own life with drugs a psychiatrist had prescribed to help her cope and sleep, she sent each of us five kids to stay overnight at our friend’s homes. I was playing board games and talking with the friend I chose to sleep over with and suddenly it struck me: Mom is home alone. Nobody is with Mom, she is all alone. Something compelled me to act on that thought and run all the way home where I found her totally out of it in her bed. She had been vomiting and some of the tiny pink pills were still whole in her vomit. We had no telephone so I ran to the neighbor to ask her to call an ambulance. She did.

Mom survived. How she survived I do not know. What support she had to get through that dark period in her life is beyond me. We needed her, that was all I knew at thirteen. Somehow Mom put her life back together. She found odd jobs until landing a government job as a Matron (as they were then called) in a youth detention home. This was one of her greatest points of pride in her work career, to have such a great position that paid well, had benefits and made life easier in so many ways. The institution eventually closed and Mom opened a daycare center in her own home which she worked at for approximately twenty five years.

During this time she remarried, too, but you could see she never truly loved our stepfather. It would be what many call “an arrangement” but that came to an end when she could no longer tolerate not having the love she truly wanted. Our father died just a few years after leaving us and shortly thereafter, Mom packed up the house, took what kids were left at home and moved back to Ontario with the stepfather she would eventually part ways with.

Many of her friends and relations had already retired but she worked on, caring for children in Ontario and becoming a source of advice and support for their often young parents. She affected so many lives in such positive ways that many took to calling her “Mom” themselves and still tell us kids what a great influence she was on them and their children.

Many criticize me for talking about my mother’s attempted suicide as if she or I should be ashamed of it. We absolutely should NOT be ashamed of this. Besides, I was only thirteen years old. Think about that for a moment. Compassion should be the answer and nothing else. Years later after her attempt on her life my mother said she didn’t really want to die, she just thought we would be better off without her because she couldn’t see a way out of her dilemma at the time. She said she was just going out of her mind and didn’t know what else to do to stop from hurting.

I understand this. My life has not been a road of roses and I really get how when we are so far down, we forget to look up or we just don’t have the strength to look up. We overwhelm, panic and dig ourselves deeper instead of reaching out, calling out to a safe person to help us through the challenging chapters of our lives.

If anything, in light of all the recent high profile suicides in the world, we should learn something from this. We should learn that not talking is a silent killer.

We should learn that being a safe place to talk, a non-judgmental source of support is critical. If people feel safe enough to share how they are really feeling maybe we can save some lives that otherwise might end too soon.

We can talk about suicide all we want and raise awareness all we want but, if people are feeling so alone and isolated or shamed or blamed in any way for feeling they have no other option, they are not likely to reach out at all.

Make your ears a safe place for anyone to talk about how they feel. I had a friend when I was in emotional trouble after the physical assault in 2012 who said, “Call me anytime. I don’t care if it’s 2 in the morning, you call me anytime you need to. It would be my honor to be there for you and help you through this.” I never needed to call her at 2 in the morning but call her I did. A retired hospital manager, she was a key person in my healing process and we remain close, mutually supportive friends to this day.

One safe set of ears is all it takes to make a difference. If you can’t be a safe set of ears for a person, at least don’t judge them and please be kind.

Having the resources of suicide line numbers and agencies that can help is also a good idea for those who can be a safe set of ears. I don’t believe anyone really wants to die, they just want the inner turmoil and pain to stop.

All I can say in closing is that I was so glad I found my mother in time. Later when life had leveled out for her, she told me herself, “I’m glad you found me in time, too.”

© Janni Styles

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