Someone asked me the other day how my daughters were doing because of it being "September and all." With the month nearly over I asked her, "Why, what does September have to do with my daughters?" Gingerly, she said, "You know, suicide prevention month?"
I didn't hear anything else she said after that. My mind immediately shot back to that July night in 1995. The phone rang, and on it was my 17-year-old daughter trying hard to get words out between her sobbing tears. "Dad - it's - it's - mommy - the police - they came - she's - she's dead!"
It took a while for her to be able to say the next words. My mind was spinning and I wanted to rattle off a million questions about the why's and how's, but first I wanted to make sure that hopefully I had just heard her wrong -- but I hadn't. She went on to explain that the police had come to the restaurant where she worked and had brought her to the station to ask her questions about her mom and her mental state. Finally, they told her that she had taken an overdose of pills and had died at the hospital. Through her tears she talked about how maybe she could have prevented it if she hadn't just moved out to go to college. I immediately started thinking about the phone call that I had gotten from her mom three days before. She left message asking me to call her. We had divorced nearly 11 years before, but had remained friends. But she was now in her third marriage since our divorce and there were problems... and I was exhausted from playing counselor... so I put off calling her back... but now it was too late.
Suicide does that. It ends one person's life -- a life that in retrospect was obviously in so much pain that you can't understand why it wasn't obvious. But it also touches a myriad of lives around that person. Everyone wondering what could I have done -- how could I have helped? It's not like any other death. When someone dies from a disease or an accident it generally is something that we consider to be out of our control. But suicide is different.
When someone ends their own life, there may be a note, or a reason that is given -- but for everyone who cares for them there will always be that terrible thought in the back of your mind that maybe -- just maybe -- if I had just done...? The blanks that you fill in at the end of that sentence can be endless.
I've struggled for years to understand her decision and just last night some light finally shone in. I was watching an advance copy of a film that a talented writer from the old days of the NY Press had made. Jill Morley is what you might call a DIY documentary filmmaker. She tends to immerse herself into the story she is telling and the film I was watching, Fight Like A Girl, was no exception. Jill began making the film to follow the story of group of female boxers -- for whom boxing was transmuting their past experiences of abuse -- into personal strength and power. Jill wound up training with them and the story began to morph into her becoming a boxer while coming to grips with her past abuse as well. Each time she gets hit it brings back the memories of childhood abuse. The ghosts of the past come up and are so powerful that the making of the film causes her to reach a point where she tries to take her own life.
The visual effects of that part of the story are striking -- Jill underwater, literally drowning in the pain of everything that has come to surface. But while her memories now linger on the surface, she tries instead to stay below the water so she doesn't have to come up and re-live those memories. I realized that Fight Like A Girl isn't a film just about women boxing. It's a film about women making the choice to stand up and fight for their life -- rather than going down for the count!
When the film was over it left me with some understanding, maybe for the first time, of what my ex-wife might have been going through when taking the pills. The doctors said that the pills she had taken the night before her death weren't what had likely killed her. It was the toxic reaction with the medication she took the next day to stop the pain in her stomach that was the final blow. Was she trying to fight back? She had gone through abuse as a child -- she had been raped as a teen and abused by men before and after our marriage. She had become a lawyer and was undefeated in the courtroom. But what I realized after watching the film was that she never won the fight that was going on inside of her. Maybe that's why she was always fighting on the outside. Always looking for an argument to win -- an opponent that she could spar with and not get too beat up.
I pictured her, like Jill in the movie, with fists up, standing in the bottom of a pool, fighting her demons below the surface, but being afraid to face the ones that only she knew had surfaced. Repeating the patterns of the past. A feeling of love went out to her like I hadn't felt since we first fell in love.
Maybe that's what suicide can teach us. A reminder that what's on the surface, like an iceberg, may only be the tip of what is going on under the water -- and that someone is under that water fighting for their life. Maybe it will help us all to find a way to be better lifeguards.