The First Time I Called 911

CN: Discussion of suicide

Write about a defining moment in your life when you were forced to grow up in an instant (or a series of instants).

My mother has always lived with depression and a host of other ailments, many resulting from a childhood bout of encephalitis that destroyed her short-term memory. She was very sad, especially after her father died in 1969 a few months before her wedding. She never really recovered. And that 1970’s being what they were, no one really helped her try to recover. She had been hospitalized but then was sent home to raise her babies and take her pills.

My grandfather died in February and each year, that was a dark time for our family. She was so inconsolable and despondent, convinced she couldn’t go on without her father. I remember feeling very sad for her, like she was trapped with us and needed to be set free.

Many Februaries, she would end up in the hospital for a few days. My father would stay home with us or we’d be packed off to grandma’s house. It seemed like she had just gone a little holiday with a blue suitcase. She came back, usually, feeling better. My suspicion now is that she stopped taking her meds and needed the adjustment.

I think it was ninth grade when things changed. I came home from school and found her quite literally raving around the house. I tried to calm her, but she wasn’t having any of it. I sent my brother to play with his friends (escape was often our survival tactic) and I tried to call my father at work. He wasn’t reachable – he worked in a local steel mill and that was often the case, but they would try to reach him by radio. I was horrified as she began talking about suicide and talking to her father. She kept telling him that she only wanted to go be with him and sobbing that no one loved her.

Then she told me she had swallowed pills to be with him. She tried to get into the bathroom to get more pills, but I was faster and hid them. At that point, I was the enemy keeping her from her father so that wasn’t going well. My poor mother was so very ill. It was heartbreaking and terrifying.

I was utterly terrified and alone. I couldn’t ask the neighbors for help because they didn’t do this sort of helping. One neighbor would have responded with kindness at least, but I could see she wasn’t home. So I called for help. I don’t remember the sequence of events – did 911 exist then? did I call the police? I don’t remember. I just remember the ambulance arriving and my mother having a seizure and riding along with her in the back of the ambulance.

Then I remember walking into the locked ward of the behavioral health unit and being really afraid when the doors locked behind me. I sat in a waiting room and signed some papers. Then I was sent home. Obviously, someone came to pick me up as I was 14 years old. Maybe my Dad came home? Maybe a relative? I don’t know.

She was in the hospital for many weeks. My father drove us to visit her a few times a week and she seemed happier inside. She made friends and watched television and got the care she wanted.  And she was finally put into the system, with a therapist and a regular doctor and lots of supports that made February bearable again for everyone. Not that she didn’t end up in the hospital again. A lot. But never that violent a scene.

I remember being told that I saved my mother’s life. While I am glad for that, I also felt this muffling sense of panic wrap itself around my chest. She was the mother and I was still a child. I didn’t want to be her caretaker or savior. I wanted her to take care of me. That wasn’t blaming her for being sick, but simply being overwhelmed by this huge experience that was not supposed to happen. I just felt guilty and sad.

But in the mid-1980’s, no one thought that maybe I might need to talk with someone about that experience (and of the experiences leading up to it.) Instead, we didn’t talk about it. At all. I cried to myself. I knew the rules – stiff upper lip and all of that. Pretend everything is okay. Keep the secrets.

So I swallowed my anger and fear and sadness. I got a decent job as soon as I turned 15 and began planning to escape to college. That’s all I wanted – a fresh start. I didn’t want to be trapped by my parents’ ghosts for decades. Little did I know that I was heading down that same exact path.

I wouldn’t change the sequence of events because my mother could have died if I hadn’t walked into the house at that moment. I do wish the medical professionals involved would have taken the extra steps to address the trauma I experienced. I do wish someone had realized I needed to talk with a counselor about the experience. So did my brother. I have no recollection at all of what happened to him. Did the ambulance drivers leave him with a neighbor? I don’t know. We never discussed it.

When someone in the family is living with mental illness, adult or child, everyone needs support. Silence and secret keeping will come back to haunt you. There’s nothing shameful about talking with a therapist or counselor. Maybe just once, maybe on a regular basis. There’s nothing to be lost and the world to be gained.  Trust me when I say that you and your kids deserve this support. You can’t prevent your kids from experiencing family trauma, but you can make sure that they get every tool possible to cope with it and move forward.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also visit their website for an online chat contact. If someone you love is living with mental illness and/or has mentioned suicidal thoughts, reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)  at 800-950-NAMI.





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  • Not only was it very brave of you to post this but more importantly it showed how much you care about people afflicted with mental illness. I have had two suicides in my close family (cousins) and several members with crippling depression. Here in England in the late sixties and early seventies medical reaction to mental illness was free, total and kind.. The problem was that hardly any doctors understood how to deal with the people who had to care for those who were ill. But we survived, as you did.But such help is still far from adequate. Many thanks for sharing and God Bless.

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