Eleven Years Ago my Mother Killed Herself on Mother’s Day (and I have learned so much)

This morning I woke up at 5am and did my morning pages. I’ve started The Artist’s Way for the second time, and doing The Artist’s Way involves writing three pages each morning. The pages can be about anything. This morning I wrote about the florescent blue sky and sound outside my kitchen window. On cloudy days the sky is always this Cerulean blue, and the water reflects the color onto the bay surrounding, and the trees and the sky and the water and the rooftops all converse with each other only in this color, for a small amount of time, before the sunlight parts the Cerulean and dilutes it, revealing a multitude of other colors.

Through my kitchen window I can hear the oceanic waves of the freeway, muted by the small swath of green space between it and my apartment, and from the green space bird cries broadcast themselves through the air and mingle with train cries and car horn cries and the hum of my small refrigerator.

This morning I lit incense, something my grandpa used to do every morning, though the sweet smell was cancelled out by my grandmother’s cigarettes, which she smoked first thing in the morning, maybe lighting them with the incense lighter. Their smell would often wake me, and that smell was a constant whether I was living with my grandparents or my mother, who also smoked inside. The smell of cigarettes clung to my clothes and turned musty, nasty, which may be why I have an obsession with perfume and candles and anything that smells fresh and clean. I lit incense this morning and the smell filled my apartment while I wrote in my notebook. I also lit a candle, and sprayed room spray.

This morning I wrote about my twenty-nine year-old self who, almost eleven years ago, arrived in Seattle to manage the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. On the plane down, from Fairbanks, AK, I stared out the window and imagined my mom’s peaceful spirit in the pinkish wisps of clouds that unfurled across the clear sky, because I didn’t yet know she had shot herself. I thought she had died a natural death, from cancer.

No one had prepared me for what I was stepping into, because suicide is so stigmatized that it’s treated like a hot stone, as if it’s going to burn whoever is holding it. When I arrived at my mother’s house the sky was bright blue and infinite, and Lake Washington was calm and deep blue, and the grass of her lawn was overgrown and her car was in the driveway and three people who knew her only adjacently (because no one truly knew her but me) were standing in front of the house. One of them came up to me and told me she had shot herself.

This morning I wished I had known more, then. I wished I’d had support. I wished I’d had money, or the knowledge of how to get money, so I didn’t have to rush through my mother’s memorial, which was held in the half-packed living-room of her rental house, and rush to find a storage place for her things because her rent was due, and rush to figure myself out, which was impossible. If I had known those things, it would have been a little easier.

This morning I felt so much compassion for my twenty-nine year-old self, who did everything with so little help and no guidance. Whose stepfather didn’t attend the memorial because he was too scared. Whose aunt followed her around her dead mother’s house, asking for this and that, and suggested lying about the suicide. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone just thought she died of cancer? But she didn’t have cancer.

This morning I felt compassion for everyone who has lost someone, and especially for those who had to navigate the loss by themselves, while also sifting through their childhood and an entire history of abuse by the very person people felt compelled to praise and wax nostalgic about. I cannot be the only one.

My compassion, my love, extends to my mother, and yet lately I have been more clear to myself in acknowledging that my mother was also my abuser. That my mother forced me to sleep in bed with her at night when her boyfriends couldn’t come over. That my mother violated me in the darkness and punished me in the daylight, and that as her only child I was meant to keep it all secret, and to keep it secret I had to pummel all the anger and fear and sadness into a tight little ball and swallow it, except it wouldn’t go down. It got stuck in my throat, so I stuck a toothbrush down there to bring it up, but that only made me smaller, which was unexpectedly nice, because then people loved me more.

I clutched smallness as if it would save me and redeem me. If I got small enough, maybe my badness would be squeezed out, and I would be good, and if I were good, I’d be loved.

my mom and I outside of the basement apartment we lived in.

The person I was meant to trust most abused me, and then continually punished me as I got older for calling her out for that abuse, for being full of rage, for acting in accordance with someone who has been taught to deny their feelings, their intuition, and their very sense of self in order to appease and love the person who is meant to keep them safe.

In the last year of her life, in a fit of rage, my mother told me she wished I weren’t her daughter. “We have too much history,” she said, which I took to mean, “you are too much,” but which really meant, “I cannot bear to see the truth of who I am in your eyes and actions.”

This week I read this story about Blake Bailey and felt envy for its writer that her abuser was not her parent, and also felt gratitude because she had so well defined the process of exploitation and abuse, the praise that lures and the violence that can unfold so easily when the lured is a child, and how that violence continues to unfold into adulthood because we are nothing but grown-up children. It takes so much for us to acknowledge that someone could do that to us, because acknowledging it means acknowledging the ways in which it has twisted our views of ourselves so that we may not know ourselves at all.

Abusers are everywhere. I wonder, should we assume harm? I wonder, how many other children had mothers that forced them to sleep in bed with them, and touched them? How many other little girls had that, and how many of us are staying silent about it? How many boys?

I think of the succession of sexual assaults and gray areas and abusive relationships that followed my childhood, and only now can I see clearly that my relationship with my mother primed me for those situations, because I learned that to survive I must acquiesce, I must fawn and love and give. When one fawns and loves and gives, some people think that’s a tease. Some people think it’s permission, and when permission is revoked they no longer listen.

When I was sixteen I ran away and hitch-hiked to California. A man picked me up on the highway. I knew immediately that he was bad, but I ignored my knowing, and found myself locked in a trailer in a field of dry grass for several days, until another man arrived to his trailer to find me there and drove me to the freeway.

I kissed so many men I didn’t want to kiss.

I did so many things I didn’t want to do.

I never learned that it was okay to say no.

I learned that, when I said no, I was punished.

I learned that there was something wrong with me, because I caused my mother to lose control, and she cried afterwards, and I comforted her for my shortcomings.

Before I was ten, I began to eat, trying to swallow it all down. But it wouldn’t go down.

I was punished for eating.

Since my mother’s suicide, I have heard the refrain “your mother really loved you” so many times that I have stopped speaking out about the ways in which she abused me. People really needed to believe she loved me. But I cannot abide by that now — not on the eleventh anniversary of her suicide, in the year I will turn forty-one. I cannot live another year of my life pretending that my abuser loved me. She was not capable of love, and some parents aren’t capable of love.

I didn’t learn to love myself until after my mother was gone.

I couldn’t learn to love myself until after my mother was gone.

The last Christmas my mother and I spent together she drank and I threw up my dinner. We were at a fancy restaurant. I was visiting from Denver, trying to figure out whether I needed to move to Seattle and take care of her, because she had told me she had cancer. In Denver, I was finally getting my shit together, which included months of not talking to my mom, months in which family and friends would tell me I should talk to her, she was so unhappy about me not talking to her, and their refrains were so similar to what I heard when I ran away as a teenager. Didn’t I know what I was doing to my mother? How much she loved me?

My mom and I sat at a two top in a fancy restaurant, and when I returned from throwing up my dinner dessert had arrived. I sat down, and my mother set her fingers on the ice cream dish. Vanilla ice cream with whiskey caramel. She pulled the dish towards herself while leaning towards me, and asked if I really needed the dessert.

“I know what you did,” she said. “I know you threw up your food, and wasted all that money. I’ve read all those books and they tell me I need to change. Well guess what. Your sickness isn’t my problem. You need to take responsibility for yourself. You need to change.”

I moved out to Seattle less than two weeks later. I gave up my apartment and my job, although I thought my mom was lying. I knew she was lying about her cancer. But no one believed me. No one had ever believed me, because since I was a child my mom had told everyone that there was something wrong with me. She had been so smart about it all. And I moved out there because I wanted to save her. I wanted to be a good daughter. I always wanted to be a good daughter. If I was good enough, she would love me.

The thing is: I thought she was right. It wasn’t her job to fix me. I was the one who needed to change.

So, on this eleven year anniversary of my mother’s suicide, I will stop blaming myself. It has taken an entire eleven years; it has only taken eleven years. I release any sense of responsibility for my mother’s suicide. And I ask nothing from you, my reader, but to believe people. To ask questions. To express curiosity. And to take care of yourself. To love yourself. To love others.

Stacy Selby is currently writing a book about their experiences as a hotshot. They live in Seattle.

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