Mental Space: The Trauma of Suicide
Editors’ Note: This article contains extremely sensitive information about suicide, self-harm, depression and mental illness. If you are experiencing feelings of suicide, call 800-273-8255. Help is always available.
Amber Gaus (’22)
On this day 15 years ago, two sisters – ages five and two – lost their father to suicide. I was the five-year-old. Imagine going to bed one night, only to be awoken by the most blood-curdling, gut-wrenching, terrified, and angry scream you have ever heard. It tears you from the comfort of your dreams and the warmth of your sleep. Then strange men, police officers, come into your room to take you outside. All you feel is confusion and fear. That was the night I learned I had to grow up fast. I had to be strong for my mom and my sister.
I remember sitting on the front porch of the small house we lived in, next to my mom. She was crying, so I asked her what was wrong. She told me my dad had died, and I asked her what happened.
“He was sick, and before anyone could help him, it was too late,” she told me. Then she asked me to take the police officers to my sister’s room so they could bring her outside.
There was so much I didn’t understand that night. I didn’t understand why they parked the ambulance in the neighbor’s yard, it was on the other side of the house from the nearest door to the basement. I didn’t understand why the police were there, but they were nice enough to me and even gave me a teddy bear – which I still have to this day. I was scared and sad. Even though my parents were going through a divorce at the time, I didn’t know what life was going to be like without my father.
I didn’t know it was suicide until I was 16. It was exactly 11 years and two days between his death and my learning of what it truly was. I experienced so many emotions when I found out: anger, sadness, grief, depression and guilt. I felt like I wasn’t enough to keep him here. It’s been 15 years, and I still feel guilty for not being enough of a reason for him to live.
For an assignment in one of my psychology classes, I wrote a letter to Eric, my biological father. A few paragraphs follow:
“I’m so angry that you thought it was your only option. It wasn’t! It never was! You could’ve done anything to get better and feel better. But you didn’t. You didn’t see that there was still a light at the end of it all. And because of your stubbornness, your daughters had to grow up without you. I had to grow up faster than most people my age because you left. And it hurts so much. But you’ll never know that pain, never see those tears, never feel the guilt I feel.
Yes, I feel guilty. I was never enough. I couldn’t keep you here when I was five. I wasn’t enough for you to live. Ruby wasn’t enough for you. She couldn’t keep you here when she was two. I know you and Mom had your issues, but did you think about me? Or Ruby? No. You didn’t. Or maybe you did. Whichever it is, I’ll never know. All I know is I feel guilty, like I could’ve done something to keep you here.
I wish I could’ve been enough for you, because maybe you could’ve seen me grow up and become the woman I am. But you chose to leave me behind. And that wasn’t even your original plan! Mom was talking about your note to Grandma Gauss after I found out, and she said that you had originally planned to take us with you. How? Why? Why didn’t you?
I don’t hate you; I’ll never be able to. But I hate what you did. I hate that you took your own life instead of being strong and staying here for your kids. I hate that my childhood was a lie in that I thought you had died of unknown causes when I was five. I hate that you chose to leave us behind even though Grandma Gauss says that you loved us. Because I don’t feel like you did. I can’t believe that you did if that’s what you chose. Yes, I have real memories zof you, but only a few because you left my life when I was so young. And my earliest memory of you is when you yelled at me for calling Grandma when I was three to come help me with Ruby because you were asleep.”
My father’s suicide has had a lasting effect on my life and the lives of his family. Remember, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Maryann Dunmire (’24)
You don’t ever really know what’s going on in someone else’s life.Tony Padilla, Thirteen Reasons Why
We often see the effects and the aftermath of suicide, but despite our best attempts to understand why one decided to take their life, we never truly know. Many consider suicide to be selfish; and in a way, it is. Think about it: what are you leaving behind? While suicide may seem selfish, we only see it in an objective view, but subjectively, for those who struggle with suicidal thoughts and those who have taken their life, it doesn’t seem all that selfish.
For those who struggle with mental illness, some feel that suicide is the only way out. Despite seeking treatment with therapy and medication, unfortunately, some people end up turning to suicide as a last resort.
“It will get better” and “it will be okay in the end” are commonly repeated to those who are struggling with mental illness. Despite the positive meaning, the repetitive nature of these phrases don’t help. They only make me feel worse.
As someone who has struggled with mental illness for nearly ten years of my life, I have often heard those sayings. While I know they are meant to help make people feel better, that wasn’t the case for me. At least not at first.
My struggle with mental health spans back nearly a decade. In early Feb. 2014, at only 11 years old, I was diagnosed with chronic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and general anxiety. It was a lot to take in, being so young. Despite seeing a therapist and psychiatrist, I had turned to self-harm and binge-eating as a coping mechanism. For three years, my worsening mental health controlled my life, nearly destroying me in the process.
My biggest challenge was how I chose to cope, which was by cutting myself. The first time I ever hurt myself was when I was in the fourth grade. It’s no lie that while growing up, I was bullied. Kids would make fun of me for everything and anything. I was only nine back then and I was just beginning to go through puberty and with puberty came not only physical and emotional changes, but also social changes. After beginning to develop, kids began to make fun of how I looked. I was a skinny, acne-prone white girl who wore glasses. I was referred to as a “four-eyed pizza.” With the emotional changes I was facing, I began to take the pain out on myself. First, it started with writing mean things on my arms with a pencil until it was irritated and red, then when that wasn’t enough, I used scissors to cut or “scratch” my arms. Soon, I began to binge and purge. With the help of my therapist, though, I stopped and for two years I didn’t hurt myself.
In the Fall of 2013, we’d only lived in Ohio for about a year. I was doing okay until my parents’ separation. My dad had left the house and I didn’t see him for a while. This was very stressful, but it wasn’t until early in 2014 that my mental health officially took its toll. With everything happening in my home life and the bullying at school getting worse, I began to feel very depressed. While seeing a therapist, nothing seemed to help.
Finally, I resumed self-harming. I began to cut myself and have suicidal thoughts. I ended up being hospitalized a couple of times. This carried on until spring when the cuts were no longer simple scratches to my epidermis, but full lacerations. One night, I had cut myself twelve times, which ended with me receiving over 60 stitches. Over time the cuts healed, but soon enough summer came where yet again I was back in the emergency room.
That fall, I switched schools. Despite the change, I still was struggling mentally and socially. Now in the seventh grade, I began to fully act out. I was constantly in trouble at school and home. Therapy and medication weren’t helping, but thinking back, how can you help someone if they don’t want to help themselves?
I was on a bad path, especially at such a young age. For eighth grade, my parents put me online, which didn’t do much. I was lonelier than ever and my depression only grew worse. Now, I was seeing my therapist three to four times a week, which did seem to help a bit. I was learning to cope with my emotions, but it didn’t make the suicidal thoughts go away. Finally, in October of 2015, I attempted suicide.
I wanted it to all just go away, so I had believed that maybe things would be better if I was gone. I was very wrong. One day while my parents were out, I unscrewed the cap to a bottle of over-the-counter sleep medication and with no hesitation, I took one at a time until all thirty pills were gone. The meds took time to kick in, and by the time they did, my mother arrived home and found me. I was dazed and confused.
I don’t remember much except for snippets and pieces along with what I’d been told. I was in the hospital for a good week or so, and I can only remember being taken out of an ambulance during the transfer before everything became a blur. I do remember seeing how broken my parents were, especially my mother. Her baby blue eyes flooded with pain and sadness as my father worked to console her, both having watched their baby girl struggle for so long. Mom and Dad, I’m sorry.
During recovery, something in me changed. I no longer wanted to live like I was. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to live. I had so much to live for, so much to do with my life. So much to do and see. I survived what should have killed me.
Continuing to see my therapist, I worked with her to manage my depression, to build better-coping skills and work on safety plans. I began to do better. I became more open with my mental health, and I was able to work through my trauma and use it to better myself. With the full support of my loving parents, I was able to get control of my life. It wasn’t easy, but I did it and despite being ashamed of my scars, I have grown to accept them. They remind me of what I’ve gone through.
It has since been five years since I last cut myself and despite urges to relapse, I can find a way to get through it. Despite still struggling with depression, I made it through high school, where I ended up participating in College Credit Plus before graduating early. As a graduation gift, I ended up getting my first tattoo in June of this year. I got a lightbulb with flowers growing from it: a milestone for me. The lightbulb represents light and that there is always a light, no matter how dark things may seem, while the flowers represent growth to show how far I’ve come. The tattoo symbolizes that it will be okay in the end.
Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.John Lennon
For those who are struggling, you are not alone and no matter how bad things may seem, you can get through it and you will. It is okay to reach out for help. There is no shame in admitting that things aren’t okay. If you need someone to talk to, there are hotlines always available to call and text, as well as free counseling for students here at Wittenberg, or talk to a trusted individual. Suicide is never the answer. If you or someone you know is struggling, don’t be afraid to ask for help.