Monday, February 21, 2011

A Product of Silence: Fade Out

Prompt: I've been reading Linda Gray Sexton's book titled Half in Love [surviving the legacy of suicide] over the past several days. This month's Product of Silence is inspired by this book. As someone who has struggled with depression for most of my life, reading Linda's story was often painful and unsettling. In fact, I frequently found myself empathizing so much with her experience that I worried I was being pulled back in to a dark spiral. So much of her story and situation resonated with me, and in the end, I realized I was simply reliving my own pain in reading hers.

You might recognize Linda's name. She is the daughter of renowned poet, Anne Sexton, who committed suicide when Linda was a senior at Harvard. Anne's death came after a lifetime of attempts and hospitalizations, and Linda shares how this stained her adolescence and established a dangerous codependent relationship between her mother and herself. Reading how Linda ached for her mother's love as a child is nothing short of heartbreaking. Once Anne died, Linda blindly moves forward in her life, thinking she could simply create the type of life for herself that she always saw in her mind, one that contrasted with her mother's pain and shortcomings:

I thought I could pick the sort of mother I would be, as simply as I might pluck events or holidays from a river of experience. I thought I could consciously choose the foundation on which I would build the style of my mothering. I'd thought that decisiveness and self-control were the ways we shaped our futures; if those futures were handed down from generation to generation, then to succeed at changing them was still within reach with the application of a little bit of effort. It didn't occur to me then that there was some secret code in both learned behavior and genetic, biological expression that was embedded with us. I could not see that these two factors might actually govern what I did, and what kind of mother I would be, regardless of how I strove to aim at a particular vision of myself in this role. I began to discover, slowly, that it was not a question of pure willpower.

However, Linda's life is soon firmly in the grips of her bipolar disorder, and she wakes one day to find herself in an institution after having cut herself and taken pills in a bathtub while her children slept in the other room. The rest of the story catalogs two more attempts, the dissolution of her marriage, and the ultimate ascent from her downward spiral. Her story, this legacy of suicide, is completely heartbreaking, but it is also woven with hope, love, and strength.

(Would you like to read more? Click the link after the orange van...)

"As I walked uncertainly, blindly, down the hall to my room [in the mental hospital], I passed a man standing in the threshold to his room, talking to himself. As I got closer I could see he was layered in filthy old woolen hats and scarves. He looked like one of the homeless mentally ill people I had served at the soup kitchen.

I was horrified: Now I was one of them." --Linda Gray Sexton

Me, circa 1995

I'm not even sure, today, if it was a legitimate suicide attempt. It was, after all, done in haste and with incapable tools. But in the moment after an argument with my mother that fall day of my 17th year of life, my mind raced with the type of fury that could only end with an explosion.

It's funny what I remember from the weeks that followed. Most of it is bursts of odd detail amidst a undertow of tears and an incessant, dull internal ache. I remember the admitting doctor in the emergency room. I remember his disinterest as I sat there with blood on my hands. He just ticked off the questions on his list. Do you feel sad? Do you feel like you want to harm yourself?  I remember the dirt on his white jacket, momentarily wondering if he were actually a butcher and this was all just some sort of odd dream.  I remember saying good-bye to my mother, the pained, pleading look of love on her face. She was devastated by what I had done, I can see now, but in the moment, I felt nothing in return. Numb, my eyes were dropping tears on autopilot and I floated into my room on the locked floor of the psychiatric ward.

The next day, a new kind of pain surfaced. The intense headache. My bandaged wrists. The total loss of all possessions. I remember meekly leaving my room in search of soap or a toothbrush, only to be escorted back by a gentle nurse. I showered, somehow, and in my fog had flooded the bathroom floor, soaking my only clothing.  I remember that my black underwear boldly shone through the thin institutional white pants that I was forced to wear to the morning group meeting. I remember being chastised for not dressing myself that morning, and the way I shook into sobs as I told them of my clothing on the bathroom floor. I wanted to be held. Instead, I was given a robe until a visitor from the outside could come and bring me something to wear.

I met a few people during my stay. The first was a boy about my age. I remember thinking it so odd that he was smiling and trying to carry on a conversation. What was there to smile for? What was the point in talking? He pointed to my wrists and teased me that I'd done it wrong. "Longways brings more blood, you know." I was silent and shocked, but mostly ashamed. I pulled at my sleeves. The boy smiled, "Ah, that's okay. Next time, right?"

My roommate was an anorexic, she revealed, and, in retrospect, was also bipolar. She was full of spastic energy and prone to melodramatic outbursts. When I felt safe enough to speak to her about nothing in particular, the hostile tone in her voice would snap me back into silence. Once alert, chatty, and full of pride for her artwork, she now laid in bed, a hat pulled far down over her forehead and her ears plugged up with music. She had a wealthy father, she'd assured me once. She was just home taking a break from RISD. She'd probably go home tomorrow. It was just a break, she'd say. She just needed to relax.

I shuffled to occupational therapy when required and sewed together plastic coin purses. In between, I'd line up for medication and find comfort with my music, listening to Radiohead's The Bends on repeat. There was a certain sense of security to be found in letting myself slip backwards, allowing myself to find and embrace the sadness and pain.  It held an attraction that was undeniable, and it comforted me in a way that nothing else in that hospital could.  Just days before, I was fine, I'd thought. Just a sad teenager losing herself to music and locking out the world in her bedroom. Now? Now, I was in some sort of emotional purgatory. How had it come to this? I was lost among a sea of ill minds, and I had no clue I was even in the ocean to begin with.

My mother and I hadn't always fought. She had been my world for so long. As a child, I would cling to her legs when she'd walk in the door from work, and she would laugh and teasingly try to shake me off before lifting me into the air. The smell of breeze, cigarettes and her perfume was the most wonderful scent my small mind could imagine. Even now, I have those memories of her tucked firmly in a safe place where this vision of my mother--that radiant, youthful smile, and that kind, unwavering love--can stay untouched.  It was only as a teenager, a few years after my mother remarried, that I started to sever that intense tie. My growing distance ignited a deep sense of fear in my mother, and I saw this as a form of betrayal. In return, I engaged in behavior that warranted her reaction. I'd lie and steal and sneak out with friends. Once, high on the euphoria of my first boyfriend, I came home with my lipstick smudged from a first kiss. The rage and disgust filled my mother's face as she cornered me in the doorway, screaming 'til I could feel her spit on my cheeks.

Even the days we got along were tenuous. We'd shop or talk of things in the future or past, but we never looked at what was immediately under our feet.  A relationship that was once pure love and affection had become superficial and volatile. And beneath this floundering dynamic and sealing our fate was the firm foundation of silence. In my family line, there'd been alchoholism. There'd been abuse. There'd been mental illness. But we didn't speak about those things. And so the wedge between us grew.  So it was refreshing when, after my release from the hospital, we spoke candidly for a while. She shed her fear of losing me to drugs and alcohol and suddenly emitted this pure affection and gratitude for having me alive. The world seemed hopeful for the first time since I was a child, clinging to her skirt hem.

For years, our relationship thrived on this new found appreciation and respect for one another, but as an adult mother, I see now how we relied on the afterglow of our final battle. My mother and I still have nothing but love for one another, but so much remains unspoken, so much that either of us is so terrified to feel. I worry that there is a distance building again, one that only my children are holding together, however momentarily. After years of therapy, I've built myself up to a vantage point that reveals what work is left to be done. And yet sitting here now in front of my computer, another 17 years later, I take pause. When I think of my mother in contrast to my days in the hospital, it's hard to see beyond her fierce love and her frail humanity. In fact, it's hard not to see anything but rainbow.


Thank you to award-winning author Linda Gray Sexton for sponsoring this series, which is inspired by her memoir Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide.

I was selected for this sponsorship by Clever Girls Collective which endorses Blog With Integrity

To learn more about Linda Gray Sexton and her writing, please visit her website.


To view more Product of Silence posts from this month's participating writers, visit these links:

Wordfiend at Wynne Anne's Meanderings: A Product of Silence
Russ of One Cubic Foot of Dirt: Melancholy Meat Puppets 
Lex of Lex in the City: This, this one was hard to write
Bleeding Healer of Bleeding Healer: A Product of Silence

And this writer wanted to share her story, but could not do so publicly on her blog. But in case it could help someone else, she was willing to post it here instead:

"Imagine walking into a huge room full of people and you stand searching for a familiar face.  That feeling of desperation to fit in, to find someone you know,  looking awkward, feeling awkward.  Just wanting to blend, knowing that you don't.  You shouldn't be here.  You start to sweat.  You look for the condiments table so you have a purpose, seek a drink to keep your hands busy.  Then you start looking for the exits.  A way out to avoid this discomfort, those eyes that you know are looking at you, wondering why you are even there.

And then, there they are.  Someone you know, someone who smiles at you.  A sigh of relief and enjoyment comes back with a start.  You can breathe again.

Depression is like that, only you never find that familiar face.  Nor can you find the exit.  You are trapped in this room, not fitting in, not knowing anyone, not having a purpose.  No way out.  In the mornings, most people wake up not feeling too great.  They have their morning coffee, a shower and shake that feeling, start to feel bright and ready for the day.  I can't shake that 'just woken' feeling ever.

Depression has been my companion for many years.  It started from a bad hit of some laced marijuana when I was old enough to know better, young enough not to care.  Drug induced psychosis.  The paranoia left me feeling alone, scared, hiding.  The psychosis left eventually.  The depression didn't.  It comes and goes in waves, sometimes hitting with such a powerful presence that it leaves room for nothing else.  When it ebbs, I am left scratching at the remains of myself trying to show a solid front, pretending it never happened.  Nobody likes a downer.

I don't like to be this way, I am a strong woman.  My feelings are not for public display.  I didn't visit a doctor for many years, for fear that I would break down in front of him and seem weak, when I have always put on a good show and everyone thinks I am together.  I hid my depression from everyone.  My husband, my kids, my family, my friends.  I am a great actor.  They should give out awards to people like me.

When a family member died, it clicked the last switch and I could no longer function.  Something needed to be done.  I took the step and saw the doc.  I broke down.  I sobbed.  I howled.  I couldn't say the words.  Thankfully I didn't need to.  He saw immediately what was happening to me.  I got the prescription and sat there until I could get it together enough to walk out of the office.  He let me sit but I have never been back.

I filled the prescription at a chemist in a different suburb, that I would never have to visit again.  They wouldn't know who I was.  Wouldn't run into me in the supermarket and know that I was taking medication for feelings.

They started to work.  I felt good.  

Since I had to abandon my doctor through shame, my script ran out.  The down returned.  When I could bring myself to do it, I would find a new doctor, spit out my situation, get my prescription and strike them off the list so I wouldn't have to face them again.  Then find another new chemist to supply the pills.

The shame that comes with depression is huge.  If you can't be in control of your own feelings, how can you be in control of anything else in your life.  Why would you let people know that?

I fight this thing off as much as I can.  I take the pills when it gets out of control.  But, it is always there."

And to see more previous Product of Silence posts, click here.


  1. Thank you for sharing such an important story and message! From someone else who has struggled with bouts of depression, I can feel this story. I will be reading this book.

    Love you!

  2. That took a lot of guts to write and I commend you for it. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. What a moving post. Thank you for sharing, thank you for putting this 'out there' for others to feel. This blog world has proven that though we may be anonymous, we're still heard and we're certainly not alone.

  4. Thanks for sharing, it's inspiring in alot of ways, and informative in it's complete form.
    This is my product of silence, it's nothing compared to what you brought, but nonetheless it's one aspect..the writing is choppy, just 17 you see. but here it is..A Product of Silence

  5. I'm with Wendi. That took a lot of courage. I am uplifted by your tale, and further convinced that it is not the mediocre people that change the world.

  6. I don't know what to say, other than, wow. This post flew me back to when I was 17 and everything that I felt too. It's... amazing. I'm going to have to read Linda Sexton's book.
    Thank you, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to write about this. I wouldn't have had the courage to do so without you.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing this. The shame surrounding depression and suicide really doesn't help people get better.

  8. Kristine, that's a brave story to share. Thank you. I really connect with the mother/daughter relationship. How can anything so strong be so fragile? I'm touched by your story.

    Anonymous, that's a perfect description of depression in the first few paragraphs. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. It is really great that you are able to go to this place. It is actually really brave. I say that becomes I'm not there. I have put as much distance (most of it positive) and years (16 years, 20 years, and 22 years) between who I am and who that was.

    Been thinking about it - telling the story. It's a hard one to tell for a lot of reasons, as you well know, but also because I *LOVE* life. Ehhh, maybe not really. But I LOVE being alive. For sure 1000%. Wouldn't trade it.

  10. Adding to the chorus: thank you for this, Kristine.

  11. What an incredibly raw and deeply personal post. I appreciated your honesty. I too felt the pull into darkness reading the story. I finally had to skip ahead. Nevertheless I still feel strongly that I gained from the pages that I read. Just as i know that I have gained from reading your post.

    Out of the darkness and into the light.



  12. What an incredibly raw and deeply personal post. I appreciated your honesty. I too felt the pull into darkness reading the story. I finally had to skip ahead. Nevertheless I still feel strongly that I gained from the pages that I read. Just as i know that I have gained from reading your post.

    Out of the darkness and into the light.