Sometimes a single traumatic incident can shape our future forever. Caroline from California, US knows that because of her experiences she has found her passion and purpose.
As Caroline so rightly says, to stop the mental health epidemic we see today we have to break the silence and talk about how we are feeling. Sometimes this can mean breaking family patterns, so that our future generations can find it easier to talk about the things that society has taught us to stay silent about. Here Caroline reflects on the time in her childhood that she feels put her on the path of mental health advocacy that she walks today…
Looking back on how the events transpired, I realize that my heart has been affected by this event all along. It is not shame that drives me to be a mental health advocate, however, but the realization that shame and guilt can keep this story silent. The silence of this epidemic is what is affecting so many suffering on a daily basis. We can no longer be silent.
I was 11 years old at the time, and I remember it as clearly as if I was still sitting there listening to the tears and admission. When I was young our family moved from Germany and things were difficult to adjust to in California. For my Mom, it was even more difficult as she struggled with learning English. She learned early on the basic English language, but still found it difficult to explain her thoughts and feelings.
When I was growing up, I was told to learn English instead of German. I was usually the person to explain to my Mom what other people were trying to explain to her in English. We had also left part of our family in Germany, and this also caused my Mom a lot of grief.
I was in middle school at the time, and it was a weekend. My parents were having difficulty getting along. Around every six months there was contact from our family by telephone. Family from both sides would contact us. I couldn’t be certain if they were asking to come over and live with us, or they might have been asking for financial assistance. All I know is the grief was so strong that my Mom would drop everything we were doing, and the house would become a complete disaster zone for about a week. When this grief came up every six months, so would her drinking problem.
This particular weekend it was quiet, and my Mom had approached me in my bedroom. She said she had to talk with me about something and tears were already running down her face. She kept saying she was sorry, but I did not know why. I was too young at the time to realize the phone calls were causing her grief. Her apologies went on for about five to ten minutes, and I kept asking her what was wrong. I asked my Mom if I had done anything to cause her to cry so much. I somehow began to feel responsible for my Mom’s distress. My Mom tried to tell me that I hadn’t done anything wrong, but nevertheless I felt the guilt start to hit me hard as I listened to her crying.
We sat on the bed until I could get her to talk to me further. I held her close with my arm wrapped around her, and I started to cry as well. I begged her to tell me what was bothering her so much. When I kept getting her only response of “I am sorry”, I began to realize that she was apologizing for something. She finally admitted sitting on the bed with me that she wanted to end her life.
I was only 11 years old at the time, and this was devastating to me.
All I could think of was; what I had done wrong for her to say this? She’d said it was not my fault, but I couldn’t stop crying and pleading with her not leave us. There was myself and our whole family in that little house. Whilst the two of us were sitting there in my bedroom, I just kept holding her tight. I held her hand as she cried and leaned on me. I asked her to tell me why she felt like this, but she would not answer completely. I felt her pain throughout that morning as she asked me not to tell the rest of the family. I was not sure I could keep her secret as this was distressing me so much.
My only concern was how could I help her. I felt like it was my fault, and that I had done something wrong. I wanted to call my Dad, but she had made me promise not to say anything. I knew in my heart that if I told my Dad that it may be possible he would call an ambulance and she might be taken away. All I could think of was that I may lose my Mom forever. So, I hesitated to tell anyone what she told me. After what seemed like an eternity, my Mom finally stopped crying. I could tell she was still upset though, and I made her promise not to hurt herself. I told her that I loved her and did not want her to leave us. Through her tears she said she was sorry, and that she felt so bad. All I could do was say that I was glad she had told me, so I could then tell her how much I loved her.
I honestly do not remember what happened for the rest of that day. All I could think of was the fact that I needed to keep a close eye on my Mom just in case she tried to do something. I was only 11 years old, but all I could think of that day was that I needed to be on standby to protect her. I was exhausted, and I still totally felt like it was my fault she felt this way. When my Mom came to me I realized at the time she trusted me.
After that morning with her, I felt that it was my duty to keep her safe. I took on the responsibility of being the adult; only I knew the horrible secret of the pain she was holding. I couldn’t put the pieces together of the grieving and ptsd she felt at the time, but I knew that the pain was huge and heavy on her soul.
The depression, anxiety and sometimes fear I witnessed in her at that time became clearer to me after I left the house as an adult.
Her reaching out to me for help that morning changed our relationship. It explained the pain I saw in her eyes on a daily basis. The grief she was feeling over leaving her family lasted a lifetime.
I knew the family phone calls were causing a lot of stress. I knew she longed to go home. The subject came up whenever anyone asked if she missed her hometown. My Mom always said that she did miss being home. But she never took the opportunity to say she missed her family too. As I got older, I saw her anxiety still bothering her, and much later I was able to understand that she was suffering from PTSD. She had only been a teenager herself during WWII, when she’d had to walk through the destroyed villages of Germany trying to find safety with her family. My Mom had also mentioned that she’d been harassed by a family member, and I think there was more to that than she ever admitted. It was the grief of losing her family that was eating away at her when I was growing up.
I honestly believe her cry for help came just in time. Even though that day caused me to grow up a lot faster than a kid should, I am glad my Mom reached out and we made it through together.
Looking back at it now, if she had not asked me for help she would have missed so much more in life. She would have missed marriages, family, and grandkids. I am grateful she reached out, and even though she did not share her deepest reasons at the time, I knew she did not really want to leave us.
Now that I am so much older, I hold dearly those moments in time where I could hug her. The moments that she laughed with me, and made coffee and toast in the afternoon. The soccer games we used to watch together. My Mom cheering for her favourite English soccer team in the living room. The joy she held for my brother too. The moments she was Grand mom to my daughter and son, even for a short time. I would have lost those moments had she taken her own life when I was 11 years old. Her touch, kisses and her smell of 4711 perfume that will stay with me forever.
I miss her dearly now. Over 25 years later she passed due to a cancer related illness. I am grateful she felt she could lean on me in my teens, and every day I had with her after ‘that day’ was a gift. Although growing up after that event had changed our relationship, I would not trade it for anything in the world. I felt I was given a second chance to be with my Mom. This second chance gave us so many years together for which I am grateful.
In the past year I started writing about my own experience of being injured, and then having PTSD kick in hard. This journey started in February 2014 and resulted in me actually being unable to work or stay focused. Through a series of bad decisions, I ended up homeless for the next year. It took a while before the symptoms subsided in 2015, but not everyone is so fortunate. It also took another year and a half to regain my self-confidence. I started writing about my experience in 2018. In just reaching out to others I have learned so much. In the process of learning, I ended up becoming a Mental Health Advocate online.
I am trying to focus on setting up a non-profit to raise awareness for Veterans and First Responders around suicide prevention and rough sleepers (homelessness). I never expected to be able to reach out to so many, but because of my experience with PTSD and homelessness, I have found my passion and purpose. I am in service to others in the effort to make positive changes for those suffering in silence. The suicide rate is an epidemic across the world, and working in this field I feel will raise much needed awareness.
I cannot go back and erase my injury, PTSD, or rough sleeper experience, but I can work to make changes that will positively affect someone else’s life. No one should suffer alone in silence, and with resources we can reach out to those suffering with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. It is important to me to leave a positive impact, and I feel my journey has taught me more compassion and left me humbled to be alive.
For those of you who are on your journey, I can tell you it is so worth it to step forward. There are more people who love you and care for you than you realize. In honour of my Mum that suffered, and anyone suffering now, I am reaching out. Make that decision to take your life back. There are great things ahead on your journey for you to experience. It can and will get better. Stay blessed and stay connected. You are loved more than you know.
If you are searching for the sign, we love you – here is the sign. Step into the light.
Mental Health Advocate
Do you have a story like Caroline’s to share For Kelly’s KindaProud book: #EmergingProud through Suicide?
Please contact Kelly at: firstname.lastname@example.org