A Mother’s Suicide Attempt and the Guilty Burden of Statistics -The Toast

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Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.


What does it mean to have a crazy mom?

In the Feb. 2015 issue of JAMA Psychiatry, researchers published their findings from an extraordinary longitudinal study. “Familial Pathways to Early-Onset Suicide Attempt: A 5.6-Year Prospective Study” followed 701 children of 334 parents who had attempted suicide. This study is unique in both its scope and its duration. Its findings show that having a parent who attempted suicide, even controlling for other factors, “conveys a nearly 5-fold increased odds of suicide attempt in offspring.”

You might not see it if you aren’t looking for it, but one of the subtexts of this study is motherhood, along with its favorite hobgoblin, guilt.

Toward the end of the article, the researchers talk about the possible weaknesses of their study. One weakness was this: “Probands are mostly female, so we lack power to detect whether the effect of maternal suicide attempt is greater than the effect of paternal suicide attempt, as is suggested by some studies.”

A proband, for non-geneticists out there, is a starting point for a genetic study. In this study, a proband is a parent. But, as the researchers note, most of their probands were mothers. The researchers are saying that the majority of the parents in this study were moms who tried to kill themselves. They’re also saying that results of other similar studies show that, when compared to dads, moms attempting suicide have a greater influence on whether their children attempt suicide.


Say you’re a mom. You’ve just clawed yourself out of a debilitating depression. Indeed, you only barely survived, because you actually attempted suicide (once, maybe twice). You are so overjoyed to be able to appreciate your family again, to feel happiness again. But now that you’re back on your feet—literally—you come across a study that tells you that your suicide attempt might have fucking cursed your children.

Man, you thought the guilt from not being able to breastfeed your second kid because of your post-partum depression was bad. But that guilt has nothing on the guilt you feel now.

You think of mythic curses throughout history. Of Oedipus and the house of Cadmus. Of Moses and his plagues. Of Jezebel cursing Elijah.

Then you look at your sons.


What does it mean to have a crazy mom?

Naturally, the study suggests interventions for preventing suicide in “offspring.” “Offspring.” So clinical. So unlike the little-limbed bodies that sprite around your house and yard, leaving contrails of life in their wake.

One intervention, of course, is better parenting. “Impulsive aggression was an important precursor of mood disorder and could be targeted in interventions designed to prevent youth at high familial risk from making a suicide attempt.” But in order to intervene and treat impulsive aggression, you’d have to pick up on the behavior in the first place.

Guess whose job it is to notice behavioral changes in their kids and ensure such medical interventions occur? Mostly moms. We make most medical decisions for our children—that’s why we get blamed for anti-vaxxing.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, who researched gender roles in medical decision-making, “In most households, women are the managers of their families’ health.” Only 20% of fathers select a children’s doctor. Only 16% of fathers take children to their doctor’s appointments. Only 20% make sure children receive the care the doctors recommend. And only three fucking percent actually take care of a sick child, compared to 39% of women—with the rest falling on “joint responsibility” or a third party.

So, you’ve just survived depression. You survived a suicide attempt (or, let’s be honest, a couple). You have new rituals, new medicines, new doctor appointments—all for you, to ensure your health. To ensure that you can be a good mom.

But now you’re feeling some pressure to make sure your kids make it through their teen years alive.


What does it mean to have a crazy mom?

According to the latest scientific research, having a crazy mom means my kids are five times more likely to attempt suicide than kids who don’t have a crazy mom.

I came across the JAMA Psychiatry study as I was ripping through the psychiatric and neuro newswires, part of my job as a reporter of mental health issues. Whenever a new study is particularly newsworthy, I read it and write about it. This study on early-onset suicide caught my eye because of its sheer scope. So many people studied over so many years.

But as I read this study, my work got personal—because most of the parents who attempted to kill themselves were the children’s moms. In other words, the study was the most epic Crazy Mom study ever conducted. And it was published in February of 2015, just months after I kissed my children good-bye, dressed in dark clothes, and walked into traffic to die.

Hey guys, not sure if you’re still collecting probands with offspring, but I got one for you right here.

The night I planned my death, I knew, to a certainty beyond any doubt (empirical, reasonable, or otherwise), that my children would be better off with a new and better mother, my husband with a new and better wife.

That’s a thing I did that will never undo itself. The tricky thoughts that led to the thing I did, those thoughts that chased me for weeks and weeks until they had me convinced (and I’m a very skeptical person), those thoughts will always be there as memories. They had marvelous suggestions, too. Pills. Car wrecks. Pills and car wrecks.

I can’t even guarantee that those thoughts won’t come back. I just have a better plan this time.

But here’s the thing. I’m a proband now. One with offspring. It doesn’t matter what I do. I’ve cursed them already. It’s too late.

So I watch my children closely for any signs of emotional expression beyond the normal, that might represent impulsive aggression, even though they’re likely too young to even be expressing these kinds of emotions in the first place.

I mean whose three-year-old doesn’t toss his banana slices against the wall yelling swears in Spanish?

I can’t help myself though. I watch them so closely.

This study tells me that I’ve planted bombs inside my sons that may or may not explode and destroy us all.


What does it mean to have a crazy mom?

One February not so long ago, I sat through the worst funeral of my life. My best friend’s teenaged son had wrapped himself in a cocoon of life-killing gas and gone off to sleep forever. His death was and remains the worst thing I can imagine, and I can imagine a lot.

In case you aren’t sure, there is nothing worse than this death of a child, than this death of your only child, than this death of your only child by his own hand. The note he left—so kind, so like himself—I don’t want you to worry about me any more, things will be better now—nearly ripped his mother in half.

His mother, my dear friend Serena (whose permission I secured to write these words), could only look to herself. What other explanation could there be? He was too young for the world to have done him in. It must have been someone something someone at home, right? Where else could the pain, the unbearable pain that killed him, have come from?

I remember her at the funeral, at the wake, in the weeks after, having to comfort other people who would come to her with their grief over her dead son.

People are, undoubtedly, the worst.

The worst thing you can say to a mother whose child just died is something like this: Being here at your kid’s funeral makes me want to go home and hug my own child and appreciate him/her so much more.

That’s what parents say to parents of dead kids. It’s so fucking stupid. Don’t ever do that.

Here’s a helpful translation of your terrible words to the grieving mother: Your dead kid makes me feel really glad about my living kid.

And when the grieving mother’s kid killed himself? Translation: Your dead kid makes me feel really glad about my living kid, and I’m going to make sure that my kid never kills himself/herself like your kid did.

My friend Serena told me all of this and more, over the many beers and coffees and let’s be honest, more beers, in the years since her son died. We’ve figured out a few things in our talks together. First, our society really doesn’t know how to talk about death. Second, we really, really don’t know how to talk about suicide.

It wasn’t Serena’s fault that her son killed himself. Of course it wasn’t.

But if you can take a look into her shattered glass eyes and feel anything else but a guilt that could blow over a building and succeed then you’re fit for a luncheon with Hannibal Lecter.


What does it mean to have a crazy mom?

Suicide is a taboo subject. This is not news.

When I first encountered the study, I actually thought to myself, If I keep my suicide attempts secret from my sons, maybe they’ll escape the curse? Like, is it knowledge of parental (whatever, mother’s) suicide that causes the increased rate in children? And if I can keep that knowledge from them, would that protect them?

But now I think the reverse is true. Of course it is. I tried to die because there was no one I could tell.

Once I was healthy again, the fact of not-telling appeared before me like a magic fucking mirror. I couldn’t tell anyone I was suffering, for a variety of reasons—I was scared of involuntary committal (and losing all of the legal rights and privileges that one loses when one has been committed). I was scared my husband would leave me. I was scared my doctor would put me on medicine I didn’t want to take. I was scared of people getting angry with me.

I was scared because suicide is fucking taboo.

Suicide didn’t almost kill me. The taboo did. Now, when I’m feeling off, my husband can sense it—of course he can, he can sense it when I haven’t had my morning coffee—and he asks me about it. What’s up, babe. What do you need. I might not know the answer to that question. But he has a person on speed-dial who does.

I sit in a wood Adirondack chair my husband made and watch my back-yard sprites with their lively contrails. They zip their bikes over ramps they built. They swing from a rope swing I hung from our maple tree. They holler for me to come play pitcher for their wiffle ball game. These are my offspring. I will watch for impulsive aggression. Of course I will because I can’t stop myself. But I will do more than that. I will tell them about being a proband, and about curses, and how to break them.

Katie is a writer and attorney living in Chapel Hill. She is the author of the Entanglement Series, novels about a group of women making new lives in Los Angeles.

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