I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with mental illness. I am well acquainted with mental illness through my daughter’s eating disorder and the accompanying crippling depression that led to her suicide. I can relate to how she must have felt; in the months since her death, I have experienced immense sadness, darkness, exhaustion, and depletion. I know what it feels like to be restless, agitated and anxious, like I can’t find my place in this world. I have been on the outer cusp of depression at times during the last few months, but only fleetingly, like a butterfly that touches a flower and then flies away. I had the ability to fly away. My daughter did not. Her mental illness held her in place, in a terrible place, and tortured her day after day, with only brief respites here and there. So while I can understand what it’s like to feel some of what she felt, and it rips my heart out that she had to suffer for so long with an eating disorder that was so cruel and brutal, I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with mental illness day in and day out. I can only imagine that it is hell on earth.
I knew that my daughter had suicidal thoughts; sadly, a large percentage of people with eating disorders experience suicidality, but I don’t think I ever believed that she would actually take her own life. She was always thinking of others, always caring about others, and she was extraordinarily intelligent both intellectually and emotionally. She knew that her suicide would destroy us, would shatter us, would devastate us. I understand that in order for my daughter to have committed the act of suicide, she must have felt like her existence in this world was more of a burden to us than a benefit. She did what she did as much to end our pain as to end her own. What my daughter underestimated is how much we loved her, how much she meant to us, and how much we needed and appreciated her presence in our lives, even when she was in a compromised state. The mental illness caused by her eating disorder robbed my daughter of the ability to see herself as the gift that she was to our family, it only allowed her to view her existence as a burden. Tragically, this is characteristic of people living with suicidality.
One of the things we were taught as parents was to separate the eating disorder from our daughter. It’s called externalizing the eating disorder. I could love my daughter and hate her eating disorder. I could be angry and frustrated at her eating disorder but not at my daughter herself because I understood that her illness held her hostage and made her do things that were extremely out of character. I think that this ability to separate my daughter from her eating disorder, and the depression that accompanied it, was ultimately what helped me come to terms with her suicide, to whatever degree a mother can come to terms with losing her child. My daughter’s suicide has left me feeling intense grief, indescribable sadness, and immense sorrow, but not a shred of anger at her, because I have the ability to separate my daughter from her eating disorder, and I know that it was her illness that took her life.
My daughter’s eating disorder and depression were a huge burden on our entire family, and I am not going to lie about that. It tried to sabotage and damage our relationships. It demanded all of my attention and energy at times, leaving me completely drained, with nothing to give my other kids, my husband, or myself. It made me live life with a sense of dread, fear, anxiety, and distress. It kept me up at night worrying and created a huge ball of angst that lived in the pit of my stomach. It kept me in a constant state of high alert, unable to ever fully relax. It made my life unpredictable, never knowing when the next crisis was going to pop up and require me to shift and reschedule everything. It guided so many decisions and actions, its unwelcome presence smothering us, leaving us gasping for air.
And now, that burden is gone, but so is my daughter. It’s a tradeoff that I never, ever would have agreed to. The burden of my daughter’s mental illness was unwieldy and heavy – so incredibly heavy. And I feel guilty because I can’t say that I miss carrying it. What I do miss, with the deepest sense of loss, is my beautiful daughter. I guess that in learning how to separate my daughter from her illness, it makes sense that I can miss her without missing the burden of her eating disorder and depression, but it still doesn’t feel quite right to own up to that.
For me, my daughter is nowhere and everywhere all at the same time. I am still searching for her, even though I know that she is nowhere to be found by me right now, but I think that I will be searching for her forever. I hope that wherever my daughter is, she is finally able to recognize that for us, her life was far more of a gift than it could ever have been a burden.