Long ago, when I was a young woman and my boyfriend tried to end his life and ended up in intensive care after surgery to repair five stab wounds to his abdomen, my mother gave him rocks she’d found at the beach and a jade plant she’d bought at the grocery store. She held the rocks in her hand like she was holding a surprise for a small child. He held out his hand, the one without the IV, and she dropped the three rocks on to his palm and he closed his fingers around the rocks like they were fine diamonds that needed hiding from robbers.

This was their introduction, their first and only meeting.

He didn’t question her about the rocks, why she’d chosen them, or more to the point, why she thought to make them a gift. That seemed to have been secretly communicated between them while I was standing there unsuspecting. I wanted to ask her why she was giving him the rocks but it seemed to be none of my business. That she had brought a gift of any kind was a surprise to me. That there were two gifts, the rocks and the jade plant, was a puzzlement.

In the layers of time since then, that fleeting wonderment has come back many times. What was it that gave my mother and my suicidal boyfriend a secret pathway of communication. I’ll never know for sure because both of them are gone now. But I think it was because my mother felt for him in the most basic, fundamental way. She had never attempted suicide but that doesn’t mean she hadn’t thought about it. She had spent most of her life coming in and out of deep episodes of depression. I think it made her bilingual.

I was on the outside looking in with both of them. Their depression occupying different stages of my life but sharing a common theme of stress and worry. Everything I did had implications for, first, my mother, and then, my boyfriend. Separated by a dozen or more years, the pressure was the same. I was responsible, what I did or didn’t do would have consequences and the consequences might be fatal. Often, with my boyfriend, I felt like my life had been hijacked by his mental illness, that the most benign action on my part could instigate a terrible result. Like hanging up the phone to terminate an argument that was going nowhere.

Oh, it went somewhere. It went to the ER.

That I had hung up on him was the normal everyday thing that became the avalanche. If I hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be standing there in the ICU with my mother and my boyfriend communicating over rocks. That’s what I thought. The thread of responsibility was wound around my finger. I didn’t put it there. I didn’t want it. It just appeared, wound tight and knotted in a hundred places.

I wish the suicide experts would talk about how, over time, people take on responsibility for the consequences of their loved ones’ mental illness. It isn’t intentional, it’s not like the people with mental illness are purposely putting responsibility on their loved ones. It just sort of happens. It’s insidious, makes relationships cautious, inelastic, brittle, so that nothing is worth the risk.

It’s a terrible burden to have, never being able to hang up.


Photo: Feifei Peng

9 Comments on “Secrets

  1. Pingback: Commentary | Red's Wrap

  2. ‘I think it made her bilingual’ Wow, so much power in such a simple sentence. It is how some move through life dealing with mental illness. I’m usually pretty impressed with your writing, but this leaves me sitting, slumped, back in the chair, mouth open, breath gone.

  3. Mental health experts have lots of good jargon for those taking on this sort of responsibility (as they do for women who feel they provoked their partner’s abuse.) Things like ‘everyone makes their own choices, you are not responsible for theirs’. Which is absolutely true. But it doesn’t help you hang up.

    • How true that is, that people tell you that you are never responsible for another person’s actions. And yet, their actions (or the fear of what they may do) governs our every move.

  4. I love reading what you write, Jan, because you say what I may already know, but say it with such a unique voice. I appreciate your candor. I am sharing this post with friends who have a bi-polar son and the husband had two brothers commit suicide. Lots of mental illness in their family and lots of fear.

  5. Wow. Such a beautiful bond that happened there. And in a way I’m sure they will always be looking out for each other, even from a distance…

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: