"Mom, can I go see Luke, now?" Arlyn asked, jangling her car keys in her hand. Hmmm, I thought. Since when had Arlyn asked for permission to go anywhere? She was eighteen; she had graduated from high school two months before.
"Of course," I replied, pleased that she asked. Maybe Arlyn wasn't eager to leave home, after all.
I worried about whether she would be strong enough to survive the rough, scary world outside our safe nest in rural Georgia. She sometimes accused me of being overprotective. In two weeks, however, I expected Arlyn would leave for college, whether she was ready or not.
But, I was wrong. Very wrong. She did not wait two weeks to leave; she left that very afternoon. Arlyn walked out the door and got into her car. She drove several miles into the country, down a long, lonely dirt road. She parked her car near a stream, and she took an
old hunting rifle out of the trunk. Next, she placed its barrel into her mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Around 3:30 p.m., I heard a knock on the front door. When I opened it, a man identified himself as a sheriff's deputy and walked in. He strode across the room to a large photograph hanging on the wall. "Is this your daughter?" he asked, as he glanced from the picture to me.
"Yes," I replied proudly, too surprised to realize that this was not a social call. "That's Arlyn."
He stared at the picture for a moment, then sat down in a chair near the door. He described Arlyn's car, and I confirmed it was hers.
Then, he said, "Your daughter is dead." Just like that.
Even today as I write those words—your daughter is dead—my hands begin to shake. No parent ever expects to receive such a message. Deep down inside, we know our children are fragile, that life is unpredictable, but of course, we believe we are immune to such tragedies. They happen on television, and to other people, but they cannot happen to us.
...suicide is a tragedy...it is not cause for shame or embarrassment."
Within a split second, my world changed from one of light and peace and joy to one of darkness and despair and gloom. One pull of a trigger, and the reality I knew became a nightmare I never imagined. It was more than I could possibly comprehend.
During the first few days after I heard the news, I functioned much like a puppet whose strings are pulled by an invisible hand. I do not know how I did it.
I wrote and gave the eulogy for Arlyn's funeral. I did not mince words; her death was the tragic result of violence, and I would not pretend otherwise. Some people were appalled, but at that moment pleasing others was not high on my list of priorities.
We buried my child at a private service a few days later. I wanted to fall into the hole with her as they covered the container holding her ashes with dirt. I did not want to let her go. During the next week, I could not think, could not feel, just existed. I moved along robot-like, one tiny step at a time. Others quietly kept order in my surroundings.
Then my friends and family left, and I could feel her absence. I called her name aloud, over and over. She did not answer. The telephone rang; I picked it up and waited to hear her voice on the other end, but it was never hers.
I checked her bedroom a thousand times, hoping to see her, but all I saw was an empty bed. Her stuffed animals were still perched on the shelf above it, as if they, too, wondered when she would come back for them, and her clothes still hung in her closet. A letter from the admissions office of Tulane University, which she planned to attend, was lying on the floor.
When I heard the back door open, I smiled, expecting Arlyn, with her guitar slung over her shoulder, to prance in and give me a hug.
I held on to the fantasy that Arlyn would return. I sat in her car, listened to her music, and wore some of her clothes. One night, I drank tea at her favorite coffee shop. A tall, slender girl with long, brown hair walked in; I stood up, ready to dash across the room and throw my arms around her; but then she moved, and I saw that she was not Arlyn.
At night, I lay in bed stiffly, corpse-like. I stared blankly at the ceiling hour upon hour, until the morning light slipped through the blinds. Then, I would get up; or I wouldn't. Every minute of the day, I struggled desperately to understand what had happened. Arlyn would never have killed herself. My daughter found joy in living; she laughed, learned and loved. Arlyn was in tune with nature and peace. How she could have taken her own life?
I ransacked her bedroom, searching for clues. In her closet, in dresser drawers, under her bed and on shelves, I found several journals and dozens of pages of her writing. I collected them all into one mountainous pile. Then, I sat down to read. "I keep asking myself why. For my entire life, all I have ever wanted was to be dead, to not be. Why?" she wrote. "I don't know why I didn't kill myself in fifth grade when I had the chance," she also wrote.
I shook my head, confused. The handwriting was Arlyn's, but these words could not be hers. I thought back to when Arlyn was in sixth grade, eleven years old. One day, the student council held a talent contest. Arlyn signed up to sing. She picked out a long, lavender Victorian-style dress to wear, and I tied a matching bow in her hair.
When Arlyn stepped up in front of the crowd, she scanned the audience until she spotted me. Then, she smiled. The students talked and laughed with each other, ignoring the shy little girl in front of them. I wanted to shout at them to pay attention, but I couldn't. The music started, and Arlyn began to sing. Her song was "Wind Beneath My Wings," popularized by Bette Midler.
After a moment, the students stopped chatting and listened. Her strong voice caressed them gently.
Did you ever know that you're my hero?
You're everything I would like to be.
You are the wind beneath my wings.
That afternoon, as we drove home, I glanced at the small trophy in her lap. "When you sang," I asked, "were you thinking about the words?"
Arlyn replied. "When I sing 'Wind Beneath My Wings,' I always think of you."
But now, Arlyn was dead, and I was in her bedroom, reading words that sent chills down my spine.
What happened to that innocent, trusting child who dreamed of winning the Miss America crown one day? What happened to cause a little girl who had a song in her heart stop singing? Since Arlyn's death, I have been a reluctant traveler on this road to finding the answer.
After Arlyn died, we had a psychological autopsy done on her. (That's when a psychiatrist studies personal writings and other information about someone who is not present in order to give an assessment of the person's mental state.)
What we learned that is that Arlyn was a victim of bipolar disorder, also called manic depression. Her death was the result of a chemical imbalance and the way it controlled her; it was not a rational choice.
Arlyn, our fragile, gentle little girl struggled alone to deal with feelings she could not understand; she was confused and very afraid for years before she finally gave in and ended her life.
There are no words to describe the profound and infinite sadness that has consumed me since Arlyn died. Multiply the most horrible pain you have ever experienced a thousandfold and you may be close to understanding what each moment of my life is like.
In my saner moments, I know that Arlyn will not come back, no matter how much I want her here; it is in such moments that I know Arlyn's life must serve a purpose, and that it is up to me, her mother, to see that it does.
It is my sincere hope that everyone who learns about Arlyn will understand, first of all, that suicide is a tragedy, that it is not a sin or a crime, and that it is not cause for shame or embarrassment. It is also my hope that they will learn that suicide is an external response to internal conditions, not something that should be blamed on anyone.
It is also my hope that those who read or hear Arlyn's story will come away with the knowledge that many of our young people are not seeking help when they begin to have thoughts of suicide. This is a problem which will not go away as long as we attach a stigma to the victims or to those who love them, because in doing so, we close our minds and hearts to the search for acceptable solutions.
So now, the tables have turned, and my precious Arlyn is now the wind beneath my wings.
With her spirit guiding me, I reach out to others who struggle to understand what went wrong so we can walk together on this rough road -- reluctant travelers, hand in hand. With Arlyn's spirit lifting me up, I work to bring the words "mental illness," "depression" and "suicide" out of the closet, and to help educate the public. With Arlyn's spirit within me, I commit myself to a new mission in life: becoming the wind beneath the wings of change so that all the little Arlyns in the world will not suffer and die as she did.
Karyl Beal is a member of AFSP's Survivor Council. She also moderates two email support groups, Parents of Suicides and Friends and Families of Suicides. Visit www.parentsofsuicide.com or www.suicidememorialwall.com, or email Karyl at [email protected] for more information.