Everyone has their one “go-to” person. You know, the person you call when you’re happy, sad, angry, bored, scared and everything else in-between. The person who listens when you need it, talks when you don’t want to and believes in you when you have a hard time believing in yourself. For my entire life, this person was my dad, and in ways, still is.
My dad had been my person for as long as I can remember. He would take me to Disney World while my brother and mom went to Universal because I was too scared of the rides, but luckily, he was too. We made the perfect duo, and I always knew I was safe when he was around. Because of his work we moved a lot when I was a kid and although it was hard, it gave me the chance to see the world. My dad opened so many doors, and my eyes, to so much before I even knew those doors existed. We got a lot closer as I got older, and I drew closer to my mom and my brother, as well. I was blessed with an amazing family, but I always felt like my mom and my brother were one half of the team, and my dad and I were the other half.
It was because of my family and my dad’s push for me to explore that I ended up out of state for school at Ohio State in Columbus. I had visited the campus before since my older brother, Nick, also attended, but I will never forget how terrified I was when my parents dropped me off and drove away. It made me realize how “alone” I was and that my safety blanket wasn’t there anymore. I had to fend for myself and make friends. My life now depended on how I shaped it. Of course, my parents played a huge role and were a support system. My dad came down after I had been in school for only two weeks just to check up and make sure I was okay and he continued to do that. I called him for the good, the bad, the stupid. He encouraged me to take jobs, make friends, experience life.
I stayed in Columbus the summer after my freshman year and it’s something I will always feel a pang of regret for now. Would that have changed things? Did I make him feel like I didn’t care enough? Either way, he encouraged me. A year later, when a great opportunity to work for Nationwide came along, he encouraged me to take a semester off and work full-time So, that’s what I did. Working 40 hours a week, it was hard to find time to go home but I found a weekend in April to visit. They had moved to Dallas and I loved my parents’ new apartment. I felt happy, and I thought my parents seemed really happy, too. Little did I know this would all come crumbling down a short month later.
I think about that last trip home a lot. I think about what I missed – the fact that my dad didn’t bake banana bread like he always did when I came home, or how he didn’t want to go out to eat and didn’t eat too much when we did go out. I go back over and over and over and replay the last time my life was worry-free, happy and picture-perfect in my mind. My flight back to Ohio got canceled because of weather. I will never forget how I offered to Uber to the airport the next morning at 4 a.m., but my dad insisted on driving me and saying goodbye. A drive and a hug goodbye (a hug that I wish I had squeezed a little longer) and told him I loved him one more time. There are so many things I would go back and change if I could. I know that’s the worst thing to focus on, but sometimes your mind wanders.
They talk about flashbulb memories in psychology class and until you’ve lived through one you might not believe they exist. But June 5th, 2017 at about 4:15 p.m. will forever be engraved in my mind. I got home from work and went on my daily run. I had eaten pretty badly the day before and was tired. My mom called me, which I usually would ignore while on a run, but it gave me an excuse to stop and walk for a second. The tone of her voice will always haunt me, along with her questions, “Are you home? Can you sit down, Alex. Tell me when you’re sitting down.” I can tell you the step I was sitting on outside of The Shoe (Ohio Stadium). I can tell you the running outfit I was wearing and wore to the airport that night. I can tell you about the weather that day and what the man looked like who watched me react to the news when my mom called. I can verbatim repeat her words to me and hear the anxiety coming through as she was trying to calm me down and get me to come home. I can tell you how many times I checked my phone log after hanging up thinking I must have imagined it or made it up and there was no way my mom called me saying that. I can tell you every last detail from 4:15 until about 5:30, but after that the shock set in and the next thing I recall is my mom walking up to me at the airport in Dallas.
The first days felt so surreal. We stayed in a hotel and everything just felt wrong. I had never felt my heart in my stomach before. I felt sick. I felt panicky, I felt anxious. I felt every bad emotion you can imagine and 50 more on top of that. I never imagined what it would be like to lose someone so close to me, yet alone losing them when I was 20. We had so much support the first few weeks. People offered to fly down, to send food and flowers, reaching out multiple times a day to make sure that we were all staying as sane as can be expected.
Going back to their apartment was weird because the thought of it made me nauseous, but at the same time I felt comfortable knowing my dad had been there. It was a gross mix of emotions that I’ll never quite understand. The second day, my brother and mom were looking through some things and I found myself looking at all of my dad’s stuff. It all looked normal and nothing was weird, missing or out of place, so how could he be missing? It wasn’t real and I didn’t believe it. This would be my first anxiety attack, but luckily with this one I was safe with my mom and brother. My mom found me crying in the corner of the walk-in closet hugging my dad’s clothes as if I was holding onto him. I had always led an anxious life and was high-strung, but this was only the beginning of what I would feel in the months to come.
It sounds hopeless, but it’s honest. Losing someone in general, and then adding suicide to the mix, sucks. It’s brutal and some days are really hard, but it’s better to be honest about the feelings than repress them, because after that experience, believe me, I really tried. I stayed strong through the funeral planning, for the memorial trip back to Wisconsin, and when I returned to Columbus. That was when I first started to believe in people coming into your life for a reason. I grew up going to church almost every week, but I found my comfort came from my spirituality and not my religion.
On the flight from Dallas to Wisconsin, it was just my mom and me. We met a young girl in line about my age who talked…a lot. And then she sat next to us on the flight and we learned her name was Emily. Emily was from Dallas, a certified massage therapist who was going to Oklahoma State University next year, a different OSU. She talked and talked the entire two hours, which I didn’t mind. I liked the distraction and it kept me from losing myself in my darker thoughts. She asked about my dad, and this was the first time someone would. I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. She followed with “is he just at home for work?” and my mom and I quickly responded yes. On the descent, she asked if she could rub her massage oil onto my shoulders and said it was really relaxing. At this point, my life was already a disaster, so what does a stranger rubbing lotion on my shoulders on a flight really add to the equation? We swapped contact information. As she went to look on my Facebook page, I remembered the first thing on my wall was my dad’s obituary. I quickly distracted her, and we parted ways. I remember telling my mom, through a mixture of sadness and laughter, that my dad would’ve loved the story, and my heart broke a little more when we deplaned and I went to text him.
Later that night, I texted Emily to tell her she was a great distraction and that we were actually in town for my dad’s memorial. Her kind response is screenshotted on my phone and is perhaps one of the reasons I still believe people are good. But Emily’s chapter doesn’t end there. The day of the service, we looked up and she and her mom were there and stayed from the start of visitation to the end of the service – a total of four hours. A complete stranger made one of the most important impressions on me following my dad’s death. She gave me hope. She gave me faith in people. She reassured me that I wouldn’t be alone on my journey. She was a random stranger that became one of the most influential parts of my healing. The craziest part is she has no idea what her simple act of kindness had done for me.
As the weeks passed, the texts died down. The support was there, but harder to notice. I felt myself becoming more and more isolated. I think it was easier for my mom because adults have some idea of loss, but for me, most of my friends had never experienced the death of someone close. People wanted to be there, but didn’t want to reach out in fear that they were upsetting me. I didn’t reach out because I didn’t want to feel like a pitiful loser. Pride came into play, and my pride is part of my eventual downfall. Summer back in Ohio was better than I thought it would be. I had a few close friends who were there for everything I needed. I spent a lot of time running, trying to clear my head, and overall I was surviving. When I returned to school I thought things would get better. I moved into a new house and was ready to go and excited to feel normal again.
My mistake in this was assuming that my new normal was my old normal. My life was turned upside down, and I quickly found out that meant many things would be very different for me. I went out with friends who I had been hanging out with in the spring – this was normal. We were drinking, which I hadn’t really done since my dad died. The evening was going okay, but I could see people watching me closer than usual. Waiting. Waiting to see if I was okay, if I was going to cry, to mention my dad. I went upstairs with my good friend and sat down to catch my breath while he went to the bathroom. Sitting still brought about my second anxiety attack. I lost it. I was so embarrassed, but so far gone that I couldn’t stop it. I’ll never forget calling my brother to come get me, and my friend Eric walking me to meet Nick. I hated myself in that moment and I couldn’t control my emotions. This was when I realized all of the emotions I was repressing. Summer was easy because I refused to let myself feel the bad. I pushed and pushed it down. People told me I was so strong, but they didn’t understand what I was actually going through, and this was the first time they saw me break.
After this, things began to go downhill for me. I was eating a lot less than I should, working out way more than needed and slowly isolating myself from my friends. I stopped responding to peoples’ text messages and always said I was busy when asked to hang out. I felt like whenever I was around, people were uncomfortable. I could see the looks I would get when someone would use the phrase “I want to kill myself” when frustrated. All in all, I was uncomfortable and I felt like my presence made everyone else uncomfortable, too. My thoughts got darker and my days were filled with a lot more tears. I spent a lot of time overthinking. I don’t want to use the word guilty, but I spent hours going through calls and texts to find out what went wrong and where I missed it.
It took me a long time to admit that I was angry. Really, really pissed off. I felt guilty saying I was mad at my dad and I repressed that emotion. I would get angry when people asked me if I felt angry and displaced the anger onto them for suggesting it. It was and still is easier for me to take out my feelings on the loved ones around me. My dad can’t defend himself anymore, and I feel wrong and like a horrible person for feeling the way I do sometimes.
This took me to my breaking point and I considered going home to see a counselor. I remember how embarrassed I was telling people I was going, because everyone looked at me with this look of pity, as if I were going to lose it. I know my closest friends and family were terrified I would sink into a deep depression and take my life, too. I don’t know what emotions people expected after this kind of loss, but they made it apparent that those weren’t mine. I sat down in my first counseling session and just sobbed and spilled out every last detail. When I was done, I took a breath and felt a little better. I had finally let out the ugly. I think I was too scared to open up to friends or family because I didn’t want them to worry about me. Some of my thoughts got really dark and went really weird places, and it was nice to feel like I wasn’t burdening someone with my story. I got to the bottom of what I had felt like for months — a burden. But the interesting part is that no one else views you that way, only you. So I was pulling away, making excuses and hiding myself to save other people from my pain, but in reality, all I did was hurt the people I cared about and myself more than I ever would have wanted .
I continued to go to therapy and found that I liked the one-on-one sessions a lot better than group settings. In these moments, I wanted to be selfish. I needed the grief to be about me and the last thing I wanted was to hear other people be sad ten years out. I remember how hopeless that made me feel. I didn’t want to accept that this loss was something I would live with forever. Obviously on the bad days, but on the good days, too. I realized that on every holiday, every special occasion that would come – graduation, weddings, kids – there would be a huge moment in my life where I was happy, but at the same time, they’d all be laced with a twinge of sadness. This broke me and it made me question if I would ever truly have good days again.
I continued to go through the motions, and although I was getting better, I was still in a really dark place. Then, one day, I met a boy who changed my life and perspective on my situation. I don’t think he will ever know how much he impacted my life, but that’s part of the beauty of it. He didn’t even have to try: the way he listened, and talked, and honestly, just treated me normally, picked me up. I’ll never forget the day I was talking to him and he looked at me and said “You always have this self-pity thing going on. Stop looking at the bad. Look at the good. You have so much good going on around you every day and you refuse to see it.” I remember stopping dead in my tracks and thinking about my response. Was I angry? Or was I okay with what he said? No one talked to me like that anymore. Everyone walked on eggshells and treated me like I was going to break any minute. Not him. He treated me like I was strong and courageous and the way all of these people spoke about me, but yet, treated me in a different way. He treated me like the person that I wanted to become, and encouraged me to grow into her. I needed the honesty that no one else would give me. He became my pull back to reality when I needed it. He still is, but now I can do it myself, too. We all need a person to carry us through the hard times, and I was lucky enough to find someone willing to dive in and keep me afloat.
I realize now how much it meant to have someone who made me feel happy and like I was worth it, when I wasn’t able to see it. I really doubted myself and I focused on how I failed, on how no one was going to love me unconditionally when I couldn’t love myself. It gets scary, and I am lucky enough to have had someone to lift me up and show me the good in the world when I was incapable of seeing it. He got me to the point where I began to believe in myself and trust myself to be alone again, because I had been so terrified to be trapped alone with my thoughts; scared of where they would take me, especially with all of the “you remind me so much of your dad” comments I had received. I will forever be grateful to him for allowing me to stand on my own, but learn it is okay to lean on others a little when I need it.
Meeting new people, and the thought of beginning a relationship terrified me. I hated when people asked me my plans for the future because I was honestly just focused on making it through the day. How would I explain my future when I didn’t even know what it entailed? It was terrifying to think that I still had a whole life ahead of me. I was scared to talk about my dad and I felt even guiltier that I wanted to just avoid the topic. Being so young, when I only talk about my mom, people ask about my dad. When I say he passed away, they ask how. This pattern put me at a disadvantage. I was already making myself uncomfortable before anyone else had the chance to, a new trend I was seeing in my life. But, on the other hand, it was also a lot easier for me to latch on to people that I met after my dad died. These people didn’t know the old me and wouldn’t compare how I was acting to any precedent. They simply knew me, and the magic of it was that they still liked me.
Things got really hard, and days got really long, and it would be a lie if I only talked about the good I’ve encountered. I think it’s important to acknowledge the bad; the anger, the sadness, the betrayal, the dark thoughts. I find myself more comfortable and at home with people who accept the ugly. I learned quickly to discover my real friends. The ones who sit and listen when I need it most and who can sit in silence with me and understand that sometimes that is all that I need.
Days are still hard. I still find myself lost some days, and some days, I feel like I am exactly where I should be. The good days are laced with a little bit of sadness because I can’t share them with the person I want to the most. I have to believe that things happen for a reason because that’s one of the things that keeps me going. I have to believe in the good over the bad, and light over the dark, and that no matter what, things will always work out. I have to believe in these things to put a smile on and keep going with my everyday life.
I find that my perspective on life and so many things has changed drastically. Before, I was always career-oriented and thought this was what would define my success going forward. I started in the corporate world and knew I could climb the ladder if I wanted to. In the year following my dad’s death, I realized I wasn’t really sure that’s the definition of success that I wanted in my life. My dad worked really hard to provide for our family, but unfortunately, it was one of the things that led to his death. It took me reflecting back on my his last few months and my life growing up to realize that the only thing that will define my happiness and success is my family. For a while, I lived breath to breath simply trying to survive, but there came a point when I thought about things in my future, like a wedding, and I cried. I cried for hours because it took me ten months to imagine a future where I was happy. I saw myself being happy again, and the things in my future that made me happy weren’t money or a job, it was my family and loved ones. That’s what will carry me and give me strength I need on the hard days when I feel like I can’t go on.
I grew up a lot after losing my dad, and I look for the good in situations now. I hope that by sharing my story it can help others begin to share their own. I have found that talking about my dad and what I have been through provides me with some of the closure I will never get from the situation. I continue to be open and talk about him because you never know when someone may really need that kind of talk. I can’t explain how much my views have changed, but I know that regardless, I am becoming happy with the person I am. Perhaps, happier with myself than I used to be. Don’t get me wrong, not happier overall, but I am comfortable with who I am now. I find myself more patient and empathetic, more willing to take the time to smell the roses and not only get to know people, but truly appreciate them. I am more self-aware and willing to admit my faults and work on my weaknesses.
It takes a lot of strength to respect your own boundaries when other people, especially those you care about, push them. The best advice I received was from my mom and it is something that will apply to the rest of my life. She told me “You don’t owe anyone anything.” It seems so simple and so known, but the fact is, we spend our lives trying to please people and I had to learn that the most important person to make happy was myself. I don’t owe anyone an explanation for the bad days, for the cuss words, the tears, where I am going or “what wrong with me.” I don’t owe anyone answers to the questions they ask me about my dad, especially ones that I feel are none of their business. I don’t owe anyone anything, and the sense of empowerment that comes from that is something I hope to pass on to whoever is willing to listen.
If I had to pick one piece of advice for anyone going through a suicide loss, it’s to find a physical reminder of your strength, happiness or love, whether it’s a letter, a picture or piece of clothing – find something. Being able to see something concrete makes all the difference in the world in remembering the reasons you are here today and will continue to conquer the mountains to come. My case is a tad extreme, but I got a tattoo four months after my dad’s suicide. I never thought I would get a tattoo, but I had a lot of people telling me I was so strong and asking how I did it, and my response was always “you find a way to keep going.” One day, I felt like I was running low on reasons to keep going. I decided to get a semicolon tattooed on the back of my shoulder for mental illness. It’s a permanent, everyday reminder that I have reasons to keep going and to never give up. It’s on my shoulder because my past is behind me and not what defines me. I needed encouragement to look forward and keep my head up and shoulders back. When I have hard days, I have something to remind me of how far I’ve come and how far I will go.