[This is the true story of the darkest few months of my life. I hope and believe others can learn from it. It revolves around my daughter Anna, and Anna has reviewed and given her consent for me to post each of the parts in this series. It is her desire for others to learn from her experience. She has blogged on this experience from her perspective this week as well.]
Christy, who until this time had been tense but fairly stoic, began to cry as we walked — stunned, through the sterile halls at White Pines. Things like this don’t happen in good, supportive, loving families. Do they? Her tears turned to sobs which turned to gasps and by the time we were outside she couldn’t go on. Literally. She doubled over there on the sidewalk, and for a time, could neither move nor be moved. She had taken charge and gotten our family through this terrible time on the homefront, and now was a time for grieving. I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there, numbly and dumbly, holding her hand. Decades of counseling experience, teaching, pastoring, critical incident work, and a lot of degrees on my wall added up to less than nothing as I stood paralyzed and silent. I had been insufficient for my daughter and I was insufficient for my wife. I couldn’t see signs of Anna’s depression, or prevent her attempt, and now there was nothing I could say to console my wife. I couldn’t hug Brittany and Kyra tightly enough to shield them from what they would have to walk through. I had never, and have never, felt so powerless, so ineffectual.
We really only stood there for a minute or two. I managed to finally lead Christy to the car and get her ensconced in her seat and then we pealed off to drive the one hour back home without speaking, sniffling to the sounds on the radio. We stepped across the threshold into our home. It was not the same place. The house hadn’t changed, but our home was now broken, sans one member entirely, and sans 3/4 of each of the rest of us. By now Christy had borrowed lockboxes from a friend and all knives and sharp objects, all medications of any kind, had been locked away in our bedroom. The knives have been back in the kitchen for a while but we have still not been able to bring ourselves to return the medicine to the cabinets, even though we realize in our heads that for the most part Anna is out of danger. We were sickened to have her at White Pines, but scared to death to have her come home. We knew that at least she was safe.
We collapsed on our bed, pinkies locked, staring at the ceiling. Finally it came.
“I’ll bet you feel like this is your fault?” Christy half-asked, half-said.
“I know it’s not. I can tell you how there is still no way to accurately predict suicide, that it affects all kinds of people in all kinds of families, and that there’s nothing either of us could have done.”
“That’s not what I said. I said I’ll bet you FEEL like this is your fault?”
And then, “I do. I can’t stop wondering what I missed and what was so bad about Anna’s life that she even considered doing this. And I think that when it all comes down, it’s going to be about being a pastor’s daughter — about the pressure kids put on her at school. When she’s good she’s the straight-laced PK, and when she messes up she’s called a hypocrite and people ask her what her daddy would think. She’s damned if she does the right thing, and damned if she doesn’t. We’ve done an awesome job making sure people have reasonable expectations for her at church but she has really struggled at school. And I don’t know if I’ve done enough to help her deal with it.”
There it was. “I don’t know if I’ve done enough.” That’s always what it is, no matter how much you have done.
“You didn’t cause this. This is not your fault,” Christy assured me. Perhaps no words lightened the load as those did in that moment. I assured her of the same and I know we both struggled with some of those feelings, but because I’m the pastor and the counselor, I think I took it personally in a way she didn’t. It was good to know Anna’s mom didn’t think I was to blame. I knew she wasn’t to blame either. We both just wished we could find some reason. That’s the circle you get stuck in. “If only I could find what I might have missed. If only I could pin this on something.” But at the same time you’re really hoping you can’t find anything you’ve missed because that will only exacerbate the guilt and the sense of being responsible. On the other hand, if in some way you really are responsible, you want to know that because you want to make whatever changes are needed. But of course if you really are responsible — blah, blah, blah.
I was so angry with Anna. I had never felt so angry at her, nor so overwhelmed with love for her — for all of my girls. I felt so betrayed and yet I was fearful that if I lashed out, or even expressed this to her a little bit, it would “cause” her to go back into a slump and become a danger to herself again. We felt resentful that maybe we couldn’t share honestly with her, frustrated and uncertain if she might use this to manipulate us into letting her do whatever she wanted to do (she never did), and so broken not only for Anna but for our other two daughters, both of whom had not attempted suicide and whom we had to move to the back burner. We have even struggled a little with these feelings in the wake of the success of these posts. Anna has gotten so many warm wishes and we love that we are really helping people, and we want people to encourage and validate Anna for the courage she is showing. But we again find ourselves seeing our two other equally beautiful and amazing daughters sidelined a little as Anna is again the “main event” in our home right now. That really is the life of a pastor’s family though. Though it can be really helpful to people, there is always a price you pay when you make your pain public. And that’s what is behind so many cards and emails and comments we have gotten from so many of you. We have found that a lot of people have borne similar burdens but are, understandably, fearful of making their pain public.
Don’t be. After Roger Ebert had had severely deforming surgery to remove salivary gland cancer he chose to appear in public in his permanently mangled form. Someone asked if he hadn’t considered plastic surgery and he responded to the effect of, “People in this world get sick, and have surgeries, and die. This doesn’t look very good. Maybe we’d be better off if we learned to accept it.”
My name is David Flowers. I am a pastor, a father of three beautiful girls, husband to my high school sweetheart, a licensed counselor, and an instructor in the Master of Counseling program at Spring Arbor University. My youngest daughter, Anna, tried to take her life on June 23, 2011. Though our family has grieved, and are all still grieving, it was not our fault. People in this world get depressed, and attempt suicide. Sometimes they succeed, usually they fail (if indeed there’s any rational way you can call that “failure”). None of this looks or feels very good. But maybe we’d be better off it we learned to accept it.