Elizabeth's Story - E.L. Darling - Trigger Warning
It has been a little over a year since my daughter died. Sometime back I quit keeping track of the weeks and then months. My memories of her are sacred and I keep them in a special place within my mind. I love her with a ferocity that always surprises me when I think of it.
With great love comes great pain. Well into my grieving for my lost daughter, I have ceased to ask myself what I could have done to prevent her suicide. At least I am now spared that torture. Her name was Elizabeth. After many years of trying on different nicknames, she became “Liz” to her many friends and to our large family. I am told by people with expertise in these matters that Liz was typical of those from a comfortable background, who choose to end their lives.
When she was born -- only 24 years before she died -- I felt that my life was complete. She was healthy and quite different from my older child, her brother. He had and still struggles with ADHD. It runs in their father’s family. Holding her as a newborn, I thought that I had a child whose life would be as easy as my own. In the months and years that followed, however, I began to realize that Liz was exceptional. She hit all the developmental milestones except the social ones. She did not smile spontaneously. She was nervous around other children; and she did not interact much with adults. She was neither happy nor sad. She was, well, flat.
Early in her life, before she started school, Liz began to show signs of discomfort with herself. She compared herself to her older sibling, to older friends; and she pushed herself to be a high achiever in everything she did. After she started school this trend strengthened and picked up speed to the point that her father and I sometimes felt overwhelmed by her. We were busy with our young family and her problems seemed minor comparatively. We supported her as much as we were able. In those years there were countless meetings with concerned teachers. Our whole family participated individually in therapy. Nothing really seemed to help.
Puberty and adolescence brought more than growth spurts to our house. When Liz’s younger sister got her period before Liz, things took a big turn. Liz wanted a boyfriend and she was willing to offer whatever she needed to do, in order to be irresistible to her male peers. Trying to control her obsessiveness the only way I knew how, I guided her as she began experimenting with sex and relationships. This was our secret and it nearly destroyed my marriage with Liz’s father.
Barely a quarter into her Sophomore year of high school, Liz said she was going to run away. She wanted out of a system which she viewed as inappropriately dictatorial. Her father convinced her to stay so we could help her. She moved out of our home into our garden shed. At that point I could see it was going to be impossible to keep her on a “normal” path to adulthood, so I arranged for her to take her GED test and to begin college.
Soon she had her own apartment, on borrowed money. It was in the city near my workplace. It was the only way I felt I could keep an eye on her activities. But then one night she was attacked, pulled from her bicycle, and pistol-whipped. She moved back into our home. Her mental state was unstable. She moved in and out of our family home several times in a short period. She did graduate with a professional degree, so we all had hopes that things would level off for her. Liz’s longtime boyfriend, then a student but now a psychology professional, hoped the same.
Then her father dropped a bombshell on her: he confessed to her that he had cheated on me and lied to me about it. They had always been close and she was the only one to whom he felt comfortable confiding. Complicating her life even more, her boyfriend cheated on her and lied to her about it. When she caught him in that lie, something inside of her broke even further.
She quit her profession and started stripping. Then she started experimenting with hard drugs. That led to occasional prostitution broken by short periods of relative stability. I was not surprised but I was disappointed. One day about a year before she died, she announced that she was going on a cross-country trip to the West coast. She packed all her important possessions in her car and left town with fewer than $100 in her pocket. I told her father then that I thought the trip would either make her or break her.
The trip broke her. She associated with criminals and gangs. She was assaulted numerous times. She was raped. She gave away any money she earned. When her car broke down, she became homeless. From our vantage point far away, all we could offer was money and for her to come home. She took the money and after the weather turned cold, she also accepted the offer to come home. When she did not get on the train, my husband went to pick her up. He dropped everything. It was his birthday -- a fact I am not sure she appreciated until months later.
When Liz arrived back home with her father, I barely recognized her except for her beautiful face. Gone was the gung-ho, can-do spirit that characterized her prior to the trip. Gone was the determination to make something of her life. Instead, we witnessed her profound struggle with addiction withdrawal and depression. Shortly after Thanksgiving she made her first attempt to end her life. She climbed onto a tall bridge with the intent to jump. She did jump; but she changed her mind about dying and instead calculated a safer course into and through the late Autumn river waters. She survived with barely a scratch.
At that point, the mental health system finally kicked in. Liz was involuntarily confined for the better part of a week. Visiting her in “the pokey”, her father and I saw that relative to the others we observed there, Liz looked downright sane. The so-called mental health “professionals” could not help her. We knew that once she was released, she would never go back.
For the next few months there was calm. Liz got a part time job in a plant nursery. She began making friends with fellow dog-lovers at a nearby dog park. Still, we did not trust it. Her father quit his job so he could be available to her (and keep an eye on her). Then he started going out of town on the weekends, for a break from the emotionally and mentally grueling work he was doing with Liz.
It was on one of those weekends that Liz found the “right” opportunity to end her life. While I was away -- and during the time when she told me she would be at work -- she executed a well-formed plan to jump in front of a fast train. She only made one “mistake”: she entrusted a goodbye letter to someone who called her father, who instructed this person to read the contents. Once again, he stopped everything he was doing and started a long drive home. On the way, he called me and told me where he thought Liz would be.
I took my car and I searched for Liz. After more than two hours, I concluded that she was hiding and that I would not find her. How accurate that was. Barely 90 minutes before she died, I was a mere 300 feet from my daughter as she hid in the brush by railroad tracks. I am sure she must have seen me but she did not respond to my desperate calls and texts. She had turned off her phone so that we could not track her that way.
At the moment of my daughter’s death, I was finishing up a pizza with my other children. We heard the emergency response vehicles and I knew in my soul that they were for her. The rest was all the stuff of nightmares. I will never forget the agony I felt when I learned that she was indeed dead.
In retrospect, we could have paid more attention to the frequency with which Liz brought up the subject of suicide. But now, as then, I have no confidence in any available treatment. The mental health system had failed to help. Therapy failed to help. Our best efforts as parents had failed to help. Much is made of “suicide prevention” but I truly do not think it is possible to change the mind of a person set on it.
What I do know is that we now have a shrine in our home to our lost daughter. We seek every opportunity to talk about her. We remember the good times and the bad times. We cling to each other as the only thing upon which we can depend.
In a few months Liz’s younger sister is going to marry. Liz should be alive to be there. I do not know how we will handle this mixed blessing. I suppose that we will feel like all the other days since Liz died. Along with all the joy, we will feel a huge hole in our lives.