Six years ago, my mum wrote her last letter full of love and forgiveness and committed suicide. This was the end. The end of 15 years of depression and many years of excruciating back pain that had made my mother’s life a daily struggle.
I rarely share this with people. But whenever I do, I almost always receive shocked, sad or sorry looks. And usually a certain dose of surprise about my being a relatively functional and happy human being - despite all that.
I don’t blame anyone for expecting me to be broken. For expecting me to carry this loss around like a big sign on my forehead. But the truth is very different. My mum’s life and her death have taught me resilience.
Admittedly, it took me years of therapy to understand how strong she was. For quite some time I was not able to appreciate that. Now I can. And I see the fruits of our difficult journey together.
Mum and newborn me, May 1986
My mum fell into depression as she was entering menopause. There were several factors for that, including mobbing at work and a heavy family history, which meant she had had to raise her siblings, as grandma was unable to do so - she, too, had suffered from depression and lost her husband to suicide when my mum was teenager. Children of depressed parents are two to three times more likely than the average person to struggle with their mental health - a statistic (1) which rang very true for my mum. But that’s not all.
Knowing what I know now about menopause, I am sure this was an important factor: There are so many challenges women face during this period that remain unspoken and therefore hidden. Many of us suffer quietly from depression at this point of our lives (2). That my mum never returned to the happy, loving and caring mother figure she had been when I was little, must have had a lot to do with that.
Just as she was starting to struggle with depression and feeling like less of a woman, I had my first period. My body started to change in an uncontrollable way, the hormones pushing me towards the next stage of womanhood, while hers might have felt as if withering away. I was in desperate need of a strong feminine figure to help me grow as a woman and tackle the challenges of my teenage years. Instead all I was seeing was weakness, tears, and complaints. Seeing my mum getting sadder and sadder had me stashing cookies under my pillow and, at night, I’d try to eat away the pain. And I became increasingly resentful: I desperately needed my mum, but I had to become hers. For many years, this made me angry, so very angry.
The anger of the wounded child became a wall between our womanhood. I could not see how much strength and resilience she was showing me and the rest of the world by simply still standing; depressed but fighting. After having lost so many loved ones to suicide or disease, having struggled through a painful divorce, and with her two adult children gone and friends pushed away by the difficult character traits brought on (or exacerbated, hard to say) by her condition.
Rather, all I could see was how she was failing as my mother. And I was scared of carrying in myself the same destructive seed - my genes making it more likely that I would end up like her, sad and alone. So I built myself in opposition to her: trying to be all the things I thought she was not.
A year before my mum’s death, I went on a yoga retreat that changed my life. Not only because it helped me get a completely new perspective on my future but also on my past and my present - which is to say: a new view of my mum.
At the retreat, deep in the French countryside, I felt stuck sharing a room with a woman who reminded me of everything I hated about my mum. This lady had just lost her daughter to suicide and offloaded her heavy emotions on me just the same way my mum used to burden others with her sadness. During the first night in our little cottage in the middle of the woods she had an asthma crisis and the inhaler in my bag probably saved her life.
The day after, I asked to change rooms - only to realise that I had never been meant to share a room with the lady in the first place. It had been a mistake I made on the day of our arrival that had thrown us together. The whole experience triggered a strong urgency to make peace with my mum: I did not need to feel trapped, I could choose to heal myself and thereby our relationship.
I’m grateful for many things in my life, but making peace with my mum before she died is probably the one thing I’m the most grateful for. The last two times I got to be in her presence, the only thing I could feel for her was unconditional love and compassion. When she committed suicide, I did not have to add the burden of regret to my sadness.
Still, her loss created a hole in my heart, which I used to try to fill by working way too much and never resting. It was my amazing coach who helped me make this hole mine and gave me the ability to pause, breathe and heal. I quickly came to realise that this abyss is always going to be there. It's part of me and it's a place that invites me to introspect. I mentally lay down some flowers, string a garland of lanterns around it, and from time to time, pull an invisible chair next to it. That’s my place to have a chat with the void and rest in its silence.
In this silence, I see my mum as the woman she was before she became a mother. Weirdly, in most of the photos of her that I have hung up in my apartment, she is the same age as I am now - in her mid-thirties. For some reason, what remains in my heart is that image of her, the woman, not the mother. Because for most of my life, the mother was not the one I needed, and my frustration did not allow me to get to know the woman.
Only after I had lost her, I realised that I had not seen her for who she really was, but exclusively for who she had failed to be - to me. Just a couple of years ago, I started asking family members and friends she had been close to, who my mother had been for them. It is their memories of her that have started to make the contours of her as a living and breathing woman with hopes, dreams and talents less blurry.
I will never know who she really was. But after processing my anger towards her failure in her role as a mum, I got to realise how strong and resilient she was. And that even her very last act was one of love - she did not want to be a burden for us any longer.
Having me witness her 15 years of depression and eventually her suicide, after she had loved me so hard while I was little, my mum unknowingly gave me one of the most powerful gifts of a parent can offer: resilience.
No matter what happens to me, I will go through it, learn from it, grow and feel happiness again. This deeply rooted knowledge carries me through life.
(2) A study published in 2010 conducted on a sample of 685 women aged 45 to 59 years shows found that the prevalence of depression symptoms among the perimenopausal and postmenopausal women was 41.8%. In another study published in 2006, investigators from the Harvard Study of Moods and Cycles recruited premenopausal women aged 36–44 years with no history of major depression and followed up these women for 9 years to detect new onsets of major depression; they found that women who entered perimenopause were twice as likely to have clinically significant depressive symptoms as women who had not yet made the menopausal transition. This topic is still very much under-researched like many mental and physical health challenges faced by women and people who menstruate.