38 and Closer to My Mother’s Suicide

In the Broken Hearts breathwork circle, I was told to picture a wide net. Mine was made of golden fibers. Everything I’d done in the workshop had been golden. We were all lying on the floor, me on my yoga mat, covered in a blanket. The net was wide, and the teacher instructed us to visualize everything we wanted and cast the net over it. I pictured myself signing books.

I do this a lot, picture myself signing books. I’m at a cheap plywood table and the book I’ve written is in a pile beside me, amongst its siblings, all hardcover. There is a line of people, all waiting to chat with me, to tell me what they think of my book. The picture has the detailed gleam of something oft imagined; there is a bookshelf next to me, a creaky wood floor beneath my feet, and in my line of vision I can see the small podium from which I just read a couple segments of my book. The line isn’t long, the people in it aren’t wild with excitement. It’s a short line. But everyone there are all weirdos, like me. All people who grew up feeling outside their family, outside their peers, outside. Some of the people have seen the same kinds of trauma I’ve seen. Have contemplated the meaning of their lives and wondered if their lives meant enough to keep going. Some of the people in the line, like me, have been sexually assaulted, maybe even gang-raped, like I was when I was sixteen. Some of them have lost a parent to suicide, like I have.

My teacher, a blonde woman with a curly shag, like mine, instructs us to ball our hands into fists, to set our feet flat on the floor so our knees stick up. Now bang your hands and feet on the floor. I begin hitting the floor of the yoga studio with my fists. I really go for it. I stomp my feet when she tells me to, and I can feel the energy, the powerful, glittering energy that is mostly unfelt and dormant inside me, being released. Now let it out, she says. Scream if you want to. I scream, and then when she tells us to, I scream again. When she tells us to stop, we do, and we straighten our legs out.

Think of something you want to be free of, she says. I’m surprised at what comes up for me next, the same net except not gold but instead dull, just like the graying, frayed nets that fishermen toss into the ocean. The kind of net things get stuck in. The kind of net things die in. I picture that net and picture the gun my mom used to shoot herself. I’ve never seen the gun; it wasn’t one of the things the coroner returned to me in the little florescent room where I was instructed to check off a list: $2000 in cash she’d left me, her cell phone, her notes. So many notes. But I saw the receipt for the gun piled amongst all the other receipts she left behind on her dining room table, the pile a symbol of the $500,000 divorce settlement she’d spent in only three years, mostly on wine, exorbitant rent, and gifts for her younger boyfriend. The frayed, dingy net was my mother’s suicide. She’d cast it over me when she decided to find the exit to this world. She hadn’t meant to, but she did. Everything painful she’d been trying to escape, she handed it to me, and I took it, just like I’d always taken what she gave me.

At the end of the breathwork circle we all sat in a big circle, about thirty women and one man. We were asked to share. I told the circle that I’d recently moved back to Seattle, only a month ago, after having been gone for about seven years. My mom died a very violent death here, I said. I told them that the workshop helped me to feel closer to something resembling a community, a sense of belonging in a city I so deeply associated with my mother’s death. I didn’t tell them she died of suicide. That word is hard to say, especially after witnessing the visceral aversion that floats to the surface of people’s demeanor when it’s spoken. I’d worked really hard to make myself okay after my mom’s death. Years of therapy. I was still working hard. But one look from someone could scald me, show me that I was still scarred just by having been the daughter of someone who would make such a decision.

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Until I was thirteen it was just my mom and me. I was born in Los Angeles, in the Church of Scientology, but my mom left the church, and my dad, before I was two. She returned home to Kirkland, WA, and found a boyfriend. For most of my childhood (save a couple years when I lived with my grandparents) I witnessed the revolving door of my mother’s lovers, heard them having sex so loudly it scared me. I saw the way she lit up when men acknowledged her, the way she dimmed when they didn’t. My mother, through her words and actions, taught me that beauty was Number One. By the time I was thirteen she’d married an alcoholic and I’d run away twice.

When I was at home I couldn’t stop eating. I ate as much as I could and then “took a bath.” Really, I’d run the bathwater and shove my toothbrush down my throat, vomit into the toilet. The sound of the running water disguised my sickness. I’d been chubby, and as I lost weight I saw my mother’s love for me grow in strength and complexity. I was beautiful, she could show me off, but now I was also competition. She and my stepdad would openly comment on my breasts and body, asking me to stand in the middle of our living-room during the nightly news and turn for them. Your boobs are big just like mine were, my mother would say, and my stepfather would scoff. They’d critique me, telling me I needed to stand a certain way, or lose the pooch in my lower abdomen. I’d lift my shirt when they asked, so they could look at my stomach, dimpled. Ugly. That’s your worst part, my mom would say.

All the attention I’d watched my mother get, I got. I was a size ten and now the boys at school noticed me. I slept with them in their cars and trucks, felt sick about it the next day, pretended I wanted them when I only wanted to feel wanted. I got used to saying yes because saying yes was so much easier than saying no. I knew I was attracted to girls, but I didn’t know how to be serious about it. My stepdad used the word queer like a fire-ripened sword, to wound. I brought a girl home once and he jeered at us, the way she put her hand on my back, like a boyfriend would. My mom made fun of lesbians. She expressed attraction to women, but always joking. I retreated into myself. I kissed women, but I knew I couldn’t bring a woman home.

Since I was little I’ve had a recurring dream; I’m at the top of a hill and start sliding down. I can’t stop myself. Was it that, for her? I was twenty-nine when she called me to tell me she had cancer. Living in Denver, going to therapy, earnestly working to recover from my eating disorder, recently free of an abusive relationship. I’d begun to peel away the cloying, slimy layers of self-hatred my mom and stepdad had wrapped me in, but in doing so I’d needed to separate from her. When I was around my mother I was meant to nod and agree. Any time I asserted my individuality, she’d react by sticking her fingers into my deepest wounds and reopening them. Showing me that she still had the upper hand. I have cancer, she moaned into the phone. It’s real bad. I immediately thought she was lying, then I shoved my doubt deep down my throat, along with everything else.

I moved to Seattle to try and save her in January 2010. I had a job starting in April, in Alaska. Mom had never been single before and was consumed by her solitude. Growing up she’d always told me you saved my life. I was her only child. Without a boyfriend, a husband, a lover, I was her only person. She threw her rope out and it encircled me and tightened until I couldn’t breathe. I took a temporary job at a gym as the night housekeeper. I didn’t date. I worked, slept, and went to her rental house. I mopped her kitchen floor, sat on the couch with her, watched her drink bottle after bottle of wine. When her face went blank, I left. I told her I’d stay if she’d go to a therapist, or take me with her to a doctor. She did neither. So I left in April, to Alaska. She shot herself less than a month later, the day before Mother’s Day 2010.

In the time between that gunshot and now I quit my job as a firefighter. Moved to Seattle, sold and gave away most of her possessions. Moved to California, worked on a farm. Moved to Syracuse, graduated from both undergraduate and graduate school. Now I’m here. Back in Seattle.

I haven’t driven by her old rental house yet, but I know it’s empty. It was a shitty house. To me, she still lives there, and here, in this city. I can find her at Pike Place Market, where she and I used to go when I was little, before she met my stepdad. Before things got really bad. We’d go to a shop called The Soap Box. I stood outside the shop two weekends ago. I couldn’t go in. Everything here is familiar, so viscerally familiar. When I’m at the market I feel transparent; my cells are a part of everything. I am composed of the air and earth and little shops I walked into when I was little. A little girl. Before all this happened.

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I’m only twelve years away from making it to the age my mom was when she died. She was always terrified of being alone. I’ve been single, save for some random dating, for nearly ten years. She hid herself. I’m open about my struggles with mental health, my path to recovery from bulimia, and my experience with PTSD after her suicide. And I’m open about my queerness, something I’ve only been exploring in earnest in the past few years, although I understand I’ve been queer all my life.

My first memory of being attracted to girls is from elementary school. A new girl had shown up, a girl who moved around a lot, like me. She had long straight blonde hair and her name was Auna. She licked a slug on a dare. I watched her do it and wanted to kiss her. It was the first time I’d wanted to kiss anybody. My first kiss was actually by a man, forced in an alleyway, when I was thirteen. I didn’t get to choose it.

What does it feel like to be so scared to be your true self? I can tell you, but my mother could tell you more. Or, she couldn’t, I guess, because she was so scared the fear itself was untouchable. It governed her. It made all her important decisions, including her last decision. Who would my mom have loved, if she’d been allowed to love freely? That’s a question I ask myself. Who would I love if I allowed myself to love freely, without fear?

I don’t know the answer. My fear is still big. I know the way it works. I know it isolates me, and I work my way through that isolation in small steps, trusting people in small ways. The only ways I can manage. I’m lucky. I can appreciate the texture of my solitude. It doesn’t feel lonely, or sad – it’s beautiful, perhaps even kind. If I listen hard I can still hear the voice inside my mother’s head. She passed it into mine, and for years it ruled like her. It’s a soft voice now, impotent. I hear it and let it go. In finding that freedom for myself am I somehow finding some freedom for her, too? For her spirit, wherever it is?

I hope so.🎈


edited by carmen.


Anastasia Selby was born in Los Angeles and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She spent the majority of her twenties working as a wildland firefighter and returned to college at age 32 to finish her undergraduate degree. Anastasia holds an MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University and currently lives in Seattle, WA. You can follow her on twitter or her website.

Anastasia has written 1 articles for us.

21 Comments

  1. Anastasia. This is incredible, brave, beautiful, extraordinary, important. Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. I’m not that good at words so I’m just going to give myself permission to repeat myself. This is so IMPORTANT. It’s so brave. It’s so brave and beautiful and inspiring. You are a Courage Goddess. I bow to you, this piece of writing is an amazing incredible GIFT to us. I’m vibrating to my core with awe and gratitude. I send you so much love. so much love. so much love. Thank you so much for giving us this gift of your story you brave amazing darling Courage Goddess xxxxxxx

  2. Some of this really resonated with me personally, though differently because I never actually got to know my birth mother before she committed suicide, just a few email exchanges years before. It’s beautifully written and bravely vulnerable. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. This is incredibly beautiful, a beautiful tribute to yourself and a precious, protective tribute to your mother. thank you for sharing this. i hope you find your way to love whomever you want.

  4. This reminds me of a cousin I have now outlived, I didn’t get to know her very well due to age difference but the violence of her end chokes me. No one can bear to say it was suicide, and it’s not just because the Church would deny her a mass and burial. Beauty was her number one and it was very connected the fear of being alone and unloved because she wasn’t beautiful enough to hold a man and the men she tried to hold onto…

    For her reject I the importance our society has placed on romantic relationships, too much value has been placed on that.

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