The Ones We Leave Behind

My mom has an incredibly annoying habit of starting conversations with me with the phrase, “What’s wrong?”

Example:  It is the day after Christmas.  I have been downstairs eating cake for breakfast in my pajamas.  I walk up the stairs and see my mom.  Startled, she looks at me.  “What’s wrong?”

Nothing. I say.  I was just eating cake downstairs.  Everything is perfect.

Example:  My mom calls me on the phone and leaves a voice mail.  I return her call.  She answers the phone—no “hello”—but “What’s wrong?”

It wasn’t always this way.


I don’t know what it is, what makes her do this.  It unnerves me to no end, makes me feel like she’s always on edge.  I have my theories, of course—that our relationship is forever changed by the knowledge of my mental illness, that she feels guilty that she didn’t know I had so many problems.  Guilty because she discouraged me from getting treatment the first time around.  Scared that it could happen again, a snap of the crazy finger and everything changed, or gone, again.

Once, when I was 21 and in the middle of the arduous task of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I spent the night at home.  It was Daylight Savings Time, the one where you spring forward and lose an hour, the same lost hour that started everything the year before.  The boy and I were both upset—him with me, and me with myself.  In the middle of the night, I slipped out of my bed and left a note saying I had gone to sleep at his house.  Later, in the early hours of the morning, someone shot a gun outside my house.  My parents awoke, saw I was out of bed, and immediately feared for the worst.  I got my mom’s panicked call on my cell phone, out-of-breath and hysterical.

I’m here. I said.  I’m alive.

But it was eye-opening, having a glimpse into the fears they had about my life and my illness.  The fact that they thought it could have been me has always shaken me to my core.


An essay on suicide and its presence in my life:

In 2002, a month before starting my senior year of high school, one of my best friend’s fathers committed suicide in the woods outside their house while no one was home.  Her mother, out of town and worried that she couldn’t contact him, called my friend on the phone and my father, brother and I drove home with her.  While we were in transit, he was found dead.  One of his employees knew me and knew that I was a friend of his daughter.  Trying to track her down, they called me.  We were halfway there.  We pulled over in the rain and I got out of the car.  At the age of 17, I had to tell this girl that her father died, that he’d committed suicide.  And then there, in my arms, were the pieces he’d blown apart with his gun.  I held the one who’d been left behind.

Last week, one of my closest friends called me—after a string of numbed-out half-started words, he finally choked out that he’d lost his college roommate.  I went over to his house and we sat outside as he smoked cigarettes.  He told me about the questionable nature of the death, about the erratic driving and an overcorrection of the steering wheel that flipped a car and left its driver DOA.

“His father told me that he’d been on pills, and I knew that he was having some problems.  But nothing like this.  And he never told me how he was feeling.  He never told me.  Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

He was asking because he knows about my experiences with mental illness, because he knows that I’ve been depressed.

So, I told him the truth.  That sometimes we don’t tell the people who are closest to us because we don’t want to change their perceptions of us.  We don’t tell them because we can’t bear the sideways glances, the frightened looks that make us feel crazier.  That we can’t stand the thought of hurting and worrying the ones we love.  That when we tell the closest ones, that’s when it really hits us.  That’s when it’s real.

It’s easy to tell strangers and people you’ve just met.  They don’t have any emotional investment in you or your well-being.  They don’t worry at night or when you call them on the phone.  They never will have to ask you, “What’s wrong,” and be scared of what the answer might be.

So he’s quiet and drunk and upset—all the things I’ve been before, when someone I knew unexpectedly died.  And he looks at me, and repeats himself.  “I just wish he had told me.”

And here I am, once more—holding in my arms one of the ones who’s been left behind.


It’s not my intention to proselytize or blame.  I’ve been on both sides of the matter, flipping back and forth like a metronome from experience to experience.  I know what it’s like to wallow in desperation and sadness that feels like it will never end.  I’ve visualized it in my head a thousand times—what it would look like to rake a razor down my wrist, what my feet would look like hanging from a rope or the moment of clarity I would have just as I jumped.  I’ve wished for cars to hit me in crosswalks, and I’ve thought incessantly on rough days of turning the steering wheel and careening into a tree.

But I know, too, about the ones we leave behind.  Friends, family, teachers and acquaintances.  The ones who will sit in doorways, mouths drooping with cigarettes and veins running with vodka, the ones who will ask “why” and “how” and blame themselves, no matter what anyone else tells them to the contrary.  I’ve been there too many times, and the pressure of these times is always enough to push me back.

But in the light of this most recent experience, I feel guilty for being so frustrated with my mother.  She asks “What’s wrong?” because she worries that the time she doesn’t is the time it will matter.  I want desperately to tell her that she shouldn’t worry.  That the truth is that, if that time came, she wouldn’t be the one to know.  No one would.  Our hearts are full of secrets and lies, of deceit and worry and fear, of questions that have no answers.

But I want to reassure her.  I want to reassure all of them.  “Don’t worry,” I want to whisper.  And even if I can’t guarantee it, I’m pretty sure.  If I could, I’d write them all promises.  “No matter what, no matter how hard it gets—I won’t leave you behind.”

Posted by AnotherChanceTo on January 28th, 2010
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2 Comments a “The Ones We Leave Behind”

  1. Nikki Z says:

    Thank you for the great post. I can relate in so many ways. However, I have never had to deal with someone else’s loss to suicide. That must be a really profound experience. I have never talked about my depression or suicidal thoughts to anyone that I am close too. My dr. is the only one who knows. When I think about running my car into a tree, or just wishing that the semi-truck would run the red light and hit me, I think about my kids. I think about how fucked up their lives would be if their mom committed suicide. Even though I sometimes wonder if my death would be better than being raised by a crazy mom who does not give them the care and attention that they deserve.

    See, I can write this comment that will be read by people that I don’t know, but I could never say anthing like this to my mother or my husband or even my friends (the few that I still have).

    Thank you for the sharing the great post.

  2. Roman says:

    Great post. I can totally relate. My family was exactly the same way. My own parents (extremely abusive) had that whole “what’s wrong” thing down pat, and unfortunately, it has become pervasive throughout our society, a form of histrionic behavior. When I meet someone who uses that word, I run.

    I found you can never reason with these people. I made a momentous decision: I stopped all communication with parents, siblings (except one). The false guilt I felt has subsided. Best move I ever made. I owe them nothing. Best of luck to you.

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