Living in fear: We appeared to be the perfect family
My mother’s first hospitalization for attempting suicide came before I even knew what the word meant
BY SUEANN JACKSON-LAND — I can close my eyes and see myself at around 8 or 9 years old, sitting with my knees scrunched under me on the floorboard of a 1974 Dodge Coronet. The first poem I wrote was a prayer. Rounding the corner in that same old big brown boat that disguised its ugliness as a car, I can also clearly remember hanging on to the interior door handle as the door swung open and I looked at the pavement racing past me.
Living with my mother was like that. You’d be riding along on a nice sunny day, enjoying the view of the Susquehanna River and downtown Harrisburg one minute and having a face first view of the macadam a minute later.
We had moved from Mechanicsburg to Lebanon, Pennsylvania in 1974. I believe it was around Thanksgiving of that year. The very first thing I remember about the house on Oxford Drive was that it had a fireplace in the middle of two rooms. Encased in a wall that you could see from both the family room and the living room, I found the perfect hiding place. My mother had become increasingly violent toward me and I was disappointed because I thought, too, that the move would somehow change everything and make us a family again.
“Three hugs,” they would say and all three of us would embrace in the kitchen. Three hugs.
My dad was gone all the time, working. We had a bigger house, two cars in the driveway and all the accoutrements of living in the “wealthy” neighborhood in little Lebanon. He was so busy trying to keep us afloat, perhaps he thought if he worked hard enough or long enough it would be easier to come home. Once again, we had wiped the slate clean and appeared to be the perfect family. Something was happening, however, that could not be stopped or somehow hidden, I was growing older. It was no longer possible to deny what was going on. I knew other children would find out and I would be teased or ridiculed about my parents. It was only a matter of time.
When we moved I was 9, but I was an old 9. I began to yell back at my mother. Like so many snapshots in my memory, the story is incomplete. The last memory I have of my mother alive was the day she grabbed a pair of scissors and chased me around the house. I can’t even tell you what I did to spur it on. From the living room, I tried to run and crawl through the fireplace because I knew then I’d be in the family room and I could run out the patio door to the backyard; but I knew she was going to catch my leg so I just ran to the corner of the doorway in the foyer and crouched on the floor. I was cornered.
A crazy woman and a little girl
She was coming at me with the scissors raised and I was yelling at her, “Mommy don’t! DON’T!” I could hear myself crying and screaming but somehow I wasn’t in my body any longer. I was standing aside and watching the crazy woman and the little girl. The mommy, my mommy, came to a halt in front of the crouched girl and started making faces at her. She was crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue and saying, “Aw com’n, SueAnn, it’s just a game. See? I’m not going to hurt you. Whatever gave you an idea that I would do that? Don’t overreact, now.”
That’s how my life has been. Right there. See with your eyes, feel with your heart, know with your intelligence, but rely on someone else’s explanation of what really happened. Deny it. Suppress it. Act it out. And when you really want the answers and gather up the courage to ask, the pleas will fall down an empty canyon gathering darkness and going nowhere. It’s just your imagination.
My golden rule: ‘Do not become my mother’
I was just looking at the date of “when” in time I began writing this chapter and it was July 2, 2001. Three days later I would be hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. I have always denied any suicidal thoughts because I, above all else, did not want to become my mother. Doris began to attempt suicide long before I was old enough to even recognize the word, let alone the act.
I have scant memories of my mother being hospitalized in the Polyclinic Hospital in Pennsylvania for drinking rubbing alcohol or was it Clorox, I can’t remember now. What I do remember is that she was gone for a little while and she learned how to make octopuses out of yarn. Creative, we are, the Jacksons. I suppose we must learn to escape the doldrums and the voices that loom in our collective subconscious. My mother came home with a purple octopus and an orange octopus and it was a brief glimpse, a warm touch, from the person other people knew.
This story has been told so many times that I recite it now without the emotion that used to accompany it. It became my explanation for every single thing that I did wrong or that was wrong with me. It was my crutch for a long time, and, truthfully, I needed the crutch.
I think what hurt most was my pride. I’d like to be emotional, or even a daughter, and say that I missed my mother; truthfully, I was relieved.
SueAnn Jackson-Land is a writer living in Sudbury, Ontario. She would like to be a chaplain, but is mostly just grateful to still be breathing, to be given the opportunity to learn, to forgive (and be forgiven) and go on.