Mary Anne Gotheridge has seen her family struggle with mental illness and ultimately suicide, and even considered taking her own life at one time. Now, many years later she hopes by telling her story she can help others who may share her experiences.

A promise made after crippling loss

Struggling to survive after a decade of quiet desperation
“He put his pencil down and he looked at me and was so kind and he said, ‘Well, first of all, I don’t think you’re crazy and even if I did, I couldn’t put you in a mental institution because Ronald Regan shut them all down.’”

Part three in an ongoing series 

Writer’s note:It was a year ago that I attended the memorial of someone dearly loved in this community who died by suicide. He had a wit and mile-wide grin which made him able to befriend nearly anyone. The loss of him sent shock-waves throughout the community and rocked the lives of many of my friends. Processing the loss of someone who dies by suicide is entirely personal and difficult on so many levels. 

Most who have endured such a loss would argue that a psychological and emotional scab needs to develop before discussing it in a public forum. Out of duty to my profession, I asked his family if they would be receptive to discussing his loss. They were not.

So, I went another direction – to a former co-worker and friend who has had decades to process the staggering loss within her own family. Throughout the interview she continually emphasized no judgement: no judgement for the people who are in so much pain they can’t stay; no judgement for the people trying to process trauma from the loss of them; no judgement for finding life difficult and no judgement for seeking help.

“There’s courage in survival,” she said. “I don’t say that in judgement of the people who don’t survive – there is also courage in surviving for as long as you can.” 

She hopes her story will help someone who is struggling find the help they need. 

Mary Anne Gotheridge and her fiancé were photojournalists in Southern California. In her early 20s, her life was full of artistic endeavors and love. Talented and beautiful, hers was a world ripe with promise. Then she received a phone call which led her back home and down a treacherous, heart-wrenching path of tragedy and loss. Years later, she would explain that we never would have worked together or even met if it hadn’t been for a graveside promise: She wouldn’t have been alive. 

The loss 

In four years Gotheridge lost her kid brother to suicide, her father to suicide, her mother to suicide and then lost her grandmother – who raised her – to natural causes. After all that tragedy she returned to the home she shared with her fiancé. One July morning they had breakfast and went their separate ways to work. By that afternoon she received a phone call: he collapsed in a café during lunch and died. Nearly every single person who mattered to her was gone in short succession. 

The promise 

On Christmas day the following year, Gotheridge, her sister and niece stood at the graves of her brother, father and grandmother. 

“It ends here,” they all swore – they would never take their lives, no matter how bad it got. It was a tremendous promise to make and one that kept them all going in spite of nights in the “deep, dark ocean [of emotion]” with “crazy-ass thoughts.” 

The sisters spoke of how they felt like they were survivors of a genocide within their family – one created by pain; addiction; loss. They were exposed to the extremes of suicide: young and middle-aged; passionate and premeditated. 

What happened? 

No one saw it coming when her brother Dail died. 

“My brother was happy go lucky. It was shocking. I couldn’t believe what they were telling me. I was like, ‘You’re wrong,’” she explained. He was 21 years old. When she looks at family photos – even his baby photos – he was pure joy from day one. Early photos of her parents paint a similar story: they were all smiles – hopeful and in love. 

To this day she still wonders: What happened? 

Her parents divorced when she was three years old. Her grandmother and father raised Gotheridge, her sister and brother. Her father struggled with alcoholism and was convinced that his addiction devastated the family and contributed to her brother’s suicide. 

“My dad had many attempts. I found him and got the paramedics there five times. I felt responsible. It took me about 10 years to remove the noose from my neck for letting him down,” she said. 

Her mother always felt overlooked – never heard. They attempted to get her in the hospital to save her, but she escaped. At 5’9” she died weighing around 80 pounds from starving herself to death. All awakened different emotions in Gotheridge: shock and devastation at the loss of her brother; heavy sorrow for her father and anger at her mother. 

“I just started hyperventilating. It was just horrible,” she explained at the loss of her mother. “I had just lost my brother and just lost my father and I needed her more than ever in my life.”

Sadness quickly turned to rage.  

 “If I didn’t get mad, I probably would have lost it myself. Anger is what kept me going. I’m not mad at her anymore – I understand.” 

When people failed her

She was gutted by all that happened and then kicked by the very people who were supposed to provide comfort. 

“It started with my brother – they would say things. They would say to my grandmother who was in her 80s, ‘Well you know he’s not going to go to heaven because he committed suicide.’ That was what the religions at that time believed.”

 As a result, she had a religious reckoning of sorts in her early 20s. Mainstream religion no longer held a place for her. She embraced her own kind of spirituality. 

“I thought, ‘I would rather be in the Hell my brother is in than the Heaven you’re in, because he’s a really good person,’” she said. 

She struggled with the losses and from added stigma associated with suicide. Co-workers would want to get to know her and ask around the holidays where her parents lived and she would be honest. Every person she told would “look like I’d thrown cold water in their face,” and the encounters would get awkward. She grew to dread the holidays and the strained exchanges and learned to dodge the questions from co-workers. When they would ask about her family, she would turn the conversation back on them. No one noticed. 

Shortly after the losses people would ask how she was doing. Her response would be, “I’m still here.” That’s all she could say. 

“I made a promise and because I knew how devastated I was – I got to experience that, the total devastation – I didn’t want to be responsible for that – for putting that on someone,” she said. 

When professionals failed her

She existed in a fog: years of just work and sleep. When her consideration of suicide hit a fever pitch, she dragged herself to a counselor.

“I spent 10 years of just being lost, trying to find someone to talk to. It was hard for me to verbalize that my brother had killed himself, then my father and my mother. So, I was just sobbing. And finally, I was opening up to a counselor,” she said – before he interrupted her to tell her the allotted time was up and she would need to make another appointment for the following week. 

Appalled, she went to a physician and asked for a mental health referral. He asked why. She explained that she had lost her brother, father and mother to suicide. He asked the time frame and she explained that it happened 10 years before. “Oh, well you should be over it, then,” was his response. 

She lost it and swears people in the waiting room could hear her. 

“I was screaming: I’M NOT F––––– OVER IT. THAT’S WHY I’M HERE ASKING FOR A REFERRAL,” she said. “I got my referral. He sent me to a psychiatrist – Dr. Sponsler. That man saved my life.”

Finding help and hope

She entered Dr. Sponsler’s office with apprehension and he asked about her visible discomfort.

She told him she was terrified he was going to put her in a mental institution. 

“He put his pencil down and he looked at me and was so kind and he said, ‘Well, first of all, I don’t think you’re crazy and even if I did, I couldn’t put you in a mental institution because Ronald Regan shut them all down.’”

He made her laugh and feel a little more comfortable. Then he retrieved a piece of paper and asked how many hours she slept each night. She explained that she worked eight-hour days, so subtract 9 hours from 24: 15 hours. She slept 15 hours a day and had been for most of the past decade. Then he asked how much she ate per day. It was established that she wasn’t eating nearly enough. She told him about the suicides and the sudden loss of her fiancé and how people had been telling her she should be over it; how she tried everything from yoga to exercise to eating right – but nothing helped. She felt like she was just throwing her own dead body around. 

“He put his pencil down,” she said. “Then he replied: ‘You are what we call clinically depressed. You have been so depressed for so long that your brain is no longer making serotonin.’” He explained that he wanted to put her on some medication temporarily to “jump start” her brain. She was resistant: No pills. He explained that it wouldn’t be forever, just a few weeks.

Those few weeks turned into six months – just as she had been weaned onto the medication, she needed to be weaned off of it. Her outlook on life completely altered within a month. 

“I wasn’t giddy or high, it was just my mood was elevated. I had just been walking around with this big rain cloud above me. Before I couldn’t appreciate a bird singing. I called him and told him I feel good – I don’t feel like I have all this weight on me,” she said. 

To be continued…

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