My father's suicide ruined me

I'm drinking every night now, and don't think I'll ever get over it

By Cary Tennis
Published March 2, 2011 1:30AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I think I have a major problem I am not willing to admit. I drink myself into oblivion every night and my tolerance seems to be increasing. I am obsessed with my own aging and death. My father, a brilliant, well-loved professor who struggled with depression, took his own life when I was 17. Although I've coped with his illness too, I've promised my friends and family I will never do what he did to them.

Unfortunately, I see suicide as my only recourse. I have been a fighter and a survivor for many years. I've run multiple marathons. I've successfully graduated competitive college and graduate schools with honors (and two suicide attempts along the way). I have a great job and I seem to get more offers. The problem for me is that I can't maintain a relationship, and I can't escape this overwhelming feeling of loss. Most of all, I can't stand to be alone.

My loneliness keeps me drinking, and drinking seems to keep me alive. My own consciousness is killing me. I desperately want a relationship. Yet I've run off every man and friend I've ever had because (I assume) my depression is too severe. I've been in therapy since I was 12 years old, and have been on a cocktail of medications for as long as I can remember. This paralyzing depression seems to worsen with age. I am 38, single and convinced I have no future. My mother is my only friend. We are terribly co-dependent, and she will be 80 years old soon. My secret plan is to kill myself when she dies. In the meantime, I am living my life as though she already has.

Please offer some advice. I am inspired by your own struggle for survival and your empathy and compassion for those who suffer.

Your truly,

Cursed by Legacy

Dear Cursed by Legacy,

Your letter made me sad. I get sad when I hear how parental suicide reverberates through the years. I get sad when a person like yourself tries hard to live a decent life but that life must be lived in the margins of trauma, in the echo and shadow of that early blow. I get sad about the terrible theft that is parental suicide, the hollowing out of a child's emerging self. And I get sad about what may happen if you continue coping with this in the way you are now.

According to a 2010 study, "Those who lost a parent to suicide as children or teens were three times more likely to commit suicide than children and teenagers with living parents."

There is also a well-established link between alcoholism and suicide.

You have had professional successes and you have run marathons. But professional success did not prevent your father's suicide and there is no way to know if it would prevent yours.

I really think you need to quit drinking in order to reduce your chances of suicide.

So I will do my best to persuade you to quit drinking. I know you can quit drinking. Quitting drinking may save your life. It is the one single action that can help you the most. After that, there will be time to pursue other things.

I have quit drinking and although I experienced uncomfortable feelings, it was not as terrible as you might be thinking. One reason when we are drinking we think quitting drinking would be so terrible, I now believe, is that when we are drinking we can't think straight. We can't do risk-benefit analysis. We can't put together a balanced picture of likely future outcomes. We're drunk, for heaven's sake. Likewise, when we are drinking we think that the alcohol is keeping us alive, but that is a distorted perception. That is a characteristic of the malady, an artifact of alcohol's effect on the brain.

I don't expect you to believe all this right now. What I want you to do is take action and see for yourself.

How do you quit drinking? You join a group of people who have already quit and you do what they do. It's that simple. In other words, I suggest you go to AA. It's helped millions of people quit drinking.

Now, when I say this, I'm not speaking as a member of AA, or a spokesman for AA. I'm speaking as someone who has observed AA's work on others.

Even if you ultimately end up quitting drinking through some other method, AA can provide you with an entry point. You can at least see that sobriety is possible. And, while you are deciding if it's right for you, if you go to a meeting every day and don't drink in between, you will be sober. That sobriety will give you the strength, clarity and energy to work with a therapist and heal from this devastating trauma of parental suicide.

Of course, quitting drinking may not be enough. You will probably need to continue seeking other sorts of help and you may need to stay on medication. When you quit drinking you may still experience suicidal ideation. The difference is that if you are sober and alert, you can learn to identify that suicidal ideation and take action -- call a hotline, call a friend, call your therapist -- and say, You know, I'm having these thoughts, and I need help to get through this. So I hope you will find and work diligently with a competent therapist.

Your father's suicide does not have to curse you to a ruined life. You don't have to drink every night. You don't have to drink ever again. And you don't have to repeat your father's tragic error. You can live sober, and if you can live sober, you can live with the legacy of this suicide. You can live in its echo and its shadow without being its victim. You can let it reverberate quietly in the distance while you go about your life. You can live with it. You can bear it -- courageously, and even happily. 

January 2011 Creative Getaway

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Cary Tennis

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