This last weekend, my brothers and I, along with many relatives, buried both our parents in the family plot in Tennessee. In the past several months, I've spoken a lot about my dad, his cancer, and our relationship, but besides this solitary piece, I haven't shared much about my mother. After 37 years, as I bury her ashes, I'm also ready to bury the silence, to bury the shame that surrounds mental illness and suicide, and to speak up about what it means to grow up in a home with a mentally ill parent. And so I'll begin on her last day, her first day, and the daily struggle in between in an effort to explain how it came to be that she took her own life. It is my hope in writing this that I'll help individuals and families who struggle with the depression and or personality disorder of a loved one. ~AJS
Grete Hafstad Johnson, January 7, 1957 -- July 11, 2006
Eight years ago on a still summer night, my mother, Grete Hafstad Johnson, made good on a promise that had hung over our house for many, many years like thick smoke: She took her own life.
While the act itself was infused with violence and drama, it was an entirely swift and solitary thing she did. Unlike past attempts, this time she did not leave a note, she did not call anyone to say goodbye, she did not make anyone a witness, nor take anyone with her.
One minute she was here, and then next she was gone.
Her death, like many things in her life, was entirely on her terms.
Grete was born January 7, 1957 in Berbank, CA: the first in her family to become a US citizen. She was the third child of Liv and Gunnar Hafstad -- the baby. Golden curls and turquoise eyes. She was always petite and beautiful. But do not mistake small for fragile! She was tough as nails. Strong, opinionated, out-spoken, a fire flashed behind her eyes. Smart, funny, driven to create: she cooked, painted, sewed -- when we were young, she had a business called One Stitch At a Time. There was always a project (or two or three) strewn from room to room. Pieces of this fabric and that paint here and there.
Grete grew up on a quiet street lined with brick and stucco homes and neatly appointed lawns in the well-to-do town of Monte Sereno, CA, attending the prestigious Los Gatos public schools. Family vacations were long trips to visit family in Norway and camping in the breathtaking Yosemite National Park. It was not uncommon for the family of five to camp for three weeks at a time!
In high school, Grete began dating her brother's best friend, George, and less than a month after she turned 18, they were married on a rainy February afternoon. The bride wore a traditional, long white gown with sleeves, and a veil her mother had painstakingly sewn. The bridesmaids wore light blue and carried bouquets of white and yellow flowers.
My mother's naturally curly hair was worn long and straight and flaxen. She had rolled it on orange-juice cans the night before and ironed it to perfection with the clothes iron.
After a few rentals and house-sitting gigs, George and Grete eventually moved from town to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Their home consisted of three rooms and a garage they converted to a bedroom. A bathroom was quickly added, too. And soon they had all the ingredients of the American Dream: an entrepreneurial spirit, energetic youth, home ownership on a few acres, three children, a couple of dogs and cats. Later there would be horses, chickens, peacocks, rabbits, and even a few transient goats.
And slowly they developed a Christmas tree farm with a beautiful orchard of organic apples, pears, nectarines, peaches, and cherries.
All the while the children grew, George worked at IBM in San Jose and co-captained the mountain volunteer fire department, and Grete worked in the home. Later she took part-time work as well, one job as a cashier at a shooting range, and another as a bus drive for the mountain elementary school, guiding a 48-person bus around hairpin turns.
She was known in our community as a devoted mother (she homeschooled three kids!), a lucky woman married to her high school sweetheart, a skilled cook inspired by the natural foods movement, an avid road and mountain biker, and a creative spirit.
And when she died, the church was over-flowing with people who testified to this popular portrait.
But it was an incomplete picture, one I'd like to expand today.
Every day my mother thread a needle on her sewing machine, picked up her rolling pin, or dabbed her pain brush in a bit of paint, she did so under the heavy burden, the black cloud of a terminal illness. Grete suffered from a serious, life-long mental illness called Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is marked by unstable moods, behavior and relationships.
Men and women with this disorder struggle to regulate their emotions and thoughts, frequently succumbing to impulsive and reckless behavior, and consequently are challenged by unstable relationships with other people.
If you knew her, maybe you recall an encounter with Grete marred by inappropriate, intense anger, or a time when she had difficulty controlling her rage. Maybe you noticed she seemed plagued by unexplainable paranoid thoughts.
On top of this mood disorder, Grete also struggled every day of her life with the double whammy of severe depression. Some days she was filled with almost child-like joy, energy and enthusiasm -- and other times, she struggled to even get out of bed.
When she was happy, it was like standing in a beam of radiant sunlight to be with her. When she was upset or sad, however, it was terribly, terribly cold in her shadow.
Her emotions were a daily roller coaster of highs and lows -- joys followed by sorrows, calm followed by rage. Day by day, hour by hour, her mind an ever shifting, changing landscape, and she the unwitting passenger. Because of her illness she trusted very few people; friends became enemies over night -- this included her husband, children, parents, siblings, and close friends. Every day she was tossed about at the mercy of her emotions as if she were a rag-doll in a tornado -- and all of this was largely invisible to the world outside our home.
Her pride was great: she worked hard to present an image of herself and our family as normal. And to a large extent she was successful -- the packed funeral and testimonials of friends and colleagues eight years ago prove that. She kept a high, tight wall around her.
But often the burden she bore was too much. At home she let her guard down, and the rage and the sadness and the paranoia would pull her out like a log caught in a rip current. And then prescription drugs and psychotherapy fell short.
The statistic is 80% of the people with Borderline Personality Disorder have suicidal behaviors, and one in 10 is successful in their suicide attempts.
And so that fateful summer night so many years ago now when my mother died? That day? That was the day she simply said, "Enough is enough."
She stepped off the roller coaster of rage and shame and pain. That day we lost a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. We lost a woman who for 49 years lived her life as best she could. As her daughter, as someone who grew up in the eye of this storm, I've finally come to realize that while her life was far from perfect, she did the very best she could with the cards she was dealt.
Mental illness warrior.
The battles have been waged. The war is over.
Rest in peace, Grete.
Rest in peace, Mom.
BPD Central: Borderline Personality Disorder Information and Support for Patients and Families
Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transend the Intense, Unpredictable and Volital Relationship
Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder