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Essay: Fighting the Backbeat

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Suicide, or the threat of it, is an often shadowed part of many of our family histories. Lake Effect essayist Pan Parker’s family is no exception.

For the most part, I can put on a good face -- smile and greet the world with sincerity and gratitude. I live a blessed life. But, there’s a backbeat playing in my mind, a steady thrum pulsing behind the meetings, the phone calls, the visits.

My son said he wants to kill himself.

With these words, my attention and focus for my work -- my writing -- crumble like a stack of blocks kicked over by a three year old. The blocks lie scattered over my living room carpet with to do items scrawled on each one – finish seventh revision of novel, update blog, submit applications to residencies, finish and submit short story, update idea log. A blanket seems to cover the blocks and I tiptoe around, unable to uncover them and consider them, one at a time.

You see, my son said he wants to kill himself.

Mental illness has visited my family before, and my husband’s family. It’s become a frequent visitor – we’ve had suicides, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and alcoholism. We also have a generous dose of attention deficit issues throughout the family, which can be a blessing for creative types, but obviously has its own challenges. All these issues have scratched their way into our lives.

Sure, there are treatments. There is hope. All the family members with the challenges I’ve listed live lives in a relatively comfortable zone – able to afford a roof over their heads (or, be helped by family to do so), food in their cupboards, transportation, and for most, a job.

My son has been trying for over a year to get a job. Most of his applications have fallen into the black hole of non-response land. He’s had four interviews in those fourteen long months, followed again, by nothing. He’s twenty-one going on seventeen and at times, thankfully, he is happy. His safe place is the stage. He recently landed the lead role in a local theater production. While he’s in a show, he may still be unemployed, but he has a purpose. For me, this quiets the suicide thrum for a while. The backbeat is there, but softer. The volume will increase as his show progresses toward its inevitable close, especially if he hasn’t found his next part.

Maybe my son won’t want to kill himself. Maybe it’s not my fault.

I don’t wallow often in “what did I do wrong” land, but I do fret. The weight of worries is visible on my stomach, hips and thighs. I spend my days exploring residential therapeutic programs for him, trying to motivate him to complete another application that is likely to disappear in the ether, talking to my therapist, checking if he’s made an appointment with his therapist – and all the while, I try to keep smiling, keep believing, keep showing a happy face, because I have to believe that my son will make it past the desire to kill himself.

I did.

Pam Parker's fiction and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications. When she is not traveling to her beloved New England or somewhere else, you may find her leading or attending writing groups in Milwaukee at Red Oak Writing.

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