My mother died 18 years ago today. It has probably taken me that long to be able to talk about it because, as survivors of suicide, our culture teaches us to live in shame.
However, as I grow older, I have learned to let go of that shame. If you mention your experience with suicide to others, you will usually always find that they were affected by a similar loss in some way.
If you knew my mother, you probably also knew that she was nearly perfect at everything. She was the perfect mom to me. Her house was perfectly clean. Her hair was perfect. Her makeup was always applied. Dinner was always on the table at 7 o’clock on the dot. She could sing perfectly, she could speak French fluently, and she could understand nearly any complex topic of conversation. She exercised every day and watched her weight. Our yard was perfectly manicured. She washed her car every Sunday. She was an amazing teacher and even won the Kansas teacher of the year award. She loved her students and was an advocate for them. She even brought one of them home when he was in trouble, and he lived with us for a few years. Even our pets were perfectly taken care of. I think her death was so surprising because she seemed so well put together. However, she never felt like she was doing enough, or that she was good enough.
This is what I have learned for myself from her suffering and death:
I am not going to be perfect. I am enough.
Sometimes our house is a mess, but that just means we live in here.
Sometimes I fail at being a good mother, and I am sure my son will need lots of therapy one day. However, all of our parents have failed us in one way or another, as it is just part of being human. I only want to be here on this earth for my son when he is older.
I have been on a career path for nearly 15 years that expects absolute, inhumane amounts of perfectionism. I am giving myself permission to do something else and create my own path.
I am not the perfect wife, or daughter, and most of all, stepmother. When you enter into being a stepparent, it means that you automatically do everything wrong! I have learned not to sweat the teenage criticism. I have come to accept that if my husband can accept my imperfections, it means that I can accept his.
I do exercise that I enjoy, and I will not force my body to do something that doesn’t feel good.
From now on, I refuse to be on a diet. I believe that if I feed myself the right things, my body will figure out where it wants to be.
Dinner will be ready when it is ready. Sometimes it is not ready at all, and someone should just order a pizza.
I can speak Spanish, mostly. I can get what I need in another country, but my ex-husband constantly pointed out my mistakes. It is ok with me to mess up because at least I can get my point across.
My yard is not perfectly manicured, but for some reason, I feel like my plants are happy.
I might fix my hair and wear makeup once a month if I go somewhere nice. If you don’t like my messy bun, you can shove it.
I do not know everything about everything and that is fine. In fact, stepping back from being an “authority” as a physician feels like I am more a part of the world than before.
I am not going to feel afraid or ashamed to ask for help when I need it.
Most of all, I am wickedly protective of my mental health. If a person, or a job, or a set of circumstances threatens my wellbeing, they or it will quickly be removed from my life. Sometimes we don’t realize how we are negatively affected by something until it does permanent damage to our souls. I don’t put up with abuse in any form.
Every day I look at the pile of laundry, or my son’s grades, or the fact that I can’t remember when the dog has had heartworm medicine, or the amount of success my clients have had, and I consider my imperfections. However, I am also still alive, and that’s pretty good.
Here is a picture of the last time I saw her well. Obviously, you can tell by all the accolades around my neck that I was being entirely too perfect.
Erin Fenstermacher is an internal medicine physician and physician coach.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com