When Abbie Mitchell was just 14 her mum took her own life. Now 26, she talks to Stylist about coming to terms with her mum’s death and her own struggle with depression
My mum took her life when I was 14 and flashbacks from the day of her death still strobe into my mind at random times.
In one scene there are two policemen taking me and one of my brothers – I have two, they are four and six years older than me – out of school. They tell us that my mum hit her head and fell from a balcony. For the first time that day, I am confused. There are sirens. My heart pounds and a sense of dread settles in the pit of my stomach.
Another scene, at the hospital: my grandparents’ faces, so distorted by fear and pain that they are almost unrecognisable. There is a doctor with dark hair who takes me into a little room. Though mum is on life support, he talks to me as if she is already dead. I scream and scream.
No-one tells me what has happened – the fall seems so random and the consequences so dire. Her body is broken and she is unresponsive. The emotions I am feeling are almost indescribable. I am horrified, in the truest sense of the word, a feeling so big that every so often it takes my breath away. My bright, beautiful mum. “It doesn’t matter if she’s disabled,” I tell the doctor. “I’ll take her home in a wheelchair. I’ll look after her. She’ll be OK.”
The day inches on. I am told that she jumped off the roof of my grandma’s block of flats. I am told that her body is so damaged that she will never recover.
Later, walking on the beach in Bournemouth with my mum in hospital nearby holding on to life with only the barest, most perfunctory grip, I pray. I am not religious, but what else can I do? Up until this point, I have been my mum’s shadow; we are best friends. My parents are separated and as I live with my mum, she is the person who looks after me. I feel a sense of helplessness so vast and profound that it threatens to drown me. That evening, my mum dies.
When I was a kid, my mum seemed no different to any other. I adored her, we had a friendship like no other. Shelley Mitchell was a sunny, bubbly person. She laughed and joked and danced around her bedroom to Nineties R&B – Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey – her highlighted hair flipping up and down. Each night she’d put me to bed and we’d talk about something profound, sharing our lives and our dreams. When she left the room, we’d both always say, “Goodnight, God bless, sweet dreams, sleep tight, sleep well, see you in the morning, love you,” all in that order.
I know now, all too well, that if a person is a functioning depressive – like my mum was, and like I am now – unless they reach out, you might never know that they’re struggling with depression. And being the youngest child, my family always felt the need to protect me from the reality of her condition.
So, while to me, she seemed just like any other parent, actually she was hospitalised on a number of occasions. My family always made up excuses as to why she wasn’t around – one time, for instance, she was having a sudden operation on her leg. After her death I found out that it was because she had tried to take her life on three separate occasions. She would be gone for a week or two, then come back, the same apparently happy person she had been when she left. And our lives continued.
Shortly before she died she went into a mental health hospital and I remember going to visit her. It made no sense to me: she was on the same ward as people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, how could they have put her there? “When will you come home, mum?” I asked, over and over. I remember that she smiled a little wearily and said that she would be home soon and that she just needed a break. She looked small and thin. Her appetite had long since disappeared and she’d shrunk from a size 12 to a size 8.
After her death, so much of my own pain, anger and guilt centred around these memories. Ask anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide and they’ll likely tell you that the aftermath feels like standing inside a tornado of emotion with one thought, clearer and more menacing than all the others, circling around and around: what could I have done to stop them?
It’s hard to say whether my own mental health issues are rooted in the storm of grief that came when mum died or whether they had been there all along.
After her death, I was passed from one therapist to another and treated for varying conditions including post-traumatic stress and eating problems. But in my all-consuming grief, nothing seemed to help. Since the age of 13, I’d demonstrated behaviour I now realise indicated that I too was vulnerable to depression. I’d experienced eating problems and anxiety. After her death, I began using alcohol to numb the pain. I smoked and drank and partied because it felt like there was a huge emptiness inside me that I was trying to fill.
I was 19 when I started head banging – I would hit my head against walls when I was in severe distress. The release I got from the pain was the same kind of release you might get from screaming. I never seriously injured myself but I knew it wasn’t ‘normal’. It was my brother who suggested I get some proper help.
At 19, five years after mum’s death, I entered hospital and was formally diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Then, for the first time, I began to think seriously about who I was and who my mum had been. I became intrigued by her, trying to find out everything I could about her life. I called old friends, an old boyfriend and talked to family. I always knew that we were similar. What was strangely comforting though was just how similar we were, even in terms of our mental health issues.
Like her, I’m a functioning depressive – someone who can get out of bed, who can work but is still suffering – but there are other, smaller similarities. When she was young and dating, guys would knock on the door to pick her up for a date. Mum would get excited, get ready and then at the last minute succumb to a crippling anxiety and refuse to even leave her room. I’m exactly the same. On occasion, if I’m planning to go out, I’ll get ready, look forward to it, then all of a sudden be so overcome with panic and dread at the thought of spending an evening in a crowd that I have to get into bed. It’s extreme social anxiety and as debilitating as it is, I’m weirdly comforted knowing that it happened to her too and that I’m not alone in that.
I also found out that her father took his own life and that there is a history of suicide on my dad’s side of the family. For years I’ve tried to figure out whether mental illness is in my genes. I can’t help but think that I must be predisposed, but mum’s death definitely skyrocketed any chances of me succumbing to depression.
In the years after mum’s death, I’d lived on a mix of guilt, sadness and anger; I often contemplated whether depression was an inevitable part of my life.
In a strange way, it made me feel closer to my mum – I could empathise with what she must have been feeling, although experiences of depression are unique to the person. I began to see that the fog of depression can mask your ability to think clearly and this really helped me to understand the complexity of suicide.
After being discharged seven years ago, I started volunteering which changed everything for me. I wanted to support other young people who are going through a tough time and give them hope. I now work full time as a Youth Wellbeing Project Coordinator for mental health charity Mind. I still have bouts of depression – times when I feel nothing, no passion, no drive, no sense of joy. But I’ve taken steps to guard myself; I exercise, I avoid alcohol and I make a point of being completely honest about who I am.
One day I would like to have my own children. Even if they stand a chance of inheriting some of the same mental health problems I have experienced, I also know that a person is more than just a label. I am Abbie Mitchell, I’m in a loving relationship, have a great group of friends, I love travelling and write a blog. There are certainly things that I’m still figuring out, but I’m working on it.