September 10, 2010
Actress Mariette Hartley: “There must be no shame” for suicide survivors
Posted: 12:54 PM ET
Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Each day, approximately 3,000 people end their own lives and leave countless others struggling with the consequences of those actions, wondering what they could have done to help – and often dealing silently with shame, confusion or anger.
Emmy award-winning actress Mariette Hartley formed The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention after her own family’s tragedy. Her bestselling autobiography, “Breaking the Silence,” was recently reissued in paperback. Below, she shares her experience with Larry King Live blog so that others know they are not alone.
By Mariette Hartley
My family was charismatic, talented and beautiful. My father looked like Clark Gable and my mother like Myrna Loy. Our home felt like the hub of Westin Connecticut – a community frighteningly like the series, “Mad Men." Dad was a fine artist but was “forced” into advertising to support his family. There was a great deal of alcohol abuse at home. What I didn’t know was that the alcohol was used to help deal with devastating mood swings, created by manic depression or what we now call bi polar disorder. He eventually went out of control.
In 1963 (I had just finished my first movie, Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country”), my father had swung into a deep, deep depression. My mother and I begged him to get help but it was too late. On July 2, he shot himself in the bedroom of the apartment we all shared. It happened to be on the corner of Barrington and Sunset – even then I couldn’t help think of the irony: Sunset Blvd… ‘the boulevard of broken dreams.'
My mother felt an enormous amount of shame. I had mentioned the suicide in a TV Guide article and she pleaded with me not to talk about it. In those days we didn’t reveal family secrets and I was a good daughter. So, I didn’t talk about it… for 35 years. I began having terrible nightmares. I heard gunshots whenever I turned my head to the right. I was doing a lot of westerns in those days and I found myself in a fetal position on a sound stage, more than once. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I had completely lost control and no one knew about post traumatic stress syndrome. I struggled in isolation for many years.
Then in 1985, I was asked to do a Movie of the Week called “Silence of the Heart." It was a riveting story of a mother’s journey as she tried to understand and make peace with her son’s suicide. Why had she not seen the steps that had led to this? Even though I had had the same experience, I felt I needed to research what it felt like to be a parent who had lost a child.
Two beautiful people came forward. We sat in my garden and shared exactly the same story. We had heard the same sounds, we had smelled the same smells, shared the same nightmares.
I realized for the first time I was not alone, that there were not only individuals, but groups that were supportive of survivors after suicide and that truly only survivors knew the way through the minefields of recovery. These were people who had shed their shame and were walking through the fire together. Gradually, I became a group member of “Survivors after Suicide” (SAS) and then a group facilitator through the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Clinic in Los Angeles.
In 1987, while I was hosting “The Morning Program” a group of suicidologists, pediatric psychiatrists and other survivors met in my apartment in New York and we formed The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. We have raised millions of dollars for research, education and community outreach. For the newly bereaved, we have an online database of national survivor groups.
I believe there must be no shame attached to mental illness or suicide. It is essential to get help and to stay in close contact with a psychiatrist and if pharmaceuticals are advised, to be completely honest about family tendencies and disorders. Often a misdiagnosis can be dangerous. And above all, share your story with others.
I have a friend who was once an actress, and then she got smart and became a nun. She once said to me that "one’s deepest wounds – integrated – become one’s greatest power.” I believe that deeply.
For more information on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, click here.
For more information on the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Clinic, click here.
Filed under: LKL Web Exclusive
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