'I Tried to Take My Own Life After My Mom Died'

As the only child from my Cuban parents' marriage, born when my mother, Magaly, was 40 and my father, Armando, was 54, I grew up in a sheltered home in working-class Union City, New Jersey. I wasn't allowed to sleep over at friends' houses for years. And even when I had a newly minted driver's license at 17, I was prohibited from driving solo until age 20, and only then because I had a summer internship at a newspaper.

Despite how overprotective my parents were, my mom and I were very close. I always admired how selfless she was. She'd donate food, clothes, or small amounts of money to those in need and she'd camp out in hospital rooms for days if my dad, grandmother, or I were ever sick.

When I was a kid, we'd sit side-by-side, as I worked on my homework and Mom updated her lesson plans. As an adult, I'd call her at least ten times a day. We even developed a ritual before I boarded a plane. I'm a frequent traveler, but a nervous flier. Over the phone, Mom would remind me of the exciting things to look forward to at my destination, and we'd end our call with a prayer.

My mom always had a way of putting a fairy-tale spin on everything, even death. After an emergency hysterectomy years before, she always seemed confident that she'd cheat death again and wouldn't entertain questions about where she wanted to be buried or how to care for my 90-year-old dad after she passed.

But in 2019, when she was in hospital for pneumonia for weeks, I accidentally overheard from the attending doctor that the latest—and deadliest— illness was, in fact, stage four lung cancer. I can vividly recall wailing at the nurse's station; my mom was my living, breathing, safety blanket.

"Don't worry, Carmen. I'm coming home, you'll see," she told me from her hospital bed. Days later, when her breathing became more labored, she finally said, "If it gets too difficult for you, send your father to Florida to be with his sister," adding, "please don't ever put him in a nursing home."

Days after that conversation, she died. The grief was all-encompassing and physically exhausting: there were times I didn't have the strength to shower or feed myself. Untangling the bureaucratic web of mom's life; shutting down her credit cards and cell phone; updating her teacher's pension information, and announcing her death to extended family all left me hollow.

I immediately became my father's de-facto caretaker and next-of-kin, but I had no idea how to deal with him. Diagnosed with dementia four years before, my father had stacks of medical files I quickly had to go through to understand the responsibilities I was undertaking.

But it was when the day reached twilight that he challenged me the most. It is the time of day when dementia patients typically experience restlessness, agitation, and confusion. Even before dementia, Dad was a strict parent and difficult person. Unlike my mom's gentler approach, where I'd lose TV privileges for a week if I earned a bad grade, my dad resorted to yelling and sometimes, spanking. Those painful childhood interactions meant I wasn't close to my dad and rarely had meaningful conversations with him.

When my mom was alive, she had a way of sweetly redirecting my dad when he grew difficult, but now, he would become physically aggressive and developed a penchant for aiming hammers at my head.

During this time, I repeatedly experienced the sensation of hitting rock bottom, only to learn I could tumble lower still. Four days after my mom's death, when I first held her ashes in my hands and on my first Mother's Day without her, which was also my 36th birthday.

Coping with my father's mood swings while simultaneously filling his prescriptions and stocking his fridge with his favorite foods, all while working a full-time job with a three-hour commute, left me neglecting my own needs. Before long, I was sleeping less than four hours a night and had forgotten to renew my own prescription for the antidepressants I had been taking on and off for more than 20 years.

I had no tools for dealing with the myriad of crises that fell in my lap. My cantankerous father regularly threatened to bury my mother's ashes in Miami; she had hated Florida. My own relationship faltered as my partner told me he didn't think he'd ever get married and was struggling to adjust to living together. I became simultaneously enraged and despondent.

Finally, 18 days after my mom's death, I broke and tried to take my own life. By then, I had stopped taking my antidepressants altogether and had put off seeing a therapist. I remember feeling like my problems could never be resolved, that the pain and loneliness I was feeling was boundless. I missed my mom so desperately and just wanted peace from my racing thoughts.

Carmen With Her Parents
Carmen Cusido with her parents. Carmen Cusido

That morning, before leaving for work, my partner found me, turning blue, in our spare room and immediately called for an ambulance. At the Emergency Room (ER), staff stripped me of everything from my cellphone to "dangerous" objects like shoelaces. I remember that when I asked the attending psychiatrist if I could call my supervisor at work to let her know I couldn't finish a project on deadline, he said: "Are you saying you're involuntary?"

I wanted to tell him that I didn't belong there, that I hadn't hurt myself or attempted suicide since my teenage years, when I had struggled with anorexia and spent a year at an eating disorder facility, but I sensed those words wouldn't help me.

Later, I learned that I was being kept in the hospital on an involuntary psychiatric hold. Under New Jersey state law I could be held at a mental health facility for up to 72 hours.

After spending 16 hours in a hospital bed thrust against a hallway, finally, around 2 a.m., I boarded another ambulance and headed to an inpatient psychiatric facility in a suburban town 45 minutes away.

"I'm in a lot of pain and I don't know how to deal with it," I told the nurse. But the earliest I could see the psychiatrist was three days away: the following Monday.

Over the weekend, my partner split his time between my father and caring for the family pets. For once, I felt relieved that I didn't have to be the on-call caretaker, even if it was just for a few days. I was mentally overwhelmed and physically exhausted from long commutes and sleepless nights. Putting myself first felt uncomfortable, but some part of me knew it was necessary.

I did everything I could at the hospital to show that I was taking my mental well-being seriously. I went to every group session and actively participated. I also followed all the facility rules studiously. As the worst of my depression eased, with the help of sleep and medication, I began to regret that I had tried to take my own life. It was comforting to befriend a man in his 20s and a woman in her 40s. The three of us spent our free time calmly working on puzzles or coloring in the common area.

On Monday morning, I had my scheduled visit with the attending psychiatrist. We worked on the next steps in my recovery. This included weekly therapy sessions with a grief counselor, regularly taking my antidepressant, and finding healthier coping mechanisms —nutritious food, sleep, and meditation—when my life felt unbearable. I was discharged by lunch time.

In the weeks after my release, I started to appreciate small parts of life people can often take for granted: going for walks outdoors, having unstructured time to read and journal and being able to shave without a nurse overseeing me.

I began to work with my father's doctors to learn how to redirect him when he became aggressive or agitated. Watching Family Feud reruns together became a lifesaver. I eventually moved out of my former partner's house when I realized we'd never be on the same page about marriage or children.

It was one of the lowest points of my life, but my suicide attempt helped me realize that seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome if you work through them. Writing a daily gratitude list has also helped me recognize the good that exists in my life, even when things are rough.

In the nearly three years since my suicide attempt, I continue to take my antidepressant medication regularly and meet with a therapist weekly. To deal with the grief of losing my mom and my dad, who has since died, I celebrate their birthdays by donating to their favorite causes and working on scrapbooks I have created using their photos and mementos. It keeps their memories alive.

I learned from watching my mom always put others' needs before mine. That strategy nearly killed me. For the past three years, I've learned to prioritize my mental and physical health and not feel guilty about that.

I know now that my life is worth living, no matter how painful things get.

Carmen Cusido is a writer based in Northern New Jersey. She is writing a memoir about grief and loss. You can follow her on Twitter at @carmencusido and Instagram at @ccusido.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.