Old Wounds Heal, Pal

A road winds through a green meadow toward a sunset. The word recover is on the road in large letters.
Photo credit: istock.com

Content warning: Suicide

One of the last lines in the movie, The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood is “Old wounds heal, pal.” I believe that to be true. And I believe my old wounds are in the process of healing.

I mentioned in my first post that I was working through my own childhood trauma with a therapist. For several years, I had wanted to work with someone who was skilled in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Last February I got that opportunity. I was referred to an excellent therapist.

But let me back up a little…or actually a lot.

The most impactful childhood trauma I experienced was my father’s mental illness that ultimately ended in him taking his life when I was 10 years old. [Here my focus is on my own experience, but I want to acknowledge my empathy for my parent’s own trauma and will address that connection in a later post.]

Things were very different back then. I never saw a counselor as a child. And there was so much shame surrounding a family member committing suicide that it was hardly ever talked about.

When I was older, I did a lot of work on my own—reading books about surviving the suicide of a parent, writing about it, talking it through with a few trusted friends. In junior high, I even wrote a poem about my dad’s suicide. Eventually, I thought I had it sorted out. I could talk about it without being emotional. I understood on a rational level that it wasn’t my fault and that I was just a kid and I could not have known it was going to happen or changed the outcome. I could even see things I gained from the experience in terms of my empathy for others.

When I was in my 40s, I worked with a therapist (talk therapy) who acknowledged a connection between my sensitivity to anger and my childhood. She said, “When people got angry, someone died.” That stuck with me and I began to recognize that there was a lot still impacting my present life that I had not yet processed.

In addition to my hypersensitivity to anger, another pattern I recognized was my taking too much responsibility for trying to make sure the people around me were okay. In reading about the benefits of EMDR, I wondered if it would help me find the roots of these issues and if they were somehow connected to my early trauma. I didn’t think that talk therapy would get me where I needed to go and felt like EMDR would be a much more expedient path to healing.
This seems to have been the case for me. I’ve made much more significant progress than I did with the many years of bibliotherapy and traditional talk therapy.

I’ll share more about EMDR in a future post, but I want to share my own story now.

As I have said before, I recognize that though my story may be unique, my pain is not. I share it because I think we need to talk about suicide and its impact on survivors. I share it because I received messages for years that I should feel shame about it. Because of that shame, our family was silent about it even with each other for far too long. I want to push back against the idea that families that experience the suicide of a loved one should feel shamed into silence. Sharing my story is part of my own healing and I believe that when we are willing to be vulnerable and share our experiences, we can build connection with each other.

A family portrait in sepia tones. A man with short dark hair. A woman with short dark hair. A young boy of 10. And a girl about 2 sitting in the woman's lap.
Family portrait taken for church directory in 1965. My father (Pat), my mother (Syble), my brother (Mark) and me

It was June of 1974. My mom and dad had recently divorced but my dad was still living in our home. My mom and brother were both at work. (My brother was 18.) My dad and I were in the house alone. I believe it was mid-morning when a friend invited me to spend the night with her. My dad was still in bed. I called my mom at work to ask permission to walk to my friend’s house. She told me that it was okay with her but that I needed to also get my dad’s permission. This next part was always a bit fuzzy for me. For years I remembered that I had told my mom he was sleeping and her giving me permission to go. Recently, as I worked through this with EMDR, my memory of it changed to this: I put down the phone, stood at the edge of the kitchen and looked down the hallway to the bedroom. Waited a minute. Went back to the phone and told my mom he said it was fine. So I now believe I lied to my mom about it, which could have added to my feelings of shame and guilt and responsibility.

I did go on to my friend’s house to spend the night. I don’t remember anything about that except that my friend’s mom told me that my mom was coming to talk to me. I don’t remember that conversation at all. I don’t recall my mom’s face or how she told me. But I remember the look on my friend’s mother’s face when we heard the news that my dad had died. I can see her facial expression like it was yesterday, her lower lip protruding and looking at me with sad eyes and a very comforting sense of sharing my sadness.

I don’t remember crying about my dad’s death, ever. I don’t remember anything else about that night other than that I remained there with my friend until the next day.

I recognize I was spared a lot of trauma by being away from the house when my mom discovered that my dad had died. My choice to not go and try to awaken my dad and ask his permission to leave the house actually saved me from possibly discovering for myself that he had died.

No one said the word “suicide” for many years. They called it an “accidental overdose.” But somehow I knew it was intentional. My mom later confirmed that it was when she shared with me other things that had happened leading up to that day. But I spent a lot of time knowing in my gut that was what had happened but feeling like those around me were living in denial of the truth.

I understand now that my experience of this trauma didn’t start and end in that 24-hour period. My dad’s illness was present in our home for many years. He had a quick temper and I was afraid of it. (That may have been why I was afraid to walk down the hall to wake him up and ask his permission to go to my friend’s home.) He had rages at times. He was hospitalized and treated for what was then referred to as manic-depressive disorder (now bipolar disorder). He had attempted suicide at least once before, maybe twice. On one occasion, my mom took him to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. I don’t have any memory of that happening. The other time he was working for the highway department out of town and staying in a trailer near the work site. I remember overhearing a conversation where someone was talking about him sleeping for three days and three nights straight. My guess is that he had overdosed then too.

I had a few people in my life that listened to my story with understanding and empathy but I also had painful experiences. One of the most difficult was when I opened up to a college friend who proceeded to tell me that my dad had gone to hell because he took his own life. She’ll never understand how painful that was to hear.

I spent a lot of time wondering what might have happened if I had gone in there to ask his permission. Would I have been able to find him still alive and call and ambulance and save his life? I wondered how he could have left us. I flipped from disappointment and anger to idolizing him.

I am now aware that all of these experiences were buried deep and covered in a thick layer of shame. When I dealt with my experiences on an intellectual level, I never broke through that shame. I had a kind of understanding of it in my head but my nervous system was not engaged in the process. I really didn’t heal from it. EMDR therapy changed that. It allowed me to tap into feelings that I had been numb to until recently.

In the television series, Ted Lasso, Ted is seeing a therapist named Dr. Sharon Fieldstone. He admits to her that maybe he doesn’t want to know the truth. She counters, quoting the title of Gloria Steinum’s book, “Ted, the truth will set you free. But first, it’ll piss you off.”

I’m still in the process of uncovering my own truth. And, yes, it has at times pissed me off. But I already feel more free than when I began this journey less than a year ago.

As I write this, I feel a lump in the pit of my stomach. That tells me I still have work to do, but the awareness of my feelings is actually a good thing. It means I now have access to those feelings that were repressed for so long. It’s my pathway to continue my journey toward healing.

Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.
Brené Brown

If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.
Brené Brown


  1. Michele says:

    My dear friend ~ You once shared some of your story with me at Gallaudet, but not these chilling moments of the phone call to your mother about the slumber party. I am so very sorry you had to endure so much as a child. I do wonder if going through it as an adult would have been easier. Heartache caused by a parent’s actions is traumatizing at any age. One thing I am certain of is that your father’s pain must have been so all-consuming that leaving his children looked like a better option.

    You have shown time and again that you are “ braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think”, to paraphrase something Christopher Robin imparted to Pooh Bear in the Big Wood. I would add “& loved more than you know”. May this newfound clarity mined during the difficult work of these last months serve you well as you continue the journey.


    • melaniethornton says:

      Thank you, Michele. I remember your empathy and support during our time together at Gallaudet. And I appreciate your loving words now. I agree with you about my dad’s pain and that he had his own trauma and shame. We are beginning to understand more about generational trauma. Though I didn’t address it here, I have a lot of empathy for him and his struggles…and my mom’s experiences as well. <3

  2. Jodi Morris says:

    I ache for the trauma you experienced so young. I have come to believe that mental/emotional health must be an essential part of universal healthcare and social justice reform. I participated in therapy of any kind (talk therapy) for the first time this year and would highly encourage anyone to explore how therapy might help them.

    • melaniethornton says:

      Thank you for your empathy, Jodi. I agree. We have too many people who don’t have access to healthcare. Mental health IS physical health. We need to stop making such a distinction and make sure people have access to both.

      And I’m glad you mentioned that about talk therapy. EMDR is not for everyone and talk therapy has helped me (and others) tremendously. In fact, my current inner work has been a nice combination. We are learning a lot about specific methodologies that help people heal from trauma. EMDR is one of many.

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