No fakes or formulas

A mum and daughter take on a tough topic with candour

Readers note: This article deals with suicidality and mentions an attempt to end one’s life. For some people, it will not be helpful to read or may be upsetting. If that is you, we encourage you to give this story a miss and head here instead. 

The greatest fear of any parent is losing their child. Many of us have watched others suffer the grief of a child’s death, and the agony is clearly beyond compare. We can’t imagine how we would ever be able to endure such a thing. Those who have already experienced the loss know too well how overwhelming the grief can be. As a society, we are terrified by the possibility – no matter how statistically small – of losing our child. We helicopter-parent, educate our kids on danger, and pray incessantly for their safety.

But despite our collective parental caution and safety education, the reality is we can never keep our children completely safe. Their health and happiness are not, ultimately, within our control. We have to entrust them to God and accept that we live in a broken world. And that is easier said than done.

Perhaps that’s why I found it so moving to hear the story of Penny Mulvey and her daughter Holly on a recent episode of Run Like a Woman. Penny – one of the podcast’s co-hosts – is also my Interim Editor at Eternity, so I did know something of her experience before listening. But I still wasn’t prepared for how it would hit me.

Even writing this, I find myself procrastinating on saying what their story actually is – dancing around the edges, searching for a euphemism. Why am I so awkward about this?

Expertly guided by sensitive and astute co-host Rebecca Abbott, this is a conversation between a mum (Penny) and her daughter (Holly) and how they have lived with Holly wishing she was not alive for more than a decade. (There, I said it.).

It’s a conversation about the small but significant difference between wanting to be dead and wanting not to be alive.

It’s a conversation about the small but significant difference between wanting to be dead and wanting not to be alive. It’s about how being suicidal is not the same as wishing to be released from living. It’s about catching a glimpse of “feeling like things aren’t the worst” – only to have it soon followed by guilt.

Holly’s candour is a remarkable offering to Run Like a Woman listeners.

“I had an amazing upbringing. I had so many fortunate and privileged things throughout my childhood and adolescence,” she says. “My parents are still together in a loving relationship … I’ve got amazing two brothers. By all accounts, I was so lucky and privileged. Yet, at the end of the day, I want to kill myself.

“That’s not fair. Can’t I just trade my life for someone who would make the most of it? It’s almost rude of me, right?”

So goes the thought process of Holly, where guilt often prevails, even though she knows it is “a worthless feeling” that “doesn’t actually get you anywhere”.

Holly identifies a few triggers that tipped her over from being a perfectionistic and anxious child to someone who would attempt suicide. But if you’re searching for a list of “bad things to avoid to keep your kid safe”, you won’t find it here. Yes, the usual suspects appear – bullying and a toxic relationship – and they are certainly obstacles to Holly’s quest to stay alive. There’s also a handful of things that help, such as routine, hiking in nature, and a dog called Luna.

Holly isn’t selling any formula to achieve happiness.

But Holly isn’t selling any formula to achieve happiness. This is no “ten steps from suicidal to sensational”. This is just a courageous, insightful young woman sharing her journey. What it is like to be Holly. And the listener can take it or leave it.

Penny does the same, sharing what life is like as the mother of a daughter who does not want to live. She is one of those cup-half-full people and knows the blessings of Holly still being alive and having a close relationship with her.

But like daughter, like mother, Penny doesn’t tie up her experiences with a bow, either. This has been and continues to be a heartbreaking and challenging journey for her. “Pretty shattering” are the words she chooses.

Holly describes a time she attempted to end her life. Penny learns of it during the recording. Penny shares the panic of a time she missed a total of 25 calls on two phones from Holly. They talk about the things Penny has done that Holly found helpful and unhelpful.

And yet, they are both still here. Still walking, even if it is through the valley of the shadow of death. Neither Holly nor Penny has set up camp in that valley, and that’s something.

They continue to explore things that can help – new medication, friendships with people who ‘get it’ – even while, for Holly, birthdays and talking about the future bring despair rather than hope. They laugh together – albeit with black humour some listeners will find disconcerting.

This is raw humanity. Their conversation is an eye-opener and a privilege to listen in on. A testimony to human resilience, even when there’s no victory in sight.

I don’t think I ever really thought about how some people live with the desire to be dead and some mothers love with a broken heart. Now I do.

If you are in an emergency or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact Emergency Services in your local area. In Australia, the number is 000.

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 is a trusted source of information and support on suicide prevention. It provides information to people at risk of suicide or who have attempted to take their life with support options and gives practical advice to people worried about someone they think might be suicidal on how to help.

Lifeline: 131 114 provides 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services.

Suicide callback service: 1300 659 467 provides free counselling for suicide prevention and mental health via telephone, online and video for anyone affected by suicidal thoughts, 24/7.