One evening, at the age of 24, Julian tries to call his mother. But she doesn’t answer, and remains missing for weeks. It has been three years since her suicide, which was preceded by ten years of a steady descent into an alcohol addiction that wasn’t really one. Julian tells how his childhood shaped him and how angry and at the same time helpless he was towards his mother as a young adult. When he finds three letters in her apartment, the most difficult time of his life so far begins.
(reading time: approx. 30 minutes; all names have been changed)
(text & photo: Alexander Rodshtein; support editing & proofreading: Natalie M.)
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“Have you ever considered going to therapy?”
Julian thinks about this for a moment. “That wouldn’t be right for me. I’m looking for people who have experienced similar things. But how are you going to find those people?”
On a summer evening in 2021, we stand on the church square and let our eyes wander over the rooftops. We only briefly touch on Julian’s past, because we’re actually meeting for a different reason. I had given him some advice about buying a camera, and he generously invited me to dinner. I had only known him for a few months at that point, although ‘know’ is the wrong word. From the outside, the strong, young man with the soft facial features seems rather reserved, but that this is not the case will soon become apparent to me.
At home, I remember that I had asked him out of curiosity if he dates someone to which he answered no. He would have trouble letting people get close to him in a romantic context. Those words stick in my mind, and so, weeks later, I come to the conclusion that his story needs to go public.
‘Feel free to come by and we’ll talk as long as it takes,’ he writes me.
I think the death of his mother has made him more sensitive. But I don’t know that, nor do I want him to answer that as he reads through this text before publication. I don’t need everything answered.
“Tired, I came home from work,” he tells me. “It was a Tuesday or a Wednesday in February three years ago. I quickly ate something, flopped down on the sofa and decided to call her. Some phone calls I made more out of a sense of duty, because by that time the trust between us had been irrevocably damaged. Whether my mother was even really aware of this, I don’t know. Our relationship had been better in the past, but the incidents of the last few years had led me to become increasingly quiet and distant towards her. The bond with my father, on the other hand, had strengthened; we went to the gym together, talked about cars, went to the movies, or drank herbal liqueur in the bar nearby. Sometimes we talked about my mother, who had been my father’s wife a long time ago. But no matter how much I thought about the situation at the moment, I preferred to work things out with myself. Before and after her death.
My mother did not answer. Nothing unusual. Sometimes, she called back or wrote a message as soon as she saw that I had called. That evening, however, there was no response. The next day and the day after that either. Although I had promised myself not to let her problems get to me anymore, my thoughts drifted increasingly to her during work. Had she perhaps been brought to a psychiatric clinic as an emergency case again? It could take a few days until they informed the relatives. And I thought I remembered that patients were not allowed to use their cell phones for the first few days. So, I called my grandparents and my father, but they didn’t know anything about an admission either. I was getting suspicious. My last visit was only a few days ago, when she seemed to be in relatively good shape. Or had I been mistaken? Unlikely, because I knew my mother like hardly anyone else.
Finally, I wanted to know what was going on. On the evening of the third day, I rang the doorbell of her apartment. I waited, rang again. Then I knocked.
‘Mom, are you there?’ Silence.
Her kitchen window was dark, so was the bedroom window. Strange, I thought, she rarely went out in the evenings, because she no longer had a circle of friends. I wondered if she might have been with Debbie, her last girlfriend, but that was unlikely since they had recently ended their relationship.
On the drive back, my thoughts circled around the possible scenarios. How many times had I tried to help her? How many times had she sat in front of me crying, apologizing, looking like a mess? I didn’t care anymore, I had put my feelings of guilt behind me. I could not help her, she could only do that herself. And yet I was her son, of whom she was insanely proud. I looked at the pendant she had given me back then after I passed my driver’s license and which still dangles back and forth on my rearview mirror. At first, the only thing that connected me to this simple black cross was its aesthetics. But by now it has also become a lucky charm.
I drove to Debbie’s, who still had a spare key to my mother’s apartment. Quite nervous, I immediately drove back; alone and aware that I was not supposed to go into the apartment. But I wanted clarity. Maybe I could have sent her neighbor in first, but I couldn’t justify that. And I didn’t want to wait for my grandparents or my father.
I knocked again, hoping my mother would open after all. Finally, I turned the key, but opened the door only a bit. I noticed the familiar smell of her furniture. Slowly I opened the door wider and made out more of the living room. There was little light coming through the windows, but enough to see that my mother was not lying somewhere motionless. I turned on the light, cautiously walked into the apartment, which at the same time seemed so familiar and yet strange to me. Here we had laughed, argued, been silent. I looked at the wall next to the kitchen, where a picture hung that showed my mother and me as a little boy. We were standing in the blazing heat next to a palm tree, a sandy beach of Crete in the background. She beamed at the camera while I made a funny face. I had liked my mother very much at that time, even if she had already had her bad phases back then.
There is a memory from my childhood, probably one of the first moments in which I perceived my mother as a different personality. She was sitting in the car. I was standing outside, still a very small boy, and I wanted to go in to her. I knocked on the window, but she didn’t respond. I knocked a second time but nothing happened. That was really strange. Such situations were rare at that time, I have mostly nice memories of my early childhood. We lived in a house with a garden, where I regularly played soccer with my father. As an only child, I received my parents’ undivided attention; they were so proud of me.
But one afternoon in the summer, when I was about six years old, we went for a walk and stopped next to an inconspicuous apartment block. My father had walked a few meters ahead and was now looking back at me and my mother. There was an expression on his face that I could not grasp. It was probably a quiet wistfulness that things had turned out differently than they had planned.
‘Look, Julian, that’s where we will live in the future, up there on the left,’ my mother said to me lovingly as she squatted down and gently held me by the shoulders. She included only me and herself in this statement, my father would soon no longer be a part of my daily life. My mother had come out as gay, I guess that was a huge step into a new life for her.
Since my father stayed in our former house, only a five-minute walk away, I continued to see him regularly. Some weekends, I would cycle to him or when I missed him, my mom would call him to come over. These times, where all three of us sat at the table together, reminded me of the better moments from before we got separated. I didn’t have to choose sides, and I gave my father credit for that. It made the separation bearable for me.
A few months after our move, I found out that my mother had fallen in love. I was happy for her; you could tell she was happy and she admitted it to herself. When I had a soccer match, she would sometimes stand on the sidelines and watch me pass the ball on the right side. My coach said at the time, ‘You can tell this kid thinks ahead on the soccer field. We need players like that.’
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that this trait of mine showed up in other areas of my life as well. To this day, I carefully weigh the possible consequences of my actions before making a decision. That’s why I never really screwed up.
I scored a few goals through my efforts, which my mother always had to enthusiastically tell my grandparents on the phone. And when I got the best grade in school or a new belt in karate, she praised me to the skies in front of her friends. It was embarrassing how proud she was of me; I can tell you that. But she didn’t need to know that.
My mother’s girlfriend, on the other hand, was different; her praise had to be earned. Linda owned a small, noble restaurant in town, where she was liked by many people. At lunchtime she entertained craftsmen and office workers, always in the mood for a joke. Sometimes she discussed upcoming votes or elections with her guests, without losing respect. She was a woman of principle. To her employees she was strict, but fair.
‘That’s not the way to hold a broom,’ she once told an apprentice who had just started working there. By chance, I stood in the doorway and watched her benevolently take the broom from his hand. ‘That looks like you’re about to fall asleep on the job.’
At the age of nine or ten, I started helping out a little, washing salad, peeling potatoes, washing dishes or sweeping the floor. This happened mostly during school vacations. My grades were good, fortunately, but I was lazy and could have been even better. Linda realized this, and instead of me playing soccer outside sometimes, I helped out in the restaurant. My best friend was there, too.
‘Julian, don’t fall asleep with your potatoes,’ he sometimes joked.
‘And you make sure you don’t wash your salad too long, or it will get all pale.’
My god, we had been clowns, but that made the work more bearable. Most of the time we would have much rather been running around on the lawn, but this work was mandatory because that’s how we earned our trips to the amusement parks. And at least we had the afternoons off.
Meanwhile, my mother had trained in service and helped out with the bookkeeping, in the kitchen, or with the shopping. Since the restaurant also offered catering, I once even voluntarily missed a soccer match to accompany Linda and my mother to a big wedding. A huge tent, in the middle of a cut cornfield. All dressed up, my friend and I handed out appetizers to the guests. One of the tables was particularly appealing to us; the one where the older guests were sitting. For they took such a delight in us, that they slipped us tens. ‘How sweet you are!’ they said.
And at the end, the groom spoke into the microphone and thanked the hard-working catering team. If he were us, he would have preferred playing soccer, he said.
Linda also showed me how to hold the broom correctly in my hand, so to speak. And if there was still dirt in a corner, she said: ‘You can do better than that.’ She taught me manners, showed me that motivated work pays off. Nowadays, dealing with apprentices myself, I sometimes think back to those days in my childhood. I had understood that not everything is just given to you.
Linda also helped me with my homework and listened to me when I told her about provocations of other kids at school. ‘Ignoring is the best strategy,’ she advised me one day. Why would you want to bother with these losers?’
To this day, I still appreciate the support Linda gave me and my mother.
In that period of life I just described, when I was around twelve years old, our harmony was much less overshadowed by my mother’s breakdowns than would be the case five years later. You know, of course it happened that she sometimes drank a glass of wine during work. People would have a good time with the regulars or join in on a toast at a birthday party. It was part of Linda’s and my mother’s life, and it never was a problem. My mother seemed carefree, she laughed, sounded bright, and listened attentively when someone told her something. But outside of work hours, it was a possible scenario that she would come into the living room or through the front door, and I would immediately notice her slightly unsteady walk. It was as if you were facing a totally different person. She was no longer proud of me. She sat at the table, flipped hastily through a newspaper or looked dreamily out of the window, got up, sat down again, as if she didn’t know what to do with herself. She either paid little attention to me, or snapped when I forgot to put a glass in the dishwasher. Her emotions seemed amplified. Sometimes she was exuberantly happy, sometimes the smallest things upset her.
‘Why did you drink?’, I would sometimes ask her. I was reluctant to remain silent. I didn’t want to hide my anger, which often turned to worry, to show her that it wasn’t all about her. Linda had definitely influenced me in this regard; she always said what she thought. When I confronted my mother, she often just shrugged her shoulders in response, looking embarrassed. Facing her son like that had to feel like a failure. As it turned out later, unfortunately, nothing would change. In those moments, I walked past her with a disappointed look. Now and then, I discovered an empty bottle in the apartment.
That I had a good mother, however, is certain for me. It might give the impression that she already neglected me strongly during my childhood. But that’s wrong: there were always week-long breaks when she was the person I knew and liked. She wanted to show me the world. I remember countless trips, for example to Legoland, Europapark or Ravensburger Spieleland. That was the reward for my help in the restaurant.
Once, my mother really wanted to go on a roller coaster, but I was scared. Linda as well. So, my mother just went alone as if nothing had happened, had fun and waved to both of us from the hurtling car while I ate an ice cream.
We also traveled abroad on our vacations, to Greece, Turkey, Egypt, or up north.
‘Julian, don’t forget to put on sunscreen, maybe you want me to do it, come here,’ she often said. I have the urge to travel the world from my mother.
I can’t tell you exactly, how Linda reacted to my mother’s breakdowns in each case. There were arguments and discussions that took place at the kitchen table. The usual thing. I think Linda was better at dealing with my mother in those moments than I was. As a young teenager, what could I do about it? Linda was tough and she firmly said what she wanted and what went too far for her. She had probably set boundaries for my mom and given her the support she needed. Unfortunately, after about eight years, their relationship began to crumble. Shortly before I finished school, my mother and I were living alone in an apartment again. It pained me that Linda no longer sat at our table. I missed the moments with the three of us, for example when we went to McDonald’s after a successful catering job. Linda didn’t like fast food at all, but at that moment she turned a blind eye.
I believe that Linda’s absence made my mother more unstable – almost imperceptibly at first, then more and more obviously. Yet, it had not only been Linda who had given my mother support. The entire environment with the restaurant had contributed to this. Now the whole construct suddenly fell apart. At the same time, the separation led to my seeking more contact with my father, since with Linda an important person, to whom I looked up to, had disappeared from my life.
When my mother had been drinking, I usually retreated to my room, where I played video games, did homework, or read one of the car magazines my father gave me. I tried to avoid my mother. The need to be away from her didn’t stem from the fact that we had been fighting. That rarely happened. I just wanted to spare myself the sight of a dejected, broken person which I loved. When she sometimes worked until midnight in the evening, I was glad to be alone in the apartment and not having to run into her. On other days, I went to the gym with friends, where we showed the adults how things are done. We were there up to four times a week, and it soon showed. And we didn’t even need anabolic steroids to do it, like some guys did.
I wasn’t home much at lunchtime either, since I had started an apprenticeship in the meantime. I was building my own life. It was inevitable that I would come into contact with alcohol myself. We partied wildly in clubs, letting ourselves be guided by the techno music that I was listening to a lot at the time. The glaring strobes, the fog that made the light beams shimmer, the fits of laughter, and the girls who captivated me and whom I had no balls to approach.
Drinking was simply part of this exciting phase of life. Was I thinking about my mother and holding back because of that? No, that was detached from it. We drank for fun, not to numb any suffering. Partying in clubs was my own world that no one could take away from me. Of course, I was careful not to go too overboard. Okay, fine, once I puked in a garden on the way home. But usually, I was able to restrain myself. So could my mother; she never drank over the limit at family gatherings.
At seventeen, you’re in an upbeat mood, you want to try out and discover everything. I accompanied my father to rock concerts or motorcycle meetings. He would ride ahead on his Harley and I would follow behind on my 50cc motorcycle, not yet a fully grown adult. Each experience was freshly burned into my memory. During my apprenticeship, I experimented with different types of chocolate, mixed ingredients, tried out recipes, created round, light, dark sweets. The enthusiasm must have been written all over my face, and when I finally came home in the evening and my mother was sitting at the table with a sad expression on her face, everything seemed to fade away. I said a quick hello and told her that my day had gone well and disappeared into my room. Fortunately, she was not always like that. But it hurt our relationship, I confided in her less and less.
By the way, the day I threw up in that garden, we had been at a concert before. My friend had brought someone with him, and I had fallen for her right away.
‘I have a girlfriend now, by the way,’ I told my mother months later. She smiled then; she was happy for me. It had been my first love. After the concert, we texted each other sporadically for half a year until I realized that feelings were involved. Then it went fast, we met a few times, and finally kissed. It was the first kiss that meant something to me. That heady, tingling feeling was indescribable to me at the time. But letting someone into my life automatically meant that she would meet my mother.
As the months passed, my girlfriend became an integral part of the family. Sometimes, she would stay over on weekends, inevitably witnessing the good and bad times that happened in our apartment. Although my mother made an effort when my girlfriend was around, little by little the bad phases seeped through. Secretly, I felt ashamed of my mother’s condition, as if I were responsible for her acting unkindly and dismissively at times. But I rarely talked about it with my girlfriend. I don’t think she was even aware of the true extent of it. Until one day, my mother called my girlfriend’s parents and said some crazy things. I only learned of this incident afterwards. From that moment on, my girlfriend really understood what was bothering me. She liked my mother, who was still affectionate with us when she hadn’t touched a bottle. But I was unsure whether this closeness that my girlfriend built up through me to my mother was wrong and unhealthy. I had already then guessed that this inner insecurity would later lead to a breakup.
A year later, when I was almost nineteen, I felt increasingly uncomfortable at home. In the meantime, my mother also had a girlfriend who had been staying with us for the past few weeks. The fact that my girlfriend was still staying over at my place on certain weekends led to tensions between me and my mother’s girlfriend.
‘She can stay over one night as far as I’m concerned, but both nights are too much,’ my mother’s girlfriend once said to me. ‘We want a bit of privacy too.’
‘She’s as much a part of us as you are,’ I said.
‘She doesn’t pay rent here.’
‘If she did, she’d probably be welcome to you.’
‘That’s the way it works, Julian.’
My mother was caught in the crossfire, trying to find a solution, but failing.
As a result, I packed my school books and the most necessary clothes and moved in with my father for a week. We cooked together or went out to eat; it was one of the moments that bonded together us even more. My father was like a best friend to me, I could fool around with him and spend my time carefree. He was still like he used to be when we played soccer in the backyard.
‘You’ll do fine,’ he often said to me and never lectured me.
My mother and her girlfriend finally decided to move to a place two hours away by car to run a restaurant, which suited me just fine. I might otherwise have stayed with them for a while longer, gritting my teeth, since I wasn’t doing very well financially, because I hadn’t yet decided whether I wanted to pursue further education after my apprenticeship. But since I was an adult, I had to take responsibility for my own life. Fortunately, my father helped me at the beginning and took over part of my rent until I had both feet firmly on the ground. So, I lived in my first own apartment earlier than planned and could enjoy the time with my girlfriend more carefree.
From then on, I saw my mother only every few weeks. The distance that had come so unexpectedly felt good. We texted each other regularly or talked on the phone – both of us needed this. Every week, she wanted to know how I was doing, what news there were or she sent a picture of the beautiful mountain landscape near her apartment or a delicious recipe she had just found. But whenever I heard her voice on the phone, I knew immediately whether she was in one of her drinking phases again or not. The difference was minimal: a slightly slower pace of speech, the tone a little more muffled. Enough for me to notice, and I was probably the only person to do so. Perhaps, I was the person in her life by whom she felt most understood. That’s why I was always honest with her, I think she appreciated that. Even when I would tell her years later that I was breaking off contact with her, if she would harm someone else with her negligence.
A year after she moved away and I moved into my own apartment, the restaurant takeover had already failed. My mother returned to the area with her girlfriend. Soon after, they separated and my mother rented a cheap one-bedroom apartment. I must confess that I was not particularly happy about her renewed presence. Although I saw her again weekly for a few hours, our relationship was overshadowed by regular incidents. She needed a new job, applied for work in nursing, for which she had retrained. These jobs seemed appealing, she went to work trial, but often returned dissatisfied. This went back and forth, she changed jobs several times because she had attracted negative attention: she showed up late or not at all, always in connection with alcohol. But I was still sure that the consumption could not be the real reason. Again and again there were phases when she was dry and I could talk to her as in earlier times. But I increasingly realized how deeply it affected me.
‘How can I help you? ‘ I sometimes asked her.
She could not give a clear answer.
I often felt depressed and desperate after visiting her. She wouldn’t let me help her, acting like a wounded animal, offended, sad, and stubborn. Sometimes I became really loud towards her, I no longer pitied her. Again and again she had said that she would do better. But that had only been empty words. Sometimes I asked my father or my grandparents for advice. But of course, at some point they didn’t know what to do anymore and I didn’t want to burden my fellow human beings with my worries any longer.
This was also true for my girlfriend. As strange as it may sound, at that point I could no longer imagine a future with her by my side, because the constant pressure from outside left me no other choice. We separated although we still had feelings for each other. But this realization came later, at that time I believed that because it had been my first girlfriend, I wanted to experience other things outside of this relationship. Perhaps this thought had been a nicely packaged excuse. In any case, since then I have never let anyone get close to me again, I have drawn a wall up around myself, sometimes I do this even unconsciously.
Another problem my mother had were the high fines due to misbehavior in traffic. There were not many incidents, but they were costly. Sometimes several thousand Swiss francs. One day, I still remember it clearly, I went by her house to bring her medicine from the pharmacy. By now I was 22. She was standing in the kitchen, cooking a soup, giving me a smile that seemed rather forced. The reason for that became clear to me when I asked her if she had gotten her driver’s license back, because months ago she had had an accident under the influence of alcohol. Now she confessed that she had been driving without a license and had been caught. She didn’t even try to delude me; she was always open with me.
‘I’ve never been guilty of anything. And now they take my license away for so long,’ she said, looking at me with this relaxed, yet somewhat confused expression on her face. My mother often blamed the others, rarely questioning her own actions.
That’s when I felt unstoppable anger rise up inside me. I took a step toward her and told her, ‘If you ever hurt anyone by drunk driving, you’ll never see me again!’
I said this directly to her face, and she avoided my gaze shamefully. Accidents could happen, but now she was endangering not only herself but other people with her drinking. I was stunned by how negligent and unreasonable she was and how helpless I felt at the same time. All the conversations with her remained unfruitful, nothing changed. From that moment on, I decided to distance myself. This didn’t apply to me spending time with her, I still saw her regularly. But I had to force myself not to want to actively help her anymore. It was her life; she should do with it what she wanted. From then on, I never asked her again how I could help her. That’s why I still felt guilty for a long time. But what should I have done? I had to protect myself first.
I never completely lost hope for her to recover, but over the years that hope had steadily declined. Finally, because my mother was reasonable in her dry periods, she willingly went to a mental health clinic for a two-month stay. I was 23 at the time, and while my mother had had a few shorter stays in the hospital over the past twenty years, it had been of no use.
Since my mother was allowed to spend weekends at home, I picked her up from the clinic every Saturday morning. Sometimes during the week, I had additional conversations with a doctor, after which I ate dinner with my mother on site. We were always under observation. Not just anyone could walk into this building, and every visit had to be announced. I always felt queasy; it had something of a boarding school where many rules had to be followed. And then there was that clinical smell.
In any case, one of these evenings remained particularly memorable to me: we were sitting at the table, having made the usual small talk. For a minute we were silent.
‘Are you angry?’ she asked suddenly.
‘No,’ I answered in a calm voice.
She seemed slightly surprised. ‘How can you be in such a good mood after all I’ve done?’
I thought about it, shrugged my shoulders and replied that I try to see the positive in every situation, but without blocking out the negative. I had learned that in the last few years but especially in the last few months. But part of the unspoken truth was, that I was less concerned with what was happening to her. The surprise was written all over her face; she couldn’t understand. I think that my mother must have felt very lonely, because she had not only lost her social environment little by little, but also her son and finally herself.
A few months after that evening, I had to finally understand that all the help had not reached her. Nothing had changed after her stay in the clinic, it felt as if she had never even been there. My hope was extinguished. I think that if things had gone on like this for much longer, I would have broken off contact with my mother. But it should not come to that, as you know.
The carefree times I knew from my childhood were long gone. That’s what I thought when I looked at this picture of Crete in her apartment. A smiling woman who had been gone for three days now. I imagined her still sitting on the sofa looking out the window.
‘Why were you drinking?’ It was a question I was never able to bring myself to ask. It was a question that would only be answered after her death.
As I looked around her apartment more closely, I suddenly paused. On the table in the living room, I discovered three letters lying next to a few magazines. At that moment it was clear to me what had happened. I felt a shiver all over my body, felt like I was standing next to myself. It was the first time I cried for her. And the last time.
So that was it, a closed, bittersweet chapter. Although this scenario had been floating around in my head for a long time, I had never really taken it seriously.
Only one of the three letters was intended for me, but I hastily opened them all, hoping for a clue as to where my mother might be. Her handwriting was clearly recognizable, somewhat spidery, but still fluently readable. She had often written me cards for my birthday or Christmas in my childhood – in a macabre way I was reminded of that. I felt no fear to read the lines addressed to me. She wrote to me that she was sorry, but she could no longer take it. She thanked my father and me. Something like that …
My gaze lingered on her words for a moment. At that moment you don’t know what to feel, you are empty and irritated. What must a person go through to make this decision? In retrospect, I would learn that the sum of several reasons had led her to take her own life. Financial difficulties, her drinking episodes that were underlying an illness I would learn about later. And finally, the relationship with Debbie, which had no future. Debbie had previously been in a partnership with another woman, and there were children involved. That was why Debbie had decided to end the relationship. Since the separation from my father, my mother had had several broken relationships. I think this last breakup had been the last straw.
The second letter was addressed to Debbie, though I can only guess how that must still feel to her today. Somehow, despite everything, you still feel guilty, even if it had only been the end of a relationship.
The third letter was to Debbie’s previous partner.
I reacted and called the police. The fifteen minutes it took for them to arrive at the place seemed like forever. Now I understood what the waiting times in accidents must feel like until the ambulance arrives. These are situations where people face their most difficult times. That’s how it felt for me, too.
I stayed in the apartment with the officers until 4 a.m. They were trying to find hints in the trash cans as to where my mother might be. They tried to locate her cell phone, but the data was inconclusive and scattered over an area of several dozen kilometers. They contacted relatives and acquaintances and asked them about her last contact.
Using a search dog, they picked up her trail, which led them to the nearest bus stop. Apparently, my mother had left by bus. Through further research, the police found out that my mother had received a fine on a train. Unfortunately, we were not given access to the surveillance cameras because a suspicion of suicide did not seem to be valid enough to give the release. Thus, her trail was lost.
The officers interviewed a patient at the clinic where my mother had had her long-term stay. This patient then wanted to start looking for her through Facebook, although the police advised against it. But she did a post anyway. This post spread like wildfire, being shared about 4,000 times within two days. My father and grandparents got phone calls; people rang their doorbells. Under the post, discussions and commiserations started that I didn’t want to read. Someone was about to send the story to a well-known television station. I was beside myself, cursing silently to myself in my apartment. This people only wanted to help us, I kept telling myself. They only want to help.
The first time I went to work that morning after she disappeared and walked into the building through the reflective glass door, I felt like I was leaving everything behind. People greeted each other, changed their clothes, checked their mails, got a coffee. While people were living their daily lives, an essential part of mine had broken away. A strange feeling, the earth continued to turn as if nothing had happened.
I made no secret of the fact that my mother had disappeared. At lunch break, when I told a colleague, he prudently asked, ‘What are you still doing here?’
I was surprised. ‘What else am I supposed to be doing?’
‘Be at home?’
‘And what am I supposed to be doing at home? Sit around?’
My colleagues at work were understanding of my situation and took some of the tasks off my hands so that I was not stressed at work at least. And if I had an appointment with the police or the city council, they said, ‘Go ahead, we’ll run the place.’
As best I could, I tried to escape into my everyday life. Going out for a drink with a colleague, hitting the gym with my dad, doing office stuff. I was far from being in a mourning phase. I didn’t even know if she would show up after all. That was the worst part: this uncertainty and cluelessness. The authorities showed no consideration, the bureaucracy does not seem to be ready for such a case. There was no trace of my mother for two weeks, but on paper it seemed as if I could visit her at home at any time. But that was nonsense, my hope that she would show up again was vanishingly small. But what if it did happen? Should I cancel her apartment? What happened to her bank account, her belongings? What should I tell her social contacts who were left? This state of limbo increasingly irritated me. If people at work said the wrong thing, I’d freak out. If someone said they were sorry, I thought to myself, oh come on, please don’t do that. Plus, there was still that stupid Facebook post floating around. I came close to writing nasty things in the comments, but a colleague fortunately stopped me.
Four weeks after her disappearance, my phone rang. It was an extraordinary morning in every way, the sun’s rays were blinding me through the window, and I had just gotten out of the shower. I had purposefully taken that day off.
On the other end of the line, a police officer told me that I had to come by the office again today. It was about a saliva sample. That seemed strange to me.
‘Can I come by at 1 p.m.?”, I asked him.
‘Can you come later? We’re not open again until 1:30.’
I hesitated for a moment, answering that I had a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon. I didn’t want to miss it, and so the officer made an exception.
He welcomed me at the main entrance. I followed him wordlessly down the hall, past the other offices, and sat down across from him at the table. I felt like I was in a movie. After a brief pause, he leaned forward slightly, looked me in the eye and asked, ‘What do you think happened to your mother?’
‘I’m sure she’s dead,’ I replied.
‘You think so?’
He was silent for a few seconds. ‘We found her body in a wooded area this morning.’
His words triggered a feeling of great relief in me. Finally, it was over. The fact that I didn’t feel sadness at that moment was something I was ashamed of for a long time. I did not feel what normally the loss of a loved one should trigger. I was just glad it was over. Did that mean that my mother had meant nothing to me? Of course not, any person who knows my past knows that.
My appointment that afternoon was not a doctor’s appointment, I had allowed myself this little white lie to the officer. From the police station, I drove directly to a tattoo studio run by a good friend. We had known each other for several years, so this appointment was very important to me.
When I stepped into the room, he was still busy with another customer. I sat down, drank a glass of water and let my eyes wander over the drawings on the walls. The whirring in the room had a calming effect.
Then he finished and approached me with a smile. A few beads of sweat shone on his forehead.
‘Good to see you. Any news?’
‘They found her this morning.’
His eyes widened. At first, he was speechless, struggling for words. ‘I’m very sorry to hear that. Let’s reschedule.’
‘Let’s do it today,’ I replied.
‘Are you sure about this? You don’t have to go through with this on my account.’
I was quite sure.
As I took a seat, I was finally able to switch off. The slight pain drew my attention to the here and now. We weren’t talking, there was just the whirring and the radio in the background. I think he felt guilty the entire time that I hadn’t canceled the session because of him. At the same time, it did me good to just be, not having to do anything and not having a guilty conscience. In those few hours, I could forget what had been and what would be. I am grateful to my friend for that and he was happy after the session that he could at least help me a little this way.
In the following weeks and months, I handled all aspects surrounding her death: funeral, closing of bank accounts, canceling and vacating her apartment, insurance-related matters. The list was long. It was a stressful time, with letters arriving unexpectedly every now and then, requiring my action. Only when all the formalities were completed, when I had filed the last document in the folder, I could breathe a sigh of relief. The time to grieve came only then. I began to question, to remember, and to come to terms with my mother. What had she really suffered from? I kept coming back to this question. Why, why had we not been able to help her?
Only a few weeks ago I made my way to the clinic where my mother had had her last long stay almost three years ago. This dark blue painted building with the high windows still made me feel strange. It’s a world I knew almost only from the outside and into which I had only gotten a small glimpse through my mother. When you look into the cafeteria where people are sitting together or meet someone in the hallway, you rarely recognize the suffering of your counterpart at first glance. Sometimes the problem is so deeply hidden that it takes weeks, months or years to correctly interpret the symptoms. That’s how it was with my mother.
I told you that it always seemed strange to me that my mother’s behavior was attributed to alcohol. And yes, that assumption was wrong. The answers I had been looking for for a long time would become completely clear on that day in the clinic. Because one of her former doctors received me. She explained calmly and in detail to me once again what had come to light shortly before my mother’s death: my mother suffered from borderline, an emotionally unstable personality disorder. The doctor told me that these people cannot admit to being happy. They numb the feeling of happiness through self-harm, and in my mother’s case this had been alcohol. Knowing this, released a long-standing tension in me. It led me to process what I had experienced. I learned about the illness in more detail and was able to forgive my mother. We both have to forgive ourselves, I guess.
The fate that my mother experienced is a big part of my life. The past has influenced my personality. That is not always easy for people around me. Once, months after my mother’s death, a colleague came up to me and said: ‘Do you remember when we had a drink in the bar shortly after her disappearance? I didn’t know what to say to you at that moment, let alone whether to bring up the subject or not.’
To her and everyone else, I reply that they don’t have to say anything at all about it. If I want to talk about it, I bring it up myself. It’s only logical not to know what to say in response. I would feel the same way. However, I wish that people would not prejudge me and avoid me because of it. Some people think that I am traumatized by my experiences and therefore difficult to deal with.
‘That’s Julian, he had a difficult time, I’d better steer clear of him. Better safe than sorry.’ That’s how it feels to me sometimes.
It happens to me on first dates that I am unsure whether I want to share my mother’s fate with my counterpart right away or not. It belongs to me, but I don’t want to scare anyone.
It is far from being all bad, I realize that. This period of time has strengthened me as a person. When I answered my mother in the clinic that I always try to take something positive with me, she couldn’t understand that. Now I think she is in a better place where she doesn’t have to suffer anymore. By coming to terms with her illness, I was able to forgive her. The fact that I had distanced myself from her towards the end – from the moment she was driving without a license – I had to struggle with that for a long time. Could I have helped her after all and prevented the suicide? I don’t know and will never know.”
Towards the end, one more thing interests me, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate to ask Julian about it. However, I think we can be honest with each other and I don’t have to hold back.
“Can I see the tattoo you got after your mother was found?”
I feel like he hesitates, but maybe I’m just imagining it. He pulls his pant leg up to his knee eventually and turns his calf toward me. It surprises me how big the tattoo is. As big as my hand. Of all the things Julian has told me, this is one of the few things other people can actually see. The lettering is green and black, at least that’s what I remember. In winding letters is written there barely legible:
A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.
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