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Kathryn Wood on Loss and Breaking the Cultural Construct of Toughness

breaking our social rules of toughness

Growing up in a large family, the eldest daughter of ten kids, Kathryn Rose Wood says there were birth order cliques. The oldest three were two girls and one boy, and the next set was made up of three boys, and then two girls, and lastly two boys. Growing up, says Wood, each set was closest to the others in the same grouping. Her brother Preston was sixth in the birth order and the youngest of the three boy crew. The oldest in that group was a jock and good at whatever he tried, and the middle child had a joker personality, making everyone in the family laugh. They were best friends and other times, says Wood, they hated one another. Preston, who was good-natured and loved animals, often found himself in the middle of his two brothers, pressured by the older two to choose a side. He was susceptible to peer pressure within the family, finding himself unsure of where he stood. The brothers also kept each other’s secrets, protectively covering for one another. Preston, at the age of 14, and without the knowledge of most of his family, began using and abusing alcohol, making moonshine in the attic of a nearby barn. 

Kathryn noticed her brother, even as a small child, carried heavy emotions, but in a military-Catholic household in central, rural Pennsylvania, these sentiments didn’t fit into their family culture. “It was more acceptable to feel anger than to cry.” When Preston was little and became upset, he’d cover it up or clench his small fist and walk off. Looking back, Kathryn wonders if alcohol became a coping mechanism for her brother to deal with the feelings he had. As they grew up, the subtle changes that may have been indicators as her brother became depressed weren’t ones Kathryn would have noticed because she lived more than 1,200 miles away in New Orleans. Though consistently good-natured, her siblings say Preston became quieter, more cynical, and more involved in hunting and fishing. He also was drinking excessively. During one of those moments, darkness his family didn’t know he was experiencing, Preston wrote a note in shaky script, an indicator that he’d been drinking at the time, and died of suicide. No one suspected the amount of pain he was experiencing. Looking back, his brothers remember that there were times when Preston would drink and call them, saying he wanted to die and didn’t want to be alone. They just figured that’s how Preston got when he was drinking, not that he was drinking because that’s how he was feeling. 

For Kathryn, a counselor and clinical music therapist, she carried a tremendous amount of guilt. She says Preston’s death illustrates how there weren’t adequate discussions about behavioral and mental health and suicide prevention presented at her brothers’ school or in the community, and that peers and family members didn’t know how to identify red flags. She could have though, she says, and the thought that she should have noticed his pain weighed heavily. It’s what she was doing every day at the time of his death, performing intakes and admissions, examining a person’s suicidal ideation and related psychiatric concerns. How could she not have known? It began to take a toll on her at work: feelings of loss trickling into her concern for people coming into the clinic. “We often had people discharging from the hospital into the transitional stabilization day program. When someone came in with suicidal ideation, it was difficult for me to separate the experiences of the person I was speaking with from that of my brother.” Kathryn began experiencing depression and suicidal ideation, self-blaming because she was a mental health professional. “I had the tools and should have found a way to talk with my brother about what he was feeling, but I didn’t know how he was feeling, so I felt guilty for not being close enough geographically to know what was happening: for failing to step in because I wasn’t making the right efforts. It was an endless cycle of pain and guilt, and I spiraled downward.”

Additionally, Preston’s death brought up past experiences Kathryn had compartmentalized earlier in her life and never addressed. When in pain, like Preston, she never cried, believing it to be a sign of weakness. As the eldest female in her family, often in the role of caretaker and second mom, growing up, she felt she had to present herself as unflappable in a crisis. “If something happens, you push on, but Preston’s death brought on flashbacks and nightmares. I suddenly felt powerless and that, because of my expertise and training, I should be able to identify what’s wrong and fix me.” 

During that time, some family members denied Preston died of suicide, saying maybe it was an accident, which was incredibly painful and limited the discussions she could have with them, eliminating some of her supports. “We needed to talk about what was happening but weren’t on the same page. Some were refusing to believe, acknowledge, or talk about it, and so we couldn’t move forward. It was incredibly difficult because it made me question my perception of events.” Kathryn says some of her siblings who agreed Preston died of suicide wanted to keep it a secret, which she says just furthers stigma. “I felt like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is the problem with our society.’ Stigma breeds stigma.” 

Kathryn would stay in bed if she didn’t have concrete obligations; commitments forced her to engage and connect but didn’t address the underlying issues. “I considered suicide multiple times. One day I looked at some pill bottles and thought, ‘this could be it,’ but what stopped me is I knew the statistics of prescription overdoses, and if I lived, which was entirely possible, I could end up in one of New Orleans’ psychiatric hospitals. That’s not what I wanted: they are, unfortunately, mostly all terrible. I could have woken up in a place worse than hell.” She says having worked in the inpatient setting, it’s not patients she worried about, but that care is not what it should be. Instead, she tried making small changes in her life, hoping the nightmares would go away. “I hated myself, hated the thoughts in my head, hated that I existed but didn’t know where to start healing because I didn’t know what was wrong with me.” 

It was Kathryn’s competitive nature that allowed her to move forward in the quicksand. She decided she wanted to fight to live, which included starting therapy, deep-diving into her career, and bringing attention to suicide prevention in New Orleans. “It took me committing to weekly sessions, therapy homework, and partnering with a therapist who was going to hold me accountable. That’s one of the challenges of being in social services: I know how to get away with illustrating progress I haven’t actually made, saying the right words to make someone believe I’m okay, even if I’m not.” The therapist also had a faith-based background, which helped Kathryn navigate the tremendous burden of guilt she felt. What she discovered is that she’d been battling depression for much longer than she realized. She says Preston’s death made her see in color, noting the highs and lows in life much more than beforehand. “Up until that point, my life had been compartmentalized, and my mood was even all of the time: no ups or downs. Suddenly I was experiencing more diverse feelings. It was jarring.” Once the floodgate of remembrances calmed, Kathryn began to see the array of feelings as a gift. “Before this point, I didn’t know what it was like to live life fully. We need to break our social rules of toughness and get to the rainbow of emotions that make us whole.”

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