By Joyell Nevins
La Mesan shares life in the aftermath of father’s suicide in book
[Editor’s note: September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. For information about suicide prevention, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call 1-800-273-8255.]
The act of suicide crosses all racial, financial, and social barriers. It doesn’t play favorites, and it always leaves people hurting in its wake. Yet, for Anna Cambria, people who take their own life or the survivors left behind was hardly ever discussed.
This lifelong La Mesa resident is trying to change that with her book “My New Normal: Surviving Suicide Loss.” Cambria’s “perfect” world was turned upside down at 22-years-old, when her father committed suicide. Cambria was unaware of any struggles he had been dealing with, and was suddenly swept up in a sea of confusion, grief, and anger.
But she didn’t know who to talk to about those emotions, who would understand. She was surrounded by people who meant well, but didn’t know what to say or how to handle the situation either.
So Cambria started journaling — writing down her emotions and letting it all out on paper. She turned those entries and her chronicle into a cohesive story, in order to bring hope and encouragement to those in similar situations.
“We, the people that are left behind, have to deal with it for the rest of our lives,” Cambria said. “I thought maybe I could share my feelings with others, so they would know they are not alone.”
The call that changed everything
Cambria is an only child, and has lived in the same house since she was 3 months old. It was her grandparents’ house before that, so her family’s connections to La Mesa go back far. Cambria loved her parents and describes her childhood as “wonderful” and herself as “spoiled with attention.”
She and her dad were both Disney fans, and some of her best memories are day trips to Disneyland with mom and dad. The park is exactly 100 miles from their house, and they had it down to a science. Drive up in the morning, hit the big rides first, and still be home in time for bed.
Cambria remembers her dad as outgoing, optimistic, and incredibly creative. One of his paintings is now the cover of her book, showing a child filled with wonder looking up at the heavens. He was a self-employed industrial designer, even inventing a type of headphone that was sold worldwide. He was known to get up at 3 a.m. with ideas. One time when inspiration struck in the shower, he used her mom’s eyeliner pencil to write out the concept on the shower wall!
On June 24, 2016, Cambria was at home, getting ready to go the beach with her boyfriend. Then an unexpected and frantic call came from her mother: Mom told Cambria her dad was in the hospital. Her mother said physically, her dad was okay; mentally, he was not.
“I can clearly remember that conversation,” Cambria said, sharing the surrealness of it. “It was just a normal day.”
She found out her dad had been discovered in his office after overdosing on Valium right before an important business meeting. He had left two typed suicide notes, one for Cambria and her mother, the other for the men coming to the meeting. The notes shared the truth of investments gone sour and a business belly-up. The money was gone, and the debts were high.
But instead of the business associates finding her dad, it was her mom who walked in on him barely conscious on the floor of his lab.
The one regret
Dad was hospitalized for three days, and set up with a therapy group. He only attended two therapy sessions, telling his family he “didn’t need it … that most people in the group had lost loved ones and they were the ones who needed to be there, not him.”
Cambria said her dad was too embarrassed to tell anyone about what happened, and didn’t want Cambria or her mother to either. The story given to friends and family was that he was in the hospital for stress.
But even at home, his attempt and the reasons behind it wasn’t a topic of conversation.
“We kind of avoided future discussion. I was more afraid to know the answers [than to ask tough questions],” Cambria said. “I regret not bringing it up.”
That’s one of the reasons Cambria has written and published her book now: to bring those conversations into the open.
“It’s not an easy topic. People, especially adult men, don’t want to show weakness,” Cambria said. “I want to begin the discussion and end the stigma — because it’s important.”
A ‘drastic permanent solution’
A week after he came home, Cambria said her dad seemed back to his normal self. He started a new job through a network connection, and while she was still “living in constant stress,” Cambria and her mom had lessened up on their “constant surveillance” of him.
The first clue everything was not back to normal was the afternoon of July 8, 2016. Cambria and her mom came back from a Friday morning mass, thinking dad was at work, and a neighbor told them police had been at the house that morning. The police had referenced a car found on the side of the highway registered to that address, but wouldn’t give any more information.
After finally tracking down the right police branch and department, they discovered her dad’s car had pulled off to the side of a bridge about an hour from their house. His body had been found at the bottom, identifiable only by his fingerprints.
“I didn’t even cry instantly — I was in shock,” Cambria said. The emotion that ran through her the most in the coming days was anger. How could her dad do this to her? As she wrote, he chose “a drastic, permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Suddenly, the secret was out. While Cambria said it was relief to be able to tell someone what had really happened to her dad, she also discovered many of those people felt uncomfortable when faced with the truth.
“People really didn’t know what to do,” Cambria said.
Avoidance, advice and pity were all common offerings — and of no help to Cambria and her mom.
“I hated that feeling of pity, and I was sick of ‘I’m sorry,’” Cambria recalled. “I wanted to feel like a regular person again.”
Another reason Cambria published “My New Normal” was to give coping tools to those who are friends and family of suicide survivors.
“Just to be there with us was so important,” Cambria said. “Knowing we didn’t have to talk about it [if we don’t want to], but being able to if we do.”
She also appreciated the people who performed little kindnesses and mundane chores, like getting their dogs groomed or helping clean their house.
But the most important takeaway for Cambria from “My New Normal” — whether the reader is a survivor themselves, contemplating suicide, or hurting for a friend — is to know that they are not alone in this fight.
“You should never feel like you’re alone in this,” Cambria declared.
“My New Normal: Surviving Suicide Loss” can be purchased on Amazon in e-Book or paperback. Anna welcomes feedback and questions, and can be found on Facebook, Twitter @acambriaauthor, or on her website annacambria.com.