Ever since I lost my job at , Melinda had feared for our economic future. If, as it appeared, I had developed a permanent mental disability, how would we pay the bills? Worse, how would we pay the hospital bills without health insurance?
Avril Lavigne's The Best Damn Thing, an album Martha and I both liked
As early as May 2015, I noticed something was wrong with my memory. I couldn’t remember things I had written at work even a week earlier, and I was writing words that weren’t the ones I intended—again instead of ago, way for was.
The Shining (1980), a movie much on my mind at the psych ward
After my last official day at MediStory on September 13, 2013, I stuck around two weeks to fill in for the vacationing copy chief for hourly wages in the copy-editing department. People looked at me like a ghost then, as someone who no longer worked at the company but was somehow still eerily visible. After that, I stayed home, so as not to scare anyone.
The laptop from which I freelanced as an unemployed writer, 2013-2014
From the movies, I expected the inmates of One South, the Phelps psychiatric ward, to be florid psychotics writhing in strait-jackets, but this was Westchester and they were more genteel. The twenty or so patients mostly had well-mannered complaints like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and OCD.
"Screaming Father," drawn in the psych ward, 2013
On September 27, one month after Martha’s death, Melinda and I saw a bereavement counselor for the first time. A small, curly-haired woman named Betty, she worked in an office building in the Lord & Taylor parking lot in Scarsdale.
Hurricane Sandy knocks out power in New York shortly after Martha's death, October 2012
On Labor Day, the Monday after Martha’s funeral, an Indian priest from our parish, Father Jim, came to our house to console us. We must have looked like we needed it, because he stayed two and a half hours. It was all part of settling into our new status of mourners of a lost child.
The Intrepid museum, around which I often moped about Martha on lunch hours at work
In this second part of the book, Martha is no longer alive. The story is no longer her story but mine: how I survived her death.
Martha's tombstone in Hastings-on-Hudson.
The summer of 2012 was Martha’s last summer. But before the end came another death: that of my mother.
Martha at eighteen with her bags packed for Columbia, on August 26, 2012, the night before she moved there
In September 2011, Martha began her senior year of high school. It was the last academic year she would ever finish, the start of the last twelve months I would spend with her.
Martha at seventeen with her father in late 2011
Despite the creative burst of her Logia writings, Martha began the new year of 2011 in deep depression. On January 28, she was on the verge of killing herself—I don’t know how. I know only that the next day in her journal, she wrote, “Yesterday I was almost brave enough to die; today I am hardly at that level. It terrifies me to think how close I came yesterday….I do not understand how anyone can want to live.”
Silver Hill Hospital, site of Martha's second psychiatric hospitalization in 2011
suicide attempt, we found
Martha at the
up alone in
a small room with big
windows so she
could be observed continuously. She wore a
hospital gown and had nothing in her room but a bed, her
Bible, and a cup of ice water to relieve the burnt tissues of her throat.
Martha at sixteen in summer 2010, running the desk at our tag sale.
Martha’s first year under psychiatric care led to the most dangerous crisis of her life until then. The crisis happened at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in the summer of 2010. But before then, she lived through a year of growing madness, seemingly intensified rather than subdued by her doctor’s ministrations.
Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania
As she started high school, Martha was a girl with a secret. She was passionately in love with a 300-year-old Russian prince, Aleksei—in fact, she had married him. She feared few people could understand the existence of this ghost husband, least of all her parents. So she kept us from knowing about him for as long as she could.
Martha at about fifteen in ninth grade, circa 2009, wearing black in mourning for Aleksei
At fourteen, Martha discovered the love of her life. He had been dead for three centuries, but to her he was still alive. He was a Russian prince named Aleksei. He accompanied her all the way to her death.
Russian tsarevich Aleksei Petrovich Romanov (1690-1718)
As Martha entered seventh grade, she became miserable, the beginning of a year of emotional problems. Looking back on her life later, she reflected that she had always had a melancholy temperament, but that it fully began to express itself on the first day of seventh grade, when she cried during her first orchestra class of the year.
Martha at fourteen in 2008
In a diary entry on July 18, 2004, Martha at ten first showed signs that she was leading a secret life. “This diary is a front,” she wrote, “and all I can write in it is milestones, joy, and mock anger. Where can I express emotions?” I don’t know what emotions she meant because she didn’t write them down.
Martha at eleven in sixth grade, 2005
Until now, the focus of this book has been Martha. But for this chapter, I must turn the attention to me. As an indirect result of our family trip to Denver in 2003, I was diagnosed bipolar, and in the context of my diagnosis Martha’s insanity later emerged, the insanity that led to her death.
Fredric March as Mr. Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Paramount, 1932)
Third grade was Martha’s first hard year of school. It wasn’t academically hard—academics was never hard for her. She almost always got Es, occasionally Gs, never anything less. We didn’t push her to excel; she pushed herself. But third grade was emotionally difficult. She had had an existential crisis during Christmas vacation in second grade, but third grade was rocky all the way through.
Martha at nine, getting off the school bus from third grade, 2003
In September 1999, Martha started kindergarten in the Dobbs Ferry public school system. She would stay in that system for most of the rest of her life.
Martha at seven, with her parents, circa 2001
In September 1997, Martha started preschool and the world changed. It changed in a way that was at first subtle but whose profundity would become clear over the years, like a crack that eventually becomes a chasm.
Martha at five, in 1999, at Community Nursery School
Martha now lived in the house and village where she would live until the night before she died.
Martha at three, in 1997, in her backyard in Dobbs Ferry
By the time Sad Dog became her chosen stuffed animal, Martha had developed a definite personality. Melinda and I called her “gentle and intense.”
Martha at two, with Sad Dog, in 1996
My happiest day with Martha was the day I took her to Typhoon Lagoon. It almost made up for the day, years later, when she killed herself.
Martha at ten, with Piglet, in 2004, on her last visit to Disney World
Seven years ago today, Martha Corey-Ochoa jumped to her death from the fourteenth-story window of her Columbia dorm. In memory of her, and as a way of exorcising her ghost, I have just finished writing a memoir, After Martha.
My daughter, Martha, died of being bipolar, but I do not think of bipolarity as a disease. I think of it as a gift, and I am proud of her for staying true to it to the end.
Though I argued in my last post that a key question to ask a suicidal person is what he or she values more than life, I never thought to ask Martha this. So I do not know for sure what she would have said. But I suspect she might have said nobility.
The Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors is a wonderful website for people like me who have lost someone to suicide.
Because my daughter, Martha Corey-Ochoa, died of suicide at eighteen, I am obviously the last person in the world to give advice on how to prevent suicide: I tried and I failed.
Many of Martha's friends and teachers knew about her mental illness, but because mental illness still carries a stigma, she had a dilemma when the time came to apply to colleges,
It's been a week since I announced this site to the world, and already it's had more than 300 visitors.