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04.16.11

Why I Almost Killed Myself—And My Children

The world is aghast at the story of Lashanda Armstrong, the New York woman who drowned herself and her children. But as a woman who once contemplated the very same terrible act, I feel I understand her.

Lashanda Armstrong, a mother of four from upstate New York, drove her minivan into the frigid Hudson River on Tuesday, killing herself and three of her four children. There will be no birthday party this week for her daughter, Lainaina Pierre, who would have turned 1 on Wednesday. The children's grandmother "can't see them no more...can't hold them no more," as she cried to a reporter. While many people will judge Lashanda for causing such pain and ending the lives of three innocent children, I don't, because at one point in my life, years ago, I thought of killing myself and my children, too.

In an interview punctuated with tears, I spoke with Armstrong's aunt, Angela Gilliam. Gilliam had an extraordinarily close relationship with her niece. "I loved her like she was my daughter," she said. "I practically raised her. She lived with me and my two daughters. I've lost a daughter and three grandkids." She said she and Armstrong spoke daily, and visited about once a week. "I called her every morning to make sure she was up… to get the kids ready for school."

But even Gilliam couldn't have foreseen what Armstrong would ultimately do. Armstrong didn't call to ask for help—she called to say goodbye. "I'm sorry. I love you," a sobbing Armstrong told her father over and over, according to Gilliam, in a phone call in which he heard screaming children in the background, just minutes before she took that final, fateful drive Tuesday night.

Even though Lashanda was black and I am white, we could be sisters. Like me, Armstrong was a teen mother. Like me, we both bore children to men who weren't father material. Like me, we both suffered from postpartum depression. Being a young mom isn't the cause of such tragedies, but it can be a major contributing factor. I myself was once on the precipice over which Armstrong plunged. I was 21 and seven months pregnant with my fourth child. Their father and I lived in West Virginia, and my three daughters were then 4, 3, and 2 years old.

In my memoir, Sister of Silence, I tell how I survived the same overwhelming forces I believe haunted Armstrong, and that first nearly killed my children and me.

I was going to take my children, get into my car, and drive over a cliff.

My family moved from California to Preston County, West Virginia, a rural and picturesque coal-mining community, when I was 5. I met my future husband two years later when he was 15, and our families became friends. I turned 13 and was an eighth-grader when he had sex with me over my protests. This happened over and over for the next three years, until I was 16 and a senior in high school, planning to graduate and hoping to attend a music conservatory, or become a model or even an actor. Anything but become a mother—which occurred just a few months later. We married one week after I graduated from West Preston High School, which, incidentally, was also featured on 20/20 that year for having the largest number of pregnant teens in the country. The forced sex continued throughout our marriage. He wouldn't let me use birth control, leading to four successive pregnancies.

Learning I was pregnant again for the fourth time was difficult beyond belief. I was angry at him: angry at having to carry, sustain, and give birth to another human life. I knew that life would take precious time and attention away from the three daughters I already had. The fact that it could be a baby boy didn't make it any easier. I believed he would just grow up to be a replica of his father, someone who used and looked down on women. More and more, my three other pregnancies kept returning to my thoughts, and the more I thought about them, and how they came to be, the angrier I became.

For years, I saw a vision of myself dropping my babies from the open window of our three-bedroom home in Newburg. But more and more often, while driving near a steep embankment or over the Cheat River bridge, I had other thoughts—thoughts of just closing my eyes and taking my hands off the steering wheel, so it would all be over. I never could do it, of course. But the pattern persisted, plaguing me for many years. Then one day I found myself swimming in a sea of desperation, not knowing how to tread the water that swirled around me. It didn't make any difference what I did or how I spent my time—I just couldn't stop being sad. That sadness, and the sheer level of pain I was in almost paralyzed me, leaving me unable to take care of my home or my children.

I was like a drunken robot and barely functioning the day I stumbled into the bathroom, turning the lock behind me so my children couldn't come in. Sobs wracked my body, and I heard a guttural cry like a wild animal come from somewhere deep within me. With the raw sound came freedom from days, months and years of silent anguish, as the bottled-up feelings that had waited for so long to explode flowed freely down my cheeks.

That's when I knew what I had to do. I was going to take my children, get into my car, and drive over a cliff. I watched it happen. I knew just where to do it. In my mind's eye, I saw the car speeding up, going faster and faster as it gained momentum, flying down Bird's Creek Road. But instead of making the deadly curve halfway down the mountain, I took my hands off the steering wheel and we sailed over the edge of the bluff, coming to rest several hundred feet below, in the forested valley that would become our tomb.

Visualizing that scenario helped me to see that my children might not die right away—they might suffer terribly in the process. That was the last thing I wanted, so I planned to attach one end of a rubber hose to the exhaust pipe, and wind the other end through my window, allowing the car to fill with fumes. I knew it would be a peaceful, painless death. I knew I simply couldn't leave my children behind, for their life would be a continuation of the hell my own had been. At the hands of their father, who knew what would happen to them? That final thought tore through me, and I looked down at my swollen stomach, external evidence of another impending birth. My hands wrapped around my belly, as if instinctively trying to shelter the unborn baby from the part of my brain that was thinking about harming it, and I prayed to God for help.

I wondered how I could even think of doing something so terrible as I sat there, my arms wrapped tightly around my torso, rocking back and forth and trying to make sense of my life. The scene kept replaying in my mind, as the sight and sound and thought of my children—all dead—threatened to drive me mad. That's when I realized I wanted to live, and give the child within me a chance to live—no matter what. I had found a stronghold to cling to, knowing I had to be there to take care of them, to raise them into responsible adults, because no one else was going to do it. I forced myself to believe God would help me, and suddenly, that hope became so tangible I could almost reach out and touch it.

Unlike me, Armstrong apparently didn't dwell on the consequences of her actions, or think about the pain her children would suffer as they died. Compassion is something that wasn't lacking in Armstrong's extended family. During the last two weeks, Angela Gilliam and others noticed changes in Armstrong that alerted them to a problem. But when they tried to help, she wouldn't let them. Gilliam repeatedly begged Armstrong to tell her what she needed—and, as she and other family members usually did, offered to pay overdue bills, babysit, anything at all. But her niece insisted she didn't need any help, and said she was fine. Clearly, she wasn't.

Police have cited "a history of domestic problems," while other people who knew Armstrong have come forward to say she was abused. But the abuse factor in Armstrong's fatal actions remained a silent one to her family, as is common in cases like this one. We now know that neglect on the part of her children's father was a huge factor. As reported in The New York Post, recent court documents outline the danger in which the father placed their 2-year-old son.

Armstrong may have felt too guilty to accept help. One thing that troubled Gilliam was when Armstrong said at one point that she didn't want her "kids to be a burden." Gilliam said Armstrong often said she was "tired of being a burden on my aunties and uncles." According to Gilliam, that refrain became more frequent during the last two weeks. "I asked her, 'Have we ever turned you down? You're not a burden. You're never a burden. The kids are never a burden,'" Gilliam said she told Armstrong, who just remained silent in response.

I know that I felt like my four children and I encumbered others, and I often felt terrible about it. And I remember such neglect and danger, as when my mother warned me not to leave my little ones with my husband when I went to work as a door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman—not just because of his penchant for taking out his anger on them, but also "for fear the house will burn down around him while he watches TV." I also recall countless times I cried, after returning home to find them sound asleep—dried food on their faces and burned bottoms from the soiled diapers they were still wearing. That's why I felt like I had no choice but to leave them with my mother, herself a single parent trying to rear my three younger siblings, when I left home each evening to go to work. That ritual also involved a lot of work—it meant carting three youngsters in and out of cars and houses, perhaps waking them up and then bundling them back into another vehicle, so I could take them all home and put them to bed a second time.

Poverty and unemployment could have exacerbated any existing problems in Armstrong's life. Both were factors in my life. My coal miner husband was laid off repeatedly, forcing us to stand in line at the Newburg Senior Citizen's Center to collect government commodities. We didn't set foot in a mall for five years. Nor could we pay our bills, and did without basics like toothpaste, cleaning supplies, tissues, and medical treatment. I even went without food. Finally, I went to work part-time, first selling cosmetics, then lingerie, and finally, life insurance—which only seemed to exacerbate my problems because my resentful and angry husband was forced to became the babysitter.

Until recently, Armstrong had been unemployed for at least a year, Gilliam said. It's been reported that Armstrong "lived in an apartment in a gritty part" of Newburgh, New York. Gilliam said Armstrong had just found part-time work at a Polo factory in November 2010.

Still, Gilliam doesn't think money alone led Armstrong to do what she did. "Money is everybody's problem," said Gilliam. The bigger problem for Armstrong, in her mind (and mine), was having to look after so many children. "My niece had so many kids!" said Gilliam. "We need to look at these young women that are stressed out and having all these kids and have no help."

Even though Armstrong was lucky enough to have a family who loved and supported her, Gilliam thinks her niece was simply so overwhelmed that she had a breakdown. The anecdotal evidence seems to support this. Armstrong was only sporadically communicative during the last two weeks of her life. Family members have said she seemed to grow paranoid—she thought people were watching her and that pages from her diary were missing. No doubt, the stress of having filed for a restraining order was weighing on her mind. Perhaps, tired of waiting for the authorities to help her protect her children, she took matters into her own hands. Maybe when she loaded them up and drove into the river, she didn't even know it had been issued—earlier that same day.

That's when, as such hardworking young mothers are apt to do, Armstrong tried to reassure her worried family. "I'm OK. I'll be all right, Auntie," Gilliam said Armstrong told her. She also begged off from finalizing the birthday party plans for her baby. "No, I think I'll just have a cake," Gilliam said Armstrong told her.

Now there will be no party, and Gilliam is worried about how her niece's actions will affect Armstrong's sole surviving child, La'Shaun Armstrong. Just 10 years old, he escaped at the last second by climbing out the van's window as it was sinking into the river.

"They were just babies," Gilliam said, breaking into tears. "Why would she do it? Look what she's done to us!"

Gilliam's anguish reminds me that this is the single most critical factor we must consider when weighing whether we will let the young single mother living next door continue trying to do it all on her own. Because she simply can't—and the cost to us, to families like Gilliam's, to our society, will be equally as great when the next implosion occurs.

Daleen Berry, a writer living in Morgantown, West Virginia, is the recent author of Sister of Silence, a memoir chronicling her life as a survivor of domestic violence, after she became a teen mother who had four children by age 21. Visit her at daleenberry.com.