View from the Bridge

Mental Health Month 2022 – A Personal Perspective on Suicide

This started as a blog but has turned into a very long story – my story.  The topic of suicide is simply more complex than can be shared in a brief blog.  This story is personal and contains insights based on my experiences starting at age 10 about people who died by suicide.  By no means am I a professional, but I lived with a suicidal person for a very long time.

There are times in your life when you feel like you’re very much alone with pain and suffering.  When the similar and shared experiences of others converge to create enough energy, the inertia that stifles progress in dealing with a common state of being can be overcome.  Stigma adds resistance to these all too common and often terrifying situations.  Mental illness is not an I or Me problem, it’s a We problem.  We suffer mental illness together regardless of the source – whether it’s me, a family member, a friend, or a coworker – and only together can we address it. 

Sadly, I was introduced to suicide when an elementary school friend’s sister who was dealing with mental illness died by suicide.  As a 10-year-old, I struggled but could never understand it.  I did, however, notice that the discussions about it were conducted in whispers because the stigma was intense in the late 1950s.  Then during my sophomore year in college, my ex-girlfriend died by suicide during a trip to Paris.  It took me years of struggling alone to deal with it.  I didn’t know what to do, with whom to do it.  For a couple of weeks, I holed up in my dorm room without a clue of how to deal.  I was lost, felt guilty, and didn’t know about the stages of grief much less how to navigate through them alone.  It was a year before I felt like the dark blanket covering me was gone, thanks to counseling with my father, a physician.  Many years after college, a nighttime security guard at the cancer and leukemia hospital, research institute, and blood bank where I worked for 18 years was diagnosed with cancer.  We talked frequently since I often worked into the night.  He just couldn’t face the prospect of his own decline, couldn’t muster the strength to fight his cancer, and killed himself with a gunshot inside the institute.  He didn’t want his family to find him.  It was devastating for so many reasons.

My next and most overwhelming experience happened during my first marriage, happier than most by all external measures.  About 6 years into our 23-year marriage, I noticed that my wife Kathy had become less sociable and seemed either sad or tentative about being with others except when she focused on her clinical research or was in the company of our two young daughters, Bella and Audrey, and me.  Except when we were together as a family of 4, we stopped participating in most non-family activities.  Our world got very small.  Early in our marriage Kathy told me that as an 11-year-old, she had suicidal thoughts but over time they waned and were no longer a problem.  I wish I had been more observant (more on this phrase later).

Finally, it became apparent to me that she was badly depressed and suicidal.  I know better now, but due to the stigma of the disease and the age of my young teen and pre-teen daughters, we tried to shield our children from her depression – not a wise decision.  In hindsight, it would have been much better to share what was happening.  Children are good observers well-tuned into the feelings of their parents.  You simply can’t and shouldn’t try to fool them.  They deserved to know. 

Depression is a disease that affects the family.  Dealing with it together would have been much better.  Family counseling, not just Kathy’s counseling would have been better.  My advice to similarly situated people is to pursue counseling aggressively – individual, family, and group. Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.  Personal attention and group participation (together) make a huge difference.

Had we been more transparent with them, I’m sure our children could have contributed in their own ways to helping manage the illness and understand the true implications.  As the downward spiral continued, Kathy made her first unsuccessful attempt at suicide.  It was that act of desperation that brought events to a head.  Events forced me to explain to the girls what was happening, to guess what was going to happen.  I had to apologize for deceiving them – something they suspected.  They were disappointed by the event and our choice to shield them.

We learned many lessons.  Recovery is not easy.  A stay in the hospital is not enough.  Frustratingly and sometimes tragically, medication does not take effect quickly.  Some medications do not help at all and in some cases exacerbate the problem.  There is no “light switch” response.  Regular counseling helps but it, too, is no quick fix.  Logic is of little value.  Kathy’s external measures of success did not offer light to shine into what Kathy described as a hole so deep and dark that she couldn’t see or believe there was a way out.  My attempts to explain how good her life was were futile and oftentimes infuriating to her.  Finally, I learned to ask, “Is there something you need from me” or “Can I help?”  Accepting “No” was not easy for me who believed there was always a clear logical solution to every problem.  And one of the most important questions you must ask in a diplomatic but direct way is, “Are you having any suicidal thoughts?”  If the answer is yes, get professional help.  The next question should be, “Have you made any plans?”  If the answer to that is yes, do not leave them alone at any time. Call 911 or, if they’re cooperative, take them to a facility where you can get immediate help.

I was able to get over my attitude toward the stigma and shared my situation with my boss, the administrative team at my workplace, and my key direct reports.  Thank goodness cellphones existed.  They were part of my safety net.  I got cellphones for my daughters who hated carrying them but understood why.  Everyone who knew about our family situation was instructed to call me if they heard from any of Kathy’s providers or from the Authorities.  I also let them know that without notice, I might leave a meeting or other activity without asking permission and without explanation.  They were all very supportive.  They were working together with me and the family on crisis management.

The crises happened often.  Kathy attempted suicide more than 15 times, all of which ended with a visit to the emergency room.  She tried so many different approaches.  One of my sad memories is of my blond-haired wife lying listless in an ED bed with what looked like goth makeup – eyeliner running from her tears and lips lined in black from the charcoal slurry she was forced to take to counteract whatever she had swallowed, one of the more common approaches.  On many occasions, she would call me trying to interrupt her suicidal effort.

On the outside, during interactions with the outside world (as we would reference it), Kathy was able to put a smile on her face and continue her university research and teaching.  During the 17 years of depression, she won scientific grants to fund her work, received rave reviews from her students at both the collegiate and graduate level, and participated in family events without a hint of difficulty.  She was high functioning though depressed.  Perhaps providential, it was her basic research on alpha and beta receptors in the heart done during her pursuit of her Ph.D. that led to the development of beta-blockers that I now take to control my atrial fibrillation whose onset was after her death. 

On the last night of her life, she never came back from the class she was teaching at Texas Women’s University.  Rather than hold an all-night vigil, I told my daughters to get some sleep.  We didn’t talk about what we all feared and suspected.  After midnight, the police called from my driveway and asked me to come outside.  They let me know the cleaning staff at TWU had found her body.  She had died at work.  I ran to the last place I’d hidden her bag of medications since she wasn’t allowed to administer her pills.  It was gone.  I knew what had happened.

The worst conversation I ever had was the next morning when I had to tell my daughters their mother had died.  They both fell down wailing.  I still can’t watch any news story or movie where similar news is delivered to loved ones where wailing is involved.  

Going forward was so difficult for each of us.  The older daughter, Bella, was supposed to fly to Cambridge in 4 weeks to spend a semester abroad.  The younger daughter, Audrey, was starting her senior year of high school in just 1 week.  Perhaps, the demands of arranging the funeral, filling out the paperwork, preparing for school, and sharing whatever strength we had with each other helped us individually and as a smaller family move forward.

Life is relentless – it moves forward and does its best to keep you moving.  Friends and family tried to help; all with the best intentions.  Many were incredibly helpful.  The funeral was especially difficult but an important step.  I can hardly remember the services or the graveside ceremony but I can remember the 3 of us using our hands to throw dirt onto her casket which had been lowered into the ground.  That act was an important step in the transition to a different kind of life.  And I do remember the throng of people who gathered to say goodbye, but only a few of the individuals.  Thank goodness for the book that was signed by people who attended.

If you’re dealing with family and friends whose lives are forever changed by suicide, be careful about the language you use. For the 3 of us, the best comment was, “I’m sorry.”  Nothing more.  What we didn’t want to hear were phrases like, “She’s in a better place” or “At least she’s not suffering” or “How are you doing?” or “How are your daughters doing?” 

It was incredibly sad, painful, and difficult.  Time passes so slowly.  My daughters and I moved at different paces through the stages of grief.  As a survivor, you need to learn the stages of grief and be mindful of them.  If you’re aware of them, it can help you understand your feelings, your actions, and manage your expectations.  Ask someone who you know – personally or professionally – to help assess your progress through the stages.  Do not try to skip a step.  Know that grief is not linear.  Sometimes you may feel like you’re going backwards.

My daughters and I learned to address the stigma without hesitation.  Just 9 months after her mother’s suicide, Audrey who was high school class valedictorian delivered the commencement address.  Only she and her sister had seen the speech prior to the graduation ceremony.  Confronting the stigma, Audrey talked about dealing with the issue of mortality.  Her courageous speech affected the faculty, the students, and their families – hardly a dry eye.  Bella was always candid about events and continues to speak openly about suicide and mental illness.

Before it happened, I would tell people who needed to know, “She is depressed and suicidal” not simply suffering from a generic mental illness.  Avoid perpetuating the stigma of suicide by using euphemisms.  I’ve learned to avoid the word “committed.”  Kathy didn’t commit suicide; she died of suicide. 

Suicide is an illness with dramatic consequences, but she didn’t do anything wrong.  Despair was a constant companion.  She didn’t deserve to die.  Her death was not a punishment or personal failure on her part or on the part of her caregivers, and certainly not a failure of the family. 

For more than 8 months after Kathy’s suicide, I wore my wedding ring as an expression of my ongoing devotion to her.  At some point, I realized how lonely I was.  I missed her companionship.  Only Audrey who was a senior in high school and I were living without Kathy in our 4-bedroom house.  I felt guilty about taking the ring off.  Finally, it became a constant reminder of my loneliness.  I was ready to remove it but didn’t know how to deal with my conflicting feelings.  The answer for me was one-on-one therapy which fortunately I could afford.  My grief therapist who had helped a friend of mine helped me unburden myself from the overwhelming weight of my guilt.  After 6 months, they terminated the relationship because I had recovered enough to move forward.

Survivor’s guilt is very real.  “I wish I had…” or “If only I had…” are expressions of that guilt.  Occasionally, those phrases invade my thoughts as they did while I was writing this blog, but the weight drops away more quickly now than just after the suicide.  

Part of the stigma of suicide derives from religious or personal belief systems.  Regardless of your belief system, describing suicide as a sin against God’s gift of life preserves the stigma of this particular mental illness.  Most, not all, other illnesses do not have such a strong stigma attached.  Anyone suffering with suicidal thoughts should not only be able but rather encouraged to express themselves, to seek help as with almost every other illness.  Avoid adding to the burden of someone with mental illness, particularly depression, by judging them.  Judgment inhibits an individual’s pursuit of relief.  Most belief systems embrace helping others. 

Even now, there are times when waves of emotion come flooding in and overcome my daughters and/or me.  Holidays, major life events, and family traditions can be difficult times.  Perhaps the most frustration comes from never being able to seek counsel from Kathy with personal or professional challenges or being able to celebrate successes in real-time.  We also miss times of silence during which Kathy’s mere presence was a gift.  The girls and I will never fully recover, but we have learned to go on, to grow our family again, to celebrate life, to celebrate with gratitude the memories which are a blessing.   We have a very different perspective on what is important in life.

I was fortunate.  Each of the 3 of us found a path forward.  My accomplished daughters now have good families and fulfilling lives.  Three years after the suicide, I married and have shared my life with Barbara, my wonderful, supportive wife of 19 years.  I’m very grateful for every day.

Depression is complex and trying to treat it quickly or lightly simply doesn’t work.  As I’ve said before, it’s a family and friend disease.  Doing nothing will not help.  Wishing will not help.  Sometimes action can have an unanticipated consequence – that is push someone away or over the edge.  There are no quick fixes.  Seek understanding instead of judgment.  Do what you can to help, but don’t presume that because you are good at fixing other problems you can fix this without the help of others.  Get professional help if you can.  Get help from people who’ve been on a similar journey before.  Depression requires a team working together.  Let’s all work together for mental health.

Here are some useful resources suggested by NAMI – the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Crisis Resources

  • If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911 immediately.
  • If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255)
  • If you’re uncomfortable talking on the phone, you can also text NAMI to 741-741 to be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line.

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