This post is simply about suicide. I tried to come up with a catchy title. It is such a profound subject, that catchy titles seemed to trivialize the reality. So, this is simply a post about suicide and what it means to me as a person, and as a mental health professional. I first began to work on this post about a month ago. I had trouble with the very personal nature of this topic, and set it aside. This week, Robin Williams took his own life. He was a favorite comedic actor in my household, and the loss of his life left us grief-stricken and confused. Robin, thanks for inspiring me to revisit this topic. I’m so sorry that you were in so much pain. I pray for comfort for your family and all who loved you.
I first became acquainted with suicide attempts when I found my older sister, Penny, in a bathtub, her wrists slit, blood spilling into the water, and passed out. She was 14, I was 11. That was 46 years ago. A lifetime ago, I was a frightened 11-year-old, staring at my older sister, naked and bleeding, in our family bathtub. She’d gone in to the bathroom for a bath, and I’d been waiting for her to come out so I could have my bath. I got tired of waiting and went in to hurry her along. I don’t remember much of what happened after my discovery….someone called an ambulance, Penny was taken to the hospital….and I didn’t see her again for a long time. She was admitted to a psychiatric ward and not much was said in our family about what had happened. Looking back on the events of that evening, I’m shocked that no one thought it was important to find out if I was OK, or whether I had any concerns about where my sister had gone, or whether she was OK. But it simply wasn’t discussed. We went on about our business, as if nothing had happened. I didn’t know what to ask, or who to ask, so I just walked around, numb and hurt by what I’d seen, confused, and too emotionally raw to speak.
Penny was a deeply disturbed young lady on that day 46 years ago, and she carried her suicidal tendencies with her throughout her life. The attempt I witnessed was one of so many that we lost count as a family. She went on to have four children. Her second daughter, my niece, has described to me that she remembers driving her Mother to the hospital before she was legally allowed to drive, at around 13 or 14 years old, in a blind panic after finding her unconscious from an attempted overdose. I have no idea what it is like to find your Mother near death from a suicide attempt. I only know what it was like for me to find my older sister, and I can tell you that it was terrifying and it left an everlasting impression on me.
My older brother, David, was my best friend in childhood. Only a year older than me, he was my playmate throughout childhood. We romped the neighborhood together, played “Army” and “Batman and Robin” in the summer, built snow forts and had snowball fights in the winter. He taught me to climb trees and find tadpoles and frogs in the local stream, and how to ride a bike. He encouraged me to be as much of a tomboy as possible. Being the only boy in a family of 8, he wanted me to be his buddy. As an adult, he was an AIDS patient. His self-destructive cloud of drug abuse in the early eighties had led to both him and his wife contracting HIV, almost before anyone knew what it was. After years of struggling with ups and downs in his health, living on disability, and waiting for AIDS to take him, he took matters into his own hands one day, and put a gun to the roof of his mouth and pulled the trigger. I sat in the hospital consultation room with my nephew, a college student at the time, and my other family members who could make it there. We all heard how grim my brother’s prognosis was. He had a bullet lodged in the frontal lobe of his brain. He had pretty much destroyed his sinus cavities. The doctors were explaining that if he survived at all, he would probably be in a chronic vegetative state. I sat with him in his ICU room and held his had and prayed for God’s will to be done. I was afraid to pray for him to survive, because I knew he would not want to survive if it meant being completely dependent on others. But he did survive. He proved the doctors wrong. He recovered, and his intellect and personality were pretty much intact. I guess it must have been God’s will for him to survive. He later told me that he knew the minute the gun went off that he’d made a mistake, that he wanted to live. Maybe it was his will to live that created the miracle of his survival, maybe God…I don’t know. He lived for about 10 years after that event, and I was with him when he finally was taken from us because of complications from the AIDS diagnosis. I held his hand, kissed his forehead, and quietly said to him, “Now you don’t have to hurt anymore.” And then I left his hospital room and prayed that what I believed to be true, was true. I prayed for my brother to be at peace.
My sister Pat was Penny’s twin. They were my inspiration when I was a young child. They were three years older than me, and I looked up to both of them. They were both smart, and I remember being excited when I was old enough to sit at the table and do homework with them. Pat succeeded in taking her life in 2011. She had battled Bipolar for most of her adult life. She had many heartaches, and many demons. In addition to the Bipolar diagnosis, she had multiple medical conditions that required monitoring and treatment with medications. In 2011 her husband’s group health insurance was cancelled, due to no fault on the part of her husband or my sister. They searched for several months for another policy, but found that because of preexisting conditions, Pat was not insurable. It wasn’t just that they couldn’t afford health insurance for her, they were flat-out denied the chance to be insured. Pat quietly took her life one Sunday morning. She wrote three notes, all of them explaining that she chose not to be a burden to her husband any longer. She knew that life without insurance meant he would feel obligated to find a way to pay for her required medications and care in cash. She did not want to put this burden on him. Did she hurt people by her decision? Yes. Was it a selfish decision? I don’t think so. I don’t think my sister was selfish. I think our society was selfish. I was angry with the broken health care system in this country. I felt it was absolutely shameful that in a country this wealthy, anyone would feel that their individual health care needs were too much of a burden.
There were eight children in my family of origin. The three siblings closest to me in age, and who I was closest to in childhood, lived tormented lives and all three of them attempted suicide, only Pat succeeded. Still, Penny and David have died and I miss all three of them. Their behavior was influenced by strong familial tendencies toward depression, and many other situations that influenced them as individuals. I myself have been depressed, I’ve had my dark nights of the soul. I chose professional help and self-nurturing behaviors. I’m not entirely sure why I’ve coped this way and they coped that way. I know that my depression was not severe or prolonged. I feel a strong connection with the phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” There is a deep well of empathy within me for the intensity of emotional pain that leads to the most desperate decision to commit suicide. But many people become depressed without ever seriously considering taking their own lives. So, what causes some to turn to suicide while others turn to less destructive ways of alleviating their emotional pain? I wish I had the answers. I know from my professional training how to assess for suicide risk factors. I know how to get a patient put on a “5150” hold, because of being a risk to themselves. I don’t know why some people end up, in spite of help being available, choosing to end their life in suicide.
There has been a lot of talk this week, on social media sites, about suicide being a selfish act. At a certain point in time, I also thought that. Many years ago, My first husband and I were dealing with a marriage that was, in many ways, broken. We had agreed to go to marriage counseling. The outcome of the counseling was that my ex husband decided to exit the marriage. We had discussed having several more counseling appointments to negotiate the separation and divorce. But we never had the chance. The marriage counselor we had been seeing went out on the beach one Sunday morning and quietly took his own life. You see, depression is a no-discrimination disorder. Mental health professionals don’t get a free ride. No one is invulnerable. I attended this man’s funeral and saw his wife and children grieving. I saw the pain in the faces of the people who loved him, and I told myself that what he had done was selfish. It was the only way I could make sense of what seemed so senseless. It was what I needed to believe in order to cope. But now, I look back on that and I question my right to make that assumption. I knew very little of this man. I knew nothing of his personal, private world. I knew nothing of his pain. I didn’t even know him well enough to grieve the loss of his life. I just didn’t know how to make sense of his choice. I didn’t know how to understand that maybe, to him, it didn’t seem like a choice at all.
Some say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But that doesn’t seem true on a few different levels. First, depression, for many, is not a temporary problem. It is a dark and determined cloud of despair that stays too long. It doesn’t seem to be a temporary problem when you’ve battled your way back from the depths of despair time and time again. And I have to question whether suicide is a solution at all. I know that the pain does not end because someone takes their own life. It just gets redistributed to the people who are left behind. And I don’t know what happens after we die. I believe in an afterlife, but I don’t know how our actions, including the act of suicide, influence our afterlife. For my sister Pat, for Robin, for the others who’ve left us by their own hand, I pray they are at peace. But I don’t have any way of knowing that for sure. I have questions, not answers.
I could quote suicide statistics here, but they are easily found on the internet. This isn’t about statistics, it is about the fact that too many people are hurting. Too many people take their own lives in a deep despair that defies logic. Too many people leave this world, with all of its pain and joy, too soon. What can we do, as individuals, to make a difference?
Can we be more loving and less judgemental? Can we be kinder, more compassionate, more respectful? Can we live our life knowing that everyone is hurting in some ways that may be invisible to us? Can we, like a dog, wag more and bark less? I hope so. The optimist in me wants to believe so. I want us to become a more aware, more loving society.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, please be brave enough to reach out. There is help available. I pray that you will, and I pray that your request for help will be met with kindness, compassion, respect, love, and a glimmer of hope.