Suicide is an especially difficult topic for me. I have known three people who lost the battle to depression and successfully ended their lives. I use the word “successfully” ironically. As a survivor, I know there is no victory in losing the fight, and to this day I am still haunted by the lives of these three beautiful, complex people – lives that held so much promise but were lost in the grip of depression.
I have been unearthing old materials about depression that I hosted on the web some ten years ago, deciding that they are still important – perhaps more than ever as so many people, especially teens, lose themselves to the impersonal disillusionment of the age. I mourn each loss and feel it as keenly as if it were the losses of those I was privileged to know for such a short time.
During my research to update these materials, I was heartened to know that there is now a day to recognize and promote Suicide Prevention, and it just passed on September 10. Although I am late, I feel it is still timely to reflect on suicide, on the great hole left by people who commit suicide, and why we should do everything in our power to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
1991 was a difficult year for me. I had descended into a clinical depression of my own, and had been for some three years already. I was also descending into the early stages of autoimmune disease, activated by a prolonged illness of the previous year. On February 10, Roger, my then husband’s cousin, died after a short battle to save his life after he had taken an overdose of pills. Roger was the epitome of a classic beauty. He had pale, clear skin, and a mass of curly, bronzed hair. He was lean and tall, and his cheeks turned a rosy pink whenever he had to exert himself or be out in the sun, which was often as he was struggling to make a living by mowing lawns. Roger also had chronic fatigue syndrome – then disparagingly dismissed as “yuppie flu”. He also had depression, and I remember visiting him in the hospital and (in hindsight, inconsiderately) commenting on what a depressing place it was. I don’t remember if it was ever publicly acknowledged that he struggled with depression, as it was and is still considered a terrible thing: a mark of weakness. I can only guess at the struggles Roger went through in isolation, before he found what he thought of as the “solution” to his pain. His funeral was held on Valentine’s Day. As it so often is, the funeral was packed with people bemused by the loss of a young man in his early twenties and the “whys” that Roger had fought so hard in isolation to keep to himself because they were not acceptable to society.
Several months later, a young man, also in his early twenties, Neil, committed suicide. As I again received the news by telephone, the loss still affects me to this day. Do I dare answer the phone, to hear more sad tidings like I did so long ago? Neil was a brilliant young man, in fact, he topped the class of students training to become meteorologists the previous year. I was a part of that class, but had to abandon that career as I succumbed to my own physical and mental challenges. I remember before the end of the year, sitting next to Neil at a celebratory lunch of all the students. I felt a little embarrassed because I had totally screwed up a presentation some weeks before, where I had been supposed to coordinate my speech to complement another student’s and Neil’s, and I had messed up so badly in my own fog that I used all the time allotted to Neil’s portion of the presentation. He was gracious about it, and humble, as he was about so many things, including his intelligence. I remember feeling envious of his intelligence. It had once come so easily to me, and had abandoned me as I began to struggle inwardly (and unknowingly) with my past at the age of nineteen. At this lunch, the topic of conversation between us somehow turned to religion. It turned out that Neil was devoutly religious, and at that time I tended towards the atheistic, because I felt I had been cut down and let down by all of my parents, including any heavenly ones. When he learned of my questioning of beliefs, he wanted to talk. Surrounded by the noise of other students chatting about lighter things (things that mattered not to me), and the din of a crowded restaurant, I remember my voice saying to him quietly, “It’s not a good time to talk about it.” He asked if we could talk about it sometime in the future, and I said yes, glad no longer to be the focus of those eyes staring at me earnestly. We never did get to talk about it. I know now that Neil was in the depths of a spiritual crisis, and I still wonder, what if? What if I had talked about it, then and there? Although I know it was not my fault that Neil lost his life to the insidious illness of depression, I still ask myself at times… What if? I’ll never know. I hope I get the chance to have that talk with him one day, in the lives to come.
Two years later, I was admitted to emergency and had my stomach pumped. Coincidentally, it was the eve of St Valentine’s Day, and the anniversary of Roger’s funeral only two years before. This was not the last time I was to be admitted to the hospital with depression, nor the last time I chose what seemed like the only solution to end the pain of my soul. It had been five years since I first descended into depression, and had not known it for what it was. At the time of that hospitalization I still didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that I was defective; I was weak. There was something fundamentally wrong with me. The stigma of suicide and depression was so great that when I later told my mother of that dreadful event, she said “That didn’t happen. You didn’t do that.” And it was never spoken of again. When I told my younger sister, she was angry with me (in retrospect, rightfully so, because who knows better than I what suffering is left behind – how many lives are ripped open and laid to waste?). My confusion in the aftermath of the suicide attempt was multiplied by her anger. I didn’t want to die, but the pain in my soul was so great, that I saw no other solution. Although in time, I was privileged to be tutored by a great psychologist who specialized in cognitive therapy, to this day I still feel echoes of that overwhelming drive to no longer be in pain: mental, physical, spiritual, emotional. I sometimes have to struggle through each day, as I remember the ghosts who now accompany me on the journey.
Claire is a more recent ghost of mine. She was in her forties, and was previously a psychologist until fibromyalgia, depression, and memories of past abuse robbed her of her career. Claire was a great soul. When she smiled, her face creased up and her eyes shone merrily. When she laughed, it was a great, joyous sound – it could correctly be called infectious, because you wanted to smile and laugh along with her. Claire was in great pain. I knew it, as it was something we all shared in our counselling group: sombre memories and ghosts haunting us between the moments that we managed to draw ourselves back to the present, as our leader (another incredible psychologist) found something to make us laugh and find some joy in living. I was suffering an undiagnosed autoimmune disease (one that echoed the hopelessness and helplessness of Roger’s chronic fatigue syndrome). Indeed, not long after I found a name for my physical pain: Sjogren’s syndrome and fibromyalgia, I remember meeting Claire in the washroom before group. She had heard about a lecture on fibromyalgia at the university, and asked if I would attend with her. Once again, I selfishly listened to the demands of the moment, which told me that I was exhausted, and already struggling with the demands of university life and caring for my new family that came with two teen daughters, much less finding the energy to do some extracurricular activity that meant the challenges of negotiating the bus, walking to the venue, and dealing with people who couldn’t see anything wrong with me. I’m sure I politely turned her down. I got the details, in case by some miracle I found the energy to go, and meet her there. I never did find that energy, and I didn’t go. Several months later, soon after the joys of a group gathered at Christmastime (several of us went overboard on the gifts, wanting to – I think – let our new friends how much they were loved and how much we valued finding a place where we belonged), we returned to group in the New Year to hear that Claire had walked into the sea and drowned. This was the same Claire who at Christmas had wandered among the street people of Victoria, listening to them, and hearing their voices. She wanted to do things for them: collect them food and blankets. She wanted to publish a newspaper to give them a voice. I found that old question resurfacing. What if? What if I had made the time, and found the energy, to talk to her, to give her a voice? What if I had found out what difficulty she was in? Again, it was not my fault, but it is hard not to think so. As I attended the celebration at her memorial – an incredibly joyous affair it was with her choir singing in tribute to her – I felt so lost. I would have given anything to have Claire singing along with them, and breaking up in her raucous laugh as if she had gotten away with something (she really could be a mischievous sprite at times). I wanted her to be alive to talk about the conference she was looking forward to, one that discussed the peace she found in walking the labyrinth. What if?
Roger, Neil and Claire, were relative strangers to me. I was only privileged enough to gain a glimpse into their lives, their joys, and their despair at the terrible illness that preyed upon their minds and souls. They were all such beautiful people, with so much to share. So much intelligence, wit, and compassion for their fellow humankind. What a sad and terrible hole their going left in me. I owe it to all of them to educate others about the very real mortal risk of depression. We wouldn’t dismiss those with cancer, or a myriad of other physical complaints. Why then do we dismiss others when the disease is bound up with not only the physical: the brain, but the mental, emotional and spiritual: the mind?
Roger, Neil and Claire were all strong, beautiful people. I mourn their losses still, and will likely do so the rest of my days. I shall ask myself the “what ifs” of their future lives, and feel the ache of all they could achieve that was never realized. I shall love them and hold them in my memory. They were not weak in their fight with their illness, depression. They were not bad, or spiritually bankrupt people. They had so much to share, if only we had listened. I will not have it said they died in vain. As a survivor who lived, their memory is one of the spurs I use to remind myself when the struggle is great. They would have wanted to keep serving others that way.
To anyone who reads this, who knows of the struggle, I beseech you to keep fighting and don’t give up. There are others who understand, and so many lives that are diminished by your passing. You are loved, and you will find a way to a future in which you can find not only a measure of peace, but the joy you once thought you could never find. Take it from me, who has been there, you will. The first step is asking for help. Don’t be ashamed, don’t be embarrassed. You are not weak, and you have the strength to get through this. Many people feel the way you do right now. Contact someone, and ask for help. A great place to start is at Befrienders International. They know, they care, and they understand. I also have other resources on my Emergency Help page.
Join with me in thanking Roger, Neil and Claire for the lessons they imparted to us. Let’s use this World Suicide Prevention Day, 2007, to make sure that no one else has to suffer and die alone.