Today is November 22, 2014, and it is National Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, a national event sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In honor of this day, I’m going to be blogging and tweeting messages under the #survivorday and #endsuicide tags, in hopes of increasing awareness and lessening mental health stigma. You can help by sharing this post on Twitter, and by searching on Twitter under those tags and sharing the stories of others who have experienced this loss. If you have been affected, share your story.
Life changes forever when you lose someone to suicide. Their life ends, and your life feels like it’s been shredded into pieces. So many emotions tossing and turning on rough seas. Guilt, regret, frustration, confusion… this list goes on as the emotions battle amongst one another for dominance. But things eventually even out. The seas grow calm, and the sun does come back out.
People don’t treat you the same after you lose someone to suicide. The societal stigma of the suicide is transferred on to you, whilst your vulnerability makes it feel like you’re broadcasting your fragility to the world. I don’t want to be treated like I’m broken. I don’t want to be invited to church, or have Bible verses recited to me. I don’t want to be touched, or have my back patted. Don’t treat me like I’m a freak. Don’t analyze my moods and behavior. Just let me grieve. I will want to cry, and I will appear upset or angry at times. I might eat a lot of chocolate, or other things that you don’t think are healthy. I might want to sit on the couch and watch all nine seasons of The X-Files in one weekend. I might not care too much about dressing up presentably, or venturing out into the world. I might sit and look through thousands of photos, grasping for memories to hang on to. What little social graces I have as an Autistic person might bottom out. My ability to work and my performance at work might suffer. And this might go on for years, as there is nothing linear about this recovery and healing process. Nothing at all. But you’ll encounter others who share you’ll loss, and you’ll meet people who treat you with kindness and compassion.
People look on you with suspicion when you’ve lost someone to suicide. You’re now “that family down the street with the Father who killed himself”. Before, you were “that nice family down the street”, or something like that. This stigma is so great that many times, families will try to hide the cause of death of their loved one. I know this, because my Mother did this. I wrote about it in a blog post, here. What’s even more insidious and insulting is when people infer that if you share the suicide of your loved one, then you’re whoring for attention or grasping for sympathy. That happened to me as well, and it’s despicable. I didn’t want attention or sympathy- I just wanted an emotional break from a high stress career, where people were constantly interfacing with me, and not always with nice intentions. I just wanted the right to calmly exist for a while, without being pecked at.
If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, being a survivor of suicide can make that relationship even worse. It can be the pivot point through which a relationship changes course to become even more severe and abusive. My 2007 marriage had been rocky from the start, with one of my abusive husband’s major issues being that I didn’t want to take his last name. Two months before my Father’s death, my husband had actually driven me to the DMV and Social Security offices, and forced me to fill out all of the papers to change my name on various documents, such as my driver’s license, passport and social security card. He saw these things as symbols of his ownership over me. Within a week of my Father’s suicide, he was already screaming and yelling at me, calling me names in front of the children, and even calling me a “cunt” and a “bitch” in front of his Mother on Christmas day. He claimed that he was just upset because with my Father’s death, I would be even more “trouble” about not wanting to use his name. This sounds like a stupidly minor thing, right? It wasn’t. My Father hadn’t even been dead for five days, and the cycle of abuse was ramping up. This was huge. It showed me just how abusive and controlling the relationship was, and how I needed to get out of it, as soon as possible. From that point on, I endured him. I even plopped down the money to take him on a trip to Italy and pretend that it was a “second honeymoon”. When you’re being abused, you do just about anything to prevent more abuse… until you find yourself in the position to safely exit. I finally found that time, and I made my exit, relatively unscathed in the grand scheme of things. Next June will be my five year “anniversary” of leaving it all behind and consciously leaning forward into the light.
Here’s some statistics about suicide, from Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide (source):
- Suicide takes the lives of about 30,000 each year.
- On an average day, one person ends their life every 17 minutes.
- Every 1 hour and 39 minutes an elderly person kills him or herself.
- Every 2 hours and 12 minutes a teenager/young adult kills him or herself.
- Overall, it is the11th most common cause of death, more frequent than homicide which ranks 14th.
- Among young people, it is the 3rd most common cause of death.
- There are 4.1 male deaths by suicide for each female death.
- In an average year there are 734,000 annual attempts (estimated, no annual national data available).
- For every death by suicide, there are 25 attempts.
- Among youth, there are 100 to 200 attempts for every death – often used as a cry for help among the young.
- Among the elderly, there are 4 attempts for every death – the elderly are most often the most lethal in carrying out the attempt.
- There are 3 female attempts for each male attempt – males are more lethal in killing themselves, i.e., using guns. Nearly 60 percent of all suicides are done with a firearm.
- 5 million living Americans (estimated) have attempted to kill themselves.
Survivors (Family members and friends of a loved one who died by suicide)
- Each suicide intimately affects at least 6 other people (estimated)
Based on this estimate, there are approximately 4.5 million American survivors of suicide.
People read these type of statistics and feel a slight twinge of sadness, but no real momentous push to understand or change this pattern, as the statistics are just numbers. They lack humanity. Mental Illness is highly stigmatized in this country and treated as a personality flaw. A weakness of character. People feel that they can’t get treatment or assistance in dealing with mental illness because it can severely impact their employment, or the custody of their children. People can lose their jobs. Married persons dealing with depression and receiving treatment for it know that in the future, if divorce rears it’s ugly head, their mental health might be brought into the spotlight, and used as a reason for them to not be a “fit parent”, or even as a basis for the divorce itself. These are just some of the reasons why people suffer in silence and don’t get help.
My Dad isn’t a number or a statistic- he was my Father. He loved chocolate covered pretzels, listening to ZZ Top, and one of his favorite movies was Blade Runner. He was a person, and now he’s gone. He was so much like me that we didn’t always need to use spoken words. Just sitting in silence was fine. Losing him was like losing half of myself, and I’ve had to reconnect with my inner child to get it all back.
My Father suffered in silence and didn’t get help. He was born in 1941 and was of the generation that perceived mental illness as a major weakness of one’s personality. Despite the fact that he had attempted suicide before the age of twenty years old, by driving his car off a bridge, he still felt that way. He never got help for his life-long battle with depression. He didn’t want depression on his health records, because it would take away his ability to do the one thing he really loved- being a private pilot. My Father loved to fly, but he could not fly if he had any mental health issues or antidepressant medications listed on his medical records. He would not pass his “medical”, he would not have license to fly. Two years after my Father’s suicide, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted this restriction. My Father left a stack of photos on his desk, as the only evidence of a “suicide note”. At least half of the photos in that stack were of planes he has flown, or him standing next to those planes. When the 2008 stock market crisis occurred, it hit my Father hard financially. He had to sell his small plane (a 1968 Piper Cherokee) that autumn. Approximately two months after his wings were clipped, he ended his life.
They say that there are five stages of grief. I personally feel that there are many more than that, and that they don’t arrive in the same order, or the same intensity. In the two years after my Father’s death, I feel like my life went off the rails. I completely lost any ability to cope with stress, or confrontation. My anxiety and own symptoms of depression intensified. My insomnia became so bad that my doctor gave up on Ambien and began prescribing me a heavy-duty drowsiness inducer, the psychotropic medication called Seroquel. Yet I never felt rested, and I never remembered a single dream. I felt like my body and mind were falling apart, and on a daily basis, shadows were wrapping themselves around me, as I fought to shake their grip. I lost my direction, and I lost my focus.
Not long after my Father’s death, I realized that despite his struggle to function within our family unit, he was actually very much the balancing element that made it possible for me to engage on the most basic levels with my Mother and Brother. With my Father gone, I soon learned what my Mother and Brother truly thought of me. The relationship grew so toxic and abusive that in March of 2012, four years after my Father’s suicide- I packed up everything I owned and left my Mother and Brother behind. I left no forwarding address, and I didn’t tell them I was leaving. Arriving at the decision to go “no contact” with my family was not an impulsive one, it was very carefully planned and decided. The end result of it is that I don’t have any immediate family, but I do finally have happiness, confidence, and a positive outlook.
Yes, you read that right- happiness, confidence and a positive outlook. I’ve fought hard to get to this point, and I know that I have a long way to go. I’ve moved far away from where I lived before, and had to leave behind toxic relationships- even ones that were blood relationships. I no longer have to drive by the cul-de-sac outside my Mother’s house, where my Father took his life, so I’m no longer plagued by seeing his body, slumped over and covered in a white sheet spattered in his blood. That’s something I can never un-see, but at least I’m not consistently being reminded of it. So I’ve been able to shift my perspective to honoring and celebrating my Father’s life. Because no matter how he died, my Dad was a great person, a loving Father, and a strong role model for me. I just wish I had a chance to tell him that before he left, but the opportunity never presented itself.
Healing is a long and complex process, for there isn’t a single point ahead of me through which I will feel that I have truly healed. It’s not like that. Most days I feel fine, and I think of my Dad every day. Other days, I feel triggered as a swell of painful emotions rushes forth and my voice starts to crack as my eyes well up with tears. Guilt is one of the most difficult emotions that I’ve been dealing with in being a survivor of my Father’s suicide. Things were not on good terms with my family when he died. I continually ask myself, if circumstances had been different, would I have been able to prevent his death? Would I have recognized the signs in his behavior? Would he still be here, if the one person so like him in this world, had been there next to him? I can’t answer any of those questions, because I can’t change the past. I can allow myself to feel torrents of guilt, or I can understand that “why” or “what if” are the two biggest questions that survivors ask themselves. I can’t change what happened, but I can keep his memory alive.
With the alarming statistics regarding suicide, you most likely know someone who is a survivor. You might know someone who is a survivor and not know they ARE a survivor, because they’ve chosen not to divulge this information due to the stigma surrounding it. I’ve chosen to be open about the circumstances surrounding my Father’s death, because I think that people being open and sharing their experiences is one of the only ways that this stigma will shift and hopefully change. Let’s face it, people are not comfortable with the mention of death, and even less comfortable with the mention of suicide. Why is that? Does it have to be that way?
For months after my Father’s death, I hoped that I would dream about him at night, but I never did. I don’t know if that’s because my sleep cycles were so messed up due to insomnia, or because I didn’t remember my dreams, but I eventually did have a dream about him, which for me, represented beautiful closure. In my dream, I was walking through an airport, on my way to get to a connecting flight, and I looked to the right.. and saw my Father, standing in line to get on a flight. He was as he was when he was younger. Maybe 1965 or so… dapper, dressed in a suit, hair slicked back… incredibly handsome. I stopped and watched him, and as his ticket was scanned he turned and looked at me, smiled and gave me the thumbs up. The jetway lit up brightly, and he walked down it…
I leave this post off with a poem, which was written on a scrap of yellow legal paper and given to me by a kind woman named Lori, when I was sixteen, and hospitalized after my first suicide attempt. It was my first night at the hospital, and I was on suicide watch. Lori sat with me all night long, talking to me, trying to help me to get to sleep. She wrote me this poem by Emily Dickinson, and told me that when I understood it, I would know I was getting better. I’ve kept this poem in my memory and in my heart since that night in 1986. I still have that piece of paper, taped to the inside of a little blank book, safe inside the drawer of my nightstand.
A great Hope fell
You heard no noise
The Ruin was within
Oh cunning wreck that told no tale
And let no Witness in
The mind was built for mighty Freight
For dread occasion planned
How often foundering at Sea
Ostensibly, on Land
A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it
And there were troughs beside
A closing of the simple lid
That opened to the sun
Until the tender Carpenter
Perpetual nail it down —