Why suicide? If only we knew

Posted: August 14, 2014

SHE WAS WATCHING Jeopardy! on Monday when the news scrolled across the bottom of the TV screen that Robin Williams had taken his own life.

"I burst into tears," says "Helen," who has asked to remain anonymous to protect her daughter. "I wanted to call his wife and tell her there will be a light at the end of the tunnel. I wanted to hug her."

Helen says this even though, more often than not, she feels the pain of her brother's 2010 suicide as if it, too, happened Monday.

And even though she still battles the despair that led to her own suicide attempt just eight months after her brother died.

"I woke up in the ICU with a tube down my throat, and I was devastated. I did not want to be alive," says Helen, who had collapsed in her kitchen after swallowing 50 Vicodin pills. She survived only because she crashed into a radiator, which alerted her sleeping husband, who called 9-1-1.

"My husband and daughter were a mess," says Helen, 53 (whose daughter does not know that Helen's overdose was not an accident). "My self-esteem was so low, I thought they'd be better off without me."

She'd written a suicide note advising her husband - "the most amazing man in the world" - to find a woman who deserved him more than she did. And she actually recommended that her daughter be raised by an aunt who she thought would be a better role model than Helen had been.

She couldn't fathom that her family would miss her because they loved her, not because of the wifely and motherly functions she once provided.

"That's how far gone I was," says Helen. "That's how loud my demons of depression were."

I spoke with Helen yesterday because, in the wake of Williams' death, I was feeling desperate to talk with someone who had survived a suicide attempt. I was referred to Helen by Diane Amareld, who leads a Survivors of Suicide support group at Aria Health Torresdale hospital for those who have lost loved ones to suicide.

Maybe, I thought, Helen could tell us, from experience, what we can say or do to prevent loved ones from doing the unthinkable. Maybe she could show us where supports had been lacking in her life, so that we might know how to protect those we worry about.

Helen offered no such inoculation.

She had been on antidepressants. She had a good therapist, lovely friends. And the night she downed those pills, she and her husband had just returned from a party, where she had laughed and danced with abandon. No one could have suspected that she was telling herself, "Party it up, hon. Because tonight's the night you're gonna die."

"I was so low, I had to reach up to touch rock bottom. I had it all planned. I was happy because I knew the pain was finally going to end, after I got home and my husband went to bed," says Helen. "I gave no one any clue that, for my 50th birthday" - a few weeks away - "I was going to kill myself."

Her words are a shock, aren't they? They counter all we tell ourselves about those with crippling depression: That if they have access to the right meds, the right therapies and the right words, they will not make a terrible decision that cannot be reversed.

But her words are no less shocking than is the news about the beloved Williams, whose wealth and connections presumably had given him access to the best meds, therapies and support this country offers.

But if we're to understand why Williams succumbed to despair, we need to understand that suicidal people don't necessarily want to die; they just want the pain to end.

Helen, thank God, survived her suicide attempt, which means she lived to undergo an epiphany:

Suicide doesn't end the pain.

It just passes it on.

"I realized that my brother"- who was in the midst of a nasty divorce - "killed himself because he couldn't stand the pain of living anymore. But when he died, he gave all of that pain" to those who loved him.

The pain sent Helen into free-fall. They'd always been close. Yes, they squabbled, the way siblings do, but that had been their way since childhood. She had no idea that he was suicidal; like her, he could put up a good front.

They'd been arguing, before his death, about money issues. He had moved in with Helen and her family, and he was becoming hard to deal with. In his suicide note, he cruelly included Helen among those he blamed for his demise.

"My psychiatrist thinks he was nasty so that I would get so mad at him I wouldn't be sad and I wouldn't miss him," says Helen. "If that's the case, it backfired. I always fought depression. But this sent me over the edge."

After she physically recovered from her own suicide attempt, Helen, in desperation, picked up a New Life Bible and wept when she read Jeremiah 29:11.

"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord, "plans for well-being and not for trouble, to give you a future and a hope."

"I realized that God had given me another chance at a future. And I knew then and there that I would never again attempt to kill myself," says Helen. "It wouldn't resolve any pain; it would only pass it on to my husband and daughter, the way my brother had passed pain on to me."

She still takes medication and sees both a therapist and a psychiatrist. These days she also attends two support groups for those who've lost loved ones to suicide. She is temporarily out of work, recovering from minor surgery, and looks forward to her return.

And some in her family cannot forgive her for making the "selfish" choice to attempt suicide, knowing the agony her brother's suicide had caused.

"They don't understand," says Helen. "What they don't get is that I don't understand, either. That's how strong the demons of depression can be."


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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