Suicide is not an option

Saturday evening, September 20, 1986. Two days after my 32nd birthday, my wife and 3 small children sped down Central Expressway in Dallas. We were heading to my parent’s house across town for a belated birthday celebration that evening when one of my sons announced from the back seat that he felt sick to his stomach. Not wanting to risk an upchuck in the back seat, I took the next exit and headed back home. Upon our arrival at home, I punched in my parent’s phone number. Mom answered and when I delivered the news that we’d have to delay the celebration, her demeanor changed from chipper to terse. It puzzled me – why would she be angry that one of my kids was sick? It was my birthday celebration being delayed, not hers.

Around 5 A.M. the next morning, the phone rang and my wife picked it up from her side of the bed. I don’t remember what she said to the person who called, but she hung up and said to me, “It was your Dad. Your mom hung herself.” I bolted out of bed, crying out “No, no, no. Oh God, no!” I hurriedly dressed, got in the car and made the trip down Central Expressway that we had started the evening before. It was just dawn, with few cars on Central or highway 635, the sky colored pastel pink and baby blue. I have no recollection of my thoughts during that drive.

The coroner and police cars were parked in front of my parent’s small pink brick house that they had bought in “Dutch Village” 26 years earlier. I remember being 4 years old when they decided to have a house built there. The sales office was actually a Dutch style windmill and I couldn’t believe we were going to live in a windmill village, just like a fairy tale. I don’t even remember being disappointed when our completed house didn’t resemble a windmill at all.

The single car garage door was open and the city men were in there, so I entered through the front door of the house. Now after 35 years, I only remember Dad being inside and perhaps the police chaplain. I don’t remember much about what was said, except that Dad kept saying he was afraid this would happen. He said she seemed very angry on Saturday night and he got the feeling that she would try to kill herself. Although he tried to stay up all night on a kind of suicide watch, he finally gave in and went to bed. When he awoke and didn’t find her in the house, he opened the garage door to see that she had hung herself.

After Mom’s body was removed, we drove to my younger sister’s house about 15 minutes away. Phone calls were made and my other sister and her family drove in from Houston that afternoon. The next few days were miserable as we not only tried to cope with Mom’s death but also with blaming each other, trying to keep the peace, selecting Mass readings, encouraging each other, making funeral arrangements. One vivid memory I have is hearing that quarterback David Archer led the Atlanta Falcons in victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

We met with the pastor of the Catholic Church that Mom had stopped attending. Normally at Catholic visitations held the evening before the funeral Mass, a rosary is prayed, and I think the rosary is the one prayer that my Mom continued saying with my Dad. Because Mom was a convert and most of her side of the family was Baptist, the priest said to avoid offending the Baptists, we should only pray one decade (10 Hail Marys) of the rosary. We reluctantly agreed to that.

The day of the funeral was a beautiful sunny day. The family limo driver’s last name was Yeager. I sat in the front seat with him and learned that he was related to Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot. Waiting outside were several of my coworkers from a small computer consulting firm. The firm was owned by evangelical Protestants and most of the employees were of similar faiths. The priest’s homily was bizarre as he quoted the “great Buddha” and from Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet. I was both embarrassed and furious that Father was so ignorant of Protestant sensibilities. They already believed that Catholics were not “saved”. He only confirmed that we were also kooks. Fortunately, no family or friends ever mentioned the homily, but I felt like he had soiled my mother’s funeral.

My mom’s suicide had been preceded by an unsuccessful attempt several years earlier. My parents had a bitter marriage and after one argument, Mom had swallowed several sleeping pills. Dad found her passed out, called an ambulance and after a couple of days in the hospital, she survived.

My parents met with a Catholic counselor, a former Carmelite monk, for some time period. Mom seemed to be not as depressed and it didn’t seem like she was suicidal any more. Much later I started seeing the same counselor after being recommended to him by a friend. I didn’t realize he had been (but no longer was) my parents’ counselor until my first meeting with him. After my parents ceased counseling, it seemed like their situation grew worse and that my mom became angrier and more depressed. I felt like her general mood was hostile and I remember telling my counselor shorty before her death that Mom had changed, that there was something wrong with her, but a risk of suicide did not occur to me.

I don’t know if there are “typical” effects on the survivors of those who have committed suicide. Naturally there is the grief you would experience at the loss of a loved one, a grief that can be crushing but given enough time, most people’s lives typically resume some sort of normalcy. An added dimension when someone commits suicide is trying to find out why they chose that option. How could they feel so bad that they’d want to kill themselves? Who made them feel bad? Who was mean to them? What was wrong with their upbringing? Who didn’t love them enough? That can pit family members and friends against each other. I’m not even going to try to answer those questions here. Maybe no one is to blame.

I had started seeing the counselor because I felt like my temper was getting the best of me and I didn’t like that. The initial assessment of the counselor was that I might see him for a few months and be on my way, but after Mom’s death I continued seeing him for the next 20 years, with a few breaks interspersed. Depression had cast its pall over me, a dark blanket covering my head. My work at the consulting company required me to drive in heavy traffic across the Dallas/Fort Worth area and the work as a developer was solitary as I was often working in little computer rooms or closets tucked away in warehouses. I didn’t just feel isolated – I actually was isolated and needed a change.

I had heard that a coworker from a previous employer was a manager at an insurance division of a major retailer. A call to her resulted in interviews and my taking the job, with my friend as my manager. Even though it was a major corporate environment, it had some independence from the retail parent and it seemed to be well managed (in fact it was the only profitable division in the corporation). I was most impressed by the friendly environment and it was the tonic I needed to help lift my spirits. My performance reviews were positive and I became somewhat known for my technical abilities.

As usually happens in a corporation, good performance results in more responsibility, which often results in more stress. My second-line manager put me in charge of coordinating the division’s data center move from Ohio to Dallas. It was new territory for me and required some overtime, though not an unreasonable amount. There were just so many details and the timing of the switchover had to occur so that the company’s business operations were not affected. I remember standing at the copier one night and a coworker asked me how it was going. Fighting the urge to burst into tears, I told him it was pretty stressful and I’d be glad when it was over. The move took place without a hitch, much to my relief.

When the next special project came around, I was selected for its team of two – a manager and me. It was then that the effects of my mom’s suicide really hit me – years after she had died.

We were to learn a new software development methodology and a new technology and develop a marketing system to replace several helter-skelter systems that different marketing groups had developed in-house. We attended three weeks of classes to learn the new methodology and the development tool. I found it extremely confusing and was nervous about trying to use it. After we completed the course, my new manager told me he was going on vacation for two weeks. He left me to start conducting meetings with the new methodology and using the new tool. We had watched videos on how to conduct these “joint application development” meetings, but it remained a mystery to me and seemed to require a special talent that I didn’t think I had.

I just couldn’t figure out where to begin on the project. So what did I do? I doodled. I sat at my desk and doodled on my calendar and doodled on a legal pad. I paced the aisles. I think I had episodes of dissociation as I walked down an aisle dragging my hand along the wall, thinking “this wall is real. I can touch it.” I was unable to sleep at night. I remember being terrified that I was going to kill myself. If I had a thought that was similar to something Mom had said, I’d think that was an indication that I was just like her. My mom was an artist. I was artist – NO! Mom would say, “I can’t go on like this”; I would think “I can’t go on like this.” NO! It felt like I was in a dark whirlpool that I had no control over and I was being sucked down into suicide.

A user manager had also been assigned the project and had attended the classes, too. I met with him and he really had no idea of how to conduct these meetings either. So we just scheduled a few meetings with the marketing departments and used the old method of gathering specifications, foreswearing the new methodology. My stress was compounded by the fact that the marketing departments seemed to take offense at having their systems replaced (it turns out they had not even been asked about it.). When my manager returned, I showed him what information we had gathered so far. He was not pleased that we were not using the new methodology.

Finally one night, still unable to sleep, I thought to myself, I’m not going to let this job kill me. I’ll quit if I have to. I decided I would meet with my former manager and tell her that I couldn’t do the job I was given in the manner they wanted it done. The next morning, I did just that. Within a day, the project manager was replaced with someone that I had worked with before and the situation immediately improved.

Another action I took was to tell my counselor about what had happened. He encouraged me to see a psychiatrist to get started on anti-depressants. The psychiatrist got me started on a couple of medications. My mental state stabilized and the project lasted a year before being pulled in favor of a complete company wide system replacement.

I say that my mental state stabilized, but I was left shaken by the experience. I felt somewhat fragile and I became perhaps overly aggressive in trying to prevent feeling overwhelmed again. My managers and coworkers probably didn’t like the “new me”, but it was better to protect myself than to be popular or even liked.

It would be some years before I realized I was no longer fragile, and that in fact I had become much stronger. I endured other very stressful times on the job without having a breakdown. I’ve had some disasters in my personal life that I’ve weathered, again without falling apart. I quit anti-depressants several years ago after having taken them for about 15 years. I’ve wondered if I really needed them in the first place because they can bring problems of their own, but I don’t want to say that no one should be taking them.

William Styron, the author of Sophie’s Choice, wrote a memoir called, “Darkness Visible” which was an account of his personal experience with severe depression. It’s a short book and it has been 20 years since I’ve read it, so my recollection of it is minimal. I do remember him saying that people who haven’t been depressed cannot understand how someone can be in so much mental pain that they want to kill themselves. Indeed, an occasional friend would encourage me to just move past Mom’s suicide. They didn’t understand that I wasn’t even thinking about her suicide – I was just struggling to cope with life, having been weakened by her act. Styron also gave some statistics about suicide, and all escape me except that if someone close to you commits suicide, there is a much greater chance that you will attempt it. I had intuited that myself after Mom’s failed attempt to kill herself. Her younger brother had just killed himself a few months earlier. I felt like that had opened her mind to it. I don’t think people normally consider taking their own lives, but once that taboo has been breached by someone close to you, it presents itself as a real alternative.

The most important thing Styron wrote was what his close friend kept telling him during his depression: Suicide is not an option. His friend refused to allow it as a way out. Styron said it was one of the most important factors in preventing him from taking his own life. On rare occasions over the years, I’ve had to repeat that to myself: Suicide is not an option. It’s also a statement that I’ve used when dealing with a close relative who has attempted suicide on more than one occasion and suffers from depression and bipolar disorder. It is something I can say with conviction. Take it off the table. Don’t allow it as a possibility.

Something I realized after Mom died, was that she had talked about killing herself. But I didn’t know what to do about that. I didn’t know that people who talked about it were likely to at least try it. Even though she had attempted it before, I didn’t realize it indicated a probability of her doing it again. But I learned. When someone talks about suicide, take it seriously, tell them it’s not an option, and try to get them help.