Those are flashing red neon warning words.
We’ve all been there one time or another. The question is, do we stay there? Is that a momentary thought, or perhaps something that motivates us to create a better life? The abused spouse who leaves, and takes with her the children also condemned to an abusive father. Those end-of-the line words in that situation are actually positive.
But in other situations, they aren’t positive at all.
Yes, this is my story, that of my father, and the story of other family members too.
I’ve never shared this before, not even with close friends and family. I’ve hesitated over and over before pressing the “publish” button.
Why haven’t I shared?
Because there didn’t seem to be any reason to dig up old dead history. Ironic words for a genealogist, right?
There is a lot of shame, prejudice, embarrassment and misunderstanding about suicide and the process of getting to that point.
If you think, for one minute, that suicide hasn’t touched you, you’re wrong. You may not know. Some suicides are hidden as accidents, either intentionally by the victim or by the embarrassed family. Some suicide attempts fail (thankfully) and are either disguised or simply not discovered. If you haven’t been touched yet, you will be, because suicides are sharply on the rise.
I’m telling my story now because there are ways to help if you recognize the signs – and ways to “not help” too. Sometimes that’s a fine line.
If this story helps even one of you, or your loved ones, it’s worth telling.
There is far too much shame surrounding suicide, which often prevents discussion, so today, I’m telling you these stories in their bare naked truth with the hope that we can lift the curtain of shame and embarrassment, thereby saving people in desperate pain.
Why am I telling this story now?
One of the suicide predictors to watch for is other suicides. Two suicides of famous people have hit the airwaves this week, and people who might be on the edge may be “inspired,” or pushed over the edge by these suicides.
So anyone already at risk is now more at risk.
It’s time to tell this truth.
I hope you’ll take the time to read and listen, because the life you save may be the life of someone you love.
Danger Signs and Resources
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reports the following danger signs:
- Alcohol and drug use, both of which are high risk in and of themselves
- Comments about killing oneself – 50-75% of people say something to someone first
- Losing interest in things that previously interested them
- Finding ways to kill themselves such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun
- Other suicides
I would add other things to that list:
- Self-harm, like cutting
- Dramatic life changes such as divorce, severe illness or death of a close family member
- Suicides among peer groups, including online acquaintances
- Negative self-image activities, such as bulimia or purging
If there is any question in your mind, please seek help or advice for yourself or your friend or family member at:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
- Veterans Suicide Hotline 1-800-273-8255 and press 1
- LGBTQ Suicide Hotline 1-866-488-7386
- Teen Suicide Hotline 1-800-872-5437
- Christian Suicide Hotline 1-888-667-5947
- International Resources
Please read this article, What to Do When a Loved One is Severely Depressed.
Where to Start
I almost don’t even know where to start, because, looking back to the two primary events I’m going to share with you, the beginnings were vastly different. There are many paths.
My father’s probable suicide began years and years before his death with poor choices that led to a life spinning out of control, exacerbated by alcohol addiction.
My own desperation journey began with my former husband’s stroke, which turned my life and that of my children entirely upside down.
Two very different situations, and two very different outcomes.
I probably need to say at this point that I am writing this article with very little editing. I am not a social worker or mental health counselor. I’m sharing my rather raw experiences. They may or may not be politically correct. They are my truth and written in my stream-of-consciousness “unedited voice.” There are sentence fragments and opinions. And yes, I swear:)
Suicide and Depression
Before I sought (and attended) counseling, I thought of depression only in the context of what I was personally familiar with. I thought of depression as something rather temporary, fleeting and “curable” with time. Meaning that one could be “depressed” over something at work, or the loss of a spouse through divorce, but those things are curable by a different job or a different spouse.
In other words, depression was a result of a life event, but escapable in most instances. I was young and depression then wasn’t diagnosed as a disease, per se. Mental health diseases were things like schizophrenia which was somewhat treatable, but not escapable. My former mother-in-law was afflicted with that disease and I had horrible first-hand knowledge.
During the counseling process, I learned that there are two types of depression.
One type of depression, which my counselor termed clinical depression, seems to others and sometimes to the person affected to appear “out of no place” or “for no reason.” It’s a mental health disease. Diseases don’t necessarily have “reasons.” They just are. Depression seems to be genetically linked, but it’s a complex disease with many factors. Regardless of why, it’s horrible for those affected.
Two suicides in the past few years have affected me greatly, for two entirely different reasons.
The first was the death of Robin Williams in 2014. Just ripped my heart out. So tragically sad.
I knew Robin Williams, but not well. Before Robin was famous, he made training videos for Hewlett Packard. He also occasionally participated in training sessions for new employees. That’s how I met Robin Williams. He was funny, warm, genuine and never would I have expected this man to carry the demon of depression. He was inspirational. When someone that inspires you dies by their own hand in such obvious misery, it rocks your boat. Shakes you to the core.
It’s somehow ironic that the comedian who related to so many and made us laugh joyfully was so horribly tortured and unhappy himself. To the point of death. Where death was preferable to torture. No one, but no one, would ever have expected Robin Williams to die by suicide.
The second suicide of a public figure happened earlier today, June 8, 2018 (as I write this) with the death of Anthony Bourdain. I didn’t know Anthony personally, but it seems like those of us who watched Anthony over the years felt like we did. He was incredibly outspoken, the consummate bad boy who had “made it” in spite of what seemed like insurmountable odds. His tough life and substance addition were well known.
While I liked Robin Williams immensely, I connected with Anthony Bourdain on a different level. Anthony seemed like one of us, plus food is always connected with comfort. Food, travel and a non-drama-free mince-no-words unapologetic survivor. Who didn’t want to watch? And watch we did, in droves. Now, we’ve watched his demise too.
Both Robin and Anthony were known to battle depression.
Not all people who are depressed have suicidal thoughts, and not all people who end their life by suicide are depressed.
I know that sounds odd, but it’s true.
Types of Suicide
When a person who has a reasonable expectation of life left to live dies by their own choice, that’s the kind of suicide that might have been preventable. That’s where recognition and prevention efforts need to focus.
The other type of suicide, which I wish desperately was called by a different name is when a person who does not have a reasonable expectation of a quality life left to live chooses their own time, place and way to exit.
In my mind, that’s entirely different. I strongly feel that it’s the epitome of inhumanity to force a person who will die miserably to live through that death when we have other, quick and pain-free choices. And if you’re about to tell me that hospice does just that, I will beg to differ with you until the cows come home. Been there, done that with multiple family members and it’s just not the case. We don’t force our pets to suffer at their end of life, but we subject our family members to torturous deaths.
My step-father somehow mustered enough strength and removed his own ventilator in order to end the misery of a prolonged death. Was that suicide? Probably, technically. He certainly ended his own life on his terms. He removed his first wife’s life support too when there was no hope and she was permanently comatose and brain dead. I guess, technically, that makes him a murderer too.
In reality, he was a humane hero. I would want him at my bedside because I know MY best interest would come first.
I certainly missed him when he died, but he had lived his life to the fullest and prolonging the inevitable was only cruel.
But that’s not the father whose story I want to tell. My biological father, my Daddy, William Sterling Estes, died in a car accident in 1963. That’s the official story. The one everyone told. The one I believed. Until one day when I was an adult and the accidental truth arrived in separate pieces from different people and the truth dawned on me like an unwelcome storm.
Losing a parent when you are a child is exceedingly difficult. My father was the third close death in as many years. My maternal grandmother and grandfather, followed by my father.
My parents were divorced and my father had remarried. I loved going to visit my father and step-mother, Virgie. She was a lovely woman. She and my mother got along just fine.
I didn’t see my father often, so he was something of an absent hero. I was always extremely excited when he appeared, often bearing some kind of small gift. My mother, of course, who bore the brunt of everything everyday while he was absent was chronically irritated at this turn of events. He was no hero to Mother, in fact, just the opposite, a scoundrel, but their story is one for another time.
As a result of having lived with him for half a decade, ending just three years before his death, it was a piece of information from her that eventually explained part of the answer to the question of why he might have chosen suicide.
The Day Before
How my father came to work at a funeral home is also a story for a full article, but let’s just say that he had previously worked as a physician and apparently dead bodies didn’t bother him. He worked with the local funeral director as needed. At that time, funeral homes were owned by local families. It took two strong men unbothered by death and body fluids to lift bodies, a task which had to be accomplished multiple times between the removal of the body from where they died and the funeral.
At that time in small-town Indiana, the hearse also performed a second duty as an ambulance. If this strikes you as funny today, it did me too. I can just imagine waking up in the hearse after an accident of some sort and not knowing if you were on the way to the hospital or morgue, or worse yet, the cemetery. Dark humor, I know.
My father was backing the hearse into the funeral home garage, the day before his “accident,” and the funeral director asked him why. My father replied, “Because you’re going to need it this weekend.”
I learned of this about 50 years after the fact, in a happenstance conversation. I had called the funeral home to see if they had any additional information about my father’s funeral – not knowing that he was working there at the time – and certainly unaware of the conversation the day before his death. Imagine my shock!
The man I spoke with 50 years later was the son of the director and was present at the time of the conversation. He took over the family business from his father. The son retired shortly after that conversation and sold the funeral home to a corporate interest. I’m glad I accidentally talked to him when I did, because that opportunity was forever gone shortly thereafter.
The man said that at the time, his father had mentioned that my father’s comment was “odd,” but after the “accident” the following day, the funeral director told his son that he believed my father’s death was suicide. That tidbit may not have been shared with anyone else, but when I heard it, and then combined it with additional puzzle pieces, it made sense. Terrible sense.
Although I can tell you, it was one hell of an electric shock wave to learn as an adult that your father actually committed suicide. It changed the death narrative entirely and caused me to ask questions and reflect on the consummate question, why.
And it hurt.
Accidental death and intentional death is very different for the survivors.
God this is hard to write.
Even all these years later.
My father had a long history of alcohol abuse.
Before you judge him too harshly, he and his siblings were fed alcohol as children. Their father, William George Estes, was a bootlegger, and apparently not a great one or they wouldn’t have wanted for food. When there was no food, they were given alcohol to make their hungry bellies stop hurting and to make them sleep. My aunt revealed these sordid, heartbreaking details in a letter to my step-mother. Then other family members corroborated. I was horrified and hurt terribly for my father as a child. His parents may not have doomed him, but they certainly started him down a terrible path.
My grandmother, Ollie Bolton, eventually left my grandfather after she caught him cheating, but according to various family resources, she didn’t want her two sons who hopped a freight train in Indiana and found their way to their grandparents in Tennessee. And Ollie wasn’t painted as the villain in the story, William George was worse.
I try desperately not to judge my grandparents, neither of whom I ever met.
In any event, my father learned very young that alcohol was the answer to everything and it made you feel better. For all I know, he may actually have been addicted before he was even a teenager. Regardless, it’s horribly sad.
Dad certainly was an alcoholic by the time he was an adult – his drink of choice being whiskey or moonshine. He was also a veteran of two wars, and according to both my mother and my step-mother, he checked himself into VA hospitals more than once to “dry-out,” but then would fall off the wagon again after release. Sometimes the wagon event took weeks or months, but it always happened.
Clearly, his undependability affected his relationships with women and probably with others as well. The exception was my step-mother, Virgie, who knew him when he was young, married him when he was old, and loved him for who he was. It’s somehow ironic that it was in that supportive relationship that he decided to exit the world.
My father’s military records were burned in the National Personnel Records Center fire in St. Louis in 1972. The VA attempted to help me reconstruct them from different records that existed elsewhere, but medical records were entirely absent.
According to Virgie and Mom, Dad had once again checked into the VA hospital in Fort Wayne and dried out. He was dismissed and went back home, once again hopeful and upbeat. All I can say is that my heart aches that Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t yet exist ubiquitously – because he might had stood a fighting chance.
Virgie told me that he was stone-cold sober after his release and at the time of the accident, but years later, her daughter told a different story.
Apparently, either the day before, or the morning of the accident, he was seen in the local park intoxicated. Perhaps he wasn’t. Perhaps he was and Virgie didn’t know. Perhaps she was in denial. Perhaps she wanted to spare me thinking about my father’s last few hours as an alcoholic who had fallen off the wagon again, a drunk in the park.
The stories vary somewhat, but the essence of the situation was that at the time of the accident, he was either going to pick the preacher up to go fishing, or had dropped him off after fishing. My father loved to fish and judging from the time of day, I’d guess they had already been fishing.
My father was also a master of disguising his alcohol use and abuse, and alcohol consumption wasn’t viewed as negatively at that time as it is today. My recollection was that he always had an unobtrusive flask in his tackle box.
About 7:30 that evening, Dad was driving Virgie’s 1960 Rambler, and at a T-road, with a telephone pole at the intersection, he pressed the gas instead of the brake and hit the telephone pole head on, more than 100 feet from the road. That’s a huge distance and he could have easily maneuvered enough to avoid the pole. Instead, he hit it dead on. No skid marks – no evasive maneuvers. Full on throttle.
Today, that transmission pole still seems to be in place, to the right of the small grey pin at the left side of the picture below. It pains me to look, but I had to. I bet no one today knows that someone died there in 1963 – 55 years ago this summer.
The official diagnosis was that Dad had an angina attack and accidentally stomped the gas instead of the brake. Until the other pieces of evidence came to light, no one questioned that.
Indeed, the very hearse he had backed into the garage the day before transported him from the accident scene to the hospital, just as he had predicted. Then the next day, it drove him to the funeral home, and then after the funeral, to the cemetery.
He died at Mt. Auburn and Main, he lived on Hickory and he is buried in the IOOF (Oddfellows) Cemetery in the upper left hand corner on the map below, within sight of where he lived – everything within a mile.
A nice tidy bundle. But it wasn’t tidy at all.
Why would Dad have committed suicide?
Three possible reasons come to mind.
- He had once again disappointed his spouse by falling off the wagon. Except this time, it wasn’t a spouse who was threatening to leave him if he didn’t sober up, but one that loved him unconditionally. He may have realized that he truly was not in control of his life – that alcohol controlled him and had controlled his entire life. Maybe he was just done trying.
- Maybe Dad was depressed because of his relapse and could have succeeded if he had tried again. This was his rock bottom, when other rock bottoms hadn’t been rock bottom enough – but he didn’t survive this rock bottom.
- Maybe Dad knew something else. As Mom aged, she told me things she would never have told me earlier. Dad had consumed alcohol his entire life. He was about 62 when he died. We don’t know exactly which year he was born, because his birth year on his delayed birth certificate and other identifying information varied by what he wanted/needed his age to be at the moment. His liver was very probably a hot mess. Mom thought he had cancer. She told me rather explicit details about the “messes she had to clean up” which certainly do sound like someone with an internal issue.
If Dad knew he had cancer, suspected he had cirrhosis of the liver (which often precedes cancer) and had disappointed his wife once again, maybe Dad decided it was better to just check out. Maybe he knew what was coming and was afraid. Maybe medically, he was worse than anyone, except him, knew. Maybe his drinking by then was to medicate physical pain.
I never got to say goodbye.
It was bad enough when I thought his death was an accident.
Maybe he couldn’t bring himself to do that, to say goodbye to me. Maybe he wanted to spare me.
Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
So many maybes and no answers.
He did leave a message for me with Virgie when he was in the hospital, before he passed away. According to his death certificate, he died of internal bleeding sometime after midnight, about 6 hours after the accident.
And then, 50 miles away, in my bedroom, a shadowy silhouette of my father sat on the edge of my bed. I felt his weight as he sat down and the mattress moved as he touched me. I woke up, seeing his silhouette with the streetlight behind him – so glad that he had come to visit.
In the morning, I leaped out of bed when I heard the phone ring. I knew that Daddy had arrived late the night before and would be there this morning, drinking coffee with cream and sugar at the kitchen table with Mom, waiting for me to get up. Like so many other times before.
I ran up to mother, who was just hanging up the phone, and excitedly asked her where Daddy was.
I didn’t see him.
Mother didn’t say anything, at first, then asked me what I meant.
I told her that I knew he was there because he came and sat on my bed the night before. I was confused, because I didn’t see him anyplace in the house.
She turned ashen and began to shake.
Mother asked me to come and sit beside her on the couch. She put her arms around me, like she wanted to shelter me.
She explained to me that not only was Daddy not there, but he hadn’t been there and that he would never be there again.
I didn’t believe her.
I cried gulping sobs. Unfortunately, I understood death all too well. I didn’t know what to think. I was just sure that she had sent him away, and I was very angry with my mother. I asked many questions and the only answers she had for me were, “I don’t know.”
The phone call had been Virgie and Mom simply didn’t have any answers yet.
For a change, Mom didn’t seem angry with him. She was crying too. I was very confused. Then I talked to Virgie and I was just heartbroken. I can still feel that searing pain ripping through my little body, sitting here today.
I grieved my father’s death terribly and never obtained closure as a child. I’m still not entirely sure that I ever did, although I finally accepted that he had died. As an adult, I arranged for his military headstone myself and had it set.
I wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral, or those of either grandparent. Children then were “spared” grief as much as possible. That would have helped me a lot – to at least see him one more time, even if it was in a casket.
Death became a thief in the night, a stealer of those I loved. Death was an enemy and without any of the positive benefits of group grieving and comfort. Everything about death and funerals had a very negative connotation. To this day, I abhor funerals.
A few years later, my mother married my step father, Dean Long, whom I completely adored. He and I had a symbiotic relationship because his daughter, who was about my age had died, and I had lost my father. We healed each other’s wounds and formed a bond that not even death could sever.
I did what kids do. I went to school, made mistakes and got called on the carpet. My Mom was the disciplinarian and my step-father was a quiet man of few words. He didn’t need many. I listened to him without reservation.
It was my step-father who encouraged me to stretch my wings beyond what “girls” were supposed to be able to do back then, and beyond Indiana. It was he who told me I could be and do anything I set my mind to. It was him that told me never to let anyone tell me otherwise.
When I found myself married to an abusive spouse, it was Dad that encouraged me to leave. I use the word “encourage’ loosely. He literally put his life on the line for me, more than once. Abuse is a terribly intimidating cyclic phenomenon and without his support, I don’t know that I would have been able to break free of that cycle alone.
I did, moved and remarried. He saved me, or more succinctly, helped me to save myself.
My Turn in the Hot Seat
Years later, in 1993, I was in my prime. I had finished multiple college degrees and a few years earlier, left a lucrative professional position in the computer industry to found a consulting company. Things were going well, at home and at work – until Sunday, June 20st.
When I woke up that morning, my husband couldn’t get out of bed and his speech was quite slurred. I knew there was a problem, and immediately called 911. My husband and son were both volunteer firefighters and paramedics, although my son wasn’t home at the time.
I had never been so glad to see those men arrive. They were at the house within a couple minutes. My husband’s best friend was the first to arrive. I had to leave my husband in the bedroom to go outside to explain to Chuck what was happening.
“I think he had a stroke.”
And then I began to sob, because I knew.
That stroke, he might have recovered mostly from, but the devastating stroke that followed a week later destroyed much of his brain.
He was hospitalized for months with complication after complication, hovering near death anew every day.
Needless to say, he not only couldn’t work, he would never be able to work again. I couldn’t be at the hospital managing his daily health crisis and work at the same time. Not only that, but I suddenly needed to make as much money as we both had made together previously. The bills didn’t go down, they went up with his skyrocketing medical bills during his 6 month hospital stay.
I vividly remember the night that I walked into the house after working all day and then going to the hospital to deal with a crisis of some sort and saying to myself, “I need a beer.”
Then I heard what I said, especially the word “need.” I knew in that instant that if I had one beer, I would never stop. I did need that beer. It’s called self-medication – and it’s a hallmark of depression. I didn’t have that beer that day, nor did I allow myself to drink anything alcoholic for several years. Alcoholism clearly has a hereditary component and I knew that I was susceptible. I do occasionally have a drink now, but they are few and far between, and never, ever on a “bad day.”
A few months later, when it was determined that my husband wasn’t going to die, at least not immediately, focus shifted to his hospital release. Our home was not handicapped accessible for a wheelchair. Not only that, but he could never be left alone with his cognitive judgement impairments. Insurance does not pay for home modifications. No one pays for home modifications for handicapped access. Neither does anyone pay for home assistance nor residence in a facility. I had no good options.
By December, we were scheduling his release from the hospital. I had taken a loan to convert the garage into a handicapped bedroom/bathroom and make the kitchen and living room handicapped accessible. I had hired an aide to stay with him while I worked, but in the next few months, I would go through aides like water because he was “difficult” in many ways, including sexually inappropriate.
His “executive function” that prevents normal people from doing things like grabbing women by the genitals had been destroyed in the stroke. I understood that he couldn’t help himself, but understanding and living with the situation are two entirely different things.
Our daughter was a teenager at this time and suffice it to say that this situation pushed her into behaviors that were not healthy for her. That’s her story to tell, not mine, but it was living Hell on earth for everyone involved.
My son, an older teen, couldn’t cope and left the family and would remain estranged for many years. However, my daughter and I were trapped there.
My step-father was in failing health with COPD and would die in September of 1994.
My mother was a wreck between my step-father, my husband’s stoke, me and my children. She wanted to help, but couldn’t leave Indiana to do so.
My step-brother lived in another state and had a host of serious issues. He was in no condition to help anyone, not even himself.
There was no one to depend on, other than my daughter who was too young to have that kind of responsibility foisted upon her.
When you’re in that kind of a situation you learn very quickly who your friends and family are that care. Many you think you can depend on simply disappear into the shadows. Sometimes people you don’t expect step forward too.
Of my husband’s three brothers, two were ministers and they were “too busy” to help. All I can say is “bless their hearts.” You southern people will know exactly what that means.
The third brother, the official “black sheep” of the family, condemned by the ministers, came with his wife periodically to help us. I’ve always liked black sheep.
My husband’s parents were in their 80s and couldn’t really grasp the situation. They thought that if he could talk, he was fine. Never mind that he made no sense. My mother-in-law had advanced Parkinson’s disease and my father-in-law had congestive heart failure. They really couldn’t help much, but they could certainly criticize everything I did, or didn’t do. Both died within a few years.
My half-brother couldn’t be bothered and never offered to help. So much for family.
A couple of my husband’s fire-department buddies came to help from time to time, as did my quilting friends. Chuck was here regularly trying to help me get things in order, but after my husband came home, few could deal with him. I was extremely, extremely grateful, but the need so far outweighed the available resources.
Eventually, I was at the end of my rope – 18 months progressively descending into the fires of Hell.
The Christmas from Hell
It was Christmas 1994.
I had decorated the Christmas tree, not that I cared, but because that’s what I was “supposed to do.” I was still trying to make everything as normal as I could. I sat down and cried, but then I was just too tired and hopeless even for tears. There was no beauty in that tree, no beauty in Christmas, no beauty in life.
I was terribly, chronically sleep deprived and had been for months. I worked in the day, and was my husband’s caregiver the rest of the time. 24X7X365 with no break. His care meant looking after an incontinent 260 pound 2 or 3 year old that is never cute, never grows up and you can’t take anyplace because of his behavior. His weight increased and he was very difficult for me to manage.
My son was gone and had been gone throughout the entire episode. My daughter had run away from home. My step-father had died. My mother was coming the next day, Christmas Eve, and the week after Christmas, we had to take my husband to live in a care facility because I had lost the final aide and couldn’t find anyone willing to take care of him while I worked. My job was hanging on by a thread, through the extreme generosity of my customer, but that wouldn’t last forever. I had to do something and I felt like an abysmal failure on every level.
My husband was going to be crushed that he had to live someplace else. I dreaded trying to explain to someone who couldn’t understand why that had to happen. I dreaded driving away that day. I dreaded every single day.
All of that money spent on handicapped remodeling was for naught. I couldn’t stay home and take care of him, because someone had to make the house payment, pay the utilities, the car payment, buy the groceries, arrange, transport to and pay for his therapy, etc.
When my mother arrived the next day, I was going to have to explain to her what had happened with my daughter, and that she had run away. My mother had born so much heartbreak over the past few months with my Dad’s prolonged death that I didn’t know how she would withstand this final straw.
I didn’t know how I was going to withstand this final straw.
Everything seemed entirely and completely hopeless.
My husband was not a man I knew. He had become abusive and inappropriate as a result of the stroke. In hindsight, I should never have brought him home and subjected me and my daughter to his behaviors, but I didn’t know, and the medical professionals certainly didn’t explain that. I thought I could make it work, and wanted to, but in the end – I couldn’t.
My children were gone. My step-father, whose last words in this life to me were, “I love you. You’ll make it, Honey. I’ve been so lucky to have you in my life,” was gone.
The creditors were calling about my husband’s hospital bills, and if you’ve never spoken to a professional bill collector – you’ve never been bullied. They are professionals at lies, fear and intimidation. May they rot in hell.
I finally learned to turn the tables and I took out my long-pent-up frustration on them when they began their bully routine. One actually had the AUDACITY to tell me my husband was LUCKY to have had a stroke so he didn’t have to pay his bills. Huh? He had the medical bills because he had the stroke. Some people are pure evil. My friend who was also a nurse overheard one of those conversations and bought be a pin that said “psycho bitch from hell.” Let me tell you, I wore it proudly as a badge of honor. It meant that maybe, just maybe, I was mad enough to survive.
Crossing the Line
It was late that December 23rd night or maybe very early morning the 24th by then. I sat down on the couch after I finished decorating the tree. I knew neither my son or daughter would be there for Christmas. I didn’t know where they would be, but it wasn’t at home. I needed to see them, but that wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t even get ahold of them in the days before cell phones.
My husband was too impaired to realize they were absent, but my mother would be devastated. I was devastated. Christmas would be a day of sorrow, the first holiday since Dad’s death and so much loss. I wanted to sleep through it. I wanted to sleep forever and never wake up.
The Christmas tree was a catalyst. The ornaments handmade in happier times, those hopes and dreams now entirely dashed. No hope. No dreams. Nothing. That life ripped from me. And seemingly, no way out.
I had finally gotten my infant-adult husband to sleep. The house was silent. The lights were out except for the Christmas tree lights, flickering Christmas colors mockingly, and the tree which had been the center of so much happiness and joy for so long represented everything lost forever.
And I thought:
“I can’t take this anymore.”
It wasn’t a shout, but a whisper.
But it was the crossing of a line.
I also realized what was happening.
I suddenly understood that suicide wasn’t about wanting to be dead.
It was about wanting the pain to stop.
The chronic unending pain.
That there was no other way to make stop.
Death seemed far more reasonable and attractive than THAT life.
You don’t hurt after you’re dead.
Three things stopped me.
My love for my mother, my hope and love for my daughter and my responsibility towards my husband, in no particular order.
- Without me advocating for my husband and watching over him, not to mention paying his bills, he would have wound up in an abusive welfare hell-hole. He was not a nice man, but I remembered the man before the stroke and I couldn’t do that to him.
- Without me, my daughter, no matter how difficult she was being, would have had no hope of recovery. I wasn’t exactly her best friend at the time, but I was a resource when she was ready.
- I think my death would have killed my mother.
- Which would have killed my son.
I couldn’t live and I couldn’t die. It was that simple.
I had to get help. At that moment, death would have been easier, far easier, believe me.
I never told my mother about this. I may have told my children since, but I certainly didn’t tell them at the time. Even if they had been there, I wouldn’t have wanted to burden them. My husband wouldn’t have understood or cared. He had lost all capability to care about anyone but himself.
After Christmas, I found a counselor whose husband was also wheel-chair bound. The difference was that her husband was not mentally impaired as well, but she fully understood the challenges I faced. She saw me weekly, on a sliding scale, for years.
The Uphill Battle
Life improved, slowly. With my counselor’s approval, I declined depression and anxiety medications, because I was concerned about addiction. My family was already too full of that and I knew I had a history with both my father and grandfather.
With my husband living in a specialized facility where he received good care and constant supervision, I was once again able to sleep and work with regularity – which means the bills were much easier to pay. Good thing, because his living situation was extremely expensive.
However, putting him into a care facility came with a huge dosage of guilt, dealt out freely by his family and others who had no clue.
“You put your husband in a home?”
Yep, I did, for his good and everyone else’s too. I finally told anyone who thought otherwise that they were welcome to take him for a day. A couple of people took me up on that offer, and I never, ever heard another word like that out of them again – nor did anyone ever take him a second time. Walking a mile in someone’s moccasins is truly the best teacher.
My daughter eventually recovered, but that took another decade.
My son returned to the family about the same time my daughter recovered.
Healing was slow and difficult for everyone and still isn’t complete.
My step-brother died under “suspicious circumstances” at Thanksgiving in 1999. The case was never closed. That situation caused my mother an extreme amount of grief and anxiety.
My mother moved near my half-brother and passed away in 2006. She never really recovered after my step-father’s and step-brother’s deaths. I’m sure she had undiagnosed depression, but she never told me – just like I had never told her or my children. I found many flyers about seniors and depression in her belongings after her death. I felt just awful. I would have done something had I known.
Keeping depression a secret was a mistake on my part and hers as well. Sometimes the depressed person can’t reach out, so it’s up to the rest of us to reach in.
I became officially single in 2000, remarried in 2003. Those years are scars, not open wounds any longer.
It was a very long, very ugly decade of descent into Hell followed by an uphill battle of gargantuan proportions – but I made it. I would not have made it without my counselor, my friends and the part of my family that actually cared. I found strength in the memory of my step-father that often sustained me in difficult times. I have since added grandchildren, a son-in-law, daughter-in-law and new family-of-heart members to my family that was dwindling.
Needless to say, my life changed in the instant of that stroke. That life was forever broken, shattered into a million unrecognizable pieces and was never whole again. I rebuilt a new life out of a few salvageable pieces, namely my children, but not without a huge amount of pain and effort – on their part as well as mine. Those relationships were indelibly changed too.
Had I exited, my children would have been much more permanently damaged, perhaps irreparably. I’m so glad I didn’t do that in my darkest moment. They were that oh-so-tiny spec of light.
So many times, it was the little blessings from people that told me they cared that meant so much and kept me going. That’s also part of the reason why I make care quilts today and have since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when my friend and I made quilts for the children and husband of Rebecca Anderson who gave her life rescuing victims. It’s my way of giving back by paying it forward.
If you find someone in a depressing situation, what can you do, even if they won’t admit to depression? I honestly didn’t realize the severity until that December 23rd when I was at the end of my rope.
How to Help
My rule of thumb is that I will make every effort to help someone who is truly trying to help themselves, or who can genuinely not help themselves but would if they could. This means that I’m not interested in high-drama situations where people are looking to benefit from their situation, for attention or to manipulate others. I also draw the line at substance abuse. Tough love. I will help them, but they MUST help themselves too.
For people suffering from clinical depression, meaning depression as a disease that is not related to a specific trigger event:
- Offer support. Tell them you love them, if appropriate. Love is powerful medicine.
- Listen, empathize, and ask questions.
- Tell them you understand and offer helpful suggestions. Don’t begin the sentences with, “Why don’t you…” which implies criticism, or with, “You should…”
- Do NOT tell them that they shouldn’t feel the way they do – i.e. do NOT say, “But you have such a good life. You shouldn’t be depressed.” Or worse yet, “Just get over it.” You may not mean that as judgmental, but it feels that way and will only drive a wedge between you and depress them further.
- Encourage or help them to seek appropriate assistance. Assistance could be in the form of counseling, advocating for them to receive some sort of assistance program or in severe cases, intervention if self-harm is a potential issue.
For people suffering from situational depression – like the stroke scenario:
- Offer support. Tell them you love them, if appropriate.
- Listen, empathize, and ask questions.
- Tell them you understand and offer help. Don’t say, “All you need to do is ask” because they may not be able to ask. Asking feels like begging and imposing yourself on other people. It also opens up the opportunity for rejection.
- Figure out what they need and help make arrangement to meet those needs. My quilt sisters brought food frozen into meal sized portions for months – without me asking. I was so incredibly grateful. My neighbor occasionally brought over a pot of chili. Someone anonymously dropped off Thanksgiving dinner on the porch when my kitchen was torn apart to make it handicapped safe and accessible – bless them. My EGA chapter took up a collection. My brother-in-law and his wife would occasionally come to relieve my daughter and I so the two of us could do something together like shop for clothes. I would have given anything for someone to mow the lawn or plow the snow.
- Do NOT say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” What I heard was that my husband and family were being punished because I was a strong woman. Secondly, those people NEVER offered to help. I guess from their perspective, God was going to do it all. Well, let me tell you, God doesn’t shovel snow. I thought if I heard that phrase one more time I would explode. Say what you really mean, not that platitude. Trust me, it’s not comforting even though you mean it to be, especially to the person who has heard it hundreds of times and there is no food in the house and the furnace doesn’t work. If you don’t know what to say, say, “I’m sorry. What do you need?”
- Don’t rely on the person to voluntarily tell you what they need, because no one wants to be THAT PERSON who asks for help and for assistance from others. Especially when you’ve been told over and over that God is supposed to be providing, but you’re still in need. It’s especially difficult for people who have been giving assistance their entire lives. Accepting charity or being in the position that you need to is very embarrassing and often humiliating. It makes people feel weak and vulnerable. It was extremely difficult for me then and even discussing it today, this many years later, is uncomfortable.
If you feel any person is a danger to themselves, call a suicide hotline with them or call 911. Don’t interpret a threat or discussion of suicide as an idle threat. It may not be. You could be dead wrong.
If you live with someone who takes medication for depression or anxiety, watch to be sure they are taking their medication. Often people want to stop when they feel better, but they feel better because they are taking the medication. Then they become too depressed to take their medication. It’s a downward spiral.
Be on the lookout for either words or actions that say:
If you hear those, or see those, be their light. Make the difference.
- Tell them everything is better in the light of day.
- Tell them that you are THERE for them, and mean it. Follow through and follow up. Nothing is worse than feeling completely irrelevant and then having someone make hollow promises about how they are going to help you – and then they don’t.
- Tell them that when you are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, life looks bleak. So HALT.
- Tell them you can fix hungry, angry, lonely and tired, but you can’t fix gone.
- Tell them what a bright spot they are in the world and why you believe that.
- Tell them how much they mean to you.
- Tell them about the darkness that will replace their light in the lives of the people who love them if they leave.
- Tell them you will help them and begin the discussion to solve the problem any way other than by leaving permanently. Make a plan.
- Tell them that you love them, because if you don’t, you may never get the opportunity again.
- If they have tried before to solve problems like addiction that seem unsolvable, encourage them to try again, with help, one day at a time.
- Strongly discourage the use of alcohol or drugs, other than under medical supervision. You can’t deal with life’s issues when you don’t face them. You can’t overcome what you don’t confront. You need all of your mental faculties to slay those dragons.
You may not be able to stop them, because ultimately, the choice is theirs, but you can damned sure try. Sometimes trying means the world, and life, to someone who sees only a very dark tunnel and no light.
There is light, but they may need your hand to reach it.