Into the Darkness and Out Again

This week, September 9-15, 2012, is National Suicide Prevention Week.  Having survived the traumatic loss of my only brother to suicide eight years ago, raising awareness about depression and its sometimes fatal outcome is very important to me.  So although this post has nothing to do with finances, I hope you’ll find value here nonetheless.

I used to think “suicide prevention” was a cruel term.  It felt to me like blaming, like we could have done something to prevent Dennis’s death, and I resented that.  I was carrying around enough guilt and responsibility, thankyouverymuch.  Over time I realized though, that the message of prevention was not about following around depressed people to keep them from dying, but rather getting the message out that depression is a serious, yet in many cases treatable, illness.   Clinical depression is a disease of the brain.  It is not caused by not realizing how good life is, or not knowing how much you’re loved, or personal failure, cowardice or weakness.  It’s not simply a case of the blues, or an excuse to avoid responsibility. Sadly, too many of us suffer in silence, ashamed because we can’t snap out of it, or blame ourselves for the affliction.  We avoid life saving (literally) antidepressant medication, because we believe taking it makes us weak, or worse, because our doctors believe that.

If all it took to survive depression was having a supportive family, realizing there was much to live for, or seeing a doctor every day, then Dennis would still be with us.  Because he had all that and more.  He had a wife that loved him and was devoted to him and to seeing him through his crisis; a precious two year old daughter he adored; parents and a sister who would have gone to the ends of the earth to get him well; nephews and a niece who looked up to him and needed him; a loving circle of extended family and friends; an incredible gift for writing; a recently completed novel; and even a Pulitzer nomination for his war reporting.  Still, depression distorted his mind so completely that he “knew” we were all better off without him.

We live with so many “if only’s” and “woulda coulda shoulda’s.”  In Dennis’s case, I think we all saw that train barreling down the tracks; praying desperately that it would stop before it crashed into the brick wall.  We tried the best we could to help him, but the cruel irony is that his fate was literally in his hands, and he was in no condition to hold it.  Although he was the one who physically engineered his death, the mind that controlled him was too damaged to save himself.  As is the case with many other diseases, sometimes despite everyone’s best efforts, depression is an incurable, fatal disease, and it was for him.

That’s certainly not to say depression is always hopeless.  Because like those other diseases, more often than not, with proper treatment, depression wanes and vibrancy of life returns.  And that’s where the message of prevention comes in.  Educate yourself about the warning signs of depression, and if you spot them in a friend or loved one, don’t minimize her pain or tell him to get his act together.  Rather encourage him to get medical care, and don’t stop trying if the first doctor doesn’t help.  It is unfortunate that there are far too many professionals who still subscribe to the belief that serious, clinical depression can be treated with psychoanalysis or therapy alone, but there are also many who are competent in treating depression.  It’s a matter of finding the right one for your loved one (or you).

If you are a survivor of suicide loss and haunted by regret, please know that it’s not your fault.  And if you find yourself judging someone who is depressed or has died by suicide, learn more about the disease so you can help.  And thank God that you are not afflicted with it.

Dennis’s death affected all of us profoundly.  We are now different people from the ones who woke up on January 31, 2004- that sunny Saturday morning that belied the tragedy to come.  I like to think we’ve grown and changed for the better, although we would never ask for that growth to happen the way it did.  For me, I learned that God doesn’t always answer our prayers, even our desperate, groaning prayers, with tidy little packages and happy endings.  Sometimes, He allows our fallen world to fall on us.  But I believe with all of my heart that He mourns with us, and He redeems our tragedies and turns them into something good, something for His greater purpose and glory.  Therein lies my hope and comfort.

Be gentle.


From the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

Warning Signs of Suicide

Suicide can be prevented. While some suicides occur without any outward warning, most people who are suicidal do give warnings. Prevent the suicide of loved ones by learning to recognize the signs of someone at risk, taking those signs seriously and knowing how to respond to them.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Observable signs of serious depression:
    Unrelenting low mood
    Anxiety, psychic pain and inner tension
    Sleep problems
  • Increased alcohol and/or other drug use
  • Recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks
  • Threatening suicide or expressing a strong wish to die
  • Making a plan:
    Giving away prized possessions
    Sudden or impulsive purchase of a firearm
    Obtaining other means of killing oneself such as poisons or medications
  • Unexpected rage or anger

The emotional crises that usually precede suicide are often recognizable and treatable. Although most depressed people are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed. Serious depression can be manifested in obvious sadness, but often it is rather expressed as a loss of pleasure or withdrawal from activities that had been enjoyable. One can help prevent suicide through early recognition and treatment of depression and other psychiatric illnesses.

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