May 19, 1996, Ms. Roxanne Roberts ran an autobiographical article in the Washington Post. It was entitled “Suicide is Desperate. It is Hostile. It is Tragic. But Mostly, It Is a Bloody Mess.” This week, the CDC reported that there has been a 30% increase in suicides in the US since 1999. Perhaps that’s what led the Washington Post to run Ms. Robert’s article in the June 9, 2018 issue of the Post. Perhaps the other consideration that led to this editorial was the well documented, copy-cat phenomenon associated with suicide. For example, when Robin Williams killed himself in 2014, suicides in America increased by 10%.
This week, celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, and celebrity designer Kate Spade, both committed suicide. In light of this public health concern, I have elected to direct my readers to Mrs. Robert’s poignant, vulnerable, and honest letter. If you, or someone you know struggles with depression, I ask you to read her article, or pass it along.
Just below that link, to that article, please find the response I sent to her. Thanks for supporting my blog.
Suicide is desperate. It is hostile. It is tragic. But mostly, it is a bloody mess.
I lost my father to suicide just as I turned fifty, and he was ready to turn eighty. The first thing my well-meaning cousin said to me was, “What he did was courageous.” Around this time, a parishioner at my church cornered me outside in an effort to minister to me. With as much earnestness and compassion as a human voice and face can portray, she oozed her ointment on the sore that she had detected: “Your dad suffered from emotional cancer.” In both instances, my overwhelming anger and sadness caused me to clench my jaw, and remain silent.
The truth is, my dad had an untreated depression. A decades long conflict resulted in another wedding of a grandchild he would not attend. Several days later, he got the last word in the argument.
Ms. Roberts, your vulnerability and honesty comes so much closer to the truth of what happened on that May morning eight years ago. Your article verified my experience. When it comes to someone’s suicide, don’t presume to know exactly what happened. There is no one template, no one reason for suicide. As in all deaths, attempting to provide a facile balm, frequently just serves to sprinkle salt on a wound.
My own story
By the time dad killed himself, I had previously attended three rounds of extensive psychotherapy starting at age twenty-four. Growing up with a father with untreated depression and alcoholism caused me to struggle with self-esteem, and mood issues of my own. After all this work, at 50 years of age, I was reasonably sure I had my father issues sorted. Dad’s suicide took the filing cabinet of my psyche, and spilled the contents onto the ground. That year, I had my very first episode of depression which manifested in sleeplessness and debilitating anxiety, as well as melancholy. Once again, psychotherapy, along with many other strategies helped me sort things out again.
The main reason I wanted to respond to your article was to endorse what you said about the profound impact of suicide on survivors. Even when a suicide is perpetrated in advanced years, it tears at the fabric of a family. Every good memory (and bad memory) of my dad has the same punctuation to it now. That memory ends with a gun-shot/bloody exclamation point at the end of the sentence. The phrase that shows up is something like, “Oh, ya, and eventually, he ended his own life.”
My eleven-year-old (now 19) was weeping the day after the death. He said, “If depression runs in families, who says this won’t happen to me?” He and I went on a walk, and I described the smorgasbord of things that a person with depression can do to treat that disease and manage it. I explained that this array of genes may not be expressed in him, but even if it is, like diabetes, a person can live a long and happy life if they manage their illness. I explained that my dad was never willing to do anything about getting treatment, but the rest of us can. A person can seek out talk therapy. A psychiatrist, or other primary care physician can prescribe medication. Depression is contained with regular aerobic exercise, as well as a support network of loving friends and families. A therapeutic hobby like gardening, wood working, cooking, knitting, or fishing can be form fitted to your personality. Mindfulness practices like contemplative prayer, meditation, or practices of gratitude have been shown to decrease symptoms. Altruistic acts like volunteer work, or random acts of kindness shrink the tumor of depression. Locating meaning in one’s life is a profound antidote to debilitating depression. Promising research on the prophylactic effects of a diet high in vegetables and fruits, and low in simple carbohydrates has demonstrated the relationship between the flora in the gut, and healthy brain chemistry.
Thank you for having the courage to share something so personal and poignant. It spoke to me. I especially resonated with your insight that no one is responsible for the fact that they have depression. Responsibility lies in getting that disease treated and managed appropriately.