I used to think, if Mike really died by suicide, I would literally have to move out of town. I could not do my job respectably and I could not raise my kids respectably, it would be too much. This was so ridiculous. I forgot that my kids live here, this is their home. This is my home. This is not something you get away from. As unimaginable as it was at the time, it is exactly that unimaginable now. It’s just that I live with the unimaginable. I just show up and live. What other people think is so distant now, totally irrelevant.
I often have this fantasy that I could design some sort of list of Reasons Why; I could just hand it out at the door, maybe at parties, even at work. It would make everything so much easier. In fact, when I have time to rattle off a few of the “reasons,” people seem to feel a little better. They seem slightly relieved, actually. First, the list makes some sense (to a suicidal person). It also represents his values (in the most sadly ironic way). But for all Mike’s uniqueness and specialness, he still died the way lots of suicidal people die. Feeling lost, isolated from his loved ones, distanced from his long-term goals and dreams, with a history of mental illness.
For some, there is an especially traumatic event that leads to suicide (still, usually with a history of other complicated stuff). For others, it is just a culmination of many things. For Mike, it was sort of like a perfect storm.
In the days immediately leading up to his death, Mike had several scares that seemed to him to be signs that he should not remain alive.
First, he was going through a change in medications and he was groggy when taking the girls to camp one morning. They got into a car accident. Everyone was fine, but it was a bad accident and his car was totaled. He was terrified that this had happened and felt afraid for the kids’ safety.
Also, our beloved dog, Scout, was almost 15 years old and was dying. In fact, we had to put her down the day after Mike died. Mike and Scout were deeply connected, and she was one of his closest companions. It appeared that he simply could not tolerate letting her go.
Probably most relevant to the days before he died, Mike was going through a somewhat aggressive medication change in an attempt to improve his depression. Mike was always deeply suspicious of medications for depression since he had tried them years ago with no benefit. He really hated having anything alter his mental state, and again felt that the medications were not helping him.* He stayed loyal to the advice of his psychiatrist, whom I highly respect and who I believe did all the right things to help Mike. So, he was going through a transition in medications and it was extremely destabilizing. Mike felt and looked very sick all weekend, as if he had the flu. He slept a great deal and had trouble communicating.
Also to his obvious detriment, he was showing signs of psychosis. This can happen in a serious depression, and relates to his deeper mental illness that was so hard to see from the outside. I am hesitant to elaborate on all of the forms of this, as it seems too personal. But it is an important component for people to understand. When he made the decision to die, he was paranoid and destructively illogical.
Mike deeply feared that his physical health was irreparably failing. He had always had hearing loss since his time in the Navy working on computers in loud vessels. He wore hearing aids that worked well for him. But in the months leading up to his death, he felt his hearing and sight were failing significantly. He was diagnosed with a mild heart condition that was in no way insurmountable but that scared him. He literally believed that he was actually dying, even though he was one of the healthiest 54-year-olds I knew.
He also feared that he was failing at his work. Indeed, if you consider everything that was happening, his work had to be affected. But in fact, I have heard from so many people who worked with Mike right up until the day he died, who say that he helped them enormously (of course there could be other people who experienced something different and didn’t communicate their observations). This ties in with a larger theme in which Mike was so very talented that he set an extremely high bar for himself, and he underestimated the benefits of even moderate job performance. This will have to be revisited later as is a key theme for many people who die by suicide. Perceived failings in life that disavow the simpler, common ways that we all get through and feel competent. Mike feared that he was losing his identity by not doing his best for his clients.
The single most important reason that you must try to understand that Mike was delusional, untethered from reality is this: he chose to die for his daughters. He sincerely, emphatically believed that they would be better off this way. He believed that he had spiraled back into a depressed state that he had inhabited for decades, and that he had no chance of recovering. He believed this despite the fact that there was less than 9 months between when he got depressed and when he died. He believed this because he was an “expert” who knew all the rules and tricks, and they didn’t work on him (yet). He cited many examples of when adult children feel they need to care for a depressed parent, and how it wears on them. He believed he had given his children everything he had to give, and that he was completely unequipped for their upcoming needs. In part, he believed in me and knew that I would carry the ball, that I would stop at nothing to take care of our kids. He saw this as permission to exit.
This is the arresting crux that tends to stop us all in our tracks. No one has ever known a father that loved his children more than Mike. It was his passion to be a father and raise children. He was great at it, truly exceptional.
Did Mike get help? Yes, he did. He got as much help as he thought he needed. I am not going to elaborate on this, as, again, these specifics are more private. But he got help from the best people I can think of. Still, Mike refused to be hospitalized and, like certain suicidal people, he craftily lied at the end to ensure that he could follow through with his plan. We were watching him and caring for him all the time at the end, and he still figured out a way. Perhaps not like most other people, Mike was misguided in thinking that, because he was such a talented psychologist, that he knew everything about programs and interventions and that none of those applied to him, his depression was bigger or more special than other peoples’.
So, it happened. In all his previous years of depression (before I knew him), Mike had never attempted suicide, not once. He landed exactly in the category of people who don't want to attempt suicide, they want to complete it.
Hard to pick an image for this post. All that comes to mind is total darkness. I guess the total eclipse works, too.
*Medications help a LOT of people. Sometimes it takes time to find out if they can help, and which ones, and which doses. It can be a frustrating process, but many people get an immense amount of relief from medications.
Readers: Suicide is preventable. Knowing the warning signs and how to get help can save lives. Check out this link, which includes hotlines and resources: