I decided for World Suicide Prevention Day to write about how my father's death by suicide has protected me, personally, from dying by suicide. I believe I am among many survivors of suicide loss who would say -- without being one bit melodramatic -- that they might have died by suicide had they not experienced the suicide of a loved one.
My experience with suicidal thinking stems in part from the fact that I was a practicing addict from when I was 18 years old until I was 36. There are two incidents from that part of my life that illustrate the connection, for me, between addiction and suicide.
Sometime in early 1990 (just a few months before I got clean for good), I did something that I believe went beyond being "high-risk behavior." About three times within a couple of weeks, I got as drunk as I could get, then smoked one more joint, and drove down Highway 73 south of Martin, S.D. so fast that my car would barely stay on the road -- daring God to kill me the whole way. This would be at three or four in the morning, and I'd cover the 18 miles between Martin and Merriman, Neb. in a dozen minutes. Then I'd turn around in the parking lot of the Sand Bar and drive back north, following the speed limit (more or less), listening to rock-and-roll, and reflecting on the meaning of my life. That seems like a first cousin to suicidal behavior to me, although I didn't think of myself as wanting to die at the time.
Before that, in November 1988 -- after I'd actually been clean for a year -- something else had happened that also seems to me now to be closely related to suicidal thinking and behavior. That yearlong stretch of sobriety was the fourth time in the 1980s that I had gotten clean (each time before, for about six to eight months), but I had always relapsed. And I was about to relapse again, which felt extremely pitiful to me, for the fact is that I was going back to using because I was just as miserable clean as I ever was using -- and it seemed like there was no end in sight. I recall my mental process precisely: I thought, "I must be an example of the kind of addict I've heard about (in 12-Step meetings) who is inherently incapable of getting clean and whose purpose is to serve as an example to others -- that people who don't sober up are doomed to "jails, institutions, or death" (in the parlance of Narcotics Anonymous). I truly believed, at the age of 34, that I was doomed to die of addiction, yet I was choosing to relapse. Again, I would not characterize my point of view as wanting to die but rather as accepting that I likely was going to die.
The other factor in my experience with suicidal thinking is related to the fact that I have Major Depressive Disorder. As I said, I got clean in 1990 -- and once I was totally free of alcohol and drugs, my depression came to the foreground. I was actually diagnosed with MDD in about 1985, but I did not get treated for it until after my first full-blown Major Depressive Episode, which unfolded over the first eight months of 1999. I was as depressed as a person can be, short of having psychotic features, and I was frightened by how suicidal I felt. I lost 30 pounds; I woke up daily in the wee hours anxiety-ridden and couldn't go back to sleep; I was despondent; and I had a profound experience with suicidal feelings.
I was living temporarily in Oakland, and my girlfriend-at-the-time and I went one day to visit the Golden Gate Bridge (I had never been over it). We parked on the Marin County side and started walking back across the bridge. I got a couple of hundred yards out and started slowing down as I saw the distance from the bridge to the ground increasing and increasing -- and then I stopped. I told my girlfriend that I had to go back to the car, that I couldn't walk out any farther, because, I said, "I feel like I'll be sucked over the rail" (this was not about fear of heights: it was about fear of suicide beyond my ability to control my actions). I was haunted by suicidal thoughts for three or four months that spring.
But the point is that I didn't want to kill myself in any of these instances! Not only did I not want to kill myself: I wasn't going to kill myself, no matter what (unless I was literally not in control of my actions). Most importantly, my feeling of "no matter what" came directly from the fact that my father died by suicide. Since 1999, I've had one other depressive episode that severe (because I quit taking my medication, an experiment I'm never going to try again, but that's another story). That more recent episode was at its most severe for about three months, and the same thing happened again. I was frighteningly suicidal. It wasn't so much like I was having suicidal thoughts as it was like suicidal thoughts were having their way with me. Once again, I did not want to kill myself, I was determined not to kill myself, and at the heart of my motivation for staying alive was the fact that my dad killed himself.
I cannot say that I would have died by suicide had my father not done so, but I can say with absolute certainty that his having done so was a primary cause of my not killing myself several painfully specific times in my life. And although this story is about me, I believe an important aspect of the experience of survivors of suicide loss generally involves how we come to take good care of ourselves -- including being determined not to kill ourselves -- because of what happend to our loved ones. Certainly as a group, survivors are at higher risk for suicide than the general population, but I believe there are many among us who feel absolutely committed not to die that way, no matter what.© 2013 Unified Community Solutions. All Rights Reserved.