It took me a long time to write this.
I first started writing this article 4 years ago, then I stopped short of publishing it. I wasn’t sure how or whether to write about this topic. I wasn’t sure how much of this was really “my story” to tell. But since May is Mental Health Awareness month, and since I read this really amazing article about the new suicide epidemic, I wanted to share this story about depression, suicide, grief and loss, in the hope that it might help someone else.
During my life, I have known six people who committed suicide.
I have changed/omitted most of the names here (and some identifying details) to protect their privacy, and because I don’t want these people to be defined solely by the way they died. But I felt that it was important to write this.
In my own small way, I want to honor the memories of these six people – classmates, friends, childhood friends, co-workers – by sharing the stories of how I knew them, what I remember about them, and what they meant to me.
These are their stories.
Stan was one of my high school classmates. I didn’t know him very well at all, but I remember him from gym class – we were in the same group one time when we did archery in gym class. (Sometimes they would have us try some alternative types of sports and activities in gym class, so that it wasn’t always about who was the most naturally athletic and good at team sports.) Stan wasn’t very talkative. He didn’t seem like a particularly sociable, outgoing high-achiever, but he didn’t cause trouble or talk trash or bully anybody. He seemed like one of those regular “average” (for lack of a better word) kids who didn’t seem to have a lot of outlets for his skills at school – he didn’t particularly stand out for any reason, but he also wasn’t making life worse for anyone else. (In high school, “not making life worse for anyone else” can sometimes be high praise.) Stan was really good at archery – he hit close to the bullseye almost every time. He must have had some experience as a bowhunter.
So I don’t remember much about Stan, other than the archery. He killed himself during our junior year in high school, if I remember correctly. He was found by his younger sister. He left a note.
Todd was the oldest son of some family friends of ours, and we used to play together when we were children. Todd’s family moved away a few years ago, but I remember that there were several occasions when I was growing up when our families would get together, and the kids would all play together in the basement of Todd’s parents’ house. I don’t have many clear memories of Todd, but after he died I remembered thinking how strange it was that someone who was once a little kid around the same age as me, playing in his parents’ basement, was no longer in the world.
I hadn’t been in contact with Todd or his family for a few years, but I heard about them from time to time through my mom. She said that Todd had struggled with depression and had dropped out of college and moved back home with his parents. He used to play soccer in a weeknight rec league with his younger brother and their dad. The night Todd committed suicide, his family found a note that he’d left on his computer saying that he felt like he was never going to find a place in the world where he fit in, but he loved his family and that his brother was his best friend.
Todd was 21 years old when he died, I think. He was just a few years younger than me – I have a brother who was the same age.
The next person I knew who committed suicide was a former chief of staff for the Governor who I used to work for. (This person was a public figure, and his life and death were very public, but I’ve still changed his name here.) Shortly after he left the Governor’s office, Dr. Galway came forward and admitted to having struggled with painkiller/prescription drug addiction for years. He announced that he had relapsed and that as a result of his addiction, he expected to lose his medical license. A few months after this news came out, Dr. Galway was found dead at his home – he committed suicide. He left behind a wife and several children. Dr. Galway had worked in public health policy in the Clinton White House, and President Clinton delivered the eulogy at his funeral, saying, “Sometimes when people spend so much time helping others, they don’t hold enough back for themselves.”
Dr. Galway was a uniquely energetic, creative thinker. I always enjoyed working with him and he was one of the people at the office who I always tried to impress. The year before Dr. Galway died, I happened to run into him at a football game, and he gave me his business card. I kept it in my wallet for a long time. I remember when I left the Governor’s office, Dr. Galway wrote me a really nice, heartfelt e-mail that was full of encouraging words and compliments. I really wish I would have kept a copy of that e-mail.
Martha was one of my first clients in the advertising business, and I learned a lot from her. Everyone on our team loved working for her – she was funny and determined and cantankerous, and was a big fan of our work. More than most clients, we genuinely enjoyed finding new ideas to bring to her and we loved to win her approval. She had several children and a granddaughter; she was planning to spend her retirement volunteering at her granddaughter’s elementary school and going on volunteer mission trips to Mexico.
Less than a year after Martha retired, she committed suicide. She had come home one day and discovered that her husband of 40 years wanted to get a divorce. She had also recently had to deal with the long illnesses and deaths of two of her siblings. Who knows what goes on in a person’s mind when they decide to commit suicide, but it’s clear that she was going through a lot of grief and stress. I was really shocked to hear that Martha had committed suicide. She always seemed like a plucky, optimistic, can-do person.
Justin was one of my roller hockey teammates. He was young – maybe 20? 21? And he was a veteran of the Iraq war (he was in the National Guard and had spent a year in Iraq). He went to war and saw a bunch of horrible things. After a few months at home, his girlfriend broke up with him, and he killed himself later that night.
Other people who knew Justin better than I did said that Justin had been struggling with some traumatic memories from the war, but they thought he’d been doing better lately. Everyone at the roller hockey rink was in shock. A lot of them had grown up with Justin, skating together and hanging out on weekends for years.
Justin was a really good hockey player – scrappy and quick and fearless. He played tenacious defense and was really good at interfering with the other team’s attack, taking the puck away from the other team and then quickly pushing it up the floor. He never seemed sad or morose to me. I never saw any signs of depression in him. I didn’t even know that he had been to war. He just seemed like a solid, fun-loving, happy-go-lucky kid who had many good years of life ahead of him.
Three years ago, shortly before the birth of our youngest son, my friend Jubal committed suicide.
Jubal is the person I knew who committed suicide who was closest to me, and his death was also the most recent. His funeral was held just a few days before my son was born. There were 500 people in the church for his funeral, all of them crying hard. Many of my friends were there, but I didn’t even talk to anyone at the service, I just sat in the back with my wife and cried by myself.
Jubal was known and loved by so many people in our city. He had grown up here, he loved going to bars and hanging out in coffee shops, he loved his job teaching Spanish at various elementary schools (Jubal didn’t have a college degree, but somehow had carved out a niche as an independent contractor Spanish teacher – he was just that kind of person; he knew how to improvise and work outside of the established system.) Jubal was charismatic and outgoing and was respected and influential in his many social circles. He was a leader and a good listener and a party-starter. Many people would have described him as their best friend.
Entire classes of school kids came to the funeral. Jubal left behind a wife and a baby son. He left behind a big, loving, creative family of brothers, sisters and step-brothers and step-sisters.
Jubal was one of the first people I met when I moved to Des Moines in 2003. I had been living with my parents for 7 months, I had a demanding job, all of my old friends from high school and college had moved away, and I wasn’t really sure where my social life was going to come from. I sometimes wondered if moving back to Iowa had been a mistake, or if I should have moved to a bigger city instead. But I remember being impressed with Jubal and his circle of friends – they were talented, smart, fun-loving people, and I remember thinking, “If people like Jubal enjoy living in Des Moines, then maybe this will be a good place for me to live too.”
In the year or two before he died, I had kind of lost touch with Jubal – not for any particular reason, but we just weren’t seeing each other as often as we used to. I remember being excited to hear that he and his wife were having a baby. I thought that now that we were both fathers, it would be a good way for us to reconnect and have something new in common.
We were all really shocked by his suicide. No one saw it coming. Any one of those 500 people at the church would have happily done anything to help Jubal, if we would have known that he was so desperately sad.
Suicide is not Inevitable
If anyone ever happens to read this who is thinking about committing suicide, please don’t do it. Get help. Talk to someone now. There is always hope, and there are always other answers – no matter how bad your situation might seem, there is always a way to get back into a positive place.
Suicide is not inevitable. Suicide often results from opportunity – a loaded gun close at hand, a bridge that’s available to jump off of, some easy implement of self-destruction. (Many of the people I knew who committed suicide used a gun.)
Most people who feel suicidal can be helped and can recover and live a normal, healthy life. Just because someone wants to kill themselves in a single desperate moment doesn’t mean that they are ALWAYS going to feel that way. There was a study called “Where Are They Now?” published in 1978, which followed up on a number of people who had tried to commit suicide, and most of them went on to live many more years without ever trying again to take their lives (my emphasis added in bold):
“Where Are They Now?,” published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971. After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes. “The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature,” Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis—Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days—chances are extremely good that he won’t kill himself later.
I read an article a few years ago about the Golden Gate Bridge, which is a popular spot for suicides, in part because the bridge doesn’t have a suicide prevention barrier, which makes it quite easy for people to climb out onto the ledge and jump off. 26 people have survived jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge. There was an amazing quote from a formerly suicidal man who survived his fall from the bridge. He said, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”
Suicidal People Can Be Helped
One of my favorite comedians is a guy named Rob Delaney, who has struggled with alcoholism and suicidal depression. At one point a few years ago, he was having constant thoughts of suicide. His brain was constantly telling him, “Kill yourself.”
Rob writes in this very poignant and personal blog post:
I tried very hard to step out of myself and look at the situation with a modicum of objectivity and “imagine” that I was someone who deserved help. Quite literally I thought, “I don’t think anyone else would shoot me with a shotgun, so maybe, temporarily, I’ll postpone that and try this Lexapro that everyone who knows me is recommending…”
While great strides have been made in mental health over the years, certain stigmas still exist. I strongly resisted medication at first. But after having been through depression and having had the wonderful good fortune to help a couple of people who’ve been through it, I will say that as hard as it is, IT CAN BE SURVIVED. And after the stabilization process, which can be and often is fucking terrifying, a HAPPY PRODUCTIVE LIFE is possible and statistically likely. Get help. Don’t think. Get help.
Life is really hard and depressing sometimes. Americans live in a country where people are expected to always be optimistic and “have a nice day” and put a happy face on things all the time – and in a way, this makes it worse. Because depressed people are left to feel even more isolated, like “What’s wrong with me? I live in the greatest, happiest country in the world! Why should I be depressed?”
We’re surrounded by impersonal communication and sales pitches, we’re bombarded by disturbing stories in the news, we’re constantly short on time and money, we’re starved for authentic human connections and affection. No wonder so many people despair.
I don’t know how to get people to stop committing suicide. But I think the solution starts by being able to talk more openly about the problem.
There’s no shame in feeling depressed. Even the greatest failures can be overcome. No matter how disappointed you feel with yourself, or how badly you’ve disappointed the ones you love, they would always rather have you stay alive.
If you feel depressed, or if you know someone who does, please know that you are not alone. None of us are ever truly alone. Reach out. Share your story. Now.