Sunday, September 20, 2015

September is Suicide Awareness Month

Depression is a disease, not a weakness, and suicide is its tragic consequence. 
Having come from a family in which depression lurks, I can recognize most of the symptoms. 

My father became depressed when he was in his early forties, about the time my little sister was born. Throughout my life and hers, we knew a father totally different from the man my older brothers and older sister had known. He worked hard every day on the farm. He paid his bills. He managed to overcome physical illness most of the time and lived a quiet life. But depression changed him, and he was not the happy man who teased and played ball with my older siblings. His emotions were always right on the surface. The slightest little thing could make him lose his temper. 

As a result, my little sister and I stayed as far from him as we could, not knowing when he would blow up. Mother was the calm presence in our lives, the only one who could settle him down. Looking back, I think his depression caused him to worry abut everything. He would not go anywhere except to the doctor. He voluntarily gave up the keys to his truck when he didn't feel capable of driving. He did enjoy watching sports on TV. Perhaps that was his escape from reality. And he planted and harvested a big garden, which seemed to bring him joy.

As far as I know, my father never thought about taking his own life, although he had a beloved family member who did. Mother said my father almost had a “nervous breakdown” in the 1950s, which was what people said when someone became so emotionally distraught they could not function. 

Looking back, we are fortunate that he did not give up on himself and us. I give my mother and my older brother much of the credit for pulling him through those dark days. 

Suicide is no stranger to me. My first experience with someone taking their own life was when I was sixteen years old. A teenage girl I had seen many times at the local skating rink, killed herself with a shotgun. No one ever explained it. That shook me to the core. She had everything she could have wanted—money, looks, prestige, and a nice family. At least that is what outsiders saw. Who knows what went on behind that family’s doors?  (see poem below)

I was older when the suicide of a dear friend broke my heart and left me feeling terrific guilt. She and I rode horses together when we were kids, and we had stayed in contact. She had been the happiest, devil-may-care kind of girl, bordering on being a rebel, but not quite. Although we lived distances from each other over the years, we always kept in touch and loved to be together. When she visited, we sat up till the wee hours discussing everything from books, to plays, to religion and relationships.

I knew she fought demons even when she seemed happily married to her high school sweetheart. Once she told me she had flown to NYC to see a doctor she hoped could help her. But she was disappointed when she did not get better.

She continued to fight those awful feelings as much as possible. She sought counseling several times and was given prescription drugs. Like many with depression, she turned to alcohol to blot out the desperation. Nightmares, fears she could not explain to me, left her asking questions about an afterlife. I had no idea how the mental anguish stripped her of energy, of happiness, of the desire to get out of bed each morning.

Her husband asked for a divorce after twenty years of marriage. That must have been the tipping point. Her health spiraled down. She found a job in a factory where she stood all day and used her arthritic hands. They swelled so badly and hurt so much, she came home each day and buried them in a pan of ice. Her mental and physical illness drove her to withdraw into a shell, isolated from friends and family.

My only contact with her at the time was by telephone, and often she didn’t answer the phone. Although I was concerned about my friend, I had no idea her situation had become so hopeless. When I heard she had taken her life, I cried for days wondering if I could have helped. I think that is what everyone does when this kind of tragedy happens. 

In the poem below you will recognize the first girl I mentioned above.

Anne’s One Flaw

Her mother heard it from the kitchen.
Her brother heard it above the radio
playing in his room.

The night before, she skated at the roller rink,
blond hair flying 'round her shoulders,
tanned legs clad in short white shorts.

She was sixteen; a cheerleader, and a perfect student.
All American girl with eternal promise.
Thomas loved her and he thought she loved him, too.

She dressed in a powder blue blouse
and navy skirt for their seven-thirty date.
She combed and curled her shiny hair,
and pinked her lovely lips.

Then she sat down upon her bed,
and pulled the trigger on the gun that splattered red
her white bedspread, and left her family stunned.

This poem was first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review


DJan said...

I wonder if everyone has known someone who has killed him- or herself. I know of three personally. And I still think of them and wonder if I could have made a difference. Well written and thoughtful post. Thank you.

bgabriel said...

Suicide affects so many people, including those in my family. The repercussions last for decades and there is, probably, always some element of blame that survivors put on themselves. Thanks for this post, Glenda. I've heard you read this poem, and it still shocks me to read it again.

Glenda C. Beall said...

I think suicide affects more people than one would think. So many people I know have been touched by this at one time. I think that our own ignorance about depression and mental illness limits our ability to help those who are sick. People tend to stay as far away from troubled people as possible. We feel helpless. We don't know what to say. We don't know what we can do, so it is easier to distance ourselves from them.Until mental illness is accepted the same as physical illness in our society, I think those who need help will not want to admit it and often will not seek help.

Brenda Kay Ledford said...

Wow! You've captured the tragedy of suicide well in this poem. How sad! Lee Smith's novel, GUEST ON EARTH, speaks about mental illness. How sad. Thanks for sharing light on this subject. Suicide affects many families and unfortunately many teenagers are resorting to this.
I'm enjoying your class at TCCC. All the students are writing awesome stories!

Glenda C. Beall said...

Brenda, Thanks for your comment and thanks for the info on Lee smith's novel. I might like to read that. Thanks for taking my class at TCCC, Brenda. The students are, indeed, awesome, and it is very nice having you in the class.