Up Close and Personal with Suicide

The CDC reported that 38,000 people died in the U.S. by suicide. It now surpasses motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death and is listed as 10th most common cause of all deaths in our country. It probably ranks 1st for the most stigmatized and least talked about form of death in our country.

As a psychiatrist, many of my patients struggle with suicidal thoughts, sometimes as part of major depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, addiction, eating disorders or personality disorders. In my own recovery from an eating disorder, substance abuse and trauma, it is a mind state that I am familiar with.

But, I’ve never known it quite as intimately as I have since being informed of my nephew’s death by suicide in January of this year.

To experience the pain first hand that rips through a family after suicide was altogether a different experience than helping people professionally with suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or loss of a loved one after suicide.

I was on vacation with my new family in Mexico, returning from an activity-packed, day-long trip to an adventure park. We returned to our hotel well after the sun went down. I reflexively checked my cell phone upon getting back to our room, expecting nothing more than maybe a few emails. To my surprise and then panic, there were missed calls from my mother, sister, brother and a few ominous texts. “Call me as soon as you can. Something bad has happened.”

I felt it in my body and knew it my heart it was something serious. Stepping outside to the balcony, I tried my sister. Voicemail. Then my mother. I could tell she had been crying. “Are you sitting down?” she asked. “

Yes,” I said, even though I wasn’t.

“Are you really sitting down?”

“Yes, I’m sitting.” I was annoyed that she knows me well enough to know I was not seated. Impatiently, and riddled with anxiety, I sat.

“Tommy killed himself.”

Floodgates opened. Pain, sadness, hurt, anger, guilt, shock, confusion — all at once. I asked for details. She shared what she knew.

I’m an addiction psychiatrist, CEO and Medical Director of a large residential treatment center for women with suicidal thoughts and addiction. With my nephew, drugs were involved. He was sick, in pain (but not obviously so), and clearly alone. He was adamantly against any attempts to intervene on his decided way of life and his life philosophy, part of which included the use of what he considered life-enhancing drugs—namely marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD. He was a talented dancer and street performer — into the rave scene in Chicago. And like so many in that world, he embraced drugs as a meaningful and important part of life. Not the so-called “hard” drugs like crack or heroin, but all the drugs people in that scene say should be legal because…”they’re not addictive, it enhances my life, opens me up, blah blah blah.”

I wonder if he ever considered that these drugs might play a role in making him think his time had come at the age of 32, and it was the plan of the universe for him to take his own life on the 2nd day of 2014.

I saw his life, which included early developmental trauma. In my experience as a psychiatrist, unhealed early life trauma is integrally linked to suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts, mood disorders and addictive disorders.

Like so many who have experienced suicide in their family, I have been plagued by the usual questions: How could this happen in my own family? How could I have prevented it? What could I have done differently? Although the questions are seemingly unavoidable, at the end of the day, they lead nowhere. So now I focus on how fortunate I am for all the love and support I have in my life, especially the support I received from my therapist, family, and hundreds of people in the 12 step recovery community who not only kept me alive, but taught me (teach me!) how to thrive. Every single day of my life in recovery I am blessed with the brave women at Timberline Knolls, who have the courage to ask for help and give me the gift of bearing witness to their miraculous journeys.