Vail Valley Voices: Suicide’s cruel legacy
August 18, 2010
Our friends, parents and children are dying from perhaps the most preventable of causes and it bears some serious thought and examination.
My niece Emily just turned 21 years old. A while back she told me that in a month’s time, three of her former schoolmates committed suicide.
I have only lived here a little over three years, but I am shocked by how many suicides I have heard about in that time.
I asked Emily how many people she has known in the area who have died from suicide and she rattled off eight names without skipping a beat and said, “And that’s just the ones off the top of my head. There are more.” She came back to me to let me know that since 2004, she knew of 11 total suicides – three adults and eight who were under the age of 23.
This is not the way life should be. No one her age should have known that much death let alone self-inflicted death.
There is something terribly, terribly wrong.
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The second thing I ever wrote for the Vail Daily was a piece about my father’s suicide when I was 13 years old. Next month, on Sept. 11, it will be 40 years since his death, and I still have never been the same.
In that column, I described the devastating, lingering effects of what my dad did. The night he pulled that trigger, life forever changed for those of us left behind.
I talked about the questions I had, the sense of abandonment I felt, the wondering why he didn’t love me enough to stay around for me and the staggering psychological complications that grew within me as a result.
Over the decades to follow, I had many periods of suicidal thoughts myself. I have rarely had a good night’s sleep since the night he died. I toyed extensively with drugs almost 20 years ago because it was my way of self-medicating the pain and emptiness I had always felt, didn’t understand and could no longer bear.
I needed so much for so long to understand him and why he shot himself. More important, I needed to be able to forgive him.
I spent years asking myself “Why?”
Well, he struggled with unemployment for a good number of years. He was a floral designer and a very talented one. But when he moved to Florida after my parents divorced, he couldn’t find work in his field, so he worked as a janitor, a short order cook and a number of other jobs that didn’t last long. Maybe that was it.
My mother and I have always suspected that my father was perhaps gay. There were little signs of his disinterest in women and there was that suspiciously close “friendship” he had with a bachelor friend of the family. In the ’50s and ’60s, that would have been a torturous existence. Maybe that was it.
He was a very severe alcoholic. In fact, I was told that had he not pulled the trigger that night, he’d have possibly been dead by morning of acute alcohol poisoning. Maybe that was it.
He spent some time in a psychiatric hospital battling what we would now call manic depression. Add that to a life on the bottle and maybe that was it.
We didn’t see him much after he remarried and moved to Florida. I only ever knew of my father crying twice. One was the day he told my sister and me that he was moving 1,400 miles away. The second, I was told later by my stepmother, was when he put my sister and me on a plane to come back to Chicago after a visit to Fort Lauderdale three years before he died. As he watched our plane take off, he cried and told her, “I’ll never see them again.” And he didn’t. Maybe that was it.
The point is that one can never truly know what brings someone else to do the unthinkable. I came to realize that, if I am ever going to forgive him, I have to do it blindly because I will never fully understand the “why.”
I imagine there are quite a few people around here struggling with the same questions.
When Emily told me how many times she has lost people she has known here, I was stunned. In my generation, this just didn’t happen. The isolated suicide of an adult was rare enough, but multiple suicides and particularly the loss of so many young people by their own hand was completely unheard of.
I decided I wanted to learn more about what was happening here and why. So, I began a mission of research. I pored over statistics, read studies and reports, went to meetings and support groups and spoke to a lot of different people.
I am going to relay some of what I’ve found in a series of columns over the next several weeks and include the thoughts and opinions of those I spoke to in the hopes that we can try to come to grips with this horrible trend.
Perhaps it will help ease the suffering of those survivors among us, as well as help us understand how we can perhaps save future lives. No one should have to endure the unendurable pain of losing someone to suicide and no one should have to feel the kind of despair that would lead them to believe there is no hope.
One of the things experts point to as an obstacle for prevention awareness is the unwillingness of people to discuss the subject. That is understandable to a degree. We are sensitive to the survivors and we think that like all unpleasant things, it will go away if we don’t talk about it. But it is unproductive to allow it to be buried in our consciousness or pretend it isn’t there. To truly make a difference, we need to keep both our minds and hearts open and not treat the subject as taboo.
Denial serves no one. We must be able and willing to look objectively at the facts and consider some possible truths which very well might make us uneasy. We can either face those things we wish were not true and in doing so, hopefully save ourselves from losing more loved ones, or we can continue to deny and watch as more friends, children, parents, spouses and brothers and sisters die needlessly.
Certainly, we will never be able to prevent this awful thing from ever happening again, but it is a cinch we won’t save anyone by putting the blinders on.
Perhaps together, we can all as a community find some answers. And from those answers, perhaps hope and help for those who need it. There are a lot of resources out there and, I have found, countless wonderful and caring individuals who want to reach out and help.
September 5-11 is National Suicide Prevention Week. Let’s take this as an opportunity to learn, to talk openly and to act.
In my next column: Some statistics that may startle you. They did me.
David Dillon is an Eagle resident.