“The person who completes suicide, dies once. Those left behind die a thousand deaths, trying to relive those terrible moments and understand … Why?”
– Clark (2001)
I cry every time I speak in public about Jerry’s suicide. Jerry was my little brother. He was 35 and left behind his wife and two little boys. His decomposing body was found in a wooded area in his hometown in North Central Arkansas. He had disappeared two weeks earlier. Even though that was in 1992, I relive the moment I heard the news every time I tell the story and choke with grief just as I did when I tried to say a few words at his funeral.
His widow told me as we stood next to the casket at the funeral home that Jerry was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years earlier when he was a Sergeant in the U.S. Army. He was discharged immediately without treatment and refused to get psychiatric help out of fear of stigma once a civilian.
My connection with his widow and little boys got lost in the years I was fighting my own bipolar disorder after my diagnosis a year later. I am ashamed I wasn’t there to be a Dad for those little boys. Twenty-three years passed before I reached out to their mother and my now adult nephews through Facebook. I was afraid it would be a bitter reunion, but they told me they loved me and were so happy to hear from me.
Jerry’s widow told me of her own pain over the years dealing with her husband’s suicide. She was grateful, too, I showed up just in time to help the boys as each struggled with drug addiction they used to self-medicate their inheritance of the “family curse” of bipolar disorder.
I found a treatment center for the oldest nephew. He went and got clean and then on to a successful job he loves. He had been in pharmacy school years earlier, but drug abuse ended that dream. My other nephew was recovering from heart disease that nearly killed him at 35. His heath is returning and he is the proud Daddy of my brother’s 5-year-old grandson. Jerry missed so much by not knowing what it is like to be a Grandpa. My older nephew is the proud father of Jerry’s first grandson who is now 16.
I pray that my decision to step back into their lives with my message about recovery from mental illness and fight against stigma will break the chains that nearly destroyed three generations of a family from a small down in Arkansas. I pray there will be no more suicides because there is hope now that one old Uncle found his way.
There is still one unresolved matter in our family. My step-sister killed herself five years after our brother’s death. She, too, ran from stigma rather than get psychiatric help for major depression. Her daughter has not responded to my attempts to reach out to her. I know she is bitter about her Mom’s crazy family and her grief must be overwhelming since her Mom died. My niece was around 11 or 12 when she lost her Mom, I think.
The patriarch of our family ran in shame for at least 30 years from his mental illness until his early death from heart disease when he was only 62. He had bipolar disorder, he learned two years before his death, and was near death when word came about Jerry’s suicide. Dad died three months later, but I don’t think the heart disease killed him. I think he died of a broken heart.
“Suicide creates a monstrous emotional upsurge of shame and guilt. Everyone participates in feeling responsible and even shamed at knowing the suicidal candidate. If these feelings are not healed the vampire of suicidal death can strike again and again.”
–Linda Lee Landon, Life After Suicide
― Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
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Mental Health Advocate
The typical Bipolar patient can sum up his or her life story in four words: lost relationships, lost jobs.
Bipolar Disorder untreated is hell, but you don’t know you are in hell. You just know that you have ups and downs. You are very productive when up and ready to die when down.
A major manic episode in June 1988 destroyed my marriage and ended my faculty position at a small Christian university in Arkansas. I left my wife of 18 years and two young children choosing instead life in Hollywood convinced I could make a living as an actor.
Less than a year later, major depression returned and I took a long, sad bus trip back to Arkansas hoping to pick up the pieces. It was all gone. I supported myself as a hospital janitor and lived in a un-heated cabin in the country. The only bright spot was getting to see my kids once a month.
It would be five years before I learned I had Bipolar Disorder that should have been diagnosed when I was 18 when the first symptoms appeared instead of 43. That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story.
Eventually, cognitive impairment (memory and spatial-memory cognition) , a common symptom of Bipolar Disorder, made work impossible and permanently disabled me at 60.
Now, more than 20 years after my diagnosis, I speak to groups about this devastating illness. I hope my experience will prevent suicides by those like my brother and sister who are too afraid of stigma to seek help. I am passionate about speaking to college students because suicide is the second leading cause of death among student. My recent speech to students at the University of North Carolina and Duke University was called “The Speech I Wish I Had Heard When I Was An Undergraduate”.
Tom can be found on his blog, Twitter and Facebook
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Wow what a hard, yet incredible journey. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing, sir.
Happy that you are back in your nephew’s lives and have helped them. Thank you for sharing your story.