What I’m about to share with you is personal. This is a complicated post to write precisely because this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, or ever expect to do in my life. While I’m sharing the experience, I’m not going to dissect what I did. It would take away from what happened. It has been a 3K-plus word project and as I type this I think why not just type three words and leave it at that. While that would make reading rapid, it won’t get the facts across. So, brew up your favorite drink hot, or cold, and happy reading. I don’t know what the final word count will be.
When I first met my husband Jon he was recovering from a single manic episode of bipolar disorder. It had been triggered by medication and now he was working in IT and relieved to be back doing life. In the years that followed I would learn how mental illness can traumatize the soul.
The longer we dated, and by the time we married four years later, I was only too aware that I was involved with a man who could take his own life. It scared me. Bipolar disorder is a killer. It is estimated that 30% of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder will attempt to take their own lives. I now get why. I had become involved with someone at high risk.
The only way to make a high risk situation work within a relationship is to develop solid communication whereby both parties are committed to honesty. It isn’t easy work. Marriage, at best, is hard and this only threw a wrench into the mix. We had resolved early on in our relationship to talk things out even if it took days to work it out. We both valued the hard work of making things work.
While the first 10 years of our marriage had challenges, his mental health was mostly stable. As I learned how to listen to the language of bipolarism better, I was becoming aware of how I could lower his stress levels. When I talk about this the best way to help you, the reader, to understand is to say that it looked a great deal like “emotional violence”. He never touched me physically, but the pain and experience of seeing someone in a type of mental anguish takes a unique toll on the soul. I had to set boundaries, and when someone is in a rage, that isn’t always easy. I had to learn to get beyond the fear and hold my own. I couldn’t do everything but I could do many things to ease his stress. With some good coaching from the psychiatrist I learned to disengage. By doing this, he learned to calm himself, and I began to trust that he would calm himself. It was a difficult journey for both of us because I wanted to fix it and he needed me to pull back and not fix it. Fixing it can take away a person’s dignity. This way he claimed the right to know what he could do for himself.
In 2010 the slide began and this time there was not much I could do. I watched as a severe depression crept in despite a well constructed cocktail of drugs and a great deal of talk therapy. In November of 2011 he hit rock bottom. He was in bed and barely functioning.
It was this episode that caused me to call his psychiatrist. It was this conversation that forced me to rethink my attitude towards holding on to the fear of “what if he does it.”
As a therapist I knew the statistics. I also knew when, and where, dangerous things could happen. When he was not functional there wasn’t an issue…it was when the energy returned that all hell could break out. As a wife I didn’t want to hear any of it. I wanted assurance. And then the doc said “Gail, you have to let go.” This comment, and thought, took me on a three year journey. For three years I asked myself what this meant to me. Letting go has many meanings: which one was I looking at and struggling to unravel and understand?
Did I need to let go of the relationship? Let go of the thoughts that he would fully recover and be able to return to work as he had previously done? Did I need to let go of the fact that there was a 30% chance he would attempt suicide and succeed? Was I looking at a higher probability that he’d do something?
I knew that there were things I knew and understood. Mental illness, at its more intense levels, operates on the theory of “thirds.” One third of diagnosed bipolar people will never improve no matter what. They’ll struggle with medication and hospitalization, never seeing improvement. This is called “treatment resistant” bipolar, or depression. Another third will be revolving-door patients. They’ll swallow the pills and when they are feeling great they’ll quit the regimen and wind up back in the hospital and in crisis. For this third, if you can educate them about staying on the drugs and staying in treatment, there is hope. This is hard work and I’m not stating that there is much success with this third.. The last third will seek treatment and do everything they need to do to stabilize themselves. My husband was in this last group. My nightmare was that something awful could happen. My fear was that something bigger than either of us could deal with would show its ugly head and what would, and could, be done at that point in time. My fear was that in a reckless moment of time he’d do something I couldn’t reason him out of.
After sitting with the question of what did letting go mean to me, and going through a three-year thought process, I came to the conclusion that “letting go” meant giving up the idea that he would never seriously consider, or act, on suicide. That he’d want to live above all else. What did this mean in terms of how I looked at him and our relationship?
As I sat with this question and explored it deeply, I realized that if I was to fully let go, there were two things I needed to ask Jon to do for me. I had to be very clear about them because once they were out there I couldn’t retract them.
The time finally came for me to broach the subject of letting go fully and completely. He cried, I cried, and an understanding was reached between the two of us. He promised to honor my request. It was liberating for the relationship and it caused deeper healing to occur for both of us. While it took me until 2014 to say the words, the deeper work of healing had begun previous to this disclosure. During 2011-2012 he made some connections that enabled us to trust more deeply and because of that, things smoothed out for us and peace set in. During June of 2016 I reminded him that I meant what I had said in 2014. I think it was a deep knowledge that he needed to hear the words again that caused me to repeat them to him. On the 28th of August, 2016 the pain proved too great and he did end it after a weekend of planning. (I was unaware that this planning was happening. That was not part of what I’d asked for and therefore he felt he could withhold this from me.)
What I discovered is that my value system would not allow me to hold on to someone that was suffering so much pain and that to hold him here would have been selfish on my part. As I spent time thinking about my needs and his needs, I came to understand that I had to turn this over to someone far wiser than myself. You can call it your higher power, or God, or whatever you will. I let go of holding on to him. I had to trust that he’d act in a way that would be good for him and for me even if it was the hard thing to do.
What I came to understand in hindsight, was that I had done everything in my power to love and honor my husband. I had cared for him in the good times and the hard times. Despite the trials of the bipolarism, I had done well. Letting go of him has made my recovery a wee bit easier as I’ve not felt the guilt that I might have felt otherwise.
Having said the above let me also say this: My husband was in his mid 50’s when this happened. This was not something he did on a whim. He spent a good 31 years of his existence trying to make life work. He did his best at living. Sometimes the only way to end the suffering is to stop it completely. As I understood all of this, the ability to let go, while hard, became clear to me. He deserved someone who would let go.
I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about all of this. It is complex, hopeful and a plea, that we do as much as we can to understand why suicide happens and come to an understanding that not every suicide can be stopped. Stopping suicide is beyond our ability. Putting resources in place to enlighten others IS within our capability.
Did my husband do the right thing? Yes, I believe he did. He spent years living and when the relapse hit he made a choice to end the suffering. He had lived a good, but hard, life. THAT being said….
I”m aware that so many people are working to prevent suicide among one group or another. In particular: LGBTQ youth. This has made me stop and think. I would not wish what I’ve been through on anyone. I didn’t want this to happen, but I can accept that it did, and that is OK. It has made me think about others who “find the note”, the body, or hear of the death, and wonder why it happened.
I’ve asked myself what I would say to a parent with a child between 12-25 who expressed a desire to leave this life. I don’t think there is an easy answer, but there are things that can help along the way.
I’d take into account that there is so much going on in their young lives and that they aren’t fully developed mentally, or physically. I’d try to remember that for most kids, this time of life can be a real hell and that life is lived intensely from minute to minute and day to day. I’d offer a safe place to fall. Sometimes mom or dad are too close and are not the option they are looking for. Sometimes parents are the right option. I’d try to remember my own explorations and struggles. I’d try to shovel up every resource possible. Mostly what I’d want to do is create safe-havens for these kids and their parents. It really is all about the resources!
I think what helps the most, is to listen when it scares you and to accept when it challenges you. Questioning for understanding and motivation will then be open to you. Be willing to learn the pain of their reality. Never assume that you know what that pain is because most likely it is what we least expect.
By opening the door you open up the options! YOU might need to be the one to do the research. You might be the one that needs to take the lead. Keep in mind that you are raising an adult who is in a child’s body.
Rather than shutting them down, I would want to hear their stories, and in hearing and then understanding, offer alternatives. I’d go down the suicide rabbit hole with the understanding that sometimes talking about it can do amazing things for everyone involved. I’d set some huge groundrules to let them know how keeping themself safe works. I think there is a huge misunderstanding that if the person talks about it they’ll do it. Talking about it helps someone to explore their fears and the reality of what is in their head. We’ve gotten away from serious conversations about death, and by not speaking about death, we also fail to speak fully about life and what it means to become engaged with it.
I’d tell them that they are valued for who they are and, even more so, for who they can become. Telling someone they’d be missed might sound good, but telling them why they’d be missed provides reasons for remaining around and engaging in life.
One of the huge things I learned in my 20-plus years with my husband is that: suicide takes only three seconds and happens when the person can’t see any resources to bring to the situation. In my husband’s case, the time for the resources to become effective this time around were too long of a wait. He wasn’t willing to remain in the pain.
I offer all of this up for consumption in hopes that you, the reader, will not face the experience of walking downstairs to get lunch only to find the note on the table telling you where the body is located.
I offer this up in an attempt to bring some understanding that the pain survivors live with, is real. This is traumatic. But, you can recover and move on. I believe my recovery has been smooth in many ways, but rocky in others.
I offer this up, to bring comfort to those who struggle to let go in life, and death. There is hope and a pathway to peace. It takes time and the companionship of those who understand and can walk with you. “Letting go” leads to self exploration. There is no schedule. There are no stages. In facing grief, remember that grief just IS.
I offer this up because in my letting go, I was able to understand that I had no control over another human being as much as I wanted to hold on to someone I dearly loved. But, this is the contract of life. We all are born into others’ hopes for us. We hope for a long life, a safe life, a healthy life, or many things in life. We come to believe in all of these things. We hope for them, and even plan on them. We learn all of this, and in our learning we become deluded! It is our delusions that cause things to come crashing down on us when the ultimate, whatever it may be, happens.
I offer this to the reader because I understand that letting go is complicated and not something any of us can do easily. I admit that in sorting this out, I found myself in some scary and dark places. I wish that I’d had someone to talk it through with. I didn’t.
I offer this to the reader so that those who have become victims of a a loved ones death by suicide will understand that you are enough. You did your best and it was good enough and nothing could have stopped your loved one from completing an unthinkable act. Give yourself credit for where you were in your thinking and understanding then and the movement to where you are now.
I offer this up to reinforce that the only thing we have in our control is the power to move through, and beyond. I recognize that we will never get over this act of violence in our lives, but we will get through it. If you have not faced this awful situation but fear it could happen, seek a safe place to explore your feelings and fears around this subject. Get to know these particular monsters that dwell in the dark cave. Befriend them and they will teach you in ways you least expect them to.
I write this to honor those who have found constructive ways of celebrating those who chose to leave this life. I accept that their reasons were their own. I will not judge anyone’s decision for making the exit. I am thankful to know families who remember with courage and grace.
I write this in the hope of informing people that peace can be found.
I write this believing that while we may not be able to stop suicide from happening, we can offer up solid solutions for others so that they can live long and productive lives.
I type these words knowing that I had to let go. I don’t regret having done so. He also let go and it was the right choice.