What My Friend's Death Made Me Realize About Suicide Contagion
fA few months ago, a very dear friend of mine killed himself. We went to high school together and reconnected 20 years later when our kids played soccer together. His wife is one of my closest friends and, while I knew he struggled with addiction, I never truly understood how deep his depression was.
I have lived with depression all my life. I always say that it’s like a 100-pound gorilla on my back, one that I carry with me no matter what I am doing. It has been my constant companion, one that I have, with the help of therapy and meds, been able to keep at bay.
That being said, in the week since my friend died, my depression has decided to take charge in a big way and for the first time I understand what suicide contagion, or a suicide cluster, really is.
Suicide contagion is defined as “multiple suicidal behaviors or suicides that fall within an accelerated time frame, and sometimes within a defined geographical area.”
So, no one is immune to it, I have heard, but I certainly assumed I was.
For as far back as I can remember I have been depressed. I have carried with me a feeling of hopelessness and dread that was overwhelming. The prospect of going to school or making friends or doing my homework filled me with such a sense of hopelessness that I used to obsess about no longer existing. I didn’t want to kill myself but I also didn’t want to live.
I had no idea that I was different from other people so I certainly never talked about it. I just went about living my life, struggling almost every minute.
I carried my hopelessness into high school and college, where I discovered boys, alcohol and drugs as a great way to ease that sense of dread. By 24, I was full blown alcoholic, a high-functioning one, but one whose every day was exhausting because of what I carried with me.
When I had my kids, I stopped drinking and doing drugs but replaced that urge with being perfect — the perfect wife, mother and employee. I worked very hard to be perfect so that I could numb the pain that was my life.
And then one day, I couldn’t fight it anymore and I found myself in a closet, banging my head against a wall.
The next day I was diagnosed with bipolar II — a disorder of my brain that leads to long-term depression with little bleeps of hypomania (think about how you feel after that third cup of coffee).
Since then, because of medication and therapy, I have been stable. My depression isn’t as debilitating as it was but I do still live with it every day.
Since my friend died, my depression has reared its ugly head. I have been having a hard time functioning, forming thoughts and getting them out of my mouth has been almost impossible and having hope for the future is challenging.
I think about my friend and how he has finally been freed from the 100-pound gorilla he carried on his back for so long. And I wonder if he has found peace. I wonder if whatever is next is better than what is now. I know his life must have felt horrible for him because not only was he depressed, but he also struggled with addiction. It was horrible enough that he was willing to leave behind his wife and kids and everyone who loved him.
Where and how is he now? I wonder almost every minute of every day. And wanting to know is almost irresistible.
So, why am I still here, writing this blog instead of going down that rabbit hole with him?
For me, what I see more than anything is the wreckage that he has left behind. My amazing friend, who I know loved her husband madly even in the face of his struggles, is devastated. I can’t even image what it was like telling her boys and how they are feeling in the world right now.
All of us who loved him miss him terribly and always will.
As my kids and I process this grief together, I know that, no matter what kind of peace might wait for me somewhere else, worse for me would be knowing that I was responsible for the 100-pound gorilla I would probably be leaving for my kids and my friends and my amazing boyfriend. This depression that has been my constant companion might seek out another person and most likely would choose one of the people I love.
And that’s not OK.
I have no judgment for my friend, only empathy and love. And I will survive this struggle that I have with my presently powerful depression.
But now I know and understand why suicide contagion happens and I also understand why I won’t catch it. And I will make it my life’s work to make sure that others understand it and don’t succumb to it themselves.
Life is incredibly hard for those of us who live with depression. You might even know that personally. But for me, I would rather carry that gorilla, every day, and be able to protect my kids from its weight, then slip away into the oblivion that might be peace.
Or it just might not be.
Thank you for listening. With love.
Photo by Camille Ralston on Unsplash