This is for you. Did you know that suicide is now responsible for more deaths than automobile accidents? You’re more likely to lose someone to depression than drunk driving, and there are plenty of warning signs for depression. We’re only starting to come into an age where depression is seen as a disease, and people begin to realize that sufferers aren’t just lazy and making their own bad situations. To someone outside the situation, the solutions seem so simple. You don’t have a job? Well keep looking until you find one, even if it’s flippin’ burgers. You have a job, but you can’t pay your bills? Get a second job, or look for a better one. You’re lonely? Make an attempt to be sociable for a change instead of locking yourself up at home. Can’t stand the things you’ve done? Can’t change the past, so start doing good things; good deeds for other people will make you feel better about yourself. Depression can suck the life out of you. Telling someone with depression to just get a second job can be like asking someone who has just given everything they had to win a race that they’re only halfway done. Your simple suggestion doesn’t feel like constructive criticism or support. It feels like rejection. Another person just trying to fix the side effects with trite suggestions. And on the other hand, if you try to suggest treatment for depression, the subject comes up about the cost of therapy and drugs, which seem like another great burden on an already tight situation.
It was July 2008 when I got the very last email from my dad. He had been struggling with his studies and with work ever since his dad died the previous November. If I had kept in touch with his ex-girlfriend (who he was still living with) we both would have known he was using us to get him through his college courses, and might have realized how severe the situation was. He wrote me one more email to tell me that he was lonely, because she had time for everyone but him, and that he was almost out of money and couldn’t pay his truck payments. They’d be repossessing the truck soon and he needed to move out as soon as possible because he wouldn’t be able to haul his horse trailer without a truck, and where could he go with a horse? At the time, I had no idea he was getting medication again. I thought he was still taking classes and wondered what had happened to the last job. I suggested he sell the horse and trailer and use that money to find a place closer to school, and maybe a job within walking distance. I also recommended he find a church he liked, because church had always been very important to him. I couldn’t offer him more than a spot on the floor beside my bed, a package of ramen made from a single-cup water heater, and cold showers. There were other people in the family that were well-off who would have taken him in, but not without making him feel utterly worthless. It was bad enough when I took some time off from college and still wasn’t married at 22, and if your job doesn’t pay twice minimum wage, just don’t even mention you have one. I can understand why he wouldn’t want to go to them, but god help anyone who needs ME.
He had sent the email at night, and I didn’t see it until the next morning, but apparently enough time had passed that he thought I was ignoring him and downed a whole bottle of sleeping pills. He felt so awful from it that he begged his ex to take him to the hospital, and spent most of that time sleeping off what was still in his system, so I didn’t call him. When he woke up, he signed himself out of the hospital AMA, and because his ex was working a 14-hour shift in preparation for her upcoming family reunion vacation, she had to leave work to take him home and then get right back. He said he was okay and just wanted to sleep, so she trusted him and left him there alone.
In the middle of the night, my phone rang. It was the sheriff calling to tell me that my father had passed away. It was hard to know how I felt. Not really surprise, because part of me expected that to happen, but on the other hand, I didn’t believe it, because it was not within his character. I would not have thought this was something he would finish, because my uncle has done the sleeping pills thing many times when he just wanted somebody to fix things. My dad had always been able to fix his own problems. I asked the sheriff how it happened. “He took his life with a firearm.”
The seriousness of intent in using a gun was undeniable. He’d meant to die the first time, and wasn’t going to wait around in a hospital. He had something to finish and this time he had to succeed.
I was 25. My parents had been divorced for 10 years, and it always broke my mother’s heart that I didn’t have a closer relationship with him like she did with her dad. I’d gotten used to his coming back and leaving again that first year. I’d gotten used to his periods of depression where he’d move back to town in a trailer and go back to his old job for a few months, then patch things up with his girlfriend and walk out on his job again to go back to her. That’s just the way things would go for him, so when my mom would ask if we’d talked lately and I’d coldly say I hadn’t heard from him in months, she couldn’t help crying.
The signs were there, y’know, the depression, the clues in the email about loneliness. I, like so many others, ignored the loneliness and tried to fix the side effects. Doled out the same suck-it-up advice that I would have expected if I’d written that email. I might have expected worse, like “Tough break! You knew you couldn’t afford a horse. Sell it and keep looking for work. How many applications have you filled out since you lost your last job? You should have been out there the same day looking for work. And put on a smile. Nobody is going to want to hire you if you show up looking depressed. Maybe you’ll just do without a vehicle for a while. And you really need to move out of your ex-girlfriend’s house. She wants to get on with her life, and that’s really hard to do with you still living there. Of course she’s got time for everyone but you, you’re split up and she’s got her own family to tend.”
Am I starting to sound like every heartless argument you’ve seen on facebook? Because I didn’t even say those things, and my father killed himself. Can you imagine what people feel like when someone actually does say those things? Sure, it’s true, but it’s not helpful. The person is not going to suddenly see how they’ve been making simple mistakes and start putting their life back together logically.
So the next time someone comes to you, not asking advice for what they should do to fix a messed up situation, but TELLING you they have a messed up situation, consider how recently your local paper reported a drunk driving death. Evaluate the emotion behind the plea and handle with care. You might be the last resort.
USC’s MSW Programs Blog Day.