With everything that is discussed openly in our everyday lives and in the media these days, you might conclude there is nothing too taboo to talk about. That would not be true; a big, dangerous one remains.
Think a lot of people get murdered in the U.S. every year?
Twice as many die from suicide.
There, we said it. You don’t hear that word often because the word, the concept, makes people squirm. It’s both unimaginable, and painfully imaginable. Talking about it is truly taboo, partly because of a belief that such a discussion could be contagious — mention the word, and suddenly dozens, hundreds, will go stampeding to the nearest roof.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says there is a grain of truth to that – it’s issued extensive media guidelines – but sees that as no reason to avoid discussing suicide, debunking the myths about its causes, alerting people to its warning signs, searching for ways to save its victims.
These are all reasons that West Seattle resident Betsy Vela and I sat in a West Seattle coffee shop last Sunday morning, discussing the undiscussable.
In the photo above, you see Betsy and her entrepreneur father Kim during his last visit to see her in Seattle – the last time she saw him, ever. Kim killed himself at the age of 48, after a long struggle with depression.
In 2002, not all that long after her father’s death, Betsy and her father’s fiancee spent a long night walking through Chicago — with 5,000 other people whose lives have been affected by suicide in some way. The AFSP presents the overnight walk every year to raise research money and bring the suicide problem “Out of the Darkness” — and this year, Seattle is one of two cities where it will happen.
Though the overnight walk is not until June 21-22, AFSP is organizing meetings for potential participants now, and one is set for next Wednesday (March 5), 6 pm, at the High Point Library, in the hopes that Betsy will not be the only West Seattleite walking through that upcoming summer night.
“Part of that experience is knowing you’re not alone,” she reminisces about the Chicago walk in 2002. And that is the knowledge she sought out after her father’s death, driving many miles to find a support group for people who had lost loved ones to suicide: “There is something to be said for looking at somebody else who had this same experience, and knowing (the suicide was) not their fault, that it is not your fault.”
Fault, truth be told, has nothing to do with it. Suicide is a deadly effect that can result from mental illness. “This is a real illness,” Betsy says emphatically, “not just people feeling the blues. People need to know the facts — to be on the lookout for signs of depression.” She goes on to note matter-of-factly that as the child of someone who committed suicide, she is eight times more likely to do the same, so she must watch herself for those signs as well.
But self-awareness alone can’t always save someone. “My dad talked about his depression openly,” Betsy explains, adding that he was “under the care of a mental-health professional” at that time. And yet, when she found out he was dead — “It was out of nowhere. I was on vacation; it came as a phone call, but two days passed before I knew he had killed himself. They said they were looking for him — I just knew, somehow, (he was dead). They found him two days later – he had overdosed in a hotel — a (decision) he spent hours with before he died.” But perhaps not a decision made too far in advance; Betsy adds, “He had an appointment to get a haircut the next day!”
He had never attempted suicide before he did it. His suicide letter, Betsy says, was 20 pages long, and even included an apology to the hotel workers who he knew would find his body. “He was in so much pain, he genuinely thought the rest of us would be better off if he wasn’t there.” Looking back, she wonders if he hung on until she — his only child — was well into adulthood and didn’t really need him.
That was wrong, she says. “I still need him.”
And after his death, she needed to know it wasn’t her fault, which her 2002 “Out of the Darkness” walk helped with — “Before the walk, people got up and shared stories — some wore T-shirts with photos of the people (they had lost) — it was very moving.” Also frustrating, maybe almost angering — “These are AMAZING people we are losing in the world. My dad loved to help people. This [his death] is a huge loss. A lot of researchers say, these [suicide victims] are people so compassionate, they can’t endure the world.”
Did some cataclysmic event push him over the edge, you might ask innocently, without realizing this is a myth about suicide, that there is some “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Instead, Betsy suggests, the more-important question may be, “why were there so many straws on the camel’s back?” The wisdom to see that question, however, has come only with time; in the time after her father’s death, she recalls, “We wracked our brains for what could have made this happen — I didn’t call him back the last time he had called me, so I thought (for a while), what if that was it?” If not blame, some relatives may find themselves dealing with denial, which Betsy says was the case for her dad’s father: “My grandpa waited for the coroner’s report (before believing it) — even then, it said, overdose and enlarged heart — he seized on (the latter) and said, aha!”
As Betsy shares memories, she looks ahead to a time to make new ones, the June 21 walk, and looks forward to seeing her walking partner from 2002 — the woman who had accepted her father’s marriage proposal before he died. She’s the one, in fact, who called Betsy to say she had learned there would be a walk in Seattle for the first time.
She is excited about that, and about the chance to tell me — and therefore you — her story, and the reasons why discussing the undiscussable is imperative. “The more you talk about it, the more people will be able to get help – the more we talk about it, the more we can debunk myths.” Betsy has worked as a teacher for 6 years, so education of all kinds is close to her heart, and in this matter, all of Puget Sound can be her classroom — while some “shushed” her attempt to discuss suicide after her father’s death, those days are past, and she declares proudly and energetically: “You can’t shut me up now!”
To find out more about participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention “Out of the Darkness” overnight fundraising walk in Seattle June 21-22, go to an informational meeting at High Point Library next Wednesday (March 5), 6 pm. Read more about it here, including what to do if you are interested in being part of the walk but cannot attend that meeting. And if you are in crisis – the AFSP suggests this hotline: 800-273-TALK.