Discussing the undiscussable, to bring it “Out of the Darkness”

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.

kimwatkins.jpgBut 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.

8 Replies to "Discussing the undiscussable, to bring it "Out of the Darkness""

  • Mac March 1, 2008 (10:04 am)

    Thank you very much for this post and for promoting the walk in June. I’ll be going to the meeting on Wednesday to find out more.

    I’m fortunate to be alive today because just months ago I was deeply and suicidally depressed. Only my pets and an amazingly devoted partner helped to keep me alive.

    It took me a long time to make my peace with the truth that this is an illness and not a character flaw. That was a crucial step in my healing and in my reaching out for help.

    Thanks again!

  • westello March 1, 2008 (10:22 am)

    There was an article on this topic in the NY Times recently about how there is an uptick in the number of midlife suicides. From the article:

    “A new five-year analysis of the nation’s death rates recently released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004, the latest year studied, far outpacing changes in nearly every other age group. (All figures are adjusted for population.)

    For women 45 to 54, the rate leapt 31 percent. “That is certainly a break from trends of the past,” said Ann Haas, the research director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

    By contrast, the suicide rate for 15-to-19-year-olds increased less than 2 percent during that five-year period — and decreased among people 65 and older.”

  • WSB March 1, 2008 (10:28 am)

    I read that too, of particular interest since that is our age group. One thing Betsy told me about her dad that I didn’t quite find a way to work into our article is that he had always felt he was on this earth to do great things, yet had been through many ventures that didn’t quite make it and by that point in life was concerned he wasn’t living up to his destiny. Certainly something that can occur to a depressed person at any age; I wondered, reading the article about midlife-suicide stats, if that somehow wasn’t a factor in the trend. But what Betsy also stressed, as we talked about the dearth of research into suicide causes and prevention, is that there is still so much mystery here that must be explored — how the brain works (and doesn’t work) — why does deep depression kill some people and not others — I hadn’t heard of AFSP until I saw a notice for the West Seattle informational meeting and contacted their PR department to ask for someone to interview; I am glad to know they are working on this.

  • westello March 1, 2008 (7:36 pm)

    And expanding on the whole issue of brain research and how depression affects it speaks to the issue of resiliency. What factors in the brain make some people able to rise above problems like depression, horrific childhoods, etc? Also important, what outside factors, if any, can help?

    I had always wondered, given that many child abusers were abused themselves, how some people are able to rise above the abuse and live good, decent lives beyond it and others can’t.

    All of these things being figured out can save lives but the stigma of mental illness has got to be lifted.

  • Erik March 1, 2008 (10:00 pm)

    An interesting book I’ve read a couple of times ‘A General Theory of Love’ touches on some of this.
    ‘Emotions possess the evanescence of a musical note. When a pianist strikes a key, a hammer collides with the matching string inside his instrument and sets it to vibrating at it’s characteristic frequency. As amplitude of vibration declines, the sound falls off and dies away. Emotions operate in an analogous way: an event touches a responsive key, an internal feeling-tone is sounded, and it soon dwindles into silence.’
    ‘Where an emotion is a single note, clearly struck, hanging for a moment in the still air, a mood is the extended, nearly inaudible echo that follows.’
    One event alone allows us the chance to reset. But if there is still an echo of a prior emotion and another event happens, the circuits are already primed and can lead us to a chronic state of emotionality (eg. depression).
    ‘When an emotional chord is struck, it stirs to life past memories of the same feeling. One manifestation of these orchestral evocations is the immediate selectivity of emotional memory. Gleeful people remember happy times, while a depressed person recalls incidents of loss, desertion, and despair.’
    This is in effect a self-perpetuating downward spiral. I’ve personally had my own bout with depression during my wife’s illness and then following her death. It wasn’t till I came out, or upward in the spiral, that I could see that I was in fact depressed. I also was very good at building walls around myself so no one else ever noticed (or they were afraid to mention it).
    The books authors do concede that there is no simple answer to how this all really works, that there isn’t just one thing that can tip us in that direction.
    They do mention that outside help usually is needed (talk therapy, drugs) to assist the patient in healing. Against my friends urgings I walked the path alone in my own time (my dog probably helped though).

  • lala March 1, 2008 (11:59 pm)

    I find it a little sad that WSB wants to bring a topic about suicide “out of the darkness”, but won’t post the topic above the line.

    You have to “click here to read more” about what they are even alluding to.

    Have the subject actually above the line – so readers of this blog know what you are trying to bring out of the darkness, without having to click a link to even know what the issue is.

  • WSB March 3, 2008 (8:31 am)

    We jump most of our longer articles in the “click more” fashion. In this case, that was intended more as a “tease” as it would have been called in our former TV-news career (coming up next, the five foods that can change your love life, that sort of thing), a tactic we use sparingly here on our site, but in this case in hopes more people would check it out.

  • JoB March 3, 2008 (9:28 am)

    The suicide rates in middle aged women have risen with the increase in chronic illness, especially chronic pain conditions.

    Sometimes the pain is as physical as it is mental.

    sometimes we just can’t endure another day… not even for those we love.

    sometimes we just lose our connection with the beauty of the world… it can be hard to see through the pain.

    I am never sure if i have won or lost when i have survived death… (i would not choose it yet i would not stand aside if it chose me) … but i am sure i would miss this world.

    I know i miss the many brave and wonderful friends who have lost their battle to stay one more day.

    Above Everything

    I wished for death often
    but now that I am at its door
    I have changed my mind about the world.
    It should go on; it is beautiful,
    even as a dream, filled with water and seed,
    plants and animals, others like myself,
    ships and buildings and messages
    filling the air — a beauty,
    if ever I have seen one.
    In the next world, should I remember
    this one, I will praise it
    above everything.

    ~ David Ignatow ~

    (Whisper to the Earth: New Poems)

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