Recently, an acquaintance of mine spoke about her husband’s suicide for the first time since his passing several months ago. She’d talked about his death before, tragic and unexpected as it was, eloquently detailing the pain left behind in his absence, but she hadn’t mentioned how he’d died. Now, with the passing of a little time, maybe she found the necessary strength to be able to say the words — he took his own life — for the first time publicly. Maybe she was just tired of dodging the inevitable questions, in a situation full of nothing but unanswered questions.
In August of 2010, our friend Michele passed away from an apparent drug overdose. She’d been battling addiction for years — in recent months, unsuccessfully — and had both drugs and alcohol in her home at the time of her death. Few people who really knew her history assumed that it was anything other than a tragic drug-related death when news of her passing began to spread. There were a lot of knowing glances at her funeral. We knew this would eventually happen, people seemed to be saying with their polite nods.
My wife and I had been spending a considerable amount of time talking with Michele about the risk she was taking each and every time she decided to drink or use and about the very real possibility that her body would at some unplanned point just give out, due to the years of unimaginable abuse it had endured. We said things like “you don’t get to pick the last time you use,” hoping that the fear of addiction’s randomness would be a catalyst for sobriety.
All these months later, though, I’m left wondering if, in some small way, Michele did get to pick the last time she used. It wasn’t long after the funeral when my wife first told me that she thought Michele had intentionally overdosed, an idea that was almost immediately offensive to me. Michele was in tremendous emotional pain and was exhausted by the unrelenting torment of her losing battle with addiction, my wife would reason, and it would make some sense that she would just want the torture to end. It was the recovering addict part of my wife that could look at Michele’s death and see the logic, albeit twisted, in what might have been her willful leap toward the end. This pissed me off, not just because I didn’t want to believe it about the friend we’d just lost, but even more because I didn’t want to accept the fact that a part of my wife could look at the situation and, at least on some level, understand its crushing conclusion.
A year and a half later, I find myself angry about our friend’s passing. (I still say “passing,” you notice, because it sounds less blame-worthy than “suicide” might.) I’m angry that she didn’t reach out to us on the phone when we talked the day before her death. I’m angry that I didn’t sense it — sense anything — even if she was unable to communicate the true finality of her despair. I’m angry that I often took her resilience for granted, that I sometimes allowed myself to be bothered by her pestering neediness, and that I was not powerful enough to somehow step in and make it STOP for her. Mostly, I’m angry that she was either stupid enough to not understand the risks of using that night or thoughtless enough to understand and do it anyway. I’m angry, long after those ridiculously cliché “stages of grief” might dictate.
I’d begun to make some peace with the loss of Michele, only to find out that I have more work to do before I can make peace with the way we lost her. It’s about forgiveness yet again, which seems to be a rather persistent reoccurring theme for me. I have to find it in my heart to forgive Michele for what might have been a choice that night, forgive the people who helped drive her to her addictions in the first place, and forgive myself for feeling as though I failed her when it counted most.
Beneath the anger, there’s a very real fear, as well, that comes from living with a recovering addict, knowing that her potential relapse could end in the way it did for our friend. I believe in my wife’s resolve, in the strength she has displayed in her hard-fought battle with addiction’s demons, and in the courage she exhibits in each and every day of her sober life. I also know, all too well, the reality of relapse and all that it can mean. It’s a call to remain vigilant for us both, learning how to allow enough of the fear in to prod and motivate, but not so much as to paralyze and destroy.
I don’t know what it would have taken to prevent our friend’s death or the death of my acquaintance’s spouse. I’m still not even sure how to classify the loss of Michele, whether it was something careless and accidental, or possibly something more deliberate. It won’t change anything, I realize, but I can’t help but wonder if this grief roadblock is related to the nagging feeling of this unanswered question.
We don’t talk about suicide a lot in this country, nor do we do a good job of talking about the things that are typically related to it… depression, substance abuse, mental health issues, or how we deal with life’s major stress events. The truth is that suicide is the eleventh most common cause of death in the United States and the third leading cause of death among teenagers.
Let the gravity of that really sink in for a moment.
I fully believe that there can be power in awareness and in community. To that end, I want to share some information with you about an organization called To Write Love on Her Arms. TWLOHA is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. If you’re not familiar with TWLOHA or know someone who might benefit, please spend a few moments on their website, at www.twloha.com.
Their vision is a simple lesson for us all: You are not alone, and this is not the end of your story.