I’ve heard those words uttered by people I care for, and I’ve always taken them seriously. For the most part, they are just words; something people say. But sometimes a person’s inner turmoil, life’s problems, and the inability to see a way out of whatever situation they find themselves in brings a ring of truth to the utterance.
Even so, there is a huge step between saying that and meaning it, and yet another huge step to act on it. On average, in the US roughly 34,000 people a year commit suicide. One of them affected our lives in June of this year.
A relative shot herself. Because of the circumstances my wife and I became involved in the aftermath, and hence we peripherally entered the world of those affected by a person’s decision to take their own life. We are still involved, helping the husband handle financial affairs, insurances, bills, etc.
In the course of doing so, we got to know much more about the victim than we knew before hand. In fact, before this, we did not know either of them very well. Our contacts were limited to the occasional phone call, and those conversations were limited to banalities and not the discussion of personal problem.
The lady in question worked for NASA for the past 30 years, writing code, training astronauts, and involved with payload delivery. By all evidence, she was a smart and competent person, so what went wrong?
Before I go into that, I want to state my feelings on the subject of suicide. I am a big believer people have the right to decide everything about their own lives, including when to end them. I am also big on responsibility and accountability. Those two things are at odds with each other because while a person certainly has the right to end their life, the circumstances usually make the act nothing more than a cowardly escape, an eschewing of responsibilities they didn’t want to face. Along with that, we often find betrayal and disregard for others.
Suicide sometimes is the “easy” way out for people who, be it for emotional, financial, or health reasons, find themselves in positions they consider at odds with continuing to live.
Unfortunately. they usually leave a tremendous mess, a world of hurt, and most of all, not only the original problems for the survivors to clean up, but a host of new problems. In that regards, I put responsibility, especially the responsibility to others, as trumping one’s right to call it quit. That easy exit is often a cowardly way out, not to mention extremely selfish.
I can cut some slack to people who are sick, especially if a chronic condition is lowering their quality of life close to nil. But even then, the way the decision is made and executed is often self-centered and devoid of concern for those around them.
Of course, there are those I wish would consider ending it all. Their departure from the world of the living would be a blessing to many around them. In one of the ironies of life, those folks are not typically given to suicidal thoughts.
So, which one was this? I wish she had left a note, an explanation which, while we still might not have understood, might have given us an inkling of underlying motives.
Instead, we were left with playing detectives. Based on everything I found, I can piece together some things which may add up to something of a reason. Not a sufficient reason for anyone of us, but sufficient for her.
First, there is the job. She was proud of what she did, and it was a large part of her identity. Yet in recent years the programs had been scaling back, and with the shuttle program ending, hers was one of the jobs slated for termination. Over the course of the last two years, she received a number of notices regarding job termination, all of which were later rescinded, often at the last moment. The last notice she received was not going to be rescinded. It was finally going to happen, and instead of retiring from the job, she would have to go out and find other employment.
Second, was her age and self-image. Some very nasty people she worked with had been relentlessly teasing her about her looks, and hinting she would not be able to find a job because of her age and weight. Yes, these were other adults. For whatever reason she didn’t want to involve Human Resources; she wanted to handle it on her own. Some of this we found in her journal. The detective investigating the suicide was appalled when he read her journal and did what she should have done; he made the personnel office aware of what had been going on.
Third, there were some personal issues, including menopause, and I won’t go into these other than to say they were insufficient in themselves to provoke her final act.
The above, singly or in aggregate, are not enough to think someone would be pushed to ending their life. But here’s where it gets both interesting and disturbing. As part of her effort to lose weight, she began to “research” alternative methods, both physical and mental; buying herbal and pharmaceutical pills aimed at weight loss, anti-aging, and general well-being. As part of wanting to control her life, she subscribed to sites promising the very control she was losing.
On the physical side, there were pills; Energy Stabilizer, AcaiBurn, Fenphedra, Fen-72, Lipovox, Stimerex-ES, are just some of the pills we found, along with herbal recipes and food supplements she would order from places promising weight loss and better health. Some of these are known to have a destabilizing influence on a person’s mental well-being.
On the mental side, she researched and bought into astrology. I can only guess, but probably in an effort to make sense and take control of events that slowly seemed to unravel her life and perhaps seeking assurances for the future. She bought personal readings and subscribed to weekly and monthly personal updates. She also got involved with The Tapping Solution, the Institute of Noetic Science, and other sites purporting to help one gain control of one’s life through the understanding of things beyond the physical.
I can’t prove their direct contribution, but I have read her last few readings and the personally prepared newsletters from these places, and there is little doubt in my mind they were contributing factors. While seemingly innocuous on their own, in the context of what was happening in her life they must have been mini-blows to her psyche. Never mind their assurances everything would work out through hard work, being strong, etc. etc. In the short term, they told her things would get worse.
There were other contributors. She was subscribed to newsletters aimed at predicting the coming end of the US, the coming economic chaos, and the advent of the fall of civilized society. The aggregate of her emails over the course of the last year paints a picture of a person slowly releasing her grip on the reasoned world in favor of a world populated by paranoia, promises of life-changing secrets, and assurances that improvement could be found in any number of chemical and herbal remedies.
Let me step back . . . she was a very capable person, and I could not believe what I was reading until I traced the transformation back through the course of a little over a year. I think her confidence in herself betrayed her; she surely thought she could discern fact from fiction, truth from lies, and to be capable of seeing through charlatans. And she might have had it been a full frontal assault. But all of it happened gradually, subtly. Each small step of acceptance made the next one easier, and she never looked back to see how far she had climbed up the delusion scale.
Had she looked back, had she confided in someone, had she sought a second opinion she might have been told she still had marketable skills. She would have been told there are better ways to lose weight. She would have been told there are no easy answers. She would have been told there are choices offering a path of survival; she might not have liked the choices but would have at least been aware of them.
In the first few days following her decision, her action made no sense. That was not the act of the person we knew. Only later did we realize it was the act of the person she had become. By far I blame the pills as likely amplifiers of her fears and anxieties. But all the other noise, call it garbage, likely helped pollute her reasoning mind to the point she saw her world ending, and had little to look forward to.
That she did not ask for help, I understand. In that regard, she was like me; I’ve never asked others for help in making sense of my life and the world that I live in. The major difference is that I am geared toward both self-checks and to solve problems, even when the solutions to the problems are difficult and painful. Most of all, I am geared to not alter my perception of the world in favor of the quick fix. Another major difference is the size of my ego. Teasing would do little to shake the confidence I have in myself. The opinion of others simply doesn’t enter into the equation when it comes to deciding who I should be.
I will never truly comprehend her decision, but I do not blame her or have any rancor toward her. The only thing I feel is extremely sad about is thinking how alone she must have felt in those last few moments. Likely that’s survivor’s remorse; me thinking I could have said something (had I known) to avert her actions. And yes, there is also a certain amount of ego in my part in thinking that I could have changed her mind, could have given her another path to follow.
There is no happy ending to this tale, no lesson to be learned . . . people’s lives, including ours, are still being affected, and will likely be so for a number of months if not years. Some of us will let this pass, and at some point in the future, it will be but a ripple in our lives. For others, the event will reverberate for many years to come.
As I mentioned above, there are many whose departure from the world of the living would significantly improve the quality of life of others. She was not one of them.
As the last chapter in this tale, her husband has asked me what I thought of an afterlife, a place where he might meet her again. I did not pull any punches, nor offer false comfort. I voiced what I am fairly certain of; she is gone. The ashes in the urn are all that remain. That, and the memories he carries. For that is something I do believe in; we live on only in the memory of the survivors, and she lives most vividly in his memories from the past 30 years.