What I Learned About Suicide Contagion When My Friend Killed Himself

A very dear friend of mine died by suicide. We went to high school together and reconnected 20 years later when our kids played soccer together.

His wife is one of my closest friends and, while I knew he struggled with addiction, I never truly understood how deep his depression was. I have lived with severe depression all my life. I always say that it’s like a 100-lb. gorilla on my back, one that I carry with me no matter what I am doing.

This mental illness has been my constant companion, one that I have, with the help of therapy and medications, been able to keep at bay. That being said, in the week since my friend died, my depression has decided to take charge in a big way and for the first time, I understand what suicide contagion (or a suicide cluster, really is.) Suicide contagion is defined as “Multiple suicidal behaviors or suicides that fall within an accelerated time frame, and sometimes within a defined geographical area.”

Generally, they occur with adolescents but not always. The father of a Sandy Hook victim killed himself shortly after a Parkland survivor did the same. No one is immune to it, I have heard, but I certainly assumed I was. For as far back as I can remember, I have been depressed. I have carried with me a feeling of hopelessness and dread that was overwhelming. The prospect of going to school making friends or doing my homework filled me with such a sense of hopelessness that I used to obsess about no longer existing.

I didn’t want to kill myself but I also didn’t want to live. I had no idea that I was different from other people so I certainly never talked about it. I just went about living my life, suffering almost every minute. I carried my hopelessness, depression symptoms, and suicidal thoughts into high school and college, where I discovered boys, alcohol, and drugs as a great way to ease that sense of dread. By 24, I was a full-blown alcoholic — a high-functioning one — but one whose every day was exhausting because of what I carried with me.

When I had my kids, I stopped drinking and doing drugs but replaced that urge with being perfect — the perfect wife, mother, and employee. I worked very hard to be perfect so that I could numb the pain that was my life. And then one day, I couldn’t fight it anymore and I found myself in a closet, banging my head against a wall.

The next day I was diagnosed with BiPolar II Disorder — a chemical disorder of my brain that leads to long-term depression with little bleeps of hypomania (think about how you feel after that third cup of coffee). Since then, because of medication and therapy, I have been stable. My depression isn’t as debilitating as it was but I do still live with it every day. Every day. Since my friend died, my depression has reared its ugly head.

I have been having a hard time functioning, forming thoughts and getting them out of my mouth has been almost impossible, and having hope for the future is challenging. I think about my friend and how he has finally been freed from the 100-lb. gorilla he carried on his back for so long. And I wonder if he has found peace. I wonder if whatever is next is better than what is now. I know his life was horrible for him because not only was he depressed but he also struggled with addiction.

It was horrible enough that he was willing to leave behind his wife and kids and everyone who loved him. Where and how is he now? I wonder almost every minute of every day. And wanting to know is almost irresistible. So, why am I still here, writing this blog instead of going down that rabbit hole with him? For me, what I see more than anything is the wreckage that he has left behind.

My amazing friend, who I know loved her husband madly even in the face of his struggles, is devastated. I can’t even imagine what it was like telling her boys and how they are feeling in the world right now. All of us who loved him miss him terribly and always will. As my kids and I process this grief together, I know that no matter what kind of peace might wait for me somewhere else, what’s worse for me would be knowing that I was responsible for the 100-lb. gorilla I would probably be leaving for my kids and my friends and my amazing boyfriend.

This depression that has been my constant companion might seek out another person and most likely would choose one of the people I love. And that’s not okay. I have no judgment for my friend, only empathy and love and I will survive this struggle that I have with my presently powerful depression. But, now I know and understand why suicide contagion happens and I also understand why I won’t catch it.

And I will make it my life’s work to make sure that others understand it and don’t succumb to it themselves. Life is incredibly hard for those of us who live with depression and are feeling suicidal. You might even know that, personally. But for me, I would rather carry that gorilla, every day, and be able to protect my kids from its weight, than slip away into the oblivion that might be peace. Or it just might not be. Thank you for listening. With love.

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