My Mom’s Path to Suicide: Battling the Darkness in a Broken System
Reading Time: 11 minutes
Anthony Bourdain is dead. Kate Spade is dead. My mom is dead.
The voice that persuades people that they have nothing to live for.
Not their kids. Not their parents. Not their friends. Not their partner. Not their work. Not their unrealized dreams. Not the giggle of a child. Not one more sunset.
This is a big problem.
In the United States, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death. It kills someone every 12 minutes. It would kill hundreds of thousands more, but only 1 in every 25 suicide attempts lead to death.
A broken system offering addictive pharmaceuticals, outdated and inconsistent therapy practices, and understaffed hospitals with mediocre care.
The darkness is a potent poison with painful consequences.
I watched my mom’s descent into the darkness. The end was particularly miserable.
Hoping for a quick exit into the afterlife, she took a lethal dose of one of her medications. My grandma found her unconscious and called 911. She was resuscitated multiple times, and after 10 days of life-saving tactics, she woke up in a hospital attached to a playground of tubes.
The ventilator prevented her from speaking, but her eyes screamed with fear, anger, and pain.
She feared that her assault on the darkness had failed. She was angry with the tubes keeping her from where she wanted to go. She was pained by a set of failing lungs and by watching her only son crumble and release a flood of soul-deepening sobs for the first time in a decade.
But one emotion my mom didn’t show was regret. She didn’t regret putting a dagger in the heart of the darkness. After years of struggling, she was tired. The system and society offered no more hope. She battled hard. This was David vs. Goliath, and she wanted Goliath to win this one. And Goliath was going to win.
Her body was severely damaged by the overdose, and after 4 weeks of care, the doctors removed the ventilator that kept my mom alive. I sat by her bed not knowing whether she would survive for a few minutes or a few weeks. It ended up being an agonizing 48 hours.
I watched her struggle to breathe as her stiffened lungs failed to perform the job that they had done for the past 49 years. I watched her body relax and settle into a morphine-induced trance. I held her hand as she took her last breath. She fluttered her eyes to take one last look at the world and the son she had given birth to exactly 25 years earlier.
When she passed, I felt a surprisingly wave of relief. I knew that the darkness was not going to torture my mom for even one more second. And despite how exhausted and broken I felt, that gave me peace.
My mom’s story is complicated, and my understanding of the events that transpired is certainly incomplete and biased. But when I reflect on her descent into the darkness, I can’t deny the role of the system designed to help her.
Biochemistry and life events played an indisputable role in my mom’s path to suicide, but the system put the nail in her coffin.
Descent into the darkness
My mom had a hard life. She was abused. She was bullied. She was raped. Her biological father committed suicide. But like so many people who confront the inevitable tragedy and malevolence of life, she found a way to move forward. She found the strength and courage to pursue a meaningful life despite her painful experiences.
At 24 years of age, my mom brought me into the world. She raised me as a single mom after my biological father disappeared to answer his muse – the pathetic and immature cocktail of drugs, alcohol, and gambling.
Growing up, we didn’t have the most comfortable life. Financial instability, scummy boyfriends, and frequent moves were our reality. But we were a team. We had each other. And while my mom had her ups and downs, the darkness had no chance of consuming her. It couldn’t. I needed her, and she wasn’t going to leave me. Not yet.
The situation changed when I left for college to live my Ivy League dream. The pangs of my mom’s difficult past resurfaced, and the darkness took the opportunity to capitalize on her vulnerability.
And shortly after I left, the cycle of hell began.
Looking for an answer to her loneliness and depression, my mom visited a psychiatrist. He prescribed her pharmaceuticals. The medication had unbearable side effects, and they didn’t solve the meaning void that my absence created. So she went back, and he adjusted her medication.
In her nearly decade-long battle with the darkness, my mom’s medication was changed 25+ times by dozens of doctors. None of these doctors had a complete understanding of her story, and even if they cared enough to find out, they didn’t have the time or energy to do so.
So instead, my mom became a guinea pig in the system’s fragmented laboratories of magical pharmaceutical solutions.
These solutions undeniably help many people battle with the darkness, but in my mom’s case, they were perpetrators of her decline. While they helped her at times, they were more reliable providers of false hope and debilitating side effects.
Seeking a better answer than pills that numbed her senses, facilitated weight gain, and created sleepless nights, my mom started seeing a therapist.
She saw many therapists. I wasn’t in the room for these sessions, but from what I could gather, these therapists focused on her past. Instead of addressing the lack of meaning in my mom’s life, they dug up the demons and forced her to look them in the face. And rather than enable her to reframe or accept the past, their approach amplified its power on my mom’s present life.
There are many good therapists in the world, but my mom did not meet them. And while the medications and therapy helped her get through my first semester of college, they were no match for the darkness.
The darkness is a powerful and persistent motherfucker.
Suicidal thoughts and the Baker Act
After facing the darkness for months, the suicidal whispers began. Those whispers quickly became screams, and unlike many who face these frightening encounters with the darkness, my mom courageously voiced them.
In the State of Florida (where my mom lived), there is the Baker Act. Under the Baker Act, if you are suicidal, you can be involuntarily detained in a psychiatric unit until you’re examined and deemed ready to be released back into society.
In theory, the Baker Act protects and helps you. You’re taken away from sharp objects and ropes. Your medication is adjusted. You speak with trained professionals. You participate in group activities.
But the ideals of a theory don’t always play out so well in practice. While the Baker Act certainly helps some individuals, it’s a band-aid solution with unintended consequences.
When my mom voiced her suicidal thoughts, she was institutionalized under the Baker Act. After that first instance, her situation became progressively worse.
The cycle of hell hastened, and my mom was left holding on with one finger to the pendulum of darkness.
For years, she rotated in and out of hospitals. She saw dozens of doctors and therapists. She received electroshock therapy multiple times. She went to support groups. She fought every single day.
There were times when she cried on the couch all day. There were times when she got angry and lashed out. There were times when she paced uncontrollably. There were times where she could barely look at me because she was so embarrassed about her condition.
It was miserable to see. When I came home from college, I visited her in the hospitals. I tried to help her find hope and convince her that suicide was not the answer. Sometimes we had a conversation. Sometimes we sat in silence. Other times, she was so lost in the sea of darkness that we couldn’t communicate.
I saw firsthand what the system looks like, and it’s not encouraging. The units are understaffed. Patients are treated like animals. Medication is handed out like candy. And where there should be compassion, there is resentment. The staff will tranquilize (and sometimes) abuse patients if they are not cooperative.
During her last year of life, my mom had such a horrible experience in one of these hospitals that she committed to never going back.
Meaning in a sea of darkness
On Christmas Eve in 2016, I visited my mom in a hospital 2 hours away from our home.
I had been traveling through South America for the past few months and thinking a lot about my mom. I hated seeing her suffer, and I was frustrated by my inability to help her. And a month before I visited her, the universe connected the dots for me.
In my own attempt to grapple with the existential palpitations of life, I stumbled across the work of Viktor Frankl through his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who spent years suffering from extreme hunger, brutality, and cold in Nazi concentration camps. His wife, mother, father, and brother died in the camps.
But despite this tragic and dehumanizing experience, Frankl emerged as an optimist. He went on to found logotherapy, a leading school of psychotherapy based on the idea that humans are motivated by the search for meaning.
Meaning helped Frankl survive the camps. His desire to rewrite a manuscript that had been taken from him gave his life meaning. And that meaning gave him a will to live.
Frankl’s story and the premise of logotherapy struck a chord. It formed the foundation for my belief that meaning is what moves us forward, particularly when we face the inevitable tragedy, malevolence, and existential concerns of life.
Frankl made me realize that what my mom lacked was meaning.
For the first 18 years of my life, she invested all of her time and energy into preparing me to take on the world. I was her primary source of meaning. I was her force field against the darkness. But when I left for college, I unintentionally took her purpose away. And she didn’t have a stable career or a supportive group of friends to help her rebuild the foundation.
My mom lacked meaning, and that existential void tore her soul to shreds.
Pharmaceuticals and past-focused therapy couldn’t solve this problem. Before reading Frankl’s book, I didn’t realize any of this. I was just a kid trying to escape poverty and pave his path in the world. I hadn’t studied psychotherapy. I hadn’t faced the darkness myself.
I trusted the system to help my mom, and that was a mistake.
So when I visited my mom on Christmas Eve in 2016, I wanted to share my theory and help her find meaning again.
We sat in an empty conference room with a few markers and a blank notebook. Transitioning from son to untrained psychologist, I told my mom that we were going to figure this out together. I knew that she wanted to get out of the broken system and return to the joy of her earlier life.
I explained my growing belief in logotherapy. I told her how my departure created a void of meaning and how I believed that the people who were “responsible” for helping her had seemed to overlook this vital part of the story.
For the first time in years, I saw the gears turning in her mind. She understood what I was talking about, and she believed it. We spent a few hours developing her map of meaning. Once we finished, she committed to following the plan.
When I left that night, I stopped by a Red Lobster in an unfamiliar town for a solo dinner. As I sat there watching a bickering family fail to appreciate the opportunity to eat dinner together, I felt an unusual sense of hope.
I knew that my mom and I had developed her best shot at tackling the darkness.
The final battle
For the next 9 months, my mom followed our map of meaning. It was her blueprint for an independent and fulfilling future.
She got out of the hospital. She built a support network. She found temporary jobs. She set small daily goals. She avoided drugs and alcohol. She was doing it. And when the darkness came knocking, she looked at our plan. It was fuel to keep her going. I was so proud of her.
But after so many years of battling the darkness, my mom struggled to fully re-establish herself into society.
Electroshock therapy had damaged her short-term memory. Years of instability led to burned bridges with former friends and colleagues. Medications made it hard for her to focus.
She worked tirelessly to overcome these challenges and pursue a path of meaning, but eventually, she felt herself slipping again. She anticipated what was coming next – the struggle to get out of bed, paralyzing fear and anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. She knew that going down this path would lead her to the hospital that she committed to never returning to again.
So instead of engaging in another institutional battle with the darkness, she kept her promise of never going back.
She decided to end the war on November 30th. As I woke up in a small bed in Indonesia after a 48 hour battle with a gastrointestinal illness, I received a text from my mom,
“I love you with all my heart and soul.”
Minutes later, my grandma called. My mom had consumed a lethal dose of one of the prescriptions designed to help her. Her heart had stopped multiple times. It didn’t look like she was going to make it. I rode a scooter to the ocean, my mom’s favorite place, and let the waves guide my entrance into a world without my mom.
Her 30 day battle with death ensued, and death won. Her body was damaged by the overdose, and I lost my mom.
As I wrote her eulogy in the weeks after her death, I looked back at our hand-drawn map of meaning. She kept it in her bedroom. Tears flowed.
I remembered that Christmas Eve. I remembered the hope that entered her eyes for the first time in 5 years. I wished that we had come up with that plan 5 years before and that someone would have realized that pharmaceuticals and past-focused therapy were not enough for my mom. But they didn’t.
I was left wondering how we better equip people to face the darkness.
Waging war against the darkness
If the darkness hasn’t touched you, your family, or someone close to you, it’s challenging to understand.
The darkness is born in the mind. And like cancer, it spreads if left untreated. When it spreads, it’s an all-consuming menace. It sticks a dagger in your soul. It numbs your heart. It convinces you that there is absolutely nothing to live for.
The darkness sits within all of us. No one is immune to its immense power and persuasion. To think otherwise is dangerous.
Because the darkness is a clever, conniving creature. It’s immune to reason. It doesn’t respond to rational thought. It strikes when you are most vulnerable, and it’s unrelenting.
And while we successfully help many people fight the darkness, the 40,000 yearly suicides and widespread depression signal that we still have work to do.
What’s alarming about suicide is that unlike the other top killers – heart disease, cancer, stroke, etc. – it’s is a choice. Suicide is something that an individual decides to do.
Suicide is a judgment that life is not worth living.
It’s an assault on the premise of life, and it’s damage extends beyond the thousands of people that die from it each year.
Suicide leaves spouses without their partners. It leaves children without their parents. It leaves parents without their children. It leaves friends without their mates.
Each suicide creates an explosion of soul-penetrating pain and regret for those who knew the person. The pain is uniquely personal and piercing. I lost a good friend and mentor to cardiac arrest, and while that was immensely difficult, it paled in comparison to the dagger that suicide delivers to your soul.
We need to find an antidote to this poison.
Our current approach is insufficient – and without action – the problem will grow. Because despite living in the most prosperous and interconnected time in history, the darkness is thriving. People are anxious, depressed, and lonely.
And our default response for those who find the courage to talk about their struggle is to pump them with pharmaceutical solutions. By the time my mom took her life, she had been on dozens of medications. She could have run a pharmacy out of her bedroom. That’s not okay.
The pills don’t work for everyone, and they certainly don’t solve the existential vacuum of our increasingly secular and comfortable modern world.
To win against the darkness, we need to wage a coordinated and thoughtful war.
We need to approach the issue as a team. We need psychiatrists, therapists, families, individuals, and society working together. The darkness is too clever, intense, and complex for any of us to face alone.
The solution begins with creating a society in which we can safely and comfortably discuss our struggles. With more openness, people will see that they are not the only ones who are struggling. More bright minds will focus on finding solutions. And the stigmas associated with the darkness will lose their power.
To struggle is human, not a weakness.
When we bring the darkness to light, it will slowly fade.
If we keep it under the covers, it will thrive and grow. It will continue terrorizing millions of people. It will continue killing parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. It will continue leaving loved ones behind with immense regret and sadness.
That’s not a reality that we should be willing to accept.
Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and my mom are all dead.
We failed them. The darkness won. But while the darkness won the battle, we can win the war.
We must win the war.
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