Brightest Lights During The Darkest Times

NOTE: This blog isn’t being written, or even approached, with journalistic structure or professionalism in mind. The topic is suicide: awareness and (hopefully) avoidance or reduction. The statistics and data listed are gleaned from various sources and listed at the end. The rest of this is the result of input and comment from family, friends and coworkers along with a huge subjective filter that runs from my brain to my fingers – with a detour through my heart. It’s my hope – throughout the process of researching, gathering comments, collating and writing all of this – that it has some positive impact on the readers. I hate to think it, but some of the readers may be in a dark place and contemplating suicide to resolve their problem(s). Other readers may know someone who is thinking about committing suicide (statistically speaking, that’s almost guaranteed).  HOPEFULLY, some of this… any part of it, will help.  Last item: Some of this, because so much of it is just my articulated outlook, might aggravate you, anger you or insult you. None of that is my intent and I beg you to continue reading past anything that you don’t like to see if I suitably explain myself.

Part One: Background

Part Two: Suicide in the United States

Part Three: Bright Lights in the Darkest Times

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Background

As a police officer with more than thirty years of experience, I can honestly say I’ve seen a few suicides. While I’ve not seen one committed in my presence (thank God), I’ve certainly written reports on the scene after the fact.  I’ve also talked quite a few people (several dozen?) out of committing suicide. For all that, suicide as an action never really had much of an impact on my life.  It’s not for lack of exposure to it.

When I was in my late teens / early twenties, a relative of mine tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists. It wasn’t a poor attempt just to get attention – although I do believe it was mostly about attention. That said, the arterial spray on the bedroom walls indicated that if proper action hadn’t been immediately taken, her “attempt” may have been successful. The question I would have had at that point – and likely for the remainder of my life – would have been: was that her INTENT?

You see, in a great many of the suicide scenes I had to write reports on, it was not the intent of the dead person to commit suicide. A great many of them were accidental. While I feel the same level of sympathy for the surviving family members and friends, I don’t feel the same wonderment as to why the person committed suicide. They didn’t mean to. It was an accident.

And in some cases of suicide I certainly understood the dead person’s rational in committing the act.  As an example: The elderly gentleman (late ‘80s) who had lived a full life (according to his suicide note), but at the time of his suicide had been battling cancer for the better part of two years and was slowly losing the battle. He was tired of the fight; tired of seeing his family pitying him; and tired of causing them anguish. He was even careful how he killed himself so that they could have an open casket funeral. His suicide note was very clear in his explanation and although he articulated his intent to save his family any further suffering, he clearly acknowledged that he knew they would suffer as a result of his suicide. He apologized for that – but felt it was the lesser of two evils as far as the potential suffering looking forward was concerned.

His suicide at least made some sense to me. At least he wasn’t crying out for attention or trying to create a pity party with some “botched” attempt. He was clear headed, and executed a carefully planned suicide to, as he saw it, the benefit of himself and his family. I understood that.

Keep all that in mind for this next part. I had seen suicide attempts as a cry for help or an expression of a need for attention. I had seen suicide as an accident. I had seen suicide, on very rare occasion, as a carefully planned and reasoned action (maybe two or three times in thirty years.)

In large part, the people who had committed suicide, where I’d responded to the scene, had done so due to a loss of hope or a sense of defeat related to three things: relationships, finances or work conditions. Let’s talk about those a bit.

It almost seems like a Hollywood cliché, but how many teenagers have we all heard about who are devastated over their most recent breakup? Hollywood has laughed at this and made movies about it (see the comedy Better Off Dead starring a very young John Cusack). Not to demean their relationship(s) in any way, but when you’re 30+ years old, the heart break of a 14-year-old just doesn’t seem as serious as your divorce was. Even in light of that, to the 14-year-old with the broken heart, romance and relationships can seem like a lost idea; never again to grace their life. What’s the point? Why go on living? No one wants to grow old alone, right? Fourteen year olds don’t even have a good concept of being autonomous yet, but they’re sure they don’t want to be. It’s the result of having so little life’s experience.

That outlook and experience isn’t restricted to teenagers. How many stories have we heard about couples who have been married for fifty plus years and when one of them dies the other dies within minutes, hours or days? We consider it romantic and feel so sad to see the couple die, yet we talk about how strong their love was that the second one to go died of a broken heart. If it’s possible to will one’s self to die, I believe that’s what happens. It’s not suicide, but it is (essentially) giving up on life; preferring death to life.

For all the ages in between, there have been people who committed suicide because they felt alone. Whether they were in a relationship or not, they didn’t feel connected; supported; cared for or appreciated or… something. In a crowded room full of their closest friends, they still felt alone. While that may well be the result of clinical depression or a mental/emotional instability (something we’ll discuss later), the end result is the same: they feel alone; just as the fourteen year old with the broken heart no one understands, or the 88 year old widow who just lost her husband of 70 years. They simply don’t see life as worth living without that ONE person in it.

What about finances; how much grief and aggravation does money, or the lack or mismanagement thereof, cause us? I’d say a lot. Financial challenges are often listed as one of the top three greatest causes of stress in contemporary life. It is also listed as one of the top three causes of divorce today. Certainly, some people don’t deal well with financial challenges. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the suicide rate spiked because of all the people who suddenly were either broke or heavily in debt. It’s an unfortunate reality of today’s world that you have to have money to live and the more of it you have, the more comfortably you can live. The downside is that a lot of people don’t ever plan to NOT have plenty of money once they have it and if they face unexpected financial strain it gets depressing, overwhelming, etc. They begin to feel like it’d be easier to die than to face their financial struggles.

And work conditions… Jobs are (obviously) so closely tied to finances that if a person is afraid of losing their job, gets a pay cut, has to compete to get a promotion… any of those things – then stress is increased. If someone loses their job, especially in an economy that was teetering on the edge of balance, finding a new one not only isn’t guaranteed but can be damned difficult for months at a time. Those months without income lead to serious financial difficulty. It’s a snowball effect that can overwhelm someone. I get that.

But for all that… no matter what has caused the distress, or emotional pain, or sense of loss… for all that, life is precious. EVERY day IS a new day and I’ve always been confused by people who gave up hope or had so little of it that the idea of committing suicide became more desirable than waking up the next morning. To make matters worse, we have seen celebrities – who we wouldn’t think have any relationship, financial or job problems – commit suicide for seemingly no reason at all.

My first recent history exposure to that was when Robin Williams committed suicide. I didn’t know much about the man beyond his acting and comedic career. As a general rule I ignore the mainstream media if they start talking about problems any celebrity has. Most of the time I see that as simple sensationalism, blowing something minor out of context to garner attention; which means ratings; which means inflated advertising dollars. So when Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, my first thought was, “Why would he do that? He has the world at his fingertips.” What no one knew until after the coroner’s report was that Williams was suffering with a form of dementia which had been previously misdiagnosed. With the discovery of that information, my outlook toward Mr. Williams’ suicide changed from, “Why would he do that? It makes no sense!” to, “I feel sorry for the man; suffering with (effectively) his own brain terrorizing him.” Suicide, at least, removed his suffering.

Most recently, and the event that sparked me to post a public comment on Facebook which resulted in some blowback that led me to this very article, was the suicide of Chester Bennington. With a wife and six children, the lead singer of Linkin Park, hung himself two months after his best friend’s suicide – also by hanging – on what would have been his best friend’s birthday. While Bennington had a previous history of drug abuse in his younger years, the coroner’s report cited nothing but alcohol in his system at the time of his suicide.

Once again, the outpouring of sympathy and statements of loss across social media were overwhelming. People who weren’t even fans of Linkin Park came out of the woodwork to post their condolences, sense of loss, fear for the condition of the world and how poor the world now was due to the loss of this great man. I honestly (and am somewhat ashamed of this now in hindsight) got tired of seeing so many people so devastated at the loss of a man very few (if any) of them knew. So you liked his music; cool. So he was a good singer; great. So he had made something of himself after challenges in his youth; fantastic! So… he couldn’t handle his grief and felt that in spite of having a wife and six children alongside a very successful music career his life was no longer worth living because of the suicide of his best friend?

That’s where I was in my head when I posted the following on Facebook (and if it angers you, I ask you to keep reading before you just close the page in frustration):

One day death will beat me, but LIFE never will. I have no sympathy for those who commit suicide and will not mourn their loss.

Yeah; I caught all holy hell from a few of my friends and family members for that post. It IS a very cold and calloused sounding statement. It also reads as a blanket statement about any and all suicides even though that wasn’t my intent. I DO feel that way about the majority of people who commit suicide. I apologize if that offends anyone, but as a friend of mine recently wrote in an email:

“When I am… surrounded by my wife and children at my funeral, when the people that matter the most are remembering the funny stories, or someone I helped comes to say something nice about me, or that I made a positive impact on them, that’s cool. Dying at your own hand isn’t. Personally, I think there’s a measure of cowardice in ending your own life, because it is a selfish act. You give consideration only to yourself and not even are thinking about the guilt, the devastating effects that a choice like that will have on the people that you matter to.”

After reading that from my friend, I had to agree. In considering how I felt about the act of suicide, I realized that I’ve always considered it a fairly selfish act that, except on very rare occasion, doesn’t take into consideration the impact it will have on others. THAT was the suicide I was talking about in my post. And the other motivation for my post was how many people seemed to want to understand and sympathize with a man’s suicide. It was as if they felt the need to glorify it if they could just find a way.

Why would anyone want to do that? Is that a coping mechanism? Glorify suicide? Are we collectively crazy? That was another motivator for my post: it bothered me deeply that anyone would glorify suicide. Praise someone for it? Feel empathetic about it? While I understand feeling bad or sorry for someone who chooses that path, I do not understand why anyone would think or say, “He was so brave to do that…”  Really? Bravery is continuing to face life and all its challenges.

My own personal outlook is that life is FAR too precious to willingly give it up, or actively take my own. But I will get into that farther down. For now, I think it’s time to move on to the data I’ve been able to glean about suicide, it’s cited causes and rates of occurrence.

Stand by for part two of this series…

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Suicide in the United States

According to the research I’ve been able to do, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States today. There are approximately 44,200 suicides per year and for every successful suicide, there are an estimated 25 attempts. Do the math: that means there are an approximate 1.1 million suicide attempts each year in our country. The research also revealed that men are three and a half times more likely to die by suicide than women and that Caucasian males account for roughly 70% of the suicides committed in 2015.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, suicide holds the following rankings as the cause of death in the specified age groups:

3rd leading cause of death for ages 10-14

2nd leading cause of death for ages 15-34

4th leading cause of death for ages 35-44

5th leading cause of death for ages 45-54

8th (or lower) cause of death for ages 55 and over.

If you take a look at those bits of information, I guess it’s no surprise that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for those in the 15-34 age group. Think about it – that’s when children are becoming young adults and having to learn how to handle their own lives and all the challenges that can come with it. They are then young adults who have to manage their own lives and not all of them have been properly reared or trained to do that. Becoming autonomous and independent isn’t something that you’re instantly capable of – it takes active parenting to create a successful autonomous adult. Then there are jobs to compete for, jobs to get, jobs to perform in, jobs to get laid off from and – sometimes – jobs to get fired from. None of that is stressful, right? None of that would strain finances or relationships – two of the things that we identified as major causes of suicidal behavior – right?

And is it any wonder that suicide drops in the rankings as a cause of death for those over 55? By then we’ve learned how precious life can be and how fleeting it is. We tend to appreciate each day more; find hope and beauty in things younger folks completely ignore and have learned to better manage whatever challenges come our way. Add that to the fact that as we get older there are more things that cause our death (due to aging, cancer, disease, etc) and it’s no wonder that suicide drops down that list.

The last data point I found, or made note of, was the risk rate based on race. If you look at the risk for suicide, American Indians/Alaskan Natives are at the top followed down the risk list (for males) by Caucasians, Hispanics, Blacks, Pacific Islanders and Asians. For females the list goes in the same order except at the bottom where Asian or Pacific Islander women are more likely to commit suicide than black women.

Go back and read that information about how many suicides are committed each year and how many are ATTEMPTED. With over one million people a year trying to kill themselves, wouldn’t you think this would be getting more attention? And wouldn’t you think that in the year 2017 we, as a society, would have a better way of recognizing those who might be suicidal and better systems in place to help them? Prevent them? Give them hope?

Now, before I move on, I want to talk about police and military suicides for a moment. I’ve seen many advertisements and public notices about the (on average) 22 military veterans who commit suicide each day. That’s (on average) 8,030 per year. While many folks get moved by the 22-per-day number, it takes on a different meaning, and gives it different weight, when you look at the over-8,000-per-year number. That’s a big number. There are towns in our country that don’t have a population of 8,000. There are small cities that don’t have a population of 8,000.  Think about that. Let that sink in. A small city’s worth of people commit suicide each year. 8,030 veterans on average.

Let’s be clear though: that’s not 8,030 MORE added to the national statistics. That’s 8,030 OF the national statistics. I’m not sure that makes it better. That means that veterans make up roughly 18% – nearly one fifth – of all suicides committed in the United States each year. That kind of explains two of the data pieces I was able to glean from my research. If such a large percentage of suicides are military veterans, then it’s no surprise that 70% of them are Caucasian (the largest demographic in our military) and that it’s the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15-34. After all, many of those veterans aren’t retired veterans; they are people who served their term of service and then got out. That means they could have gotten out somewhere between the ages of 21-24 (on average) and then have to cope with everything they saw, did and experienced during their military service time. If it takes a couple years to catch up to them; to become more than they can manage, it puts them in their mid-to-late twenties when they take their own life.

That’s the military side. What about police suicides? First off, recognize that a large portion of law enforcement professionals are also military veterans. That should be no surprise. These folks are driven to serve and comfortable in the military / para-military structure of the work. Second, there is some correlation between the jobs the two different professions do. There’s a reason so many military deployments are part of a “police action.” The risk is real. The job requires facing that risk and managing it while you attain a goal. The goal is either keeping the peace or enforcement of some kind.

On average, the United States loses a law enforcement professional to duty death (killed in the line of duty) at the rate of (roughly) one every other day. That’s about 180 deaths per year although for the past few years we’ve been a bit below that.  That’s a good thing. One line of duty death in a year is one too many, but they aren’t all avoidable and, as mentioned above, risk is part of the job.  Minimizing it and managing it are also part of the job.

But we’re also losing more than one hundred officers per year to suicide. The cause… what drives those officers to take their own lives may or may not be work related, but we still lose them. The Thin Blue Line gets even thinner for their loss and we all – the family of law enforcement – feel the loss of a family member. From the website, Badge of Life (BOL), which has been performing an on-going study of police suicide, we lost the following numbers of officers per year to suicide:

  • 2008 – 141 suicides
  • 2009 – 143 suicides
  • 2012 – 126 suicides
  • 2016 – 108 suicides

While the numbers appear to be coming down, just like with line of duty deaths, one is too many. There has been much debate about those numbers as well. Some other websites and/or organization report numbers as high as 500 per year for police suicides. The BOL study applied more control and data confirmation to their study to reach the number for 2008 and has continued to use those same controls for each of the follow on years that they published numbers.

If you take a look at the 2008 number though – 141 – that equals 17 suicides per 100,000 officers. Compare that to the national average of 13 suicides per 100,000 individuals. Look again. Let it sink in. Police officers… law enforcement professionals are 30% more likely to commit suicide that the “average” person… at least in 2008. Using the 2016 number of 108 suicides, which is 23.5% lower than it was in 2008, the rate is 13 per 100,000 officers – or about the same as the national average.

Have we lowered that number by detecting those at risk and giving them better support / assistance? Have we been teaching better stress management techniques? Has an increased level of professional solidarity in the face of an antagonistic media industry made us stronger? More aware of each other’s needs?  We may never know the answer, but it is a good thing when our loss is reduced.

Pondering that data and all of the foregoing, made me wonder what keeps some people from committing suicide. If our numbers in law enforcement are going down, that’s good – but what can we do to bring them down further? If our numbers as a nation are going up, what can we do to slow and reverse that trend? What is it that makes some people – who are in a really bad place in their mind and heart – stop and think in a positive fashion about life?

That question gave me pause. We’ve all been in the dark places. Everyone I know has had some period of their life where it wasn’t peaches and cream. In fact, it was a sh*t sandwich without the bread and they were trying to figure out what the reason was for going on. I’ve been there. Haven’t we all? When you wonder just how much worse it can get, IF it can get any worse at all… and wondered what the point was of keeping on? Why keep fighting? Why not just give up?  There are reasons…

My company CEO was nice enough to send out a companywide email and ask that very question: when you’re really feeling down, what is it that brings you back up? What keeps you positive? What puts a smile on your face? What helps ease the pain? (Quite a few folks named various types of alcoholic drinks in joking response. That was NOT what I was looking for!)

Stand by for part three of this series…

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Bright Lights in the Darkest Times

In response to my email request, after all the joking alcohol replies, the number one reason to smile I got back from people was family. Whether it was in the form of their children, grandchildren, spouse, cousins, grandparents, etc., the answer was loud and clear. “My family is my number one blessing and any time I’m feeling down I simply go and enjoy them.”  “My main and number one blessing is my children.” “The light in my life, when everything else seems down, are my boys!”

Those are a few examples of the “family” responses I received. Those were from folks who still have a lot of life left to live; folks primarily in their 30s and 40s. Then there was this one from a gentleman in his 60s: “I guess for me, family is what makes me happy and keeps such negative thought from entering my mind.” Prior to that statement, he’d commented that he’s lived a beautiful life and considers himself very lucky. Like me, he doesn’t understand how those who are feeling down can’t find SOMETHING in their life to make it worthwhile.

As a sort of extension of the “family” response was the “my pets” response. “When I’m having a bad day all it takes is my dog to turn it around, or at least to make me feel better.” “At least I have my health, a family and my animals that love me.” I once heard heaven described as, “the place where when you go there, every dog you’ve ever owned is waiting for you.” Knowing how happy our dog is to see me when I get home always puts a smile on my face. As one reader asked, “Why you committed suicide might be explained to people, but your animals will never understand it. They’ll just miss you and their quality of life will be reduced.”

I find it interesting that only one response cited faith or religion as helpful, and one other essentially cited philosophy. “I won’t cite scripture here but there are countless verses in regards to finding the positive side of life, overcoming depression, addictions, life struggles, diseases, etc.  I know that you may or may not share the same faith, but faith in general has to be one of the absolute best avenues for a person going through hard times to explore.” Faith brings a lot of people through hard times and it should. If your faith doesn’t support you through hard times, it’s either insufficient or misguided. While I’m not an overly religious person myself (I believe there’s a difference between spiritual and religious), I do see the wisdom in the Serenity Prayer. For those of you not familiar, here ya’ go:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

That first line – whether you are praying, addressing your thoughts to God, or not… that first line is a lesson that many of us still need to learn and remember: to accept with serenity the things we cannot change. “With serenity” means without worry; without stress; without fret. It means to accept these things in an emotionally calm and mentally peaceful fashion. If we could all learn and remember that ONE lesson, the need for blood pressure medication in the United States would drop 90% (I’m guessing) and alcohol sales would drop pretty steeply as well (also guessing).

And then, “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that hard times are part of life’s equation, just like the good times, and sometimes the bad times seem to outweigh all the good memories. When I find myself in trying times, I tell myself “This too shall pass,” as I pump myself up that it’s ‘only a moment in time’ and it will get better. Everything that happens, good or bad, there’s a lesson involved.”

That is simply an outlook; a philosophy of life; a way of looking at things and seeing them as not so bad as they might originally seem. One of my favorite sayings is, “Without the bad times we’d have no appreciation for the good times.” Opposing conditions definitely help us to appreciate whichever side is more preferable. If we didn’t know pain, could we appreciate pleasure? If we didn’t know hunger, could we appreciate a good meal? If we didn’t know thirst, could we appreciate a drink? If we never grew tired, would we ever enjoy a good night’s sleep? Odd questions, yes, but demonstrative. The philosophical question is, does one have to experience loss and suffering to appreciate blessings?  Yes… and no.

Sometimes appreciating something beautiful is simply a matter of taking the moment to do so; of teaching yourself to appreciate that beauty and acknowledge it in your day. Sometimes, being positive really is just a matter of outlook and choice. Not all the times… but sometimes.

Surprisingly to me, music was another often repeated answer as to what will cheer a person up. I guess this makes sense. I know I have a bunch of favorite songs that just hearing them will brighten my day. I’ve pondered this and decided it’s because of what that song connects to for me. Was it the song my wife and I first danced to at our wedding reception? Was it the song being played in a movie when humans kicked the crap out of invading aliens? Is it a song that makes me think of my kids playing in mud puddles when they were of an age to do so? The music may not necessarily brighten my day, but the memories and attached feelings can be inspired by the music I hear.

For all of that, one response was quite interesting to me: “I’ve always looked at life different than my peers. I don’t find solace in a religion, children or family. I find comfort in experiencing life through the lens of science and mathematics, asking questions and finding wonderment in the way everything fits together.” The part of that statement that really catches my attention is “…finding wonderment in the way…”  Finding wonderment. Dictionary.com defines wonderment as “a cause or occasion of wonder.” It defines wonder as “to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe.” What better to help improve your mood or distract you from negativity than to be filled with admiration, amazement or awe?  That’s cool even if you’re having a great day!

Interestingly enough, “outlook” or “attitude” were often cited as what was most in need of adjustment if someone was feeling depressed. Setting aside the reality of imbalanced brain chemistry, it really can be as simple as deciding to look at things differently and not being so down. Most of my coworkers, after asking me what kind of day I’m having, have heard me reply, “Well, no one is trying to shoot me or stab me today, so it’s a good day.”  While that may seem a silly response, after over thirty years in law enforcement, and having had days where someone did try to shoot me or stab me, it’s a pretty simple thing to say and think. I’ve had days that were a lot worse. That makes today a better day by comparison.

Now I’ll share two last thoughts with you that will also hopefully help if you’re ever having a bad day:

First: “Remember that your survival rate for bad days so far is 100%.” I shared that about two months ago with a friend who was going through a messy divorce and devastated by it. Just a couple weeks ago I saw him and asked him how things were going. His response was a big smile and a heartfelt, “Thank you!” He told me that every time he started to really feel down, he’d remind himself of that one simple truth and convince himself that he could easily keep that streak going. So far, his rate for surviving bad days is 100%. He doesn’t want that to change.

Second, when I was an 18 year old recruit in Army basic training, I remember standing in formation on a cold miserable rainy day in Alabama in late October. The Drill Sergeant heard all of us moaning and complaining and said, “Quit your bitching! You all woke up above dirt! You’re looking down at the daisies instead of up at their roots! So grab the day by the throat and make it yours!” What another amazingly simple outlook. I woke up alive instead of dead – which is the other option – so I should make the most of the day; whether the day likes it or not!

I share that… all of the foregoing… with you all in the hopes that it will be helpful to you when you’re not having a good day, or that you can share it with someone you know when they’re not having a good day. The obvious desired end result is to help people cope with a bad day or an ugly challenge so that rather than every considering the possibility of ending their own life, they live on to beat whatever is challenging them and move forward to accomplish goals they may not have even contemplated yet.

Thank you for your time in reading all that. Remember: you woke up above dirt; no one is trying to shoot or stab you today; you have had worse days before so by comparison today is an easy day! Make it the best day you can.

 

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