My father committed suicide. He took with him a healthy body but a diseased mind. A mind that was under the command of manic-depression. It was classic: Cycles of euphoria then depths of despair, often coupled with psychosis and suicidal ideation.
While young, my sisters and I did not see any signs of his illness, nor did my mother. The illness followed the usual pattern but with one exception: it manifested itself in his 50’s, atypical for manic-depression. The late arrival of the disease allowed him decades of a happy, healthy life. The decade of struggle—when he lost the clarity and calmness—was an eternity of hell.
During the rough years, my mother was alone with him. With my mother, he could often mask his illness. On visits back home, we saw glimpses of his illness. Odd comments, rapid speech and moments of complete silence. When things became worse, I accompanied my mother to pick him up from a mental hospital. This was the first time I saw the ravages of mental illness. He walked out a free man, free from the straight-jacket that kept a tight hold on him to protect him from himself. I saw a gaunt man, an empty shell. No more husband, father, grandfather, college professor, brother, friend.
Lithium brought him back to life and he was the person I knew him to be for most my life. But, like many people with the disease, he went off his medication because he felt better. And for some reason, the illness remained at bay for a few years furthering his belief that he didn’t need medication. We were all hopeful.
But it came back stronger than before. The highs and lows returned, the suicidal ideation danced around in his head. No words could calm and harness the suicidal mind. Like most people who have suicidal ideation, such thoughts of death bring about great comfort and relief; suicide will end the suffering. Unbeknownst to my mother, he was having episodes of psychosis; he was detached from reality but aware enough to know how to end the pain.
It happened in April. My mother knew something was gravely wrong. He wasn’t sleeping so she gave him sleep medication that worked for most of the night. In the morning he woke up, gave my mom an odd look with glossy eyes; almost as if he didn’t recognize her. He brushed his teeth, got dressed and went outside. Within minutes, he disappeared.
My mother looked everywhere for him and couldn’t find him. Friends were called and they formed a search party but still could not locate him. Hours later he was found by helicopter. He was lying in a ditch in a heavily wooded area on a neighbor’s property. His wounds were numerous and deep. The official report stated that he had bled to death. I understand what he did: he tried cutting away the pain.
A friend of my mother’s was tasked with making the dreadful calls. At first I didn’t believe her, I kept asking, “Are you sure, Are you sure?” I felt like I was having an out of body experience, the world spun, and I was numb. The trip home was hell. Too many flights, car rides; it felt like an eternity.
Walking into the house was awful. People were crying, my little three-year-old nephew was running around looking for “papa”—his grandfather. It was a true nightmare, I was crawling out of my skin, and I just didn’t see a way to stop the pain.
After his death, I was comforted by Kay Redfield Jamison’s books: “An Unquiet Mind,” “Touched with Fire,” and “Night Falls Fast.” In “An Unquiet Mind,” she eloquently describes her own experience with Manic-Depression (a term she prefers over bi-polar). Her novels address the stigma of mental illness. To me, to call people who commit suicide selfish is a cliché, a rote response spoken out of a narrative of blame. To this day—21 years later—I still get defensive; it’s a “raw” spot I carry.
Within weeks of his death, I felt the need to make an appointment with a psychiatrist for the sole purpose of understanding what happened. He told me that an un-medicated mind like my father’s is like a stream with rocks; the more episodes you have is like removing rocks from the stream. The water then goes faster and faster to the point where stopping it becomes very difficult. It’s hard to explain why this helped me cope; I think it took away the guilt. Perhaps there was nothing that could have stopped him. This brought great comfort.
My family has coped well. It helps that we all live in Texas and are close to each other. Even though it has been two decades the sensitivity is still there. A woman once told me that losing someone is like a scar: it never quite heals and is always sensitive to the touch. I think this best describes the pain I have experienced.
Editor’s Note: One of Kara’s father’s favorite prayers was the St. Francis Prayer.
Kara Paige is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. As a child, she was fortunate to have lived in Nepal and India and as an adult, in Thailand and Egypt. It is through her international experiences that she developed an interest in looking at the world through the lens of sociology. In her classes, she stresses the importance of critical thinking and investigating topics from multiple perspectives.
In August 2004 she traveled as an “observer” with the Gandhi Tour to Israel/Palestine in an attempt to gather information about the region. She returned again in March 2005 to follow-up on some unanswered questions and was accompanied by two Northwest Vista College students. Upon returning from the Middle East, Ms. Paige received a grant to develop a unit of study on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which she has implemented in her Sociology and Humanities courses.
She currently is in the process of developing a unit of study on mental illness. Not only will it be informative to her students taking social problems, but will attempt to try and end the stigma that still accompanies mental illness.
Images: Kara’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Paige, Kara, as a child, as an adult, with her son, and with her husband, Gerard.