After months of deteriorating mental health – and just one day after I’d left the Dana Point home we shared, fearing for my own safety – Bill walked onto the Metrolink tracks in Capistrano Beach and waited for XX tons of steel to kill him. And it did.
Had Bill died from an overdose of painkillers or a self-inflicted gunshot wound, perhaps my life would have taken a different trajectory – one of quiet grief accented with the frustrating and painful work of healing. But there was no hiding from Bill’s death. Not a single friend or family member – or local stranger, for that matter – didn’t know how and why Bill died. And as I picked up the broken shards of my once-happy life and marriage, I knew I could either die with Bill, or find a way to help this suffering stop.
For me, the grief of losing Bill will never leave. But in the wake of that grief – and in honor of the person he was – I’m committed to preventing this from happening to others – other wives, other parents, other caring friends and, most importantly, other Bills.
Through the wise and regretful lens of time, I now see that Bill’s suicide plans were plain – if not obvious. Today I live with the regret of failing to recognize the severity of these warning signs – hoping that you won’t do the same. For months, Bill quietly told me he was going to complete suicide. Here’s how:
He lost interest in things he once loved.
Bill wasn’t just a gym rat; he was a fitness fanatic. He competed in bodybuilding competitions across the country. He prioritized his workouts above everything else. But in the months and weeks before his suicide, Bill didn’t seem to care as much. When a friend canceled workout plans, he wouldn’t go to the gym on his own. His muscle-ripped, 250-pound frame began to shrink. He just didn’t seem to care as much.
He talked about death.
It was usually theoretical, almost like he was just making obligatory conversation, but Bill frequently, even daily, talked about death – mentioning deceased friends or family, stories from the news or even hypothetical scenarios about his own. I knew Bill was depressed, and while talk was morose, I assumed it was typical of someone with depression and anxiety. What I didn’t know is that it was a hallmark warning sign for suicide.
He was abusing substances.
Bill didn’t just abuse substances; he was completely dependent on them. After years of steroid use to help him excel in the competitive bodybuilding world, Bill “needed” a host of prescription painkillers, and anti-anxiety drugs to combat those side effects and cope with his deteriorating mental health. Sometimes, Bill would quit these cold-turkey, sending him into a spiral of withdrawal that seemed worse than the dependence. It was a cycle he could never seem to break.
His friends completed suicide.
Bill wasn’t a stranger to suicide. In fact, three of his friends had taken their own lives. One, a longtime friend from his bodybuilding days, reportedly shot himself. His trainer at the gym also shot himself. Another friend, a long-term member of the gym Bill and I owned together, set himself on fire and jumped off a bluff near our home – just two days after we’d seen him last. At the time, I had no idea that knowing people who complete suicide increased your risk for doing the same. Now I do.
He isolated himself.
He looked like the quintessential bodybuilder, but Bill was a big softie at heart. He loved people. He loved helping friends. He loved talking to strangers. He called his parents regularly. But before he died, Bill became quieter, more subdued. His happy, easygoing self was clouded with worry and sadness. Once, he disappeared for long enough that I called the police to report him missing. He returned, completely surprised by my panic, simply saying he just needed some time to think. As Bill cut himself off from the people he loved, it was a clear warning that he was in trouble.
He’d attempted it before.
When stood on those railroad tracks, Bill knew he wouldn’t survive the oncoming train. But it wasn’t the first time he’d reportedly harmed himself. Months before his death, I awoke to a suicide note – short and to the point – and panicked before hearing Bill in the shower. I ran into the bathroom and Bill told me he’d taken a whole bottle of sedatives the night before – which I couldn’t imagine was true since he was alive and well in front of me. I convinced him to go to the hospital, where he was placed on a three-day involuntary suicide watch, then released. While I still don’t know whether this was a cry for help or Bill actually intended to end his life, I begged him to let me get him help – which he did, for a while. Today, I can see that this act was an unmistakable red flag.
As Autumn approaches, two significant days loom in my near future. October 10 marks the seventh anniversary of Bill’s suicide – seven years I’ve replayed these warning signs in my head, wishing I’d recognized them for what they were.
In the meanwhile, National World Suicide Prevention Month is September – a month where we can work together to prevent more October 10ths. If someone you love is exhibiting warning signs for suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or call 911 for immediate help.
Despite what you’ve seen in the movies, there’s more to college than Greek Week and beer pong. In fact, “the best years of your life” (as so many college graduates like to say) can be tough on anyone. You’re juggling class schedules, homework, work, extracurricular activities like sports or music – all at a time when you’re (most likely) on your own for the first time. Sure, college life is exciting, but it can also be a really stressful and confusing time.
Ask anyone – or one out of five students, anyway. That’s how many college students suffer from anxiety or depression. As I’ve traveled the country speaking to teenage students, I’m often hit by the reality of how much you have on your plates – and how much you carry on your shoulders (and in your brains).
While bouts of anxiety or depression can be normal – like the anxiousness you feel prior to a test or try-outs, or the sadness you experience after a breakup – if these feelings are prolonged or become intense enough to interfere with your daily life, it’s time to get help.
Anxiety and depression are becoming much more commonplace on college campuses. But why is your demographic suffering so much? We can likely blame several factors –the loneliness and fear of being independent for the first time, pressure from parents, coaches and yourself to perform well, financial difficulties, romantic drama and bullying or peer pressure to name a few. Add to that the abundance of drugs and alcohol on college campuses and the fact that mental illness often manifests in adolescence and early adulthood and its easy to see why so many students struggle.
Does this sound familiar?
You could be juggling the stress of college beautifully. But don’t beat yourself up if you’re not. Either way, it’s critical to be open and honest with yourself about how you feel – and to ask for help when you need it.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms of anxiety disorders, it’s time to talk to a professional.
Anxiety can often go hand in hand with depression, but you can certainly experience one without the other. You may have depression if you recognize any of these symptoms:
Both depression and anxiety can be scary – on or off a college campus. That’s because mental illnesses, by definition, distort your thinking. They create a false reality in which you’re fearful, worthless, incapable and undeserving of all the good life has to offer. And when your own brain is telling you that, it’s really easy to believe it.
The good news is, like any illness, anxiety and depression are both treatable. Therapy and/or medication can help you feel like you again. If you think you may have anxiety or depression, talk to your doctor or a medical professional.
The truth is, anxiety and depression likely won’t just “go away” on their own. That’s why it’s critical that you recognize the issue and work toward coping with the symptoms and/or treating any underlying causes. My new book, Beneath the Surface, explains how anxiety and depression affect your brain and your life, offering real, tactical methods to treat it as well as resources for getting the help you need. For more information, visit www.thegriefgirl.com.
If you have feelings of self-harm or suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
On a characteristically sunny Southern California day in October 2012, my husband, Bill, walked onto the MetroLink tracks near our Dana Point home, spread his arms wide, and completed suicide as he was struck by the oncoming train.
Bill was depressed. He was anxious. He suffered with substance abuse, steroid use and a host of other “typical” symptoms of mental illness. But Bill was also a victim. He bought into the widespread stigma about mental illness that plagues our society today. He was a middle-aged, white man with the strength to move mountains. In fact, Bill was a body builder and gym owner. He was the picture of physical health. But inside, Bill was dying. And the help he needed required him to admit the impossible – he couldn’t control his brain.
Bill’s shame wasn’t an anomaly in 2012, just as it isn’t today. In fact, Mental Illness Policy Org. reports that half of Americans suffering from severe psychiatric disorders are receiving no treatment – that’s as many as 3.5 million individuals.
While there’s no one reason to explain this issue, I know what held Bill back. It wasn’t that he had no one begging him to get help – I was. It wasn’t even that he didn’t recognize the symptoms in himself – he did. For Bill, it was the shame associated with society’s mental health stigma that kept him from the saving arms of treatment. It was the embarrassment and denial that comes with admitting to be what society calls “broken.”
Break the Stigma
by Kristi Hugstad
Each of us has attached ourselves to something or somebody, and when you lose that special thing or person, you grieve. Always. You can try to run from it all you want, but it will always find you and tackle you when you’re not looking. My blogs, along with my books, will give you the tools to help you learn to live with your new self as you journey through your grief.