On March 1st, my life, and the lives of my 4 children, was irrevocably changed. My husband, a handsome and successful family man that put everything and everyone ahead of himself, had just completed the most successful year of his already impressive career. Donnie’s laugh was louder and more infectious than most. With a quirky sense of humor, he immediately put those he encountered at ease. His hugs – whether to his children, me, a friend, or an 80-year-old stranger – were filled with warmth and sincerity. He was the life of the party. Everyone was “Team Donnie”.
Donnie also wore a mask. He had suffered from alcohol addiction and co-morbid anxiety. After a number of attempts, he was clean and sober for 15 months. Finally, I had the charismatic man that I married back! Our family, with 4 kids ranging in age from 21 to 7, was full, loud, and perfectly imperfect. Donnie had found a great psychiatrist and was on medication that seemed to stabilize him. It looked as though we had gotten through the tunnel and could now enjoy the light. Of course we felt the normal stresses of life. On February 29th, my husband called to ask me to make some changes to a flight to Hawaii we had scheduled for late March. He needed to take a professional course that conflicted with our travel. He had e-mailed his psychiatrist to confirm that our dates would not conflict with his next appointment. The morning of March 1st, Donnie routinely had breakfast and left for the office. We spoke briefly on the phone. At 10:00 am he spoke to his best friend and colleague about a business deal. At 11:00 am he laughed and joked in another colleagues office discussing business. Around 11:30 he abruptly, and uncharacteristically, left his office without cleaning up or shutting down his computer.
As a family, we always sat down to dinner at 6 pm. My husband wasn’t home. His phone was turned off. I was concerned. He always called or texted to let me know if he was going to be late. At 8 pm two men arrived at my door, “I am so sorry, we have the worst possible news,” the coroner said, “your husband took his own life”. Time of death 12:47 p.m.
My husband wore a mask. I had no idea he was in crisis. He was clean and sober, and, I thought, happy. Why? We believe he started feeling so much better that he felt like he didn’t need “those drugs” anymore. We believe he abruptly discontinued his medication without consult from his Doctor. My husband felt the stigma attached to mental illness and couldn’t accept his biochemical imbalance. He couldn’t accept his diagnosis as he might have accepted any other physiologic disorder. His disease was in his brain, not liver or heart. He didn’t have diabetes. He had an illness, not unlike those that affect these other parts of the body. But, because of stigma, I believe he felt ashamed.
On my way to grief counseling with my 7-year-old twins, my son asked me if, when he had the talking stick, he could say, “My Dad died of mental illness.” His twin sister cried, “No! That is so embarrassing.” How? How does this seep into the mind of a 7-year-old child? We talk at length about the fact that she wouldn’t have been ashamed if Daddy died of cancer or heart disease. There is no shame in Daddy’s illness. Only sadness. I never want another child of a person suffering from mental illness to feel this way or a family to suffer through (a wrongful) shame. I never want another person to feel the need to suffer in silence when treatment is available.
On March 1st, our lives irrevocably changed. My work is to ensure that this change will not be in vain.
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