For Suicide Survivors, Triggers are Everywhere
June 5 of this year was the tenth anniversary of my father’s completely unexpected suicide. I have written about the event, its causes and its aftermath extensively. But this year, other than a short post (by my standards) on Facebook, I chose to let this particular and seemingly poignant anniversary pass without commemoration.
My thinking at the time was essentially twofold. One, I actually was feeling fine. Unlike the first couple years following the death, my dad’s taking of his life no longer consumed my daily emotional life. Sure, I missed him. Sure, thinking about it saddened me at completely unpredictable moments — which this piece is really about — but not every day. And not on the anniversary day any more than any other.
So basically, I felt I’d be a little like a fraud if people sent me completely well-meaning wishes and notes to “feel better” and “hang in there” when I’d long ago began to make my peace with the tragedy. By the way, this is a reflection of my own insecurity and not a referendum on the massive kindness people everywhere have shown me ever since I began to freely and transparently open up about my loss.
Ironically, the second reason I didn’t write about it is…not everyone has been as kind about my freely and transparently opening up about my loss. There is a small cluster of people, who have attacked my right to process my feelings on the topic, that looking for answers besmirches my father’s memory and that my efforts to help other survivors is seen as a cynical ploy to engender more Facebook likes. I don’t accept these criticisms, but there’s little doubt they got in my head around the time of the anniversary.
The one point I will concede to those who routinely criticize my suicide-related essays is that each time a new picture of my father pops up on their feed, it reopens the wound and triggers feelings of depression and hopelessness all over again.
And that’s what I want to write about today. Triggers. And how, for survivors of familial suicide or those who’ve attempted suicide themselves, these triggers can emerge anytime, anyplace.
Now think back to the first week of June, when I had intended on observing the anniversary of my father’s passing with not much introspection on the the larger topic of suicide itself. And I was likely trying to inoculate myself from feeling the feeling all over again. That was June 5. By June 8, both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had suddenly, tragically and unexpectedly taken their own lives. We all mourned and lamented such profound and unnecessary losses. But for those of us in the survivors community, it once again re-opened a wound that many of us struggle to close day in and day out.
At first, I just started noticing this phenomenon anecdotally. Every time a celebrity dies, I instantly have a pang of fear that it was at their own hands. And then, each time I learn that a death was, in fact, by suicide, I relive the feelings I felt upon learning about my own dad. The feelings are lesser, it’s like reliving his death in microcosm, but I’m definitely feeling pain and uncertainty and shock and more pain. It happened with David Foster Wallace and Robin Williams. It happened with Junior Seau and Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. And it definitely happened, with a legitimate amount of severity with Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.
Suddenly, suicide was literally everywhere. There were a million think pieces written about suicide clusters and the rise nationwide. And there were many pieces, like this one, about the surprisingly powerful impact that a high-profile suicide can have on survivors.
From all the articles, two big conclusions jumped out at me. 1. “People who have lost someone to suicide are at greater risk to suicide themselves.” This makes intuitive sense from both nature and nurture sides of the argument. I share my father’s genetics and his propensity for depression. I grew up in the same environment that he lived in. And suicide as a solution has already been modeled for me as a horrible, but viable alternative. Those risks are always there and I understand the daily battle to fend them off.
Conclusion number 2 was “The risk of suicide is heightened after a high-profile suicide or a cluster of them.” I can’t explain the science behind this. I’m a hack comedy writer, not a Viennese psychiatrist. But I can attest that the week of the Spade/Bourdain passings, I walked around with the feeling of deep dread and unease. And I only knew these celebrities in passing. But the the truth was, suicide was back in the zeitgeist. And whenever that’s the case, the old wounds become re-triggered.
I’ll give you another example. Why not? You’ve stuck around this long. I went to see the great documentary “Three Identical Strangers” a few weeks back. I won’t spoil the movie for you, but I left the theater deeply triggered. Again, no spoilers. But the subjects of suicide, relatives with mental disorders, and cold families of origins all played a significant role. And for me, those are like the Triple Crown of depression trigger points. What I believe effected me so keenly was that I saw none of it coming. I had a small sense of what the movie was really about before going in. But I certainly did not expect it to wallop me so severely. And that’s the beauty of triggers. You don’t know where they are coming from or how severe said triggers might be.
That said, I will leave you with my third trigger story of the summer. It’s one that’s indisputably sad, but was also incredibly heart-warming to me. And it illustrates that sometimes an unexpected trigger or memory can also be a good thing.
I have a dear friend whose father is severely ill with Alzheimer’s. I know, there is nothing good or funny about that. And this is coming from a man who’s spent the last hour writing about suicide. But I received the most touching text out of the blue from my friend. Recently, her father has regularly lost himself in nostalgic reverie about his time, six decades ago, in the U.S. Air Force. He’s been telling his daughter stories about those days in vivid detail. And during the course of those stories, he’s been telling incredibly kind and generous stories about his best friend in the Air Force — my father.
If you know me at all, you’d know that I instantly started sobbing upon reading that text. As I am right now. Sure, it was an unexpected trigger that made me think about my father’s passing. But it also gave me the rare opportunity to think about him in life. As a young man. As someone’s best friend. As a guy with his whole life ahead of him. And that made me happy and hopeful. And reminded that some days it’s okay to think about it, to reopen the wounds, to feel deeply. Especially when it means allowing yourself to think about a life well lived in its entirety and not just its tragic ending.