The Secret World Of Suicide Survivors

This story is part of The Establishment’s series on PTSD Awareness.

I have replayed the scene in my brain thousands of times.

It takes place in the house we lived in at the time, which was situated on a corner of a busy street where many people awaited their buses. The small TV in the living room was showing The Great Mouse Detective, one of my favorite childhood movies. I was watching it from the sofa — I haven’t viewed the movie since.

This is where I was the moment I was told my brother had shot himself. I let out such a terrible shriek that the strangers outside the window stopped talking. For a brief moment there was a pure, unadulterated silence.

I remember a bolt rising from the top of my head, expanding to the hot furnace that was my skin. I rushed to my room where I slammed my fists into the walls, tore blankets from the mattress, and began swinging my arms, hitting anything and anyone in my path. I screamed so hard that I was left without air. I was given a valium to numb my body into sleep — it was a sleep fraught with terrifying images of my brother leaving. I heard bullets bursting in the air; my sheets were sweat-filled the next morning. There was a sense of drowning, of falling, of being completely shattered.

Something had fractured in my mind.

The world had become divided — between the before and the after of my brother killing himself. It was if a large vortex had opened up, and all the images of his face and our lifetime of memories had been violently pulled from me into its dark void. Only people who’ve experienced this kind of severe trauma can fully comprehend what it means to be totally obliterated by a single moment.

The emotional whiplash of my brother’s death reverberated into a manifold of symptoms; they remain, even 12 years later.

And they are symptoms I am far from alone in experiencing. In the United States, nearly 40,000 people a year die by suicide. Each of these leaves behind an estimated six or more survivors, many of whom experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Shortly after my brother’s memorial service, I began experiencing chronic panic attacks and nightmares that persisted for several years. On numerous occasions at movie theaters, I had to make a silent exit during an especially rousing scene of a character shooting himself in the head — rushing to the nearest bathroom stall to sob. I stopped listening to music for an entire year because my chest throbbed from certain songs played on the radio. My most recent bout of symptoms came after reading a searing essay from a woman who considered her friend’s suicide a blessing. As soon as I read the piece, I felt the intense need to flee, to cry, to punch a wall.

One of the core tenets of trauma is the self-protective impulse it instills in us to fight or flight. The mind starts to shut systems down, causing us to lose contact with important functions such as the ability to plan, to reason or think, even to formulate words.

“The biggest way that PTSD impacts the body and brain is that it affects your arousal level,” says Devon MacDermott, a clinical psychologist in New York who specializes in trauma. The emotion centers of the brain are on high alert and overreacting, she explains to me. “All the other functions are underreacting, because the emotion centers are taking up so much of the brain and the body’s energy; making it very hard for you to think, organize your thoughts, or even speak.”

In the fight response — what happened to me after being told of my brother’s death — a person experiences hyper-arousal, which causes jittery, tense, hot, and overwhelming sensations. The body prepares to defend itself from danger. In the case of suicide survivors, however, there is no immediate physical threat, yet the body and mind still perceive it that way.

On the other side of this is the flight response, which is considered hypo-arousal. It is the feeling of being numb, shut down, or disassociated from your body, so that you not only conserve energy, but feel less pain from whatever is threatening you.

According to MacDermott, one of the most important factors in the development of a trauma reaction like PTSD is a sense of not being able to rescue yourself from the immediate danger you’re in, and ultimately feeling helpless. “The really difficult thing about being a suicide survivor is that there’s absolutely nothing you can do, because the person has already died,” she says. This sense of hopelessness leads to PTSD and other trauma reactions, because your body doesn’t get to have the experience of activating a productive fight or flight response.

As survivors, our losses often go undetected by society because of the powerful stigma and shame associated with mental illness. Even when we’re still in shock, we’re often encouraged to move on quickly, all while fighting off intrusive thoughts that replay over and over again in our minds.

For many years, I isolated myself from others because of the intense shame I carried from my brother’s death. The times I attempted to talk about my experience, people froze or told me I needed to accept what had happened. With other forms of loss, friends and family are more likely to reach out and express their condolences, but the taboo nature of suicide leads survivors to lead an underground life of silence and secrecy — fighting their own war below the surface.

For many of us, speaking about what happened brings an onslaught of guilt and blame for our loved one’s death. We are angry but have no one to direct that anger to. Even as I write this, I am confronted with the monumental task of condensing my experiences into words.

How do you describe the worst moment of your life?

Having a community that can understand what you’ve been through is an essential treatment for managing complicated grief, says MacDermott. I spoke with three authors who are also suicide survivors, and who, in their own words, share how this devastating form of loss has affected their ongoing symptoms an challenges.

Rene Denfeld, Portland, Oregon

I came from a very difficult background. My mother had really severe mental health issues, particularly when I was younger — we came from a very criminal kind of background. The man I considered my father is a registered predatory sex offender, which kind of gives you an idea of the struggles my family had when I was a child. My mother unfortunately had a series of pedophiles in and out of the house. I was one of five children, and my older brother and I in particular experienced a great deal of trauma. Eventually he committed suicide, and a few years after that, my mother took her own life by starving herself to death.

I’ve had many death losses in my life, but there’s something so unique and traumatic about suicide and what it does to the survivors; it’s unlike any other loss. When my brother died, I shut down completely, and was dissociative the first few days. I was in survivor mode, thinking to myself, “How am I going to get out of this?” Later, the symptoms came out in these horrible storms of grief. I still have a lot of guilt — so much guilt. I was very close to my brother, and so I will sometimes see or hear or smell something that triggers a memory. And that triggers the simultaneous grief of his loss and what we went through as kids.

I can still vividly remember when the newspaper obituary writer called and they asked me what the cause of death was. When I told them it was suicide, the obituary writer actually tried to talk me out of giving that as a cause of death. With this kind of loss, there’s so much violence and shame. And it makes it so much harder to deal because it compounds our feelings of guilt, the sense that we should have done something differently. We get these messages that it’s a shameful secret and that nobody should know.

I think that has made it much harder.

Gayle Brandeis, Los Angeles

My mom committed suicide in 2009, one week after I gave birth to my youngest son. The moment it happened, everything went blank inside of me. Then I immediately started to wail and crawl around on the floor with my sister.

Shortly after my mom’s death, I became hypervigilant and very germophobic. I was scared to bring my baby out into the world because of germs, something that hadn’t happened with my other two kids. I felt isolated in my early days of grief and didn’t seek help because I had a newborn and didn’t feel like reaching out to the world. For a long time, any word or image related to suicide or hanging would upset me terribly.

Ruth Nolan, Palm Springs, California

I lost my partner back in April 2010, when we were living together and had plans for the future. I came back one day from a weekend conference and found the police at my home asking questions about my boyfriend. They essentially told me to call the sheriff in order to find out what had happened to him. It was by phone that I was told that my partner had shot himself, which is a terrible way of finding out a loved one has died. Initially, I was beside myself and hysterical. I remember my voice rising like, “Oh my God, NO, this can’t be true.” I couldn’t breathe, and went into flight mode — I immediately got into my car and took off. I had to go away.

This was somebody I had felt safe with, so for me, that was a big part of the trauma. I was just so shattered — my sense of well-being and safety in the world was gone. After that, the PTSD symptoms came on pretty fast. The things that are triggering for me is to feel like someone has left me. And it can come from anywhere, like someone moving away. Just the realization that people don’t stay static, that we don’t always know where they’re going to be. A lot of things on Facebook can be triggering. Sometimes when I see happy couples, it’s hard. The posts with people who have been together for like 30 years get to me.

In a way, you are getting shot too, but you’re still alive with all these wounds. How do you deal with that?

If you are a survivor in need of support, please visit Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors, or if you or someone you know are feeling suicidal, please call 1–800–273–8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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