When my brother killed himself eleven years ago, there was great consternation among his friends, his colleagues, and his family. How could such a skilled, well-known and respected journalist, with two Pulitzer Prizes, be so unhappy as to commit suicide?
My wife said, "I knew it would happen some day."
I asked her how she knew.
She said he had always been a deeply depressed person. He had no real support system beyond his work. And he wasn't seeing a psychotherapist on a regular basis.
Okay, but I didn't see it. And I'm supposed to be knowledgeable about suicide. I think it was obvious that he was deeply depressed from time to time. But I thought that, like me, he could get very busy on a project and that would take him out of himself, or at least out of his depression.
It does work for me. I've written about this before: doing things, even busy work, can lift my depression - or stave it off.
And I thought that worked for my brother, too.
Well, it did keep him from terrible depression while he was writing. But when the book was finished, that's when the pain got too great. And that's when he should have been supervised by a really good psychopharmacologist or a therapist. But he didn't know what was happening to him, and he didn't let his doctors know!
Because he wasn't in touch with me during those last few weeks, I didn't hear the deep dissatisfaction that I had heard many times: the sorrowful voice that would emanate over the telephone when my brother was in one of his depressive states. The voice was deeper, slower, with fewer ups and downs. The content of his conversation was not about anything. It was, rather, in response to questions. Monosyllabic. Or, if there were multiple words, there were long pauses between them.
So, I didn't see that, once again, completing the book meant the end of something, not the beginning of success, as it had before.
I didn't understand the depth of the feelings that went with it. And because my brother didn't want visitors when he was in his deepest mood of blackness, I couldn't see what I now suspect I would have seen: a slowly moving, sloppily dressed, unhappy man.
Creative work can be uplifting.
The end of creative work can be depressing for a person who is easily depressed by life events and by genetic loading. My brother was both.(*)
What does this teach any of us about those around us who are prone to depression?
1. Keep the ear glued to the tonality of your friend or relative's voice. Has it slowed down, changed, become more uncommunicative?
2. If a friend or relative is depressed, insist he or she go to a psychopharmacologist or psychiatrist or therapist for help. Now!
3. If creativity of any sort has been this person's way out of depression, then when the creative act is finished, pay special attention to the way your friend or relative acts. Has the depression set back in?
While this sounds simple-minded, it's very easy to forget that depression that is controlled can easily slip out of control.
And, let me hastily add: I'm not saying that you are responsible for keeping a friend or relative alive. Suicide is a decision made by the person him/herself. But if you can deflect the impulse for one more day or one more week; if you can recognize deep depression; if you can feel like you've intervened successfully, what a blessing it would be.
(*) A lot more about this subject in my book, BLUE GENES:A Memoir of Loss and Survival (This September, published by Doubleday)
Published On: July 16, 2008