A Psychologist’s Suicide

hThe word came that a friend and colleague, a clinical psychologist, had committed suicide.  She had suffered a hammering of profound losses and fell into a deep hole of depression.  She had placed herself in good professional hands, was hospitalized for two weeks, and released with medications and a discharge summary that she, herself, could have written.  She, later, took her life by overdose.

And if you are a clinical type, then you might be interested in knowing that she – and we will call her Susan for our descriptive purposes here — had been hospitalized once before as a young adult due to a breakdown of sorts.  That initial breakdown had shaped her career.  I would also suggest that it enhanced Susan’s humanity and made her more accepting of the mysteries of life.  Susan was a very skilled and gifted therapist.  Over the course of her professional life, she had helped so very many find their way to safety and sanity, which, of course, makes it even more incongruent that this healing type woman would take her own life.  Then, again, we are all human.

Susan was a huge dreamer – big, significant dreams, healing dreams, dreams that reverberated in her 3D life with books, pictures, and the like tumbling, on occasion, from her walls and book shelves.  Susan analyzed dreams with her patients; she explored their multi-nuanced aspects with her colleagues. Susan understood the imaginal world and the power of metaphor to transform a life.

Yet, even with all those gifts and talents, Susan’s well of despair flooded.  Taken hostage by her biochemical influences, she crossed the border of her inner terrain and entered into the place without light, with nary a crack in the darkness.  All that training and education notwithstanding, suicide seemed the answer to Susan’s very distraught and off-balanced self.

Suicide is not painless; it leaves loved ones – and in this case, patients, too – reeling in disbelief and “what if’s” and “If only, I had …” It’s hard to be left under such messy circumstances. We think, perhaps, we could have done something differently – made a move or said the right words that might have tipped the balance in favor of life.   Death is not easy on a regular basis, but it becomes tainted and shame-faced when described as a suicide.  It’s as if we, the survivors, have somehow failed to do our part.  We feel responsible.  We feel confused and, sometimes, angry, too.   “How could they?” we puzzle, as if it had anything really to do with us.

As a psychologist as well as a former suicide hot-line responder, I understand all too well what can lead up to those moments when suicide is considered a possibility that can – with enough pain and tight, airless thinking — become an option to end the torment.

I get it. I’m not saying I like it, condone it, or anything else, but I understand how someone can get there.  I understand the trajectory of suffering.   I have witnessed the sheer desperation of unabated pain — be it physical, psychological, or both — and the dark places that it can take you. I have seen how a life can crumble in on itself, worn down by the struggle, the relentless struggle.

That much pain changes a person; it leaves an indelible mark.  Suicide becomes all about moving out of the desperate pain.  It is a very intimate act; it is self on self, in all of its swirling eddies of emotional tumult. There is little room for anyone else.

There are many paths of pain and despair.  For some, suicide is an impulsive act of fury and pain; for others, it is a release from the daily torment that makes life unbearable. For some, it is the tight, airless room where they cannot draw a deep breath; much less consider compassion for the self. Suicide is an act of violence against the much-hated, broken, and wounded self.

Suicide leaves a wake of questions.  I have opted to forego the questions.  It does not change anything.  What I know is that my friend was in pain, was biochemically unbalanced, and made a choice.  Needless to say, I wish her choice had been different, but who am I to say?  Her act teaches me about the fragility and ferocity of the human spirit.

In the aftermath, I have come up with what I think is the perfect antidote.  I am sending loads and loads of light to my friend, Susan.  It seems like the perfect thing to do after all that darkness.  And, who knows, maybe it will help her soul refind its sparkle.

The five reminders from loss

The hard-flint beauty of loss is that it serves as a teacher. Loss reminds us what has become “back-burnered” in the daily press of life.

1. Life is short.

2. Life is precious.

3. What matters most is love … who we love, how we love, what we love and when we choose to open ourselves with courage and vulnerability to love.

4. Loss precipitates change.

5. Loss reminds us that we still have time to fine-tune the focus our lives, re-arrange our priorities, revitalize connections and be the love we want to be.

Sometimes, it’s hard to see the gifts of sorrow, but they are present and, equally, patient until we are ready to claim them.

May you be held in peace.


The connection between suicide and childhood sexual abuse

It’s September and we are honoring suicide awareness and suicide prevention. To that end, we are sharing again some of our most popular posts.

Circling the international news is the story of the assisted suicide of a young Dutch woman due to long-term childhood sexual abuse. This woman in her 20’s asked for — and was granted — euthanasia by lethal injection.

She requested an end to her life due to intractable trauma (i.e., severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and concomitant medical issues (i.e., advanced anorexia, chronic depression and hallucinations) that left her primarily bedridden.

Her story has raised questions and concerns.

As a mental health professional who has worked first-hand with childhood sexual abuse survivors, I have witnessed the repercussions of the compounded and complicated trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

Read more here.



Thank you Step 12 Magazine for the great review!


This year, I have been talking about the interface of suicide, addiction and trauma. You can image my surprise and delight when those wonderful folks at Step 12 Magazine wrote a swell 4-star review of my book, Making Peace with Suicide: A Book of Hope, Understanding and Comfort. Thank you, Step 12 Magazine! I am over the moon and so grateful for both the good words and bringing this important topic forward.

Author Adele R. McDowell combines practical guidance with spirituality and a deep understanding of pain and grief, and trauma and its impact.

Adele has packed every aspect of losing a loved one to suicide into a single insightful, meaningful edition which should be read again and again.

Personal accounts of those who have attempted suicide, sometimes multiple times, from people who have leaned over the edge of the abyss but didn’t jump, show us how moving away from suicidal tendencies requires conscious choice and deliberate action.

Adele helps readers understand the complex factors involved when people choose to take their own lives, making it abundantly clear that society needs to find better ways to talk about and understand why people become so desperate to escape that they choose to end their own lives.

PS Click the Step 12 Magazine cover for more information on their wonderful publication.

The heart of a home: tales of suicide and compassion

heart and homeThe foreclosure agents repeatedly rang her doorbell; there was no response. They pounded on the door; there was no response. The locksmith, who accompanied the team, unlocked the door; whereupon, they saw 53 year-old Amaya Egaña standing on a chair on the sixth-floor balcony of her apartment in the Basque city of Barakaldo, Spain. Upon seeing the agents enter her now-foreclosed home, Amaya jumped off her balcony and died a short time later from the injuries she sustained.

Egaña’s death was not in vain. Her suicide became the tipping point in a series of suicides and ongoing street protests that have now prompted the banks in Spain to stop foreclosure proceedings for two years for those who cannot pay their mortgages (under certain provisos regarding income and young children at home). The news reports say there will be financial repercussions for the creditors.

In Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland, India, the US, and other countries, “suicide by economic crisis” is a very real event. Far too often, hard -working family members are faced with the shame, despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness of being unable to keep a roof over the heads of their loved ones. These repercussions are bloody and tear-stained.

On a bitterly cold night in an upmarket enclave of London, there is a knock on the door, a homeless man asks, “May I sleep on your porch tonight?” The homeowners are taken aback, but they quickly invite their unexpected guest to spend the night in their home. They offer food, a hot drink, a blanket – all of which their visitor refuses. He simply wants a sheltered place near their front door to sleep for the night. They agree.

Now, three years have passed and the homeowners and their visitor are on a first-name basis. Every cold night, their visitor is fast asleep on their porch. They acknowledge one another when their paths cross in town. The homeowners have put a chest in a corner of their porch for their visitor to stow his night gear. Every once in a while, they will leave a warm sweater; on particularly cold nights, there is a thermos of something warm to drink. Their visitor always leaves them a note that says thank you.

In a world rife with fear and apprehension and all-about-me-ness, these London homeowners take my breath away. Would I have been able to be so boldly compassionate? Could I have responded with an immediate open heart, especially when it comes to the idea of my home?

Be it a house, an apartment, a lean-to, a car, a tent, a mountain top or cave, our home is our sense of personal space. Indeed, our home — in whatever form or fashion– is our personal castle and sanctuary.

Just the sound of the word “home” can connote deep feelings of safety and a place where we let it all hang out. Home is our shelter from the elements – as well as a world gone mad. We can close the door and block it all for the moment. Home serves not only as our physical base; it is also our psychological touchstone — all will be well when I get home, when I am surrounded by the familiar, the comforting and the comfortable. At home, I can slip into my fuzzy slippers, tattered sweatpants, and take a breath.

Home is a heavily weighted four-letter word.  It is a psychological anchor, physical tether, and for many, a once-considered secure financial investment to keep body and soul together.

In today’s world where a precarious economic climate has been sent teetering by bloated banks, profit-margin-crazed corporations, redundancies, shifts in the work force, and CEO payments and perks akin to the national budgets of a small country, the individual has been summarily overlooked in favor of the greater bottom line. From my perspective, many companies have lost their heart. Hey, no problem in making a profit….but does it have to cost so much that mothers jump off their balconies. Was there no thought to the ramifications? Does global leadership preclude the consideration of consequences?

The banks and creditors can be like the Big Bad Wolf; they huff and puff and can blow your sense of home to smithereens. In the Old West, these banks would have been met with the business end of a rifle because losing one’s home is a place of enormous desperation.

Where to go? What to do? Without your home, you are adrift, homeless, and helpless. It’s hard to get a step up when you have no home base — no restful place to sleep, bathe, dress, cook a meal, or do your homework.

And, then, there are those like our polite gentleman on the porch who has, like many others, his own story about how he ended up without a place to call home and living off the streets. Be it mental illness, physical disabilities, unemployment, substance abuse, lost family, or no traction and going under, he represents one of many. And the numbers of the homeless are increasing exponentially.

Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed 100 people, then feed just one.” And, that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is where it all starts. It starts with one person making an act of compassion.

Be it a check for the shelter, a bag of groceries for the food bank, support of the veterans (current stats place them at 40% of the homeless population and inordinately high risk of suicide), children’s advocacy (1.5 million children, that’s 1 in 50 go homeless every year in the US), job training, ethical business practices, and the myriad of creative things we can dream and do to help one another, each of us needs to be mindful of our ability to make a difference. Drop by drop, compassionate act by compassionate act, we change the statistics and help our neighbors find a place to call home.

As the saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.”

The uncomfortability of grief

image002A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit sunny, palm-treed southern California, where it kisses the blue, blue of the Pacific Ocean. It is a beautiful part of the world. The purpose of my visit was to present my new work Making Peace with Suicide at The 2012 Compassionate Friends (TCF) annual national and international conference.

The Compassionate Friends is a self-help group for parents who have lost a child at any age; they, also, offer support to grieving grandparents and siblings. Illness, murder, addiction, suicide, manslaughter, drunk drivers, freak accidents, still-born deaths — you name it — these folks have walked through that fire. It is unimaginably heartbreaking. And, yet, they gather and laugh and cry and help one another breathe again.

The hotel was entirely filled with conference attendees and the hotel next door held all of the over flow. I heard there were anywhere from 1300-1800 attendees. They came as families, individuals, couples, and friends.

Even though I have experienced grief first-hand, I have not lost a child, and, so, I felt a bit like a stranger in a strange land. This was new terrain.

While in the elevator, a lovely woman named Kathy made eye contact and we began a conversation as we exited the elevator and headed to one of the sessions. Kathy told me that since the death of her son, she has lost all of her friends and that is why she came to TCF conference.

Initially, I was shocked and horrified, but as I talked to other parents they told me similar stories. It’s not that people are bad, they would all say. They just don’t know how to handle the weight of the grief. They don’t know what to say, how to say it, or they nervously make inappropriate or inane comments.

For example, one father told me that as he walked out of his son’s memorial service and settled into his car, his brother-in-law talked non-stop about his own son and his current career concerns. The bereft dad looked at his unaware brother-in-law and responded, “At least, you have a son.”

The parents acknowledged that many of their friends and loved ones were uncomfortable talking about death. Some told me that they felt it was too much of a burden for many of their friends. And, still, many of these parents want to talk about their sons and daughters; they never tire of the subject and the conversation keeps them alive in their hearts. These parents have come to recognize the squirm in others who do not know how to respond.

The Compassionate Friends has local chapters world-wide. Parents find other parents who know first-hand the sucker punch to the gut of losing a child and the crazy-making grief that ensues.

One week, at Kathy’s local group in her hometown, five new people attended their first Compassionate Friends’ meeting. That week, each person had lost a child to suicide. It was an emotionally intense meeting. Kathy said that she and another mom connected. In the weeks that followed, the new mom reached out to Kathy for support and guidance. Kathy said that was a turning point for her – in saying yes to the other mom-in-need, Kathy decided to live. In that helping, Kathy found a reason to keep going.

We, human beings, are so much more than we realize. We are resilient and tender. Our feelings can run deep and wide. We can be vulnerable, strong, understanding and, above all, compassionate. There are times when we all need a little help from our friends.