I checked the mail today. Inside was a large yellow envelope addressed to me from the Regional Supervising Coroner’s office.
This envelope, I hoped, would contain some answers about my husband’s death that had been unclear. When the police told me they had found my husband they took a guess as to what had happened. A day later they retracted. At any rate, it was clear there was uncertainty.
I have held on to a few beliefs over the past nine and a half months. I believed that Neil had not died by suicide but had made some very unwise choices that resulted in his death. The investigators said their investigation did not lead them to believe it had been suicide. Their reasons were because they had found no note, he had ordered cable and watched a movie the night before. He had also continued to book appointments with friends and our Pastor. He was reaching out, but then he would drink and cancel his appointments. The point was however, he was trying to connect. Each of these actions were a sign of someone who was trying to keep their life going, not end it forever.
The only missing piece the police were waiting on was the toxicology report. That takes six months to get. The toxicology report would show if my late husband had a regular amount of medication in his system, or if he had overdosed.
My greatest fear about opening this envelope was that it would be inconclusive. That there would be a lack of answers. A lack of closure. I was never one for lingering in limbo. I would always rather know the answers, and lay it all out there, then hid away and live in the in-between of the unknown or the unsaid.
Because it took six months to get the report, by the time I could have access to it I had already grown so attuned to my belief that my husband’s death was accidental. I didn’t think the report could make a difference.
Then one day, it was suddenly important for me to get more answers. I think part of that was because I am continually lacking closure from choosing not to see his body when he died. I sometimes wrestle with whether he actually has, or if I’m dreaming this all up and he’ll suddenly appear in real life again.
I wrote to the coroners office and asked for a copy of the report. Today, it was delivered in the mail.
The large yellow envelope sat on my kitchen table staring back at me, knowing something I didn’t. I was eager to rip it open but my daughter had not yet gone down for her nap. I acknowledged the slight possibility I might react badly to what lay between those yellow sheets.
I tried to distract myself for as long as possible. I asked myself questions while I was trying to pass the time. “Will these answers make any difference at all? What will it change? Will I feel responsible if it says his death was intentional?”
I lasted about seven minutes and then I couldn’t take it any longer. The only thing between me and understanding another layer within my husband’s death mystery, was this yellow envelope.
I ripped the envelope open. Immediately my eyes locked on one word. Stigma spelled “s-u-i-c-i-d-e”.
Adrenaline rushed up my throat. I looked at Alexis. I should have waited until she was having a nap. It did make a difference. It made all the difference in the world. I started to think about how it made a difference. He didn’t leave a note, but if it was intentional he could have, right? He didn’t take advantage of all the people who were reaching in to his world, so he’s to blame for doing this to himself when he could have gotten help, right? He could have sobered up and made better choices that would not have led him down this path, right? Maybe. And this maybe was making me angry.
I told my daughter I had to go potty. I locked the bathroom door and sat on the floor and cried. For nine and a half months I believe a truth that just got snatched out from under my feet. I had to start all over again. The feeling in the pit of my stomach was like the feeling I had when the police told me they had first found my husband; that he was “deceased.” I didn’t know how to process this. All I felt was anger that my house just crumbled and now I had to rebuild.
I put Alexis down for a nap and spend most of the rest of the afternoon curled up on the couch, sleeping. The news hit me like a tranquilizer. I felt the sharp pang of the needle, and then all I wanted to do after was sleep.
When I woke up I was lethargic. I shuffled my way around the house like a slug. Then I started to come out of my fog. I started to think more clearly. I thought back to a conversation I had with my Pastor friend and his wife a few weeks ago.
I was explaining how surprised I was looking back at how easily I made conclusions about my husband’s ability to make good decisions. I was under tremendous stress in our situation and only had capacity to make quick conclusions. I never once stopped to question my own decision making abilities. There was no time for taking respite and analyzing other possibilities for the hell we were living in. My view point was that he was either well and could choose to make better choices, or he was mentally unwell, having what I refer to as “episodes,” and during those times he was clearly unable to make very good choices and needed help. But the further removed I was from him the more clearly I could see the other layers that were Neil. He was not just made up of “healthy Neil” and “mentally-ill Neil”. He was also the compilation of his health and nutrition, his up-bringing and how well, or poorly, he was nurtured, whether or not certain connectors connected in his brain through the possible lack of good emotional care. He was full of extremes. He had an addictive personality. He was willing to hold on to our relationship even when it was toxic. He didn’t know when to let go. He had high confidence when it came to sales, but otherwise he didn’t have the best self-image. Then there was his medication. It changed his personality and his weight. His energy level and his ability to function in certain ways played into his lower self esteem and increased stress at home. He was riddled with fears from past experiences and the paranoia that entered into each mental episode he had. He had been abandoned by his biological family, and now he thought he was losing another one. I would argue whether that was a legitimate fear or not, but in his mind, at that moment, what mattered was what he thought and how well he was equipped to come to any other conclusion. Plus, he had sleep apnea, so in all the years up until he was properly diagnosed had he even gotten enough sleep to function as he should? Human beings. We are no simple creatures.
Then there was the matter of being properly diagnosed mentally. For most of his life he was told he had schizophrenia. That never made sense to me because he didn’t hear voices, but he did have paranoia. Some doctors told him he was just a rare, high-functioning expression of schizophrenia. Then, a few months before he died, he was re-diagnosed as having depression with a psychosis. That meant psychotic episodes would manifest when he got depressed. So they changed his medication to focus on deterring depression. He started his new meds about a month before he died. He warned me it would be a rocky month until the new meds kicked in.
After listing just a few of these complications my Pastor friend said to me, “It’s kind of like looking at a loaf of bread. You see bread but it’s really flour and sugar, butter and eggs, but you can’t tell what’s the flour or sugar, butter or eggs. They all get blended into one creation.”
Exactly. How did I ever think I could judge so easily? Looking back on that situation I realize now that judgment was my own generated symptom in the face of a severe lack of understanding and tremendous stress.
I doubt that Neil, separate from all these factors, “committed” suicide. I don’t think that man would be so uncaring as to not leave us a note, or try to get help. Neil had, in the past, been willing to drive himself to the hospital to get help. But those times he had not been drinking. However, if I think of Neil with psychosis, Neil with low self-esteem, fear driven Neil who had already lost one family and could not imagine living through the gut wrenching anguish of losing another, or liquified Neil on vodka, yes, that temporary Neil was capable of doing anything. He was capable of doing this.
Three years ago I came home from work to the news that one of Neil’s groomsmen had died by suicide. This man was an incredible musician. He could play the piano, jazz and blues, and he could sing with such soul and passion it mystified me. He was also addicted to drugs. He had pockets of time where he was clean, and restoration had begun, but it only took one slip and he was gone.
We didn’t know how to process it. What do you do when someone takes their own life? It’s no longer a matter of when “the bell tolls it tolls for thee.“ In the case of suicide an individual rings the bell and says, Come for me.
I felt many things then. Grief, a loss of hope, wondering why, wanting to shake the person back to life to tell them off for doing such a stupid and selfish thing. Today, when I read the coroner’s report, I felt shock and anger. But then I remembered something my sister said when Neil and I lost our good friend three years ago.
“One bad choice does not define a person. Suicide is one very poor decision made during one desperate moment in time.”
Neil made one very poor decision, during one lonely, desperate, hopeless moment in time. This one choice is nowhere close to all that he was, nor will it be the defining point of how I will remember him to be.