Medical Examiner

What Suicide Leaves Behind

My father killed himself seven years ago. I’m still trying to understand him, and what I could have done differently.

A black-and-white photo of the author's dad, shirtless, sitting outside.
The author’s dad.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kris Wernowsky.

The American public does a poor job of dealing with suicide. We can be forgiven our ignorance of this cause of death, the 10th leading in our country, because it’s something we still don’t quite know how to discuss. We talk about it in hushed tones with some sense of shame for the dead. Some people call it a sin. Others like to claim that it’s illegal in some states (spoiler alert: it isn’t).

After the news of the suicides of two high-profile celebrities—Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade—collectively shook us last week, we spent the weekend posting endlessly on social media that therapy, antidepressants, and reaching out are the solutions. The truth is, none of these things can help someone who hides his pain from even his closest friends and relatives. (And also, this is America, and not everyone has access to costly psychiatrists and medicine.) To understand suicide, we have to confront something a bit murkier—we have to think more about human loneliness and isolation.

I think about suicide every day. Sometimes several times each day. Not because I want to hurt myself, and not because I think life is bleak and pointless, but because July 7 marks the seventh anniversary of the day my father killed himself.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that since 1999 the rate of suicide in the United States has increased by 28 percent. To put that in perspective, that means 45,000 people died by suicide in 2016. That number is larger than the entire population of my hometown of Quincy, Illinois. That number is 10 times higher than the number of U.S. casualties in the Iraq war. What’s worse is that the CDC also says that likely only half of those people are ever diagnosed with mental illness. The rate is higher among middle-age men. These numbers are only going to grow, because we’re the richest large nation in the world, and we’re terrible at dealing with mental health.

My father wasn’t surrounded by people who adored him or cared about him. He spent his life ensuring that people kept him at a distance for fear that they would harm him, and his family was no exception. He treated mental health services as a means to an end: A wife would threaten to leave, and he would decide it was finally time to get sober.

This was the situation with my father, but even if you have a perfect relationship and are surrounded by people who love and support you, there’s no sense that they know how to deal with you when you’re suicidal. There is only so much you can do for someone else, and that’s part of why we struggle with suicide.

If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts, you can reach out for help, by phone to the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or over text message to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 (on almost all carriers, these texts are free).

On July 4, 2011, I picked up my life and moved back home to the St. Louis area to be closer to my family. I’d spent four years living and working in Florida, and it was time to come home. I remember that feeling of optimism from those first three days. I also remember ignoring a phone call from my father on July 6. I let it go to voicemail.

The next day, on a sunny afternoon, I was driving to the house where I was staying and my phone rang. It was my brother.

“Hello?”

His voice was shaking. “Dad’s dead.”

“No, he isn’t” was my first response.

“Kris, I wouldn’t joke about this.”

That morning, my brother went to check on our dad because it was unusual for him not to call. My brother and a Louisiana, Missouri, police officer peeked through a window and saw dad lying on the ground. He wasn’t moving. They broke into the house and found my father’s body near the bathroom.

He had died sometime between that call I let go to voicemail and that afternoon.

There’s nothing in life that really prepares you for something like this. My life went full stop from a feeling of joy and great optimism of the new life that I’d just started to a feeling of emptiness, darkness, and fear for whatever came next.

What’s worse is that it wasn’t totally unexpected.

Dad struggled with drugs and alcohol my entire life, and for many years before my life. I’ve learned so much more about his upbringing since he passed. It was hard. His still-living mother struggled with what most of our family believes is an undiagnosed personality disorder. By all accounts, she wanted nothing to do with my dad from the day he was born. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents shipped him off to live with various other relatives and their friends for most of his childhood.

Such an upbringing didn’t make him a good parent or a good husband.

My parents divorced by the time I was 3. He burned down our house for insurance money. He always searched for shortcuts in life and chose not to work. He would often drink and come home in the early hours of the morning and fight with my stepmother. One time, he fired a gun in the house. One time, he shot at all of us in broad daylight. One time, he shot my brother in the back.

My relationship with him was always strained, but in the years since he died, I’ve worked to develop a greater understanding of him—and I know this sounds strange—birthed out of the notion that the one thing we had in common was a terrible upbringing.

Granted, he was the reason I had a terrible upbringing. But I’ve found a kinship with him that comes from understanding that being raised around horror and violence and sadness doesn’t prepare you to be an adult. It doesn’t prepare you to create healthy relationships or to be a good person. It’s something I wish I could have understood about him while he was alive.

Dad always used the threat of suicide as a way to get our attention. It often came around holidays, or when he was occasionally homeless and wanted to get off the street and into a warm hospital.

Near the end of his life, he was very much addicted to opioids. No doctor in his small town would fill his prescriptions because they knew this. He told me that he took a publicly funded bus two counties away to get pills from a doctor (who was clearly running a pill mill). He was taking a mixture of 600 prescribed pills a month. He drank. My brother and I had no sense that it had gotten that bad. It had been bad before, but he had never really hidden it the way he was hiding it this time.

I had to keep him at arm’s length as a means of self-preservation. I had learned through my own therapy experience up to that point that there is only so much you can do for someone like my dad. He was a vampire who could suck a person dry financially and emotionally. He could be mean-spirited and petty. There were times where he would call me and say that I was adopted. He often told me that my accomplishments meant nothing and derided the fact that I went to college and found a way out of the terrifying life that I endured because of him. He had been in and out of mental hospitals so many times that it was clear that he wasn’t making use of the psychiatric services at his disposal. That continues to be a source of frustration: knowing that we lead that horse to water so many times but we couldn’t make him drink.

What I know now is that he was incredibly lonely. He was lonely because he was human.

There’s something it seems like we all say when someone, especially a celebrity, kills herself. “She seemed so happy.” I remember the last time I saw my dad. It was an April day—it was the day I took the picture above this post. And my dad seemed so happy. He had just gotten out of jail six months earlier (a very long story). He had just moved out of my brother’s house and found his own place. He had a pug and routine that he seemed to enjoy. He seemed so happy. But he wasn’t. And what seemed like a period of relief from the madness for my brother and me was, unbeknownst to anyone, the darkest time of his life.

Dad saw my brother and his grandchildren, and me with my career and this new life of possibility, and he felt left out. He lived alone. He took drugs. He was miserable.

Our culture doesn’t really confront how dangerous it is to spend so much time alone with your own dangerous thoughts. We don’t talk about the malignant spread of loneliness and the unmerciful power of isolation. But we are social animals, and we demand human connection. A large friend count on social media is no substitute for a night out with your friends, or sitting and telling hilarious stories with your kids, which is what my dad loved to do. Even though he was selfish, even though he treated everyone in his life like shit, even though he died alone with few friends because of how he treated everyone, I understand now that he was never taught any other way. And now that I understand that, I’ve discovered an empathy for him that I never really had.

My brother was a wreck. I pulled up to his house, and we hugged. We cried together. To this day, I still don’t understand how he lives with what he saw. We asked all those questions you ask: Why? Was there something we could have done? Did he do this out of spite because my brother and I were so happy?

The truth is that I don’t know if there was something we could have done. A therapist in college once told me that setting boundaries with someone like my father was important. To paraphrase his advice: There is only so much you can do for another adult before you risk destroying the life you built out of the rubble in which you were raised. I took it to heart.

The death had a much greater emotional impact on my brother because he invested so much of his life and time trying to help this man. There were trips to rehab, daily errands, several phone calls each day, reasoning with the police, letting dad live with him and his children. To some degree he took ownership of the suicide, as if there were any more of his life he could have given to this other man.

I made the choice, way back in college, to build a moat between my dad and myself. In the gulf I dug between us, we could still see each other and have the occasional conversation, but we could never get close enough to go to war. In choosing a life of peace for myself, I decided to accept that if he died, I would have to confront the occasional irrational wave of feeling selfish or guilty that I hadn’t done more.

Standing in front of my brother’s house that day in July, I pulled out my iPhone and played the unplayed voicemail that my dad left the day before. Maybe it was a clue. It has long since been deleted, but I memorized every word. He said:

“This is what’s left of your dad, Kris. I’m just wondering where you might be? I haven’t heard nothing from nobody. I have no idea where you are. If you could just let me know where you are.

“Dad loves you.”

He was lonely.