Autopsy of a Suicide

READ THIS FIRST: Things are about to get real here, people. I hunger for truth, and I am revolted by silence, shame and embarrassment. In an effort to shine a light on a chronic societal problem, I’m going to be describing personal events of a troubling nature in fairly graphic detail. What I’m about to write may disturb some readers, and honestly if it didn’t, I’d wonder about you guys. I just want to give you fair warning: If laying eyes on the gritty truth about a recent suicide that has irrevocably changed my life will impact your remaining days in a negative fashion, please exit the vehicle at this time, and know that I won’t hold it against you. For those staying aboard, hold onto a friend and buckle in tight. (Just to be clear, the views I’m about to express in this post are my own. I cannot speak for anyone else, including the rest of The Young Thumbs.)

It’s also imperative that I remind you I am not a mental health professional. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255). They are available to take your call 24/7. International readers should visit the website for the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) to find local resources. We care about you, friends.

 

MY STORY

A little over three months ago, a close Vegas friend and I were discussing the recent suicide epidemic. I counted five people whom I knew personally (or were very close to friends of mine) who had removed themselves from the equation since October, 2013. Three in Vegas, two in Oregon, ranging in age from their early-20s to late-50s. Appalled by the body count, I mentioned that someone in our community should write about this in the interest of starting a conversation, though I felt too removed from the situation to warrant my direct involvement. When I attended a memorial service for one of these guys on February 20th, 2014, I had no way of knowing that my beloved brother-in-law (my husband’s 29-year-old brother and best friend) would put a gun to his head and pull the trigger less than one week later.

Nobody in my family (and when I say “my family”, technically I mean my husband’s family, but I’ve known his parents and all nine kids for 22 years now, so they’re mine, too) saw this coming. Petey was the guy who told the best jokes – the witty, off-the-cuff quips and observations we all wish we had such propensity for. He was always curious about and excited by the best stuff in life, with the enthusiasm of a really big kid. He loved to find weird, random, perfect gifts to send to my better half and I, often for no reason in particular. (I have Petey to thank for the 4”-tall skeleton perched upon a toilet that currently graces the top of my Facebook page.) If we were passing through the town in which he lived on our way to someplace else, he would rearrange his schedule so we could spend time together, even if it was for only a few hours in the middle of the day. He made it known that we were always welcome to stay longer – that he really wished we could – and encouraged us to stay the night in the guest bedroom. Petey was fun, kind, real, thoughtful, generous, handsome, outgoing, intelligent, helpful, instantly likeable, and genuinely interested in other people. He was a hard worker and a good provider, with an infectious laugh and a beautiful smile. He put 100% of himself into any task he took on, and into any relationship he deemed worth having. Petey was the best of all of us put into one person. He loved his parents, his family as a whole, his pets, and his wife of eight years whom he adored with all his heart.

When the news of Petey’s death broke (by way of a phone call from my father-in-law 24 hours after Petey passed), we were told that his wife had left their house in Nevada for four days to go on a girls’ trip to California with her friend, and that in her absence Petey had taken a bottle of Xanax, drank himself into oblivion, and took his life without so much as a “goodbye cruel world” scribbled on an old utility bill. His wife’s friend found him when the girls returned to Nevada, after his wife reportedly received a troubling text from him that morning. The day after we found out about Petey’s death, we drove up to their house in Fallon, Nevada (quite possibly the most depressing place in the entire United States), our heads heavy with sorrow and confusion. What happened, exactly? And why? Was the prescription to blame? Considering what we had been told — unanswered questions aside — all of our family members echoed the sentiment: “This wasn’t our Petey.”

We spent the next few days in Fallon, comforting Petey’s wife, cleaning out their house, packing boxes and loading them into a moving truck to be transported to Moab, Utah (where his wife would now be living with her parents), and helping her with the funeral arrangements in any way we could. Discussion regarding the days leading up to Petey’s death was limited: We were told that Petey and his wife had gotten into a little tiff before she left for California, but that little fights like this were not uncommon among couples. She and her parents insisted it must have been the Xanax – that this never would have happened if he hadn’t been taking it.

The lack of a suicide note reinforced our belief that the pills played a role in his death, and that he must have been out of his mind. Thoughtful, lucid Petey, even in the throws of depression, would have left a note to convey a message or to leave certain items to certain people. We began to come to terms with the freakishly tragic manner in which he died, settling for an empty pill bottle in place of detailed explanation or closure, until…

A few days after we arrived in Fallon and were preparing to drive to Moab for the funeral, we were shocked when the detective in charge of the case alerted us to the presence of not one, but four separate suicide notes found in Petey’s jeans pocket, addressed to various family members. We (my husband, my youngest brother-in-law, his partner and myself) read Petey’s letters addressed to the boys amongst ourselves, and although these two specific notes yielded no answers, it became clear that Petey took the time to say goodbye and to express his love to those most important to him before he died. Their notes were entirely coherent and heartbreakingly sweet — and with this new knowledge that he was lucid enough to write four notes, the paradigm shifted, and the grieving process began all over again.

We buried Petey on March 5th, 2014 in a cemetery in Moab, Utah. The service was extremely moving, the most heart-wrenching elements being the eulogies given by Petey’s three brothers and his oldest sister’s husband, and the stories and memories shared by his five sisters while they each took a turn at the lectern. I don’t know what else to say about this day, other than that it was probably the worst day I’ve lived through to date.

The hellish weeks that followed were a mix of tears, sleepless nights, long conversations, what-ifs, and unanswered questions. I was well aware of my duty to take care of my better half while dealing with my own grief in the most productive manner possible. I wrote a blog post about grieving, talked about the situation with my husband, family, and closest friends, and hunkered down at my office. On the days when the depression couldn’t be kept at bay, I struggled to get out of bed and to eat anything substantial. I cried. A lot.

Closure was elusive, as there were still a few key parts to the story that didn’t make sense. In an effort to get a better understanding of Petey’s frame of mind during the days leading up to his death, my husband called the detective who handled the case and inquired about obtaining a copy of the toxicology report based on the blood draw the coroner had performed. Did you know next-of-kin can request a copy of a coroner’s report through the District Attorney’s office? Well they can, and we did.

We were expecting to receive a couple of pages detailing the results of the blood test. What we ended up with was a 51 page document containing reports from the officers who arrived on the scene, time-stamped 911 call records, a graphic description of the position and condition in which Petey’s body was found, the condition of certain personal effects found throughout the house, interviews with Petey’s wife and her friend (including revelations regarding what the fight was really about, which explained volumes), and copies of all four suicide notes (which were heartbreaking to read, yet tremendously informative). Finally, we had uncovered most of the truth about what happened during the last five days of Petey’s life, and although his tragic death was a permanent solution to what some may consider to have been a temporary problem, we now understood where he was coming from and could slowly initiate what will no doubt prove to be an infinitely long healing process.

 

MY THOUGHTS

I have always viewed death by suicide as a personal choice that each of us ultimately has the right to choose. I’ve also always disagreed with the common remark “suicide is a selfish act”. Sure, theoretically, some suicides can be selfish acts, but I believe in most cases the suicidal mind is incapable of thinking in terms of “selfish” versus “unselfish”. There’s just pain, and the overwhelming desire to make the pain go away.  Add hopelessness to the equation, and there you go. I also believe that the difference between the 99.9% hopeless person and the 100% hopeless person is that one of them is a suicide statistic. These are beliefs I’ve held for a long time, and they haven’t changed.

Personally speaking, I’ve battled depression and anxiety disorders (OCD and social anxiety disorder) for years. I’ve felt physical manifestations of pain brought on by mental and emotional turmoil. There have been times in my life when I’ve wished I’d go quietly in my sleep; there have been times I’ve held a full bottle of pain meds in my hand while seriously considering downing the whole thing; there have been times I’ve googled “suicide” because I knew I really needed to read something meant to talk me out of it. Yet through it all, I held onto a faint glimmer of hope, and a faraway memory of better, happier, healthier times.

I still didn’t foresee this happening to Petey.

I’m so thankful that my husband and I had visited Petey on Christmas Eve (just two months before his death), and I can tell you that the classic warning signs didn’t apply here. He seemed a little bit tired back then, but he had just finished working a full shift by the time we arrived in Fallon. He still went to dinner and stayed awake for several hours with us, singing Playstation karaoke and laughing at YouTube videos. In retrospect, I wonder if this was more than just run-of-the-mill fatigue. I wish I had asked more questions along the lines of “How are you doing?”, and then listened (openly and intently) to the real answer.

The changes I had noticed over the last few years were those of a more subdued, more personal nature. Views Petey expressed on a few everyday things no longer jived with what I believed his opinions on these matters to have been in the past. A rare comment here or there about spirituality or the exploration of spiritual beliefs. Vocalized appreciation for specific pop songs trilling tales of broken hearts and love lost. But that’s like half of all pop songs, and these preferences were never expressed with anything other than a smile and a sing-along chorus.

The observations culled from his wife’s social media presence that hinted at potential problems in their relationship spurred logical double takes on my part (I realize in retrospect), but without any clues coming directly from Petey to indicate that anything was wrong at the time, I assumed he knew what was up with his marriage and had everything under control. In an effort to avoid drama or discomfort, I kept my questions to myself. I assumed this was none of my business.

But here we are, one man down.

I’m not saying it’s entirely my responsibility, and I’m not saying I’ll ever be able to convince someone to put off doing the deed, but I’ll be damned if I don’t try. It breaks my heart to imagine Petey home alone for four days, isolated and hurting. It breaks my heart to watch my husband and in-laws grieve for the greatest guy they’ve ever known. The what-ifs, the time machine scenarios, the dreaming followed by waking realizations – these hurt me to my core. I’ve come to understand that this truly is a pain one must live through to comprehend.

That’s why I’m sharing this post, friends. It was tough to write, yet I doubt I’ve ever written anything more important in my life. My emotions regarding this situation and the conversations I have in my head with the people involved are in a perpetual state of flux, however my love and respect for Petey remain constant. I miss him dearly, and I still have days where I struggle with overwhelming feelings of grief and depression. Some days I am overcome with anxiety and a profound fear that someone else I care about is suffering in silence, thinking about pulling that trigger, tying that knot or taking those pills. I can’t shake the feeling of anticipation; the death, the phone call, the next gut punch clear into despair.

The day after we found out about Petey, I asked Allissa “What’s with all the suicides lately?”, to which she replied “The world has gone mad and we’re doing a shitty job of taking care of each other.”

She’s right, you know.

So here’s a challenge for all of us: Let’s take better care of each other before we regret putting work, school, and ourselves ahead of other humans who need us. Let’s build each other up, and validate each other, and express how important we are to each other in this life. Let’s stop kicking the can down the road, assuming we’ve got years’ worth of tomorrows ahead of us. Let’s strive to be more aware of what others may be going through, and to ask each other questions that the older generation may consider rude, embarrassing, or overly personal. Because isolation and silence can be deadly, and because maybe – just maybe – we can make a difference.

Please share this post, your thoughts, and your stories.

Let’s have that overdue conversation.

 

Petey (left), my better half (center), and myself. Wedding day, Vegas, 2009.

Petey (left), my better half (center), and your humble narrator (right). Wedding Day, Vegas, 2009.

 

RESOURCES

My husband started a blog in honor of Petey. He’d love it if you’d check it out.

Again, here’s that article on the suicide epidemic.

Here’s Anderson Cooper talking to Howard Stern about a lot of stuff, including his brother’s suicide. Tune in at the 13 minute mark if you’re short on time. (Thanks so much for this link, Tommy. I honor your wisdom and admire your strength. <3)

Add the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on Facebook.

Once again, if you’re feeling suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255). They are available to take your call 24/7. International readers should visit the website for the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) to find local resources.

You are loved. Believe it.

So This Is Grieving

When I found out, I was halfway through an afternoon shift at my office. One 60 minute appointment to go, and somehow I managed to get through it tear-free. Stunned. Numb. I think that’s what they call “shock”.

Your death was so unexpected. It’s been three weeks, and I still have moments where I forget you’re not here with us, just a phone call away, planning a September trip to Vegas.

Your face (so often smiling, bright eyes twinkling) is still omnipresent: occupying memory in my head and on my phone; online, daily; scattered throughout our house, adhered to stubborn, crispy, yellowed photo album guts. Your fantastical brand of inexhaustible generosity is everywhere, to the point where I can’t take a shit without cracking a smile at a perfectly tasteless knick-knack in the room. Little Brother, you’re the carefree to my uptight, the effort to my ‘meh’, the Fool to my Hermit, and my only regret (if that’s even what it is – words don’t seem to exist to describe the vast glut of feelings in this realm) is that I wish I had given your influence so much (over)due respect while you were still on the other end of that line.

Kind SouI, you should know I miss you daily. The void is real, and today it feels like panic-attack-chest-wrenching. Tomorrow it will feel like something slightly – or entirely – different, probably painful at worst, or uncomfortable at best, and despite the high probability that tears will rain down my cheeks at some point throughout the day, I cannot be angry with you for leaving. You are so deserving of sympathy, love, and understanding insofar as my stunted brain cells are capable of providing. Truly, you are treasured and adored.

Dear Friend, I know I have to become a better person, because you are. I will strive to listen as you listened, and to be as thoughtful and as generous to others as you were to those you loved. It won’t be easy, but I am bound to honor your existence in this way. (Even if I come somewhat close, the world wins.)

Three weeks in, I no longer view the greatest division among humanity as a barrier between the haves and have-nots, political adversaries, or religious ideologues. This boundless chasm lies between the living and the dead. What the latter have forfeited, we are charged with honoring — by crafting the remainder of our own lives in the most kickass fashion possible.

 

To my beloved brother Petey, for all of this and more, thank you.

 

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Andrea Lipomi is a licensed massage therapist and esthetician who lives and works in Las Vegas, Nevada. She also peddles massage therapy ebooks and NCBTMB-approved continuing education courses at ConfidentMassage.com, will travel hundreds of miles for a fantastic spa experience, and craves dark chocolate and Depeche Mode’s upcoming tour dates on an almost daily basis.