Suicidal Cousin – What Should I Do?

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Dear Robin:

I have been reading your blog since December and I love it – so funny! This question may be too heavy for you but I am really struggling with what to do.

My cousin Don is mentally ill, suicidal and has tried to kill himself twice in the past 3 years, once in college and another time when he was 30.  He is 40, single and no kids.  He lost his job 18 moths ago which made things worse although honestly he has always been a very depressed person.

Don has been hospitalized several times since high school and has always leaned on me for support as we were very close growing up.  He is in the hospital now and is due to come out in ten days.  My understanding from my uncle is that they are tweaking his medication again and hoping that they find the right combination.

Here is my question: what can I do to help my cousin and make sure he doesn’t try to end his life again?  I am divorced and thinking it might be a good idea to ask Don to move in with me for a while so I can help monitor him, make sure he takes his medication and help him find a job.  I’m really worried about my cousin, I love him and want to make sure he is OK.

-Peter in Portland

Dear Peter:

Yes, this is a heavy topic, but I consider myself the professional weightlifter of advice bloggers so fear not – I’ve got you covered.

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Thank you for the question as well as the additional information you shared on the phone.  I sat on this question for two weeks because I struggled with what I wanted to write and what I thought I should write – two very different things because I suffer from extreme cognitive dissonance in addition to my martyr complex.

Here’s what I think people want to hear from me:

Dear Peter:

Three cheers for you for being such an amazing cousin and friend to Don.  I admire your dedication to his health and well-being and think it’s great you want him to live with you when he is discharged from the hospital.  Hopefully your uncle is correct and Don’s medication adjustment will do the trick.

There are several ways you can help him to stay on the right track and improve his life:

1. As you suggested you can help Don find a job, but please don’t go looking for openings at the local razor factory or bridge repair company.

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2. You told me you are very into fitness and a regular early morning workout routine. Don’s medication has contributed to a significant weight gain, as has his habit of staying in bed all day for the past 18 months since he lost his job.  While I’m not convinced exercise can cure depression, I do know from personal experience that it can work wonders for your mental health.  Get him on your program and see if the endorphin rush helps things.

3. Help Don register on a dating website, because nothing cures depression faster than meeting strangers for coffee or drinks and struggling to find anything remotely likable about them.  I wrote a piece about this years ago that will surely help Don chuckle while at the same time give him hope for finding the right partner, so be sure he reads  The Ups and Downs of Match.com.

4. Make sure Don knows he is expected to take his medication daily and in front of you if he wants to live at your home.  You will also want to rid your home of anything sharp and you should keep all medication in a locked safe.  Take Don everywhere you go so as not to find him swinging from the rafters should you decide to go on a date or something.

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5. Give it a year.  Hopefully Don will pull out of his depression and lead a happier life. Good luck, and God bless!

That’s what I think people want to hear from me, NOT the following:

Dear Peter:

I am very sorry to hear about your cousin’s struggles.  I think it’s wonderful you want to help Don when he leaves the hospital but I have some words of caution for you and I hope you will take them to heart:

I’m not sure there is anything you can do to help your cousin and I fear that your own life will suffer greatly if you take on this unspeakable burden that you frankly aren’t qualified to carry.

When we talked you told me your 7 year-old son and 11 year-old daughter live with you 50% of the time and your divorce is only 8 months behind you.  Things are going OK but not great and your children are still very much in the adjustment stage.  I don’t think moving in Crazy Uncle Don is in their best interests right now, do you?

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You told me the last job he was fired from was the fifth he had held in seven years. Either he is an unhappy lawyer who should be writing an advice blog or he is not capable at this time of holding down a full-time job.  Are you in a financial position to support this man?  I know the divorce cleaned you out so I’m going to guess the answer is probably no.

Peter, all the love in the world isn’t going to alter Don’s brain chemistry and resulting behavior.  Worst still, you told me that both Don’s mother and his great-grandfather committed suicide around the same age.  This darkness runs deep in his blood and may be too much for him to bear.

And here is the worst part – the portion of today’s blog that will surely piss people off to no end and generate plenty of hate mail for Friday:

Who are you to decide what Don should do with his life, be it trudging through misery and despair every day or checking out early to experience the next great adventure? Who are any of us to say?

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Don has told you repeatedly since you were kids that his daily experience is one of profound depression and a physically palpable mental anguish.  He has been in and out of hospitals for years and has tried every therapy imaginable.  Don told you that the pain in his heart and mind is almost indescribably pernicious and persistent but that he believes there is a better life waiting for him after this one.

I can understand the pain that would lead one to end it all.  I had a bad acid trip once in college that taught me a good deal about mental illness, in that it was so fucking terrible that I wanted to kill myself.  Thank Goddess it only lasted about 8 hours, but when it was over I truly understood why some people cannot live with the cacophony that resides between their ears and so seek a permanent respite.

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While I truly hope your cousin is not one of those people, you may want to ready yourself for the possibility that one of these days, notwithstanding all of your efforts and the new fence on the Vista Bridge, he may be finally succeed in a suicide attempt. Fifth time’s a charm, perhaps?

I encourage you to be supportive of Don but to remain somewhat detached so that you don’t internalize his condition and his resulting decisions.  You should continue to love him and help him in healthy ways, but taking him into your home and trying to control him so you don’t have to feel the anguish of his death is not the answer for you, Don or your kids.

-Robin

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. cygnetunchained

    I wonder if his cousin has ever thought of journaling, blogging, or just generally writing out his daily experience? Writing it all out can often help. Think of it as purging the soul of all that inner destruction.

  2. The Yetti

    Robin, wow. Where do I start in my agreement with you since it’s not the ‘popular’ opinion on suicide? After many years of struggle and pain, my step brother took his life. So many people expressed that they thought it was a selfish act. I don’t agree, nor did a few others in the family including his mom. I think selfish is telling someone they have to live with daily and unbearable pain. My step mother witnessed years of her son’s suffering and understood that the choice was his alone to reach for something better. Or reach for nothing. Or whatever. But telling some one to stick it out in this life because it makes *you* feel better is what I call selfish.

    1. Atti

      I agree with you. I have an emotionally unstable, heavily burdened, substance abusing sibling. I’ve often thought that he was on the brink, but realized there is nothing I can do about it. I have prepared myself mentally for the very real possibility that he may take his life one day. You have to truly come to grips with the situation. Sometimes it is your only option. My best to you.

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