Here’s an excerpt from the final chapter in Andy Steiner’s forthcoming resiliency and mental health book, How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People, which comes out Jan. 14. This one is about the loss of Andy’s friend Annie.
How to Survive a Loved One’s Suicide
Like many people, I grew up with the impression that committing suicide was the ultimate failure. I didn’t judge exactly, but a little part of me did think that people who took their own lives were incapable of mustering the courage to pull themselves out of the tar pit of depression. Then I met Annie.
When I first met Annie, she was sitting curled up quietly on a couch in my friend Sasha’s living room, fingers flying effortlessly as she knit a complicated sweater. She was lovely, with long, curly dark hair and a kind smile. Annie was a newcomer to knitting group—a noisy cluster of smart, professional, boisterously opinionated women—and her friendly, quiet reserve appealed. We started talking that night, and I liked Annie right away. She was bright, perceptive, and bitingly funny—perfect friend material. By the end of the evening, we’d compared notes on our children (at the time we both had just one), talked about our families (Annie and her husband and son had recently moved back to her town and were living with her parents), and even exchanged phone numbers—making plans to meet for coffee or a walk. Before the evening was over, I also learned an important piece of information about my new friend. While we snacked on cookies, fruit, and cheese, she told me, openly and straightforwardly, that she had bipolar disorder. She was diagnosed in her early twenties, she said, and she was doing well on medication. She appeared to be a mental-health activist, telling me that she spoke to groups and classes about her experience living with the disease and to medical students about coping with the side effects of the medications commonly used to treat it. I’d never met anyone who was quite so open about her struggle with the disease.
A few weeks later, when Annie and I met for our walk, I learned more. She told me about the manic episode—and subsequent crippling depression—that led to her diagnosis. She’d been just a few years out of college when it happened, she told me, living and working far away from home on the East Coast when her increasingly intense, irrational, and manic behavior led to an inappropriate affair, a called-off engagement, and broken hearts. When the mania faded, a massive depression washed over Annie like a tidal wave. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t think, could barely get out of bed. On the worst days, she told me, she lay on the floor, an inert pile of bones with unbrushed teeth and unwashed hair. In the end, Annie’s younger brother had to fly out, scrape her off the floor, and bring her home to Minnesota.
What followed were intense therapy sessions and medication. “It was horrible,” Annie admitted, but somehow she was able to pull herself out of the depression. Once the medications stabilized her system, Annie was able to get back to a semblance of her former life. She found a job, a boyfriend, and eventually a husband. Best of all, she gave birth to her son, a handsome, lively, smart boy who was the light of her life.
While the Annie I met was open about her struggles with mental illness, she seemed emotionally healthy and strong. Sure, she was cynical—but aren’t most smart people cynical? She was also happy and magnetic and fun to be around. We spent more and more time together, talking about our lives. Because she trusted me enough to tell me about the biggest struggles in her life, and because I favor people who admit their imperfections, I liked her even more. I was happy to have made a new friend—an event that is all too rare in everyday adult life.
Annie and I were close for a few years before cracks started to show in her bright, sunny demeanor. First, her marriage fell apart, but she pulled herself together and built a life for herself and her son. By the time my second daughter was born, Annie had started a new job, and, as I watched from my distracted new-mom state, I noticed that she was changing, becoming more intense and unpredictable.
Annie got in trouble at work for random behavioral issues, developed a crush on a younger co-worker, and then, with little warning, fell in love with someone else. They got engaged. Abruptly announcing her plans to move across the country to live with her fiancé, Annie sold her car, gave away her dog, found a new school for her son. It all happened so fast that it made my head spin, but I tried to tell myself that I was just being boring, that my life was too predictable.
Then, just like it had all those years ago, Annie ran into a brick wall. Her manic behavior came to an abrupt stop when her fiancé—frightened by her irrational behavior—called off the engagement. Annie bitterly told the story one night at knitting group, and the usually noisy room grew silent as she talked about her anger, her broken heart.
In the weeks that followed, depression began to seep in around the edges of Annie’s life. I could only watch as the soul-crushing sorrow that she had described on our first walk began to slowly take over her life like a dark cloud sliding over the sun. Annie fought valiantly against the depression, going to her psychiatrist, altering her medications, talking to friends and family, but the darkness still pulled her in. One morning, she dropped her son off at school, parked her car in a secluded spot, swallowed handfuls of pills, and waited to die. She almost succeeded.
This was Annie’s first serious suicide attempt. She was discovered, near death, and brought to a hospital. She stayed there for weeks, working with doctors to make herself physically and emotionally healthy again. When I finally saw Annie again after the suicide attempt, she told me, flatly, about how the electroshock therapy that used to help pull her out of depression had erased many of her memories.
I hate to admit it, but it felt like my smart, loving, funny friend was gone. She seemed fragile, like a dried-up, molted exoskeleton that could easily blow away in the wind. I felt anxious around her, afraid to come too close for fear of crushing her.
If Annie’s transformation was unnerving to me, one of her newer friends, imagine how it felt to people who had known her since childhood. One sunny summer afternoon, I met Flannery, one of Annie’s oldest friends, for lunch near her downtown office. In many ways, Flannery reminds me of Annie. Like her friend, she is tall, slender, smart, and open, with curly dark hair and warm amber/brown eyes. As we sit down to eat, our conversation flows easily, like we’ve known each other for years.
Flannery tells me that Annie’s first suicide attempt rattled everyone—even Annie. Though her closest friends and family members knew that she struggled with mental illness, they never thought she’d actually try to take her life. Her activism and openness about her struggle with bipolar disorder served as a kind of safety belt: If she was so determined to fight this disease, how would she ever succumb to its pull?
It’s true that Annie knew all about her disease and the warning signs for suicide attempts, but when the depression completely took over, she felt powerless, like she had no other option but to end her life. Waking up in the hospital, she told Flannery that she realized she had made a horrible mistake. She told everyone she saw in those first few days that she was determined to make up for what had happened, hoping that her family and friends would forgive her for trying to leave them.
“After that first attempt, Annie told me, ‘I’m so glad I survived that. I can’t believe I did that,’” Flannery recalls. “She was overwhelmed by the fact that she had tried to kill herself. She was remorseful. We all just supported her, saying, ‘We are so happy you’re alive. What can we do to not let it get to that point again?’”
Everyone, including Annie, was determined to keep her alive at any cost.
Excerpted from How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People. All rights reserved.