The recent tragic case of Patti Stevens, the Dallas, Texas area woman who took her own life on Oct. 25 in the wake of her husband Dave’s brutal murder by schizophrenic former Texas A&M football player Thomas Johnson, once again brought the scourge of suicide to the national spotlight.
The reasons behind these deaths are varied, and social critics tout everything from romance to selfishness, but one thing is certain: Devastation permeates all suicides, and more than finality, they leave behind a wake of doubt, guilt, and helplessness.
Over the years I’ve been no stranger to any of this, having had both family members and friends end their own lives.
My most recent encounter with suicide was about a decade ago, when I came home to an e-mail informing me that my friend Scott had taken his life. Even sanitized, it was a violent and somber herald – a kick in the face as well as the opening notes of a dirge that never quite ends.
Because of prior commitments, I couldn’t attend the service announced in the message. I decided instead to draft these thoughts of Scott during the time of the memorial, hoping to connect in spirit with those gathering elsewhere in his honor.
Today, I’ll share them with you.
Scott was a brilliant man who had issues with how he interacted in the world, a “nutty professor” type. He was manic-depressive, living his life in extreme highs and lows.
Scott grew up largely sheltered by a family who believed, in good faith, that the best thing was to keep him in one Ivy League school after another. There he hid and studied, mostly avoiding the rough and tumble of human relations.
After his parents died, while in his 40s, Scott inherited assets with no controls – such as a trust – over their use. Yet he was unprepared to deal with responsibility outside of academia, let alone manage a small fortune.
In exchange for false adulation, those around him picked his pockets, draining Scott’s inheritance in less than five years. When the money was gone, so were the sycophants.
A few of Scott’s true friends acted as a surrogate family and warned him of this treachery. Ever the optimist, and craving the love of others, he insisted that positive change was in effect and everything would be fine.
In the end, Scott died broke and alone. His body was found floating in a river following a plunge from an interstate bridge. It was one final, grand spectacle: an innocent screaming for parole from within the prison of despair.
At the time, and as the parent of a high-functioning Asperger’s child, I saw a lot of Scott in my son, Jason. I was a tough but fair father, and never let Jason hide behind his school work, where, like Scott, he excelled. I didn’t want him to end up with the same anguish because no one prepared him for this world’s cruelty.
Also, I was left to wonder if Scott might still be alive today had his family not shielded him. To be sure, their motives were pure. Still, a potentially productive future was wasted, seemingly, for nothing.
To this day, I can’t help feeling responsible, and even guilty, for not doing enough to help Scott when I had the chance. At the same time, I’m relieved to know his personal chamber of horrors is closed.
Yet when Jason, now an adult, struggles, I find it difficult to reconcile teaching him life’s hard lessons with my paternal instinct to shield him from the product of his angst – even if sometimes I’m the cause.
Once, in another lifetime, when Jason was 6 and his future much less certain, he flew into an autistic rage. Distraught and insecure, I froze up like Hamlet, unable to act. In tears, I sat on Jason’s bed and let him use me as a punching bag – a way to vent his torment.
Parents everywhere deal with disturbed children, and continue to do so as their offspring become adults. On the day I learned of Scott’s suicide, once again I felt like a young, clueless father with no solutions or plan.
I’m not so sure I have those answers now. Clearly, the loved ones Patti Stevens left behind are feeling the same way.
Long ago, I resigned myself that somehow Scott is at peace, finally leaving behind the realm of tortured souls. His 15 minutes, perhaps like those of Patti Stevens, forever will be buried in a mountain of statistics. The rest of us are left to wonder what might have been, and to assess priorities.
Without trying to simplify the issue’s complexity, as human beings what often lingers within us is something every suicide bears: discontent with our own shortcomings.
However, the difference is that – learn from them or not – we’re able to move on with life in this durable world.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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