Sara talked with me with great insight about her brother, Joseph, who took his own life at fifty-nine, and about how she and her family dealt with that crisis.
Joe was barely two years older than me. During our years growing up in the city, he seemed to me strong and wonderful. He played stickball with his friends, he had a large collection of records. He was also an intense child, unpredictably irritable. He and I competed. There was often anger between us. When we were quite young, he would stand too close to the edge of the subway platform to scare me. He was teasing me. But was there also a part of him that was thinking of jumping onto the track?
I remember I first understood how serious his illness was when he came home from two weeks in the hospital in his late teens. He was shaking and drooling because of the medication he was on. I wonder if he had thoughts of suicide for a good part of his life.
He was the smart one, the brilliant one. He went to college and then earned a master’s at Hunter School of Social Work and worked for the Jewish Board of Guardians for years. He enjoyed his work with children and was good at it, going above and beyond what his job required to help them out when there was a need. But he was a person with intense anxiety. He always saw a psychiatrist. He would rub his hands together, he was pale, he looked like an embodied specter. He had idiosyncracies, special ways he had to do things. He was rigid.
Do you mean he was a bit obsessive-compulsive? Sara nods.
As time passed I became the one who took care of Joe. My parents expected me to. They consulted me. It was a heavy burden. But I’m good at denial. My core belief was that he was normal—despite episodes. I wanted him to be normal. He was coming and going, better and then worse. He would seem normal, ordinary—then he was not responsive, there was no rapport, no communication.
Joe had relationships with different women, and most importantly, with Rosa. I thought she was the one. They planned to move in together until Joe backed out of their relationship.
After that, and after he retired early, he began a downhill slide. His thoughts of death must have taken over. He saved up medication he got from a psychiatrist and used it to end his life.
That was unbelievably hard. Unbelievably.
How did you cope?
When I was in his apartment clearing up, I found he had laid out for us literature on dealing with death, and his own workbook on grief for people in our situation. That was wonderful. I was so grateful to him. That way we knew of his love and concern.
What do you want people to know about mental illness and suicide?
Mental illness is not the whole person. Joe had varied interests. He helped tend a public garden, he sang in a choir. He enjoyed photography and swimming. He met with friends regularly. Then he stopped communicating and withdrew.
People need to understand that the disease that takes over the mind is not rational. It’s not logical. This is obvious, but it’s important. The family tries to understand the ill person rationally, but the choice of suicide by someone who’s suffering mentally is not like that of someone who has a fatal illness like cancer. The mind becomes simplistic, it narrows the choices. It’s irrational to think life is so simple.
A person chooses suicide because he or she doesn’t want to suffer anymore. We don’t know what the person we love experiences. We can’t be in their skin. We can’t live for them. They can’t live for us. If someone decides not to go on with life, we should respect that, honor that. We are separate people. It can take a loss of life to acknowledge our separateness. Life is the back and forth of connection and separation, of feeling autonomous and serving one’s aloneness, of finding one’s own agency. Suicide can be an attempt at separation and agency.