How Suicide Changed My Life

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How Suicide Changed My Life

By Gayle Saks 05/28/18

Asking those suffering from addiction about suicide attempts comes with heightened emotions for me. Both my mother and my best friend died by suicide.

Gayle Saks

[Editor's note: The following article contains information that may be triggering for those who have experienced suicidal thoughts or lost a loved one to suicide. If you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, immediately seek help. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8225)., the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741.]

“Have you wished you were dead or wished you could fall asleep and never wake up?”

This is just one of the several questions about suicide and suicidal ideation I have to ask every patient in my role as an admissions counselor during their initial intake to the drug and alcohol rehab where I work.

Subsequent questions cover topics such as “preparatory behavior,” including for example, the hoarding of pills, buying a gun or rope, and the drafting of suicide notes, and “interrupted attempts” as in has someone literally talked them off a ledge before they had the chance to jump.

It’s not lost on me or people who know me well that asking those suffering from addiction about suicide attempts comes with heightened and loaded emotions.

Both my mother and my best friend, albeit 30 years apart, committed suicide, my mother by overdosing on pills and my best friend by hanging.

My mother never turned to substances to ease her pain and the trauma of being a Holocaust survivor but my best friend, driven by a raging crystal meth addiction was spun into such a paranoid and psychotic alter ego that undoubtedly some imagined forces egged him on.

The men and women who have sat in front of me, men and women of all ages with different drugs of choice pretty much all admit to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Some don’t want to discuss their past trauma but others will, and after hearing some of their stories I truly don’t know how they are still standing.

There have been many who have found their parents dead from overdose. There are those who have lost children, been raped, have been hung by hooks from their belt loops as punishment for one thing or another, and have been shot-up with heroin by their parents for the first time while they were still in elementary school.

There but for the grace of God go I.

There is often a palpable disconnect, a detachment, when patients relay an extensive history of as many as seven suicide attempts, some as recent as 72 hours before they show up at our door.  

Based on many factors it becomes a judgment call of whether or not our facility is the most appropriate place for them, whether or not we’re properly equipped to be able to tease out the substance misuse from the severe depression or actual psychosis.

Sometimes while gathering more about their history they’ll say that they just said they were suicidal so they could get a bed somewhere instead of going to a detox. They’ll answer “no” to the list of questions because they’re afraid that we will commit them instead of letting them stay.

One patient I will never, ever forget was a beautiful woman in her forties who one day put weights in her shoes and lay down on a large rock with a bottle of wine and waited and hoped that a powerful tide would pull her out to sea where she would drown. It didn’t happen and she was disheartened that it hadn’t.

Others have told me that they’ve scooped a handful of over-the-counter sleep aids and guzzled them down with vodka or beer and are often surprised and disappointed when they’ve actually woken up.

I can’t jump in with my own personal bias and experience and say, “Please don’t do that to the people in your life! You’ll leave them wondering what they could have done to save you. When people ask them how you are or say they haven’t seen you in a while you’ll be putting them in the most awkward of situations. They’ll be tormented for the rest of their lives wondering what your last thoughts were as you carried out whatever method you decided to use to take you away from them forever.”

I know that I still am.

My mother has missed so many things—she didn’t get to see her seven magnificent grandchildren as adults and will never know how precious her seven great grandchildren are.

She’ll never know that I now have to have a little square of chocolate at night just like she did. Craig, my best friend, would have LOVED and had a lot to say about the most recent royal wedding. Seeing as that he and I watched Diana’s funeral together, I felt a huge pang of missing him as her youngest son, so dashing and adorable was married in front of millions.

These are the kinds of things I want to tell the sad and suffering patients who come through our doors, the things that seem so trivial and small, that they will miss and that others will miss doing with them. It sounds like such a cliché but there’s always help and there’s always hope.  

There are always memories to be made, chocolate to be eaten and weddings to watch.

Gayle Saks has written extensively about her work as a substance abuse counselor from the unique perspective of someone who is not in recovery herself. Her blog, My Life In The Middle Ages, was voted one of the Top 20 Recovery Blogs for 2016 by AfterParty Magazine. She has written on the subject for The Fix, HuffPost, mindbodygreen and Thought Catalog. She has also written about being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and the eventual suicide of her mother. Her pieces on the subject have appeared in kveller where she is a regular contributor, The Jewish Journal, and MammaMia.

In 2013 she was invited to be on a panel on HuffPost Live to talk about being middle-aged, where her 15 minutes of poignant and intelligent conversation turned into a soundbyte about her having a hot flash at a Justin Timberlake/Jay-Z concert. 

Saks grew up on Long Island, New York, and lives in the Greater Boston area with her husband, daughter, two cats and two dogs or as her husband says, “Too many beating hearts.”

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