It’s been said countless times that if you practice enough at something, eventually you’ll get it right. That’s what my friend Beth did. She practiced suicide.
Until she got it right.
This opening may sound cold, but it’s what I’ve learned to do in order to deal with the harsh reality of what happened on a sunny December afternoon in 2009 when Beth committed suicide by cop. Sometimes reality creeps up on me and it is not my friend. I wallow in “what if’s:” “What if I was still living in Modesto? Could I have reached out to my friend?” “What if I’d still been working the suicide hotline–could I have helped her then?” “What if I had shared more books with her? She loved books.” Mentally, I replay this derailed train of thought in my head daily.
In 2010, 38,364 suicides were reported in the United States, according to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It was in fact, the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. This means that someone died by suicide every 13.7 minutes, the AFSP reports. There are certain risk factors that make a person more likely to commit suicide.
Who’s at risk?
People dealing with mental illness and substance abuse are particularly at risk. This includes:
- Depression or bipolar disorder.
- Alcohol or substance abuse or dependence.
- Borderline personality disorder.
- Psychotic disorders–psychotic symptoms that are part of any disorder.
- Anxiety disorders.
- Previous suicide attempt.
- Family history of suicide or attempted suicide.
- Serious medical condition or severe pain.
In Beth’s case, schizophrenia and depression dogged her repeatedly. I’ve heard people say that those who commit suicide are cowards. Maybe that’s true for some, but poor Beth fought her mental demons bravely. Her depression started when she was 18 years old and a student at San Francisco State University. She planned to become a writer, something she would undoubtedly have been wonderful at. Reality rudely intruded and changed her life forever.
She was at home with friends when the enormous Loma Prieta earthquake hit. Beth ran and stood in the doorway–something that people are commonly told to do when an earthquake hits. This time the doorframe broke and smacked her on the head. When I first met Beth in 1997, I remember her telling me that this is when she first began experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia.
Then came a string of hospitalizations–at least 70 in the time span that this tragic mental illness tormented her. She tried to commit suicide many times. On a trip to Switzerland, she tried to kill herself by jumping into a river.
She thought children would die, if she didn’t kill herself, Beth’s dad Don told the Modesto Bee. I knew Beth’s parents reasonably well and they did everything possible to help their brilliant, tormented daughter. She was a beautiful person. When she was lucid her blue eyes sparkled and we talked about writing and my life as a journalist. These poignant moments always made me incontrovertibly sad. I knew that the delusions would soon step in and take her away again and she would sit on the beige chair in the corner of my livingroom, whispering quietly to herself, arguing with the voices in her head. The voices that were always cruel, with never a kind word. Looking back on this, I always wonder if these voices were mirroring things she didn’t like about herself. Whenever we were together, I tried to get her involved in movies, discussions or books. It was my way of trying to help, but I also did this because she was the most intelligent person I’d ever known.
Her favorite movie was Spike Lee’s Malcolm X but she also had a tender spot for Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
When Beth was sane, there was gentle laughter, talk about Nietzsche, about Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, about famous anarchists. When she wasn’t, there was darkness, and a harsh light. Sometimes she would disappear. This worried Don and Beth’s mother Judy, as well as all of her friends. One time, she wound up in Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco. Another time she wound up in Reno, Nevada. She would walk miles and miles barefoot until her feet were blistered. On these occasions she’d usually get picked up by the police and brought home.
When she was feeling suicidal, there were things she did that clued her family and friends in. First, she’d start organizing things in her house and start giving things away–clothes, televisions, microwaves and anything else she thought people might use. Everyone who knew her realized she was up to something when she did this. She would also become withdrawn and isolated, shunning friends and family.
Warning signs of suicide
While Beth showed several of the warning signs, the AFSP reports that there are other signs to look out for if you suspect a friend or family member is suicidal.
- Talking about wanting to kill themself, or saying that they wish they were dead.
- Hoarding medicine, or purchasing a gun, or looking for other ways to kill themselves.
- Feeling hopeless, or as if they have no reason to live.
- Feeling trapped, desperate, or needing to escape from an intolerable situation. This is where Beth was at emotionally, because the voices never left her alone.
- Having intense anxiety or panic attacks.
- Insomnia. Sometimes poor Beth would be awake for days.
- Acting irritable or agitated.
Beth tried numerous times to kill herself and sometimes wound up in verbal confrontations with police. Ultimately, Don and Judy were able to have her conserved. This meant that the county where she lived–Stanislaus County–was now in control of her care. The county could hospitalize her involuntarily if she began acting too strangely, according to the Bee. I remember when this happened, and I breathed a sigh of relief because I thought Beth would be safe.
I was wrong. She was in and out of the hospital. Sometimes she took her medications. Many times she didn’t. Don and Judy had done everything possible to help Beth. Now there was nothing more they could do. They had exhausted every possible legal recourse that they could take.
Beth was now a ticking time bomb, ready to go off.
After 25 years of fighting the dreadful voices, this woman with whom I had shared coffee, poetry readings, dinners and parties, picked up a large knife. Some reports say it was a meat cleaver, others say it was a butcher knife. I suppose I will never know what kind of knife it was. I had moved thousands of miles away.
She walked from the home where she lived to nearby Catherine Everett Elementary School. The top of her head was bleeding as if she’d been cutting herself with the knife. She entered through the front gate and walked to the playground. A group of kids were playing kickball nearby. Someone in the office called 911, and a school official yelled at the kids and told them to run inside. The kids ran along the eastern edge of the campus to their classroom located at the front of the school, the Bee reports.
Beth followed them a short ways but then turned back and headed to the playground. Once police arrived, a school official directed them to the playground, where another official was keeping a watchful eye on her. As soon as the officers were on the scene, she ran towards them.
They opened fire and 25 years of torment were now over.
I never thought that my beautiful friend, who gave the world so much, would end her life this way and I will miss her as long as I live.
The tragic fact is that the numbers of people committing suicide by cop are on the rise. According to Suicide.org, a study that was published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, researchers analyzed data compiled from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The researchers found that suicide by cop was very common. Analyzing data from 1987 through 1997, the researchers found that 11 percent of officer-involved shootings were indeed suicide by cop incidents.
What to do if you suspect someone is suicidal
- Don’t think they are kidding. Take them seriously. 50 to 75 percent of those who attempt suicide talk about it beforehand, the AFSP reports.
- If a person shows any of the warning signs listed above, act now.
- Ask questions and let the person know that you are genuinely worried about them.
- Tell them what they have said or done that makes you worry about suicide.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the person if they are planning to commit suicide, and if they have a specific plan in mind.
- Ask if they are seeing a doctor or are taking medication so that the doctor can be contacted.
- Don’t try to argue the person out of suicide. Let them know that you care and that they aren’t alone. Don’t preach; telling them that they have so much to live for isn’t going to help. Obviously the depressed person doesn’t feel that way.
- Encourage the person to seek professional help. If possible, assist them in finding a professional and scheduling an appointment. If the person will allow it, go to the appointment with them.
If the person appears to be in imminent danger of committing suicide, call 911, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately.
I hesitated in writing this story. I was a crisis counselor and I helped to run a suicide hotline. I take a certain amount of satisfaction in the fact that I was able to comfort people and help them through bad situations. Beth always sits in the back of my mind and I focus on her vibrance, her wit, and her intelligence. I am sad that she is no longer in the world, but I’m glad that she was my friend. I know that in her brief time here, she made the world a better place.