Here's What It's Like to Lose Your Husband to Suicide

In 2006, Sheila Hamilton's husband of 10 years began showing alarming signs of depression, paranoia, and confusion. Even as a reporter, the Portland, Oregon–based journalist didn't recognize the warning signs. 

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David had always had an intense personality. From the moment Sheila met him, he'd given off a charming but eccentric energy -- one that made her wryly observe, "He drinks too much coffee."

But after they married and had a daughter, Sophie, together, Sheila began to realize something serious was amiss. David could be loving and attentive, overjoyed to spend time with his family. But he was also prone to lies, fits of rage, and sadness.

Eventually, David was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Six weeks later, he committed suicide.

Last year, Sheila published a memoir, All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness, about the devastating experience. Here, in an exclusive interview with CafeMom, the five-time Emmy Award–winning journalist, who has since remarried, explains why she remains committed to helping others struggling with mental illness.

You've written that the most important factor for treating mental illness is competence. How did this affect your husband? Do you feel it's still a large-scale problem?

We experienced a system that re-traumatized David to the point of hopelessness. An initial misdiagnosis, a prescription that pushed David over into a state of akathisia [severe agitation and restlessness] and suicidality, a lockup care center whose contracted doctors made money -- not by helping people, but by admitting as many patients as they could squeeze into a bland and hopeless enclosure.

There was no talk of recovery, no encouragement, no standardized system of care.

Sadly, I hear from dozens of families every month who are experiencing the same dilemma today.

What response to your memoir has surprised you the most?

It was shocking to hear from so many women who said, "You wrote my story." Even though mental illnesses are varied and complex, they inevitably create a similar pattern of confusion, chaos, and disruption. I suppose that is the power of memoir. We write from our individual experience, but we share recognizable truths. 

After your husband's death, how did you speak to your daughter about his mental illness? In the years since, how has that dialogue changed?

Sophie's father was missing for six weeks before his body was found. It gave me time to research best practices for talking about mental illness and suicide, especially with a young child. She was 9 at the time of his death, and I told her the truth -- that her dad had lost his battle against a serious mental illness. I gave her few details in the beginning and engaged with her honestly every time she asked a question.

Thankfully, she'd visited David several times in the hospital and witnessed his decline. It wasn't unlike watching someone deteriorate from cancer. She understood his level of hopelessness.

More from CafeMom: Antidepressants May Raise Risk of Bipolar Disorder: What You Need to Know

Sophie is 19 now, a sophomore at Stanford University, and an avid mental health advocate. She returned to Portland [Oregon] this summer and is working to organize a peer support program at Portland's new psychiatric center, Unity Behavioral Health [which offers patient-centered care to people experiencing a mental health crisis].

It's one thing we agreed upon -- if Sophie's dad could have been introduced to a few people who had recovered from a mental illness, he might still be alive today. 

Secrecy and shame prevent many people who are mentally ill from getting help. How did this stigma affect your husband?

David was raised in a household where mental illness was viewed as a moral failing. His parents were deeply skeptical of psychiatry, and made it clear to their kids that they were opposed to the entire profession.

David told his doctors that he likely suffered his first deep depression when he was sent to boarding school at the age of 9, where he was bullied nearly every day. He suffered from several other episodic depressions throughout his life, but never sought treatment because he believed he was somehow responsible for his malaise, his lack of enthusiasm, and his cognitive disruption.

If David had been evaluated earlier, he might have been able to avoid the worsening of his symptoms and the impulsive decision to take a prescription that was prescribed by a doctor. It's common for medical doctors to misdiagnose people with bipolar disorder because they often present in a depressed phase of the illness.

You've said that you "beat yourself up endlessly" about your husband's death. What insight can you offer others who've also lost a loved one to suicide?

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I wasn't able to live with myself until I added a sixth stage to the framework of loss -- forgiveness. It wasn't until I accepted David's decision to end his life that I began to heal. I forgave him. I forgave myself.

I titled my book All the Things We Never Knew as a way of signaling to the reader that I'd made plenty of mistakes. I didn't know enough about mental illness, how the different illnesses unfold, or the best practices for treatment. I wrote the book as a guide and as a memoir to try to help other people who were coping with similar circumstances and/or loss.

More from CafeMom: How to Take Care of Yourself When Your Partner Suffers From Depression

Many people who consider taking their own life do so in part because they think their loved ones will be "better off" without them. What's your response to that?

Well, that statement speaks to the futility people feel when they are battling a mental illness. We must stop calling mental illness a lifetime disability and begin acknowledging the hundreds of thousands of people who are living well with a mental illness.

We must surround people who are suffering from brain illnesses with love, empathy, and the promise that we will walk with them through their darkest hours. As human beings, we are tasked with being kind to people who are suffering. We must also provide a sense of that person's self-worth and dignity.

If Sophie's dad were here today, I'd tell him three things -- how deeply he's loved, how worthy and important his life was, and how very much he's missed.

 

If you or someone you know need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

Images via Pexels; Deneb Catalin

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