What My Son Couldn't Tell Us

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By Richard Moe
Sunday, July 9, 2006

The recent death of publisher Philip Merrill brings to mind the observation of Henry David Thoreau that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. While it's impossible to know exactly what motivated Merrill to take his own life, few, if any, apparently saw signs that caused them to suspect he might be considering doing so. And so it is with those who contemplate this final act; it is the most personal decision an individual can make, not to be shared with family or friends but to be reached entirely alone.

Our son Eric took his own life three years ago. He was an extraordinarily gifted young man of 35 -- an artist and self-taught architect and designer with remarkable intuitive abilities. He also possessed a wonderful sense of humor, enormous personal integrity and an exuberance for life that made it inconceivable he would ever choose to end it.

But in recent years he had suffered an increasingly debilitating series of episodes that temporarily immobilized him. He worked hard to understand and overcome his problem, and he sought help. Two months before his death he was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. Although he began taking a prescribed medication, he continued to experience great pain, and he told me twice that he didn't know what was happening to him. We could find no safe place for him to go. He was very close to his family, and we know he didn't want to hurt us. But in the end he concluded, for reasons that will never be fully known to us, that he had no other choice.

Our society does not encourage conversation about death, and certainly not about suicide. The silence can sometimes be deafening for families that have experienced it. The taking of one's own life is still a taboo subject in most places, laden as it is with judgment. Many people still associate suicide with shame, as if it were a morally heinous albeit tragic event.

It has been our family's experience that most people are reluctant to raise the subject because, in addition to being uncomfortable with it, they do not want to cause us more pain. On the contrary, we feel no shame regarding Eric's death, and we are eager to talk about him because we loved and respected him to the end and still do. We wish he hadn't taken his life, but his life still has great meaning for us. I am especially proud of how courageous he was to live as long as he did with this debilitating illness and how he developed his spirit to help him endure pain that cannot be imagined.

Most suicides are related to some form of mental illness -- depression, acute anxiety or myriad other disorders. We cannot begin to understand these disorders and their consequences until we acknowledge and discuss them frankly and publicly. Millions of Americans suffer from some form of depression; I am one of them. Compounded as it is by the increasingly stressful nature of our society, particularly in such intense work and social environments as Washington and New York, it is probably no exaggeration to say that America is on its way to a mental health epidemic.

Fortunately, a few people are helping us to see mental illness for what it is -- a complicated illness that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with like any other. Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has been making this point forcefully for decades. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, wrote eloquently of her own attempted suicide in her classic, "An Unquiet Mind." In publicly acknowledging the need to take medication for the rest of her life, she has become a leading advocate for greater awareness and for how medication can save lives. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) has recently written a deeply moving book, "Remembering Garrett," about his 21-year-old son's suicide. And public acknowledgments such as those by Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, who withdrew from a gubernatorial race to be treated for clinical depression, do much to encourage others to seek help.

These are enormously important contributions to public understanding that are necessary if we are to lift depression and the suicide it sometimes causes out of the shadows and into the daylight so that we can deal with it effectively. Only then can the mass of men and women who lead lives of quiet desperation hope to lead lives of peace and fulfillment.

The writer is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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