GUEST COLUMN: Questions about suicide

A young woman from a prominent family in my hometown of Laramie, Wyo., seemed to have a fairytale wedding. Sadly, not long after the honeymoon, her husband shot her, paralyzing her from the neck down.

I was a teenager then, and later that year around Christmastime, my sister and I crossed paths with this young woman. Strapped into a wheelchair and impeccably dressed, her eyes seemed sad, somehow hollow.

I felt sympathy for her, particularly amid the holiday cheer. The nature of that sympathy caught me off guard, however. Without any presumption that she wished to die, it struck me that she could no longer end of her own life. Of all the self-determination stolen by her husband’s bullet, that loss seemed the ultimate in helplessness.

This past month, one of the participants I worked with at an ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) workshop was similarly confined to a wheelchair. She had a passion for doing therapy and a husband she loved, but her dependence on caregivers frustrated her immensely. They ultimately controlled what she might accomplish from day to day. In a role-playing exercise about calling into a crisis line and being asked if she were suicidal, she responded curtly: “Yes, what the hell can I do about it?”

That experience and remembering the wheelchair-bound woman from my youth heighten certain aspects of understanding suicide: self-determination, obligation, and thorny circumstances. Yes, we want to prevent suicide. But having compassion for those who take that path can help those left behind. Each soul has its own journey.

It’s now Suicide Awareness Week. Prevent Suicide Marathon County, of which I am a board member, strives to eliminate suicide in our community through awareness, ending stigma and listening. True prevention depends on thoughtful, even uncomfortable conversations.

UW-Marathon County Theatre presents the play ‘Night Mother as a way to contribute to the discussion. Prevent Suicide and the B.A. and Esther Greenheck Foundation enabled us to add this production to UWMC’s regular season, and offer three performances (Sept. 15, 16 and 17 at 7 pm) followed by discussions with mental health experts and others touched by suicide. A suggested donation of $7 is admission.

‘Night Mother involves Thelma (played by me) and her daughter Jessie (Kate Caldwell). The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama raises profound questions about suicide in blunt vernacular punctuated by mundane domestic details. The main preoccupations within the modest home in mid-America include how much candy is in the cupboard and how long shoes can be left in the dryer. As the night takes an unexpected turn, we learn about Jessie’s troubles that make her suicidal impulse understandable, while also seeing a life-affirming outlook through Mama. They discuss an afterlife, the moral implications of “self-slaughter,” and obligations to others. The play even manages humor, human dignity and love.

Recent events raise these very questions. A UWMC student intent upon an acting career took his own life this year. Those close to this student likely beat themselves up with “could-have-should-have-would-have.”

On July 22, 14-year-old Jarika Bolen hosted a formal dance in Appleton where she lived. She knew she would not live long enough to attend the junior prom or even start school in fall. With the help of her parents and the best wishes of the community, she decided to have her ventilator removed instead of continuing to live with spinal muscular dystrophy.

Brittany Maynard’s story is better known. Bright, successful and attractive, Maynard knew that the cancer in her brain would cause misery and debilitation before killing her. She moved to Oregon, and made her situation visible as a way to advocate for legalize euthanasia.

Patty Roth, who grew up in Wausau and was well known to many, used her Facebook page (which remains active) to offer an eloquent statement of her plans to “self-exit.” She explained her desire to die on her own terms before declining further with age, and addressed assumptions about suicide. She was 62 when she died in May 2015. Roth was a healthy woman with years left to live. We are sure to find her action quite baffling.

As mental illness has become more widely understood, it’s becoming more accepted that psychological anguish causes as much pain as physical anguish.

Where it was once erroneously believed that anyone discussing intent to suicide was not serious, advocacy groups like Prevent Suicide and programs like ASIST concentrate on intervention. Understanding both how to intervene and how to cope with the loss are possible when we’re willing to enter difficult conversations.

Please join us for ‘Night Mother, the post-production discussions, and other activities marking Suicide Awareness Week. The annual Out of Darkness Walk, hosted by Prevent Suicide Marathon County, is Sept. 17 at Riverside Park, Wausau. Registration opens at 9 am. For information about the play, contact me at 715-261-6290. For Saturday’s walk, call Debi Traeder at 715-848-4477.

Sarah Rudolph is a professor of communication arts & theatre at UW-Marathon County.