The Brick We Carry
One mother's brave testimony and the impact suicide had on her family.
By Amy Gordy/Photography Courtesy of Kathy Rutledge
Anytime we lose a loved one it’s hard. The grieving process is a long, difficult path that is inconceivably more complicated when your loved one made the choice to leave this world on their own. Anger and guilt can be unbearable, social stigma can leave one feeling outcast and alone, and the empty hole the lost person leaves behind is something that never fully heals. It’s there when you walk past their bedroom door or their empty seat in the classroom, or each time you set the dinner table with one less place setting. It's on that first holiday, or that first missed birthday or family gathering that their absence feels unendurable.
Suicide is a quiet epidemic in the U.S. right now. “When you look at the statistics it is on the rise,” said Christopher Epperson, director for the Arkansas chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Of all the national leading causes of death, suicide is the only one moving in an upward direction, and that’s very concerning.”
The statistics tell us that in Arkansas, the number of deaths by suicide is twice the number of deaths by homicide, and it is predominantly taking its toll on the young—it’s the second leading cause of death for ages 10-34. While suicide still experiences a level of social disfavor, Epperson feels that the community is slowly becoming more comfortable talking about it along with its primary contributing factor, mental illness.
“Usually when a death occurs, people feel passionate about bringing over a casserole and making sure you are ok. When the death occurs because of mental illness, it becomes harder for people to talk about. We have to understand that the brain is a part of the body and a part of who we all are,” Epperson said.
One of the leading risk factors for suicide is depression, notably when paired with mental illness such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Statistics show that nearly 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death. Mental illness can affect anyone, any gender, any race and any age.
In 2010, 18-year-old Rachel Rutledge was diagnosed as bipolar after her first manic episode, which occurred on an orientation trip at the University of Missouri. She had been accepted to the school's journalism department on a full scholarship, and planned to start her freshman year at the school in just a few months. Rachel was a summa cum laude graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy, a private all-girls Catholic high school in Little Rock. She was on the varsity cheerleading squad, was the editor of the school newspaper and the recipient of numerous scholarships and awards. Her future was promising. Her past was full of love, friendships and adventure.
“Rachel was always excited. She was bright, beautiful and very social," her mother, Kathy Rutledge, described her. "We called her the ‘cruise director,’ she was always planning social events. She was well loved by her friends. After her death, her friends’ moms would come to me and say how Rachel was always so nice. She was a prolific reader and an excellent writer,” she said.
Rachel was on track to fulfill her lifelong dreams of attending college and becoming a professional writer. Kathy flipped through books of her daughter's poetry, pointing out passages that exhibit insight well beyond the typical high school student. After Rachel’s diagnosis, there was a noticeable tonal shift in her writing. Her poems began to mirror her feelings of despair and fear, and then, Kathy said, "She just lost her ability to write. I think that was really the end of it for her. When she couldn’t write anymore.”
Rachel’s decline was swift and unexpected. The Rutledge family carries a trait for bipolar disorder—a trait that Kathy believes was triggered in her daughter after an event at school and quickly spiraled out of control. Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, causes extreme mood swings in a person that can last extended periods of time. Typically a person experiences a period of mania that can include emotional highs, irritability, racing thoughts and in severe cases, a break from reality known as psychosis. This is followed by a shift into depression, which is typically marked by intense feelings of sadness and hopeless, loss of motivation or appetite and a looming sense of despair.
Rachel experienced her first manic episode during a June orientation weekend at Mizzou. “She just got out of the car and took off. We had no idea where she was going. She didn’t know anyone there, or know where anything was. They have a hospital facility on campus there, and we got a call from the ER saying they had her, and we needed to come there immediately. We got there and she was just completely delusional. They kept her there for a week and diagnosed her as bipolar. She saw psychiatrists and therapists, but when they released her and we got back home it continued.”
Kathy knew then that Rachel wouldn’t be attending college in the fall. They made the heartbreaking decision to postpone her freshman year, something she said Rachel had been looking forward to since the second grade.
“I told Rachel that bipolar is a manageable disease. There are medications that can keep it under control,” Kathy said. Rachel had battled with an eating disorder in high school that she had since gotten under control, until the stress of her diagnosis brought it back in full swing. “She was just throwing up the medication and it never had a chance to work.”
Rachel was hospitalized again for mania in July. Kathy decided to petition for guardianship over her daughter since she was 18 years old and therefore an adult, but not in the state of mind to make sound decisions. “I had to testify against my child to get the guardianship. That was very hard,” she said.
Rachel underwent electroshock therapy six times and showed no signs of improvement. She spent three weeks in the state hospital where Kathy visited every day, and was then transferred to an outpatient facility for substance abuse for two weeks, where the Rutledge family was not allowed to have any contact with her.
“She never should have been in that place. She didn’t have substance abuse issues, I feel like it was that place that killed her. They even had the gall to send me a $12,000 bill later on and said they were charging me because they found her case to not be acute. I sent them back her obituary and they dropped it.”
Rachel was released from her last stay in a facility in September and was severely depressed. “Those were just horrible times. Twice she attempted suicide after she returned home. She lost her ability to write. She was angry and combative. I was constantly worried I was going to wake up and find her somewhere in the home. When someone is that sick with depression it’s just terrible.”
The Rutledge family was at a loss for what to do for their daughter at that point. “A moment that will always stand out in my mind and break my heart was a conversation after she came back from the hospital from a suicide attempt. She was shrieking at me and saying, ‘I hate you!’ and I asked her why and she said, ‘because you can’t help me.’ That hit pretty hard with me."
It was Dec. 9, a Thursday evening, and just six months since her initial diagnosis, when Rachel left the Rutledge home. The family had come to another breaking point and Kathy had let Rachel know that she was going to have to return to a facility for more help.
“She didn’t come back that night, and we had an agreement always that if she stayed out late, she would come and wake me up to let me know she was back home. Very often, she’d come tiptoeing into my bedroom late at night, with the light of her cell phone lighting her way and tap me to say goodnight. My son, Dan, was in the bed with me the night she didn’t come home. It was around 3 or 4 a.m., I heard a creaking on the floor that night and it woke me up. I thought it was her, but there was nothing there. My mother says that was her way of letting me know she had gone home.”
After alerting police that her daughter had not returned that night, Kathy went looking for and found Rachel the following morning. “I will never heal from this. I am just not the same person I was before. The first year, pain was all I knew. And I just thought, if this is the pain that I feel, I can’t believe the pain that she must have been in. My faith was severely damaged. I struggled in my marriage. I tried to keep up some family traditions, but couldn't."
Due to the stigma surrounding a loss by suicide, Kathy had many friends turn away from her. “I would confront them about it and was told by some that they were 'uncomfortable' around me. I found out that friends were having similar issue with their kids and I said to them, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ and their answer was, 'Well, we wanted a happy ending.’”
Kathy pointed to the statistic that suicide is the second leading cause of death in her daughter’s age group. “Until you address mental health and stop stigmatizing it, this isn’t going to change. Education and awareness on suicide is good, but education on mental illness is essential in this.”
After six years of time to heal and experiencing a complicated ever-changing range of emotions, “I was mad at myself at first, and I’ll be guilty until I die and that’s just a mom thing. I’ve felt anger and intense sorrow, and I know that I’ll never heal. There will always be a place at the table where she sat. Each time I hear the 'Wedding March' my heart breaks for the experiences she won’t have. But, I am able to have happy times now, too. I love my family, and I have good health.”
Kathy references a poignant scene from the David Lindsay-Abaire film, “Rabbit Hole” to describe her grief:
At some point it becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out from under, and carry around — like a brick in your pocket. And you forget it every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is: “Oh, right. That.” ... but it’s what you have instead of your son, so you don’t wanna let go of it either. So you carry it around. And it doesn’t go away, which is ... fine, actually.
Kathy, her husband, Joel, their son, Dan, and Rachel’s many friends along with the countless others who suffer a loss by suicide each year all carry that brick.
Christopher Epperson, who has lost several friends to suicide as well hopes to make a change in Arkansas through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Arkansas Chapter. Through fundraising they hope educate the community and parents, and to continue research to better understand suicide and help healing families who have suffered a loss. “Suicide brings on a very complex grief process,” Epperson said. “Education and support for these families is so important.”
For more information on suicide prevention and local programs and events visit afsp.org/chapter/afsp-arkansas.
Suicide Warning Signs
- Talking About Suicide: Any talk about suicide, dying, or self-harm, such as "I wish I hadn't been born," "If I see you again..." or "I'd be better off dead."
- Seeking Out Lethal Means: Seeking access to guns, pills, knives or other objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
- Preoccupation with Death: Unusual focus on death, dying or violence. Writing poems or stories about death.
- No Hope for the Future: Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and being trapped. Feeling that "There's no way out," or the belief that things will never get better or change.
- Self-loathing, Self-hatred: Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, shame and self-hatred. Feeling like a burden or saying things like, "Everyone would be better off without me."
- Getting Affairs in Order: Making out a will. Giving away prized possessions. Making arrangements for family members.
- Saying Goodbye: Unusual or unexpected visits or calls to family and friends. Saying goodbye to people as if they won't be seen again
- Withdrawing from Others: Withdrawing from friends and family. Increasing social isolation. Desire to be left alone.
- Self-destructive Behavior: Increased alcohol or drug use, reckless driving or unsafe sex. Taking unnecessary risks as if they have a "death wish."
- Sudden Sense of Calm: A sudden sense of calm and happiness after being extremely depressed can mean that the person has made a decision to try suicide.
Provided by Psycamore Psychiatric, LLC
3 Questions Answered
How can a person who is suicidal get help? That person needs to reach out to someone else immediately. If they are in crisis right now, they can call 1-800-273-TALK any time 24/7 in the U.S. to speak to someone. Help is always available at that number. If they have a trusted friend or family member who can be supportive, it’s also a good idea to reach out to that person as well for support, particularly if they can come in person. Seek professional help as soon as possible.
How can you help a loved one that is suicidal? Ask them directly if suicide is something they want to do. If they say yes, or you really believe they are, get professional help as soon as possible. You can call 1-800-273-TALK with that person present so that you can talk to someone who is trained in intervention.
What are warning signs you can look for in your child? Major changes in their behavior are always something to be aware of. If your child makes straight A’s and suddenly has failing grades, something may not be quite right. Changes in eating, sleeping, and hygiene may also be indicators that a child is having psychological distress. Listen to what your child says, and pay attention to talk of not being able to go on, feeling hopeless, helpless or actively talking about suicide.
Provided by Suicide Prevention Program
STATS ON TEEN MENTAL HEALTH
- According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health conditions are common among teens and young adults. One in five lives with a mental health condition—half develop the condition by age 14 and three quarters by age 24.
- A national and international literature review found that an average of 17 percent of young people experience an emotional, mental or behavioral disorder.
- Substance abuse or dependence was the most commonly diagnosed for young people, followed by anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
- The onset for 50 percent of adult mental health disorders occurs by age 14, and for 75 percent of adults by age 24.
Provided by The Bridgeway, thebridgeway.com.