Editor's note: Local broadcast journalist Rick Dawson took his own life on Sept 23, 2013. This account was penned by his wife.
We had never lived extravagantly as a family, and as parents had never tried to hide from our children that many of the things they wished for we did without because we simply couldn't afford them. Yet in the months, then years, following the loss of Rick's job at WISH-TV, the kids began to feel the financial pinch more acutely.
They would lament when we weren't going on vacation or bemoan another problem that went unrepaired at our old farmhouse; they'd have to adapt to a vehicle being driven until it literally fell apart. I knew we still had it pretty good. I would often find myself reminding them that we were okay. Who were we to complain when other friends were in direr straights, forced from their homes, being diagnosed with serious illnesses, losing loved ones? We were good. No one was sick, no one had died.
But someone was sick.
And someone did die.
My loving, funny, talented husband killed himself because he suffered from depression. So many of our friends and colleagues were so stunned at the turn of events that I felt as bad for them as I did for us. Why — and when — had Rick taken a 180-degree turn from the man they knew? The man I married was a happy, adventurous guy who loved learning new things, loved to travel, loved his three children desperately, and loved, loved, LOVED telling a story. Depression was the greatest of the factors that folded into the picture of the man Rick had become before his death; ultimately it was his sense of personal failure, his loss of hope that stole any light that could have lifted him out of it.
Don't get me wrong: Rick was far from a paragon. We came into the marriage knowing we each had a considerable temper. I've never been against arguing. I think arguing can be productive when done properly. Rick was not a fair arguer, and while he wasn't averse to admitting when he was wrong, he really, really wanted to be right. In his career as a journalist, accountability loomed large. In life, I thought he was overly willing to assign blame, to others and to himself.
For a guy who could build a great relationship, he didn't mend well the ones that went awry or fell apart because of his own lack of attention. He wanted to be able to fix them, but in the last years of his life he became more and more haunted by the isolation he was building around himself. He saw himself as diminished. He didn't want friends and loved ones to see him that way. He felt he had lost face, lost ground in troubled relationships he might otherwise have healed.
Rick didn't really have a public persona versus a private one — no more than the next person, anyway. He was pretty much what you met, the guy you got to know. He was interesting, smart, charming, a good listener. He took his responsibility as a journalist so seriously that there was no budging him on ethics. The structure of that world fit him wonderfully, although he came to it by something of a happenstance. Rick actually entered IU as a freshman Fine Arts major. He was a gifted artist, his pen-and-ink drawings something to behold. The 1980s version of the art scene didn't seem to suit his personality and he eventually wound up with a double major in Journalism and Psychology. I have a houseful of his awards showing that he'd made a good choice.
There was, however, one element to Rick that hardly anyone else, even family members, ever saw. Privately, he was an extremely reticent man — even shy. His profession gave him a certain freedom to pick up the phone and make cold calls to find answers, to approach someone he'd never met and ask probing questions, to advance on public figures with his journalist's armor guarding him. Not so in his personal life. I learned very early in our relationship that Rick dreaded social situations in which he'd have to steel himself to meet people he didn't know. He hated to dial out to do more than order a pizza. All was well when we were with friends — how he loved those times! — but I would hazard a guess that those who knew us socially as a couple might look back and see that I was the extrovert.
Maybe you're seeing something of a pattern here. Maybe you find yourself recognizing that pattern in an acquaintance, a loved one, yourself. A slow, subtle shift that leaves you protesting that people don't change, when in fact it may be happening right now. What happened to your partner's delight in surprises? When did your child lose his joy in sports? How long has it been since your best friend said, "Sure, let's go out and do something fun?" Living with depression can be like that: a sticky, frightening web of a veil that keeps light out while strangling the sufferer in dismay and darkness.
I saw it in Rick and I recognized it. I had been there.
Sometimes people quiz me about my support for the rather unusually named not-for-profit organization called To Write Love on Her Arms. It was founded a few years ago by a group of friends who were watching another friend, a talented young singer-songwriter named Rene Yohe , die from depression, self-injury and drug addiction. They refused to let it happen without fighting to help her rediscover her value, to them and herself. TWLOHA was born out of this struggle. You want motivation? Read their mission statement. I dare you to step away untouched. (Their story was made into a film called Day One, starring Kat Dennings as Rene.) I support it because I stood on the precipice of suicide as a young person myself. I graduated from a pretty stellar college career and felt limitless, only to find myself unemployed for months. Others questioned my value and my decisions so zealously that the glow of that wonderful experience began to tarnish. I began to question my value myself. I downright lost it. I remember with great clarity the night I decided I was so very tired of disappointing myself and everyone else, that there was no real reason to continue living. What stopped me from killing myself? I didn't have what I wanted to do the job. I decided to lie down while I worked out the problem. When I woke up, it was morning and a new day. It wasn't a great day, but it sure as hell was better than the night before. I don't want any young person to have to face that down without help, because not everyone goes to sleep to wake up to a better morning.
I recognized my depression. I see it when it rears its head. I learned what I have to do to cope with it. Rick did not. He showed strain under changes at work, a close relationship went down in flames, a family member nearly died and never fully recovered. Rick's reticence grew into full-blown anxiety. We talked and I urged him to see a counselor. He did, but only for a short time. Other fears were pursuing him and he was struggling to keep his worries under control. And how he worried. After losing his job, his anxiety grew into full-blown depression. It was a titanic turn from the husband and father we'd known just a few short years before. There were some significant moments of hope and joy in the nearly three years that followed. We had a couple of trips already planned, fun and memorable, but were already tainted by what was happening with his emotional state. He delighted in the creativity and challenges he found in a new position he held for several months in the year before his death, but it wasn't enough to show him the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.