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.
I can't express enough how much Rick loved his job at WISH — by that I mean his position as a reporter. While he spent quite a bit of time on the anchor desk on some of the worst shifts known to television — weekends and late-nights back-to-back with morning shows — Rick always preferred the story-telling part of the gig. Whether it was general assignment or investigative work, crafting the story brought him incredible satisfaction. The process of creating with words and pictures and sound, the partnerships with photographers and editors, informed his personal value day in and day out. I don't think either he or I realized how much of his sense of being was tied to his role as a reporter until he lost it. When months, then half a year, then a year went by and no one answered his requests for job interviews, when it became apparent that his resume wasn't going to get him that next career position, his heart broke. And mine broke, too.
I'm not a person who dwells in negativity. I tend to give up anger quickly, and I don't hold grudges. Spending time on those sorts of emotions seemed more counterproductive to me the older I got; I don't like for them to hold me hostage. Most who know me will agree that a good dose of sarcasm usually accompanies my naturally sunny sense of humor. Rick once told me I was the most optimistic person he'd ever met in his life. It wasn't enough to help pull him through his inner turmoil. I played every card I had to get him back into counseling, but nothing worked. As Rick's unemployment stretched on, our financial situation became more and more dire, but Rick was unwilling to spend a dime on his own wellness. He blamed himself for everything, even our home going into foreclosure. For every reason I gave him to seek professional help, he found three more reasons not to.
My personal style is to keep looking forward, to do something positive, to find a way to a good place. I don't even like to go to bed at night feeling negative, so I'll read something upbeat or just ponder something I enjoy. The bad stuff can wait 'til morning. Slowly but powerfully Rick was pulling himself in the opposite direction. The stress on our family was incredible. He began to back out of some of his favorite pastimes. He blamed a disappointing season for his decision to ditch his rotisserie baseball league (Rick loved professional baseball). He stopped geocaching (a kind of scavenger hunt driven by GPS devices), a move that kept him in the house even more. He claimed he didn't have any particular inspiration to drive his art forward. Our chickens, who adored him to silliness, no longer gave him joy. Meticulously mowing our acreage, a project that had for years given him great satisfaction, fell by the wayside with expensive tractor repairs gone unfixed. In retrospect, I believe that his "zen time" on the tractor turned to hours of self-examination that he could simply no longer tolerate.
What he couldn't escape was words. Words were the very form of communication from which he could not withhold himself. There were observations that needed to be made every day, ideas that needed to be tied together with institutional knowledge, and thoughts that needed to be provoked. Facebook turned into an outlet he'd never imagined; just enough room there to make a pithy point without having to commit to a major project. Depression makes major projects look like insurmountable Everests, and in his eyes Rick's life was taking on Himalayan proportions.
Rick's relationships with the children were becoming more adversarial; they balked against the patent unfairness that comes with living closely with a depressed person. I felt like I was trying to swim in quicksand. The house was falling into greater disrepair. The used bookstore we had opened a few years before was failing stupendously. I took yet another job. We spent hours at a time as a family watching sitcoms with Rick, because he adored humor and sometimes outright laughter was the only thing that seemed to make his universe livable. We so wanted to be there for that. We piled onto the couch and watched all the back catalogues of Will and Grace, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Big Bang Theory. We wanted to see the light in his eyes, even though it lasted less and less.
Some people asked (and still ask) why I tolerated or put up with or didn't change something about this agonizing situation myself. These are well-meaning people, and I don't take offense. I might ask the same thing myself if I saw it happening to a friend of mine. There are a number of reasons, chief of which is that I wanted my happy husband back and I believed it was doable. It is doable. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that clinical depression is highly treatable, in the 80-90 percent range. The key word is "treatable": The individual who's suffering has to be willing to be treated.
When I married Rick, I took that commitment to heart, and our family remained committed to him as the head of our household until the day he died. Was I going to say to him, "Sorry, you're not good enough anymore, step aside?" He'd already taken hit after strike after blow. I wasn't going there. Whenever I could encourage him to join me in the discussion, I talked about how we wanted him to be well, how I'd do whatever I could to make sure he got the help he needed. I told him I'd get up every morning and work through every day with him forever, if he'd just do it with me.
The day Rick chose to kill himself was no different than the hundreds of days we'd experienced leading up to it, and I had no reason to believe it would be any different than the hundreds that stretched out before us. So why that day? Was it the notice I found that the electricity was about to be turned off again? Was it the pending conference with our attorney and the bank's attorneys about the foreclosure? Was it the anxiety of potential job interviews? All of these things or none? I am learning to live with not knowing.
So why do I choose to pour out all of this, to reveal what most of our society views as flaws in the successful American male? Shortly after Rick died, a dear friend's father-in-law attempted suicide, a man who'd been a pillar in his community for decades, a minister and so much more. Then the successful author Ned Vizzini, who'd opened so many eyes to the ravages of depression among young people, happily married, father to a young son, walked off the roof of his parents' apartment building at a holiday gathering. NAMI finds that men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, and without the warning signs. My man is one of those men. What will it take to open our eyes to the toll being exacted?
The reactions to Rick's death were nothing short of stunning. I was overwhelmed by the outpourings from others who either survive depression every day, live with someone who struggles with depression, or just wanted me to know how Rick's story touched them. I think he would have been shocked, seeing the devastation of his closest co-anchor, the wrenching anguish of our son's best friend, the sheer bewilderment in the faces of our friends and colleagues at his service. Would knowing have changed anything for him? I'm sad to say I don't believe it would have. That dreadful veil of depression kept Rick from seeing how others would be affected by his decision as much as it kept him from realizing how loved he was. He was caught on an awful carousel of mental and emotional despair.
I am still often asked if Rick's suicide makes me angry. No, it just makes me sad. When I found his body, I just kept telling him I was sorry, over and over. I was sorry that he'd felt that was his only choice, because it wasn't. I'm sorry we lost a good man, I'm sorry we lost our future together, because we didn't have to.
We don't have to live like this. We don't have to bear it and we don't have to watch those we love suffer either. Depression is treatable, but we must change the stigma that forces sufferers and their families to hide it. Experts say at least one in four Americans lives with a mental illness. Is it you? Is it someone you care about? Research from other countries shows that if you treat illnesses like depression the same way you treat a broken bone or cancer, by making it socially permissible and easily addressed by a doctor, lives will be saved.
Futures will be saved.
Families will be saved.