Monday, August 11, 2008

Risk after Surviving a Partner's Suicide

Up until 2005, there had been no important studies about the link between partners' suicides. Then a Danish study appeared in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which showed that the partner of a person who committed suicide is significantly more likely to take his or her own life. Researchers from the University of Aarhus looked at data from the Danish national medical register on 475,000 people. This was made up of 9,000 people who had committed suicide aged 25 to 60, their partners and children, and a comparison group.

The findings were dramatic: male partners were 46 times more likely to commit suicide, if they had lost a partner to suicide themselves. Women were rougly 15 times more likely to commit suicide, if they had lost a partner. The interpretation of the United Kingdom's Samaritans were that men were more at risk because they had more trouble seeking emotional help than women.
The Danish study was significant in that it showed just how much more at risk partners are after a suicide, when compared to other groups of survivors. Other family members, for example, are 2 1/2 times more likely to commit suicide.

Given the affect that suicide has on partners, it is of concern that very little has been written specifically about being the partner of a suicide survivor. Carla Fine's book, No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One is the first book specifically focused on suicide survivors, and she discusses the suicide of her husband as well as many other families' experiences. My book, Surviving Ben's Suicide: A Woman's Journey of Self-Discovery is the first literary memoir about surviving a partner's suicide. My hope is that in the coming years the veil of stigma will be lifted on surviving a partner's suicide and more survivors will be able to speak openly about their experiences.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Being a Partner of a Bipolar and Borderline Personality Disorder Sufferer

Recently, a reader of my book was very upset that I allowed myself to remain in the relationship with my college boyfriend, Ben, when he was treating me so badly. Because my relationship with Ben was extremely complicated, I felt that I needed to explain my reasons for staying in that relationship in some detail. What better place to do so than right here in my blog?

Ben had bipolar disorder, which meant that he had episodes of mania and depression. At times, he had mixed episodes, where both mood disorders manifested. When Ben was more manic, he was extremely irritable and even verbally aggressive towards me. He had trouble sleeping and talked in an anxious fast-paced manner. At other times, he was euphoric. And then there were the depressive periods, when he was extremely sad, self-loathing, despondent and became isolated. During those times, he sometimes showed apathy or indifference towards me and showed signs of depersonalization, when he became detached from me and the rest of the world around him.

Further deepening the complexity of our relationship, Ben also had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This meant that he had a long-term disturbance with personality function with dramatic mood variations. People who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder often have chaotic and unstable relationships. They--as I believe Ben did--saw things in terms of black and white and experience what is called "splitting". According to Mitchell & Black (1995), "This makes them experience love and sexuality in perverse and violent qualities which they cannot integrate with the tender, intimate side of relationships."

I find the borderline pathology of "splitting" particularly enlightening when I look back on my relationship with Ben. People with this pathology tend to fuse anxieties in their closest relationships, because they do not have normal boundaries of self and other. They often feel almost as if they disappear into the person they love. This, in turn, creates extreme anxiety. To overcome this anxiety, the "other" (me) is made into the "bad" person. The reason the borderline person does this is so that the other person can be made responsible for the anxiety. However, if the other person is thought to be bad, then the self has to be bad, too. Viewing the self as bad cannot be tolerated for long, so another switch takes place: the self is good, which, in turn, means that the other is good as well. If the self is good and the other is good, however, where is the beginning and end to the self? Extreme anxiety results from this cycle.

There are scenes in my book, where I believe one can see this pattern playing out. Towards the end of my relationship with Ben, I could sense him struggling with "splitting" in the course of a single phone call. One moment he would tell me that I was a horrible person and that I was responsible for his problems and the next he would tell me that I was the purest and best person in his life and that I was the only one who could take him out of his despair.

To be in a relationship with someone who has severe bipolar and borderline personality disorders means, I believe, that one is in for a seriously challenging and mercurial experience. This type of relationship is not, by nature, "healthy", because one half of the partnership is coping with a serious illness and is, therefore, unhealthy. Having established that, however, where does one go? Is it right to merely abandon a partner because he is chronically ill or is there a way to try to stay together?

In my case, I loved Ben and felt committed to staying together and trying to help him find a way to live with his illness. Of course, I was young--nineteen and twenty--when we dated. I didn't know as much then as I know now about mental illness or about myself and how I cannot completely control another human being's illness or life. I knew, however, that I deeply cared about Ben and that many times he brought me true happiness. There were times of hope amidst the darkness, and during those times I felt that I could "reach" him and that, in fact, he was seriously trying to find help for his illness.

I can equate the experience of dating someone who is bipolar with BPD to being in a partnership with an alcoholic. By nature, that relationship is unhealthy, too. One partner has a disease. However, does the partner without the disease merely leave the partner with the disease? What I would say is that as long as the person with the disease is actively trying to get help and wants to be helped, then it is understandable for the partner without the disease to try to make the relationship work. At the point when the person with the disease slips into such a darkness, however, in which he or she cannot be reached or does not want to get help, and in which it is harming the partner without the disease to such an extent that he or she finds it hard to function, I think it is acceptable to step back and tell the partner that until they find adequate help, you will have to leave the relationship and protect yourself. That, of course, is what I told Ben a couple months before he committed suicide.

The decision to end our relationship was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. I only did it after I felt that I had exhausted all alternatives. Loving someone who was chronically ill challenged me emotionally and physically, but I do not regret attempting to make our relationship work. There are 3.3 million bipolar patients and 5.4 borderline patients in the USA today. Many of those people have found ways to cope in their relationships. Those couples, however, have to work hard at their relationships and at making sure that each person in the pair has outside help, since relationships of this type can be unusually unstable and demanding.

Part of why I wrote Surviving Ben's Suicide, was because I wanted people to have a window into how a relationship with a bipolar and borderline partner works and just how difficult it is for both people involved.

I made a conscious effort, partly by way of literary agents' and editors' suggestions, not to make my book into a prescriptive or self-help book, in which I go into great detail about Ben's illnesses and how they affected me. Instead, I decided to try to "show" how our relationship worked so that other people, who have gone or are going through similar situations would identify and not feel so alone in their struggles.

I have found it fascinating to hear from readers of my memoir, who have struggled with a mental illness or been on the other side of a partnership that my book has allowed them to see the unhealthy aspects of their own relationships more clearly so that they can try to improve them. I have had others write to me to say that after reading about my tumultuous relationship with Ben, they realize how difficult their relationship had been and that they do not blame themselves so much anymore for not being able to save their partner from suicide.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this extremely complicated and painful subject. Please leave me a comment or email me at


Friday, July 25, 2008

Coldplay 42

Chris Martin of Coldplay

I just couldn't let the day pass without asking if you have listened
to Coldplay's song entitled "42"?

The lyrics begin:

"Those who are dead are not dead
They're just living in my head."

If you haven't, I recommend you take a quick listen by clicking on the "42" above. Chris Martin's voice is haunting and beautiful and, I think, speaks to anyone, who is coping with grief and for whom memories, and even apparitions, are part of everyday life.

Music-particularly piano music and songs from bands like Coldplay with strong lead vocalists-were therapeutic for me, while I was in mourning. In our fast-paced world, where we seldom have time to stop and talk to our neighbors, let alone reach out to others to talk about our grief, listening to songs like this can help us reach the inner parts of ourselves that need to be freed.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ponds and Reflection

"However mean your life is, meet it and live it;do not shun it and call it hard names."

--from the "Conclusion" to Walden

Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden
A few days ago, we started digging a pond in our back yard (see my blog: "cool pond"). That got me thinking about ponds and asking myself why people are drawn to water and what water teaches us. For Ben's entire life, he was drawn to water. He enjoyed boating as a boy. He joined the navy and was out at sea for months at a time, and tragically, he took his own life by the edge of the ocean.
Of course, the most famous "pond philosopher" is Henry David Thoreau. The Walden pond in Massachusetts inspired him to write about leading a simpler life.
In the chapter "The Ponds" of Walden, he wrote:
A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking
into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."
Perhaps it is water's reflective nature that attracts us. We not only see ourselves in water, but we also see the nature of which we are a part. I wonder if there is a primal need to view ourselves as part of a greater picture. Nature certainly takes care of this for us, as we stare down into our reflection in a pond. We are connected to the sun, moon, clouds, trees, birds, and animals above and around us. I am not sure that feeling in the company of nature lets us feel less alone. Thoreau wrote about solitude in Walden and felt alone. But, perhaps, it teaches us about our responsibility as one part in a greater whole: to tread lightly on the Earth and respect it, as we would want to be respected.
Thoreau learned to accept his reflection. In his conclusion, he wrote, "However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names." My hope is that everyone who has gone through a difficult event in his or her life that has made him or her ashamed or taken away confidence, will remember this quote from Thoreau.
Do you have a thought on ponds? Please leave me a comment.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Memory in our Lives

In my memoir, Surviving Ben's Suicide, I wrote about the importance of memory in our lives. Recently, I've been re-reading several of the works by one of my favorite anthropologists, Keith Basso. Basso has studied and written about the Western Apache for about fifty years. One of his most remarkable findings is how tied the Apache are to place and memories. When Apaches talk about their landscape, they evoke memories and use language about the past. To them, the past is a well-worn path, which their ancestors first travelled. Notably, in their perception, the well-worn path is also the past.

The names of places along the way were given by ancestors, who named them for events that occurred there. Regardless of how the physical landscape changed over time, the names of places would remain, serving as a spiritual and emotional connection between the Apaches of today and their deceased. For the Apaches, life and memories are inseparable. Interestingly, Basso is the son of a novelist. Not only is he a beautiful writer, but I wonder if he was inspired by his father's writing to look for minute and everyday patterns in people's behavior that symbolized something great.

Basso's findings on the Western Apache remind me that I can live a more spiritually fulfilled life, if I allow memories of the past to enter my mind and my language.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Is Suicide Selfish?

A question that has come up again and again during my radio interviews for Surviving Ben's Suicide is "Is suicide selfish?". I have pondered this question for fifteen years now. I understand where people are coming from, when they believe that people who take their own lives are selfish. However, I have come to understand that suicide, in every case of which I am aware, is not about selfishness.

I can't speak for everyone, and I hope that others will comment about their experiences and thoughts on this, but in Ben's case, he had been struggling with the pain of mental illness--he was bipolar and borderline--for years. He had been fighting courageously to find a way out of the darkness that surrounded him. He went from therapist to therapist and tried several medications that were prescribed to him. Some medications worked for a short period of time, but none had a lasting positive effect, and they all seemed to have severe side-effects. Ben told me that he felt as if a wool blanket was pressing in on his brain. He felt suffocated. He began to be confused about who he was. He felt like he was losing his mind and his dignity. Nobody had an answer for him.

In the end, I am not sure that suicide was even a choice for Ben. He seemed to be consumed by mania, because during his drive from his apartment in Washington DC to Maine, where he took his life, he kept journal entries that became sloppier and sloppier and harder and harder to decipher. He took his life, but he was clearly not in control of himself at that point. How can we justify calling that selfish?

That is not to say that survivors are not victims. I believe we are. We are left in the wake of the most unimaginable tragedy. Not only do we have the emotions of guilt, shame, anger, and profound sadness to cope with, but many of us also have financial entanglements. Some have children to comfort and support. Others have businesses to keep afloat. But my question is who is the victimizer? Is it the person who committed suicide or the illness that took him or her or the failure of modern science not to adequately help the deceased?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Looking Forward to This Blog

"Fifteen years ago, hikers found my college boyfriend’s body on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. He was thought to have been lying there for three days, after driving by himself from Washington, D.C. to Lubec, Maine, which was the eastern most point of land on the North American continent. He walked along trails, surrounded by thick evergreen forests that followed rock cliffs rising eighty feet above the ocean. On the second of July, 1993 he shot himself in the head. It was the end of Ben’s journey and the crossroads in mine."

The excerpt above is the beginning of my new book, Surviving Ben's Suicide: A Woman's Journey of Self-Discovery. When my college love from Sarah Lawrence, Ben, took his own life, I was left in the wake of his suicide. I found that there was tremendous silence surrounding suicide, and that others could not or would not talk about my loss with me. I wanted desperately to read someone else's true story of how he or she had lost a girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse to suicide and had gone on to rebuild his or her life. To my astonishment, there were no memoirs about surviving a partner's suicide. They simply did not exist! In fact, there was very little literature about surviving a loved one's suicide. Years later, Carla Fine's groundbreaking book, No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving the Suicide of a Loved One was published, and it opened the doors of communication on the subject of being a survivor of suicide.

But until my book was published, there were no full-length literary memoirs on the subject of surviving a partner's suicide. That upset me, because I knew that there were millions of suicide survivors in this country alone and hundreds of thousands of those were people like me, who have lost lovers to suicide. In my view, the single most important thing for suicide survivors to do is to talk to others about their experiences and read about other people's journeys, rather than endure their personal misery by themselves.

The process of publishing my book and talking to readers about it has made me want to discuss some of the subjects surrounding my experience in my own blog. I am really looking forward to sitting down most days with a cup of coffee--and probably a chocolate or two, because I can't live without chocolates--and pondering a new question.

While doing radio interviews for Surviving Ben's Suicide, there have been important and thought-provoking topics that have come up again and again. I would love to explore some issues in future blog posts such as:

  • whether suicide is selfish or not
  • is there a finite time in which one should grieve?
  • why is guilt and shame such a tremendous part of surviving a loved one's suicide?
  • why is suicide the second leading cause of death for college students in the USA?
  • why does society not have an easier time helping survivors of suicide work through their grief?
  • why is there such silence and stigma surrounding suicide?
  • the importance of balancing control in our lives
  • and so much more...

My hope is that you will comment or ask questions so that we can have some discussions on the issues above in the weeks and months to come. Please join in or email me at I'd love for you to visit my website, too: It is partly under construction, but there is still some info available there.

xxx Comfort