Debbie would see her sister Cheryl stand in the bathroom, press a towel to her face and scream.
The chronic pain Cheryl lived with for four years was often more than she could bear.
“She had a stroke at 54,” said Debbie. “She came back 85 percent. After about eight months, the nerve pain started.”
Cheryl’s nerve pain migrated from her neck to her entire body. She told Debbie it felt like she was being tased. Only over and over — every day.
Over the next three years, they consulted dozens of doctors, specialists, pain clinics, and alternative medicine providers. Cheryl spent thousands of dollars on tests and treatments, but her pain persisted.
On Dec. 8, Cheryl became the latest victim in a national public health crisis.
Gila County has the third highest suicide rate in Arizona, based on the Arizona Department of Health Services’ most recent report.
Rural residents are three times more likely to die from suicide than residents in urban settings.
A physical health problem is a significant risk factor for suicide, together with relationship problems, substance abuse, a recent crisis, financial problems, legal issues and homelessness.
Research shows that a combination of factors often leads to suicide. There is no single cause, studies say.
A pain specialist prescribed Cheryl opioids. They didn’t make the pain go away, but Cheryl became addicted.
“She got herself off the opioids,” said Debbie. “She was so strong when I think about it.”
Debbie’s role as Cheryl’s full-time caregiver took its toll. They were both trapped in Cheryl’s pain, reaching for a miracle that eluded them.
“She was terrified of the pain,” said Debbie, “knowing that even if she got a reprieve, it was coming back.”
Cheryl’s financial resources dwindled as they continued to search for relief for her pain.
“We were in the ER several times over the past year because the pain would be in her head, she felt like her head would explode,” said Debbie. “They would do the typical brain scans. They saw where she had the stroke, but nothing else.”
In August 2018, Cheryl attempted suicide, using the only two prescription drugs she still had. She survived, but afterward doctors would no longer prescribe pain medication of any kind.
It had been four years since the nerve pain began.
“One day Cheryl woke up and for some reason the pain had stopped,” said Debbie.
For the first time she was pain free for 10 days, but it didn’t last. The pain returned with a vengeance.
“Hospitals do not treat chronic pain in the ER,” said Debbie. “One time she went in, she was told she should not have come. She was wasting resources. Endangering the doctor’s license. She didn’t belong there.”
One time Cheryl told doctors she had a pinched bowel. It had happened before, so they took her in. She knew it was wrong, but she didn’t know what else to do, Debbie said.
There had to be a way to stop the pain.
Tests revealed there was no pinched bowel. They discharged her.
On Dec. 8, Cheryl drove herself to a bridge east of town and stepped off.
Debbie was driving to Phoenix to visit her brother who has cancer, when Cheryl died.
Four months later, Debbie has found some peace that Cheryl is no longer suffering, but said, “I’m angry and heartbroken that Cheryl felt she had no other choice.”
Arizona’s suicide rates rose 17 percent from 1999 to 2016, according the Centers for Disease Control’s most recent report.
The stigma surrounding those who attempt it, and those left behind, often prevents people from reaching out to find the help they need or even knowing where to look, experts say.
For this series, the Roundup interviewed half a dozen people, including therapists, medical officials, people who have lost someone to suicide and those working to prevent suicide.
All agreed that suicide is often something people think will happen to someone else. Someone else’s family. Someone else’s friend.
Except it isn’t.
Suicide can affect anyone.
Statistics are useful in determining the scope of the problem, but not how to resolve it.
Each number represents a person’s story, a life lost, and the ripple effect that goes out through family, friends, partners, co-workers and the community.
Not all suicides can be prevented, but many can through education, empathy and action, experts say.
The first step is to recognize the warning signs and reach out.
Trust and community
Every conversation about suicide involves trust. Trust is built on connection, openness, honesty and respect, said John Schuderer, chair of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yavapai County.
Becoming more aware, understanding and proactive in supporting those who may be suicidal is a first step.
Building a connected community where people are invested in the life and well-being of others — even those who are different — is the next.
If people get to know one another on a deeper level and foster relationships of trust and openness, they can recognize the need for intervention sooner. Becoming aware of the resources and support systems in a community can help others connect with the help they need.
Future articles will discuss prevention, intervention and support options for those bereaved by suicide.