Suzy and her family on a hike in Sedona

Left to right: Suzy, her son Jack, husband Cliff, daughter Wendy, and their dog Murphy on a hike in Sedona.

Suzy was born into a family that carried a genetic predisposition to mental illness and a history of suicide.

“My mother had schizoaffective disorder,” said Suzy. “It was very severe, they couldn’t help her then. She made several suicide attempts before ending her life when I was 15.”

“I never really knew her well,” she continued. “I asked my father when she got sick. He said, ‘When you were 3 years old, she called and said she was going to kill the children and herself — out of the blue.’ She had some sort of psychotic break.”

This episode was the beginning of multiple suicide attempts, subsequent hospitalizations, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and medication.

“She was also an alcoholic as was my father,” said Suzy, who asked that we not use her last name. “My mother made so many attempts, it got to the point, that in a weird way she was modeling that as a coping technique. It was almost normalized.”

Suicide rates in the United States have risen nearly 30 percent since 1999 and mental health conditions are one of several factors contributing to suicide, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gila County has the third highest suicide rate in Arizona.

To bring awareness to this growing public health issue, the Roundup is running a series on suicide, including the stories of those impacted by it.

This is a story of hope.

Despite an extensive family history of mental illness, substance abuse, and suicide, Suzy was able to overcome significant physical and psychological challenges with treatment and therapy.

Suzy, 65, has three siblings. She said they have all had to figure out how to deal with their mother’s suicide.

“We weren’t told what was going on,” she said. “All I knew was that she went into the hospital after trying to kill herself. She seemed better in the hospital but when she left she would stop taking her meds and revert.”

“My mother was raised in a Catholic convent in New Zealand, her religion taught her suicide is a sin so you hide it,” said Suzy. “As happens a lot with certain mental illness, the religion gets blown up and twisted.”

To cope, Suzy began drinking heavily and blacking out. She made her first suicide attempt the year her mother died.

“Having a genetic predisposition for a mental illness; parents with substance abuse problems and growing up in an abusive, non-nurturing home topped off with a mother who committed suicide made me a prime candidate for all these behaviors and conditions,” said Suzy. “I followed my mother’s footsteps, starting with excessive drinking to the point of blackouts to cope with my depression.”

Suzy got pregnant, but nearly lost the child.

“My daughter was born premature due to my drinking and smoking,” she said. “She was 3.5 pounds, and got down to 2.5 pounds before she started gaining weight.

Her daughter is now 42 and a law professor.

“When I became pregnant, I asked the doctor about drinking and the doctor said, “Just do what you usually do.” He didn’t warn me not to drink, but a drink for me was eight ounces.”

“I didn’t want to do to my child what my mother had done to us,” said Suzy. “I stopped drinking and smoking but still had severe depression so I kept searching for help, going to different therapists, taking different medications.

She got involved in a cult that told her not to take medications and instead pray for healing.

She attempted suicide for a second time at 30, but survived.

Later, she had a second child, a son.

“I went through so much depression when they were growing up,” she said. “My mother blamed us for her depression, so I told my kids I felt sad and it wasn’t their fault. They grew up very sensitive to my feelings.”

Suzy attempted suicide four times before she found a treatment that worked.

Treatment

In her mid 30s, a psychiatric nurse practitioner took Suzy’s full medical history and a psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder.

“I was sent to a mental hospital outpatient unit. After seeing my mother in mental hospitals I never wanted to stay in one,” Suzy said. “I went as outpatient for six weeks and at one point I was taking 12 medications. My husband and children were appalled. The first year was hell trying to find what was working.”

Eventually, genetic testing helped her doctors figure out what medications to prescribe.

She went through individual and dialectical behavior therapy for two years.

“It helped me figure out when my thoughts are not rational, when they are way out and suicidal. It’s amazing the quality of life I’ve been able to enjoy since then.

“I had a lot of emotional turmoil from my mother. Now I realize that wasn’t my mother, it was her illness and she wasn’t able to be helped. She had a tortured life.”

Suzy’s efforts to find the right treatment have paid off.

“I finally came to a point where I experienced peace and clear thinking — something I had never experienced,” she said. “I started to provide a stable home life for my husband and children and the thoughts of suicide abated.”

But Suzy still has her battles. In her mid 40s, she developed chronic pain and before she found the right medication, she briefly thought about killing herself again.

“Chronic pain is a huge deal,” Suzy said. “This is a serious condition that can lead to suicide.”

Recovery

After a lifetime of struggle, Suzy’s life has turned around.

She credits her recovery to her husband of 45 years, doctors and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“Mental health needs to be managed,” she said. “Identifying the signs, symptoms and risk factors of a common mental malady such as depression and receiving the proper treatment as early as possible will help prevent the depression from becoming a crippling illness or a deadly disease with long-reaching effects on families for generations.”

To stay well, Suzy is active in NAMI. She also practices yoga, hikes, keeps a regular sleep schedule and when an old way of thinking pops up, she challenges it, replacing it with a positive thought.

“I keep regular appointments with my psychiatrist and check in with my therapist every three months or more often if I feel a symptom developing in my thinking or actions.”

A psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic told her, “I don’t know anyone who has worked as hard as you have to get well.”

“Recognizing the problem is a huge thing. It’s important to let other people know they are not destined for a horrible life. They can overcome mental illness, their childhood and other struggles.”

Today, Suzy leads a NAMI peer support group for people with mental illness.

She speaks at police departments, psychiatric hospitals, mental health and crisis management classes.

“I am no one special, but I am very lucky,” said Suzy. “I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles in my life.”

This series can be viewed online at paysonroundup.com. Look for information on recognizing risk and suicide prevention.

In upcoming articles, we will share the stories of a man who lost his son and now works in suicide prevention and a local woman who lost her brother and has dedicated her career to helping youth.

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