Updated: Apr 10
November 30, 2021
By Rich Alvarez
Even though the idea that suicides increase during the holidays is a myth, I know that this time of year can be hard for many, especially for those that have lost loved ones. I know it is for me. The purpose of me writing this to the families of suicide victims, those contemplating suicide, especially first responders, and those living with victims of depression and other mental illness is that I’m kind of an expert, and I want to bring some comfort to those families who have lost loved ones to suicide, as well as give those contemplating it, a reason for hope. No, I don’t have a degree in psychology, or mental health therapy, or social work. No, I have a different kind of expertise. I’m a survivor of a suicide attempt.
On September 2, 2008, I nearly succeeded in ending my life with the help of my roommate at the time. We were both ex-police officers who had experienced tremendous trauma in our careers, as have most first responders. I had nearly been killed twice by suspects, over and above the range of horrible things that most first responders experience. That trauma hid deep inside me, like a demon waiting to pounce, and only began to reveal itself toward the end of my career. In looking back, my demons started to take their toll much earlier than I realized at the time. I had an extreme phobia of anything around my neck, as I’d nearly been choked and beaten to death. I would wake up gasping for air. Sometimes, I’d wake up smelling gunpowder in my nose, as I’d nearly been struck by a bullet that passed within inches of my head in another incident. I was short with my family, and I was withdrawn. My outlook on life and people was dark and negative. I drank excessively and started having problems at work. It got to the point that I was making bad decisions, so I went to see a psychiatrist and therapist. I was given some medications, but they didn’t seem to help. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I tore ligaments in my ankle at work while chasing a suspect over fences. They repaired the tendons and cut my heel off to reposition it so that I wouldn’t turn my ankle as easily. The problem is that it never healed to the point that I could run or stand for long periods of time again. My days as a cop were over. I applied for disability. In addition, the City opposed Worker’s Compensation, because I hadn’t discovered the injury until I was at home when I removed my tight boots that had served to compress the ankle. The union refused to appeal the decision to arbitration as well. That’s probably the time I went off the deep end and started doing bizarre things that were out of character. It was also coupled with the perfect storm of problems at home and in a side business that I and another police officer were engaged in. It seemed like everything collapsed at the same time, and my fragile mental state could not handle it. In fact, it contributed in a big way to the collapse of my life. If you are experiencing any or all of these symptoms, or your loved one is, please be on guard against depression, PTSD, and suicide. These are warning signs.
I ended up breaking up my marriage, which was dysfunctional anyway, alienating my daughter, who opposed my drinking, and having legal issues with the business. I could blame all of this stuff on circumstances and other people, and they did play a large role, but most of this was brought about by my own poor decisions. I ended up living with another ex-cop, who was suffering mentally, as well. We fed off each other’s negativity. It was a toxic environment for my mental health. I was in extreme emotional pain and distress, as was he, and we eventually made a homicide suicide pact that if it got too bad, one of us would kill the other and then take their own life to end the pain. That’s exactly what we did, or almost. We spent the day drinking, and I only recall portions of that day. I was told that we were playing Russian roulette that night, and the others left. This jibes with memories or dreams of mine where I knew I couldn’t complete the act of shooting myself, and he agreed to do it. He used a .38 caliber revolver and shot me in the back of the head. This also matches evidence that I was shot behind the ear, had nightmares of him coming to finish me off, and that they found the gun on the floorboard of his truck as he drove me to the hospital with the police chasing him for a suspicion of DUI. Furthermore, his girlfriend cleaned up the crime scene prior to the police coming to investigate. While they got part of the story right, his role was not known, other than the fact that he loaded me into the truck bed and drove me to the hospital drunk. This was unconsciously reverting to his police training of not waiting for an ambulance for a shot officer if a hospital was close. I have no qualms about his not being held responsible for shooting me, since I had asked him to do it, and he saved my life when it didn’t work. He was only charged with DUI and having a weapon under disability (drunk). I am grateful that he had the presence of mind to get me to the hospital in time for them to save me.
Needless to say, I survived, but the recovery wasn’t quick. Fragments of the bullet pierced my esophagus and trachea, and I nearly died of a MRSA infection in my lungs from the machine they used to clean out the tube I used to breathe. I’ve had about ten surgeries over the last thirteen years to address issues caused by the damage, but my mental and spiritual recovery has taken the longest. I continued to drink excessively for another four years, until I entered a program and had enough mental health therapy and non-addictive medications so I could have the time to develop coping tools for my PTSD and depression. I began to get physically healthy. Most importantly, I established a relationship with God. It was really the perfect storm in reverse, and a testament to the power of God. I now live a very productive, happy, life. I have a happy marriage, and a strong belief in God that I did not possess before. Not everything is perfect, of course. My children still don’t speak to me. I have occasional bouts of depression. I still have some symptoms of PTSD, like a fight or flight response when people become aggressively angry toward me, or people in my personal space in a non-loving way, loud noises, and problems with stuff that impede my breathing, especially around my neck, like a necktie. The difference is that now I have the tools to deal with those issues without thinking about ending it all. Now, I run a nonprofit that helps first responders deal with these issues, the Peacekeeper Initiative. Now that you know my qualifications, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned.
It’s hard for the average person to relate to the intensity of pain that could lead to someone to take their own life. To those suffering from depression and emotional pain, especially if it’s prolonged, it may seem like the pain is unbearable and will never end. This is especially true if judgement is clouded with substances from self-medicating, which it often is. So much of the substance abuse problem in our country is due to untreated mental illness, but it can also happen in the reverse. Some drugs, like central nervous system depressants can cause, or at least mimic, depression. The stimulant methamphetamine, can deplete the natural “happy” hormone called dopamine, leading to depression. These two issues, mental health and substance use, are closely intertwined.
What’s most sad is that there are solutions to being in emotional pain, even prolonged emotional pain and depression. In my personal experience, I had struggled with depression much of my life. I was rarely a super happy guy, even in childhood. The typical painful experiences that most of us have seemed to affect me more intensely than others, and my life got derailed significantly off my planned path when I dropped out of college. The life I rebuilt then collapsed again. It seemed like nothing ever went my way, and now I’d lost the only people I truly loved, my children. Luckily, my parents loved me even when I didn’t show them love and were there during my darkest times. There are many people who don’t have any support system at all, which is critical to dealing with very trying times. There is hope though. All dark periods eventually come to an end, but the person suffering from this kind of pain doesn’t believe that, which is why they choose to take their own lives. They often suffer from “all or nothing” thinking and take things to the extremes. If you are a family member of a victim of suicide, remember they never meant to harm you. A person who commits suicide is looking to end their own unbearable pain, not cause you pain. Yes, it’s a selfish act, but the person is so blinded by pain, and probably self-medication, that they can’t see far enough ahead to realize the trauma and pain they will cause to the ones who love them. I can’t imagine the hurt I caused to my parents and my kids. It’s probably part of the reason my kids don’t talk to me. If you’re contemplating suicide, please realize that you will just be substituting your pain for someone else’s. You must be stronger than this. At the risk of sounding cliché, it truly is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Please reach out for help.
The Three-Legged Stool
I believe we are a three-legged stool, composed of a mental self, a physical self, and a spiritual self. If we neglect any of these legs, we risk falling over. The most often neglected is the spiritual aspect, and you ignore it at your own peril. I don’t know this for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of those who commit suicide do not have a strong spiritual life. I can’t emphasize the importance of a strong spiritual life enough. I always believed in God, but I never had a relationship with Him. I was also mad at God for letting all of these terrible things befall me. How could a good God allow evil and pain in the world if he loved his children? As with many people, we tend to run from God, rather than toward Him, when times get tough. This is exactly the opposite of what we should do. I was brought up Catholic, even though I don’t practice that faith anymore, but I recognized a spiritual emptiness inside of me. I was never completely fulfilled. Right before my suicide, I felt compelled to go to confession, something I hadn’t done since I was a child. I laid it all out to the priest, which felt great, but I never really believed that I was forgiven for my sins. I also purchased a crucifix at the church bookstore. I was wearing that cross the night I was shot. The only thing I got back from the police later on was my wallet and that crucifix covered in blood. I wish I could’ve recognized the significance of that back then. It would’ve saved me from many more years of pain. I don’t care what God you worship, even though I hope it’s Jesus, but recognizing that there is a power higher than yourself, who created the universe, and has a plan, is a good starting point. Be open minded and let the seed grow from there. There’s a saying in AA that says something to the effect of how amazing it is that so many AA’s start out in the basements of churches and then rise up to the main floor. So, you must be honest with yourself. Are you, or a loved one, angry at God, or do you lack a spiritual presence in your life? This is a danger factor for suicide, in my opinion.
The next leg of the stool is the mental end. Life is a series of ups and downs, and truthfully, the downs seem like they often last longer than the ups. Pain and suffering are part of the human condition, no matter how much we dislike it. The fact is that pain teaches us much more than the “good times” ever do. Think of the most memorable lessons you’ve ever learned; didn’t the vast majority involve some kind of physical or emotional pain? Instead of accepting this, we spend most of our lives trying to avoid pain. No matter how contradictory it may seem, some of those lessons, like touching the hot stove, are incredibly important to our development. In fact, it’s built into our DNA as a survival mechanism. The acceptance of, and learning from, emotional pain goes against that very DNA. Our body has developed a natural response to pain and danger. It’s called fight or flight, where your body prepares to confront the danger or run away from it. It goes through a physiological response, such as increased breathing, shutting down higher thinking, and other things necessary for combat or running away. As a response to emotional pain, we try several methods to deal with it. I know that, at least in my case, I wanted to control the circumstances around me like I controlled them when I was a cop. This is akin to the “fight” response. That loss of control lent itself to an increased sense of desperation. The truth is that control is an illusion. We can’t control life’s events or other people. All we can control is ourselves and our responses to those people and situations. Another method is escapism, which is the “flight” response. We transport ourselves to an imaginary world of happiness to avoid the pain. Sometimes, this is done through fantasy, like video games. Sometimes, we use substances like food, drugs, or alcohol. Sometimes, we seek out pleasures like sex through infidelity or pornography. Sometimes, we think that by relocating to another location, things will change. The problem is that “no matter where you go, there you are”, as they say. Your problems and your dysfunctional way of dealing with them will be there when you wake up, and they will follow you wherever you go. The only way to deal with them in a healthy way is head-on once equipped with the right tools provided by a good therapist, if you don’t possess them already. Remember, when I said that your logical, or higher thinking, is also short-cut? This is why good decision making during these times of struggle are often so hard. You are preparing for a fight or to run, not to think things out. This response goes back to our very beginning and can be difficult to overcome. It’s part of what I call our lizard brain. It’s great when running from a bear or fighting an intruder, but not so great when dealing with depression, PTSD, and complex social issues surrounding them. It’s worth noting that with many people suffering from PTSD cannot shut off this “fight or flight” response and must live with it every day.
When you are depressed and suffering emotional pain, you also tend to ignore the other aspects of your well-being. Exercise and good nutrition help to maintain a healthy body, which feeds a healthy brain. Exercise can release endorphins, which make you happy, in lieu of substances. Both are hard work, and when you are depressed, it’s the last thing you feel like doing. You are emotionally and mentally drained. Sometimes, I think mental and emotional stress makes you more tired than physical stress, yet you must drag yourself up to do it. It makes a difference. If you just isolate, stress eat, and ruminate on negative thoughts, you are bound to gain weight and get even more depressed once you look in the mirror. Stress eating often comes with guilt, as well. You know you shouldn’t be eating ice cream, pizza, and beer, while smoking some weed, but it makes you feel better in the moment, however, that moment is very short-lived. It creates a perpetual cycle of short-term highs with deeper and deeper lows. Lack of good nutrition and exercise, along with substance use, also kills off brain cells. You are already not making good decisions mentally, so why do more damage to the only organ that can get you out of your funk anyway? Physical nutrition and exercise are great protection against attacks on your body from mental and physical disease, so they are the critical third leg to the stool.
My goal here is to spread the message that healing, and even a degree of prevention, is possible primarily with regard to First Responders and Veterans. There is hope if you are suffering from mental health issues, like PTSD, anxiety, and depression. You can recover with help. I did. I was fortunate to get a second chance. Many don’t. I know there’s a lot of stigmas in the first responder and military communities to asking for help. That’s also true in some minority communities, and to a lesser extent in society as a whole. It’s real though. First responders and military personnel also have the very real fear that admitting their issue could result in loss of employment or even lawsuits from former arrestees who could claim that a mentally ill first responder could’ve made bad choices that resulted in harm or death, even though the issue played no role in the harm or death at all. It is incumbent upon employers to assuage those fears and encourage those suffering from mental health issues to come forward and get the help they need from a place of love and support, not from liability concerns. Peer support programs both inside first responder agencies, and outside, like the Peacekeeper Initiative, are starting to gain some traction. Family members of first responders and the general public alike must also be trained in the warning signs of mental illness and suicide prevention. We must all work together to end the stigma. It is incumbent upon the first responder or citizen who is suffering to muster the courage to ask for help when they are hurting, stigma be damned. If you don’t have your mental health, you won’t have a job for long anyway, and you may lose a lot more. Lastly, there is a lot we can do to “inoculate” ourselves from stress and resulting mental health issues. Remember the three-legged stool. It can save you lots of pain in the future.
God bless and thanks for reading along,