Reprinted from "Suicide" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(7), p. 23
My son Ryan came to a tragic end by suicide on January 13, 2002 - just 12 days shy of his 27th birthday. He was, by that time, suffering from crystal methamphetamine addiction and drug-induced bipolar episodes.
As his mother, I was devastated - and nearly lost my own life. My physical health deteriorated so badly, in large part due to the stress of trying unsuccessfully for 10 months to find effective help for my son, that I had a few suicidal thoughts of my own. No parent should have to endure the anguish and helplessness I experienced - there was so little support provided for the family.
As a child and adolescent, Ryan had always seemed happy. He was a compassionate and gentle soul who loved babies, kids and cats, and who had many friends. His favourite pastimes included sophisticated mechanical and electronic building toys, snow skiing, skateboarding and remote-controlled toy race cars. Ryan excelled in math and science, and wanted to go into robotics and eventually become an astronaut. Mild inabilities in focusing, reading and writing, however, had always held him back in school.
In grade four Ryan was assessed as possibly having attention deficit disorder (ADD) - these were the early days of ADD recognition in the health field. I was encouraged to seek parenting skills training, since at that time poor parenting technique was exclusively considered to be the cause of ADD. In spite of my improved parenting methods, however, Ryan continued to become more difficult to handle at home and at school, where year after year he fell through the cracks as a borderline case.
I eventually came to suspect that his problems may have been due to losses and injuries he'd suffered in early childhood: the loss of his dad at two years of age, a couple of head injuries not long after, and sexual molestation by a babysitter at age four. Ryan and I did go for private counselling several times during his pre-adolescence and teens to help him with his acting-out behaviour and school performance, but he wouldn't continue when the time came for him to go alone.
In grade nine after the loss of his stepdad, Ryan began to smoke marijuana, and to drink alcohol - even bingeing on occasion. This led to skipping classes and eventually transferring to a string of alternate schools. He never finished grade 11, although he attempted his GED in his early 20s.
Ryan seemed to have trouble with organization and self-discipline, in spite of a genuine desire tomake his dreams a reality. I now understand these traits, which he'd had as far back as I can remember, as probable indicators of frontal lobe brain damage. He'd had two mild to moderate accidental head traumas to the centre of his forehead at two and a half. His poor executive decision-making, lack of impulse/emotional control, stubbornness and hampered follow-through capability may have originated with these early head traumas.
Ryan's recreational use of marijuana and alcohol (and possibly crystal meth) continued until, at age 22, he cleaned himself up, only to go into a suicidal spell. No suicide attempt was made: I was able to help him that time, as I had taken crisis line training and recognized his statement, "Don't blame yourself, Mom, if anything happens to me," as a warning sign. I also sponsored an excellent private counsellor for him.
The following year Ryan remained drug-free, gainfully employed and blissfully in love in his first real relationship. I had such high hopes - at last he seemed to have it all together. His girlfriend, however, left him sometime in 1999 (he was 24), and he began to self-medicate his broken heart with marijuana and, unbeknownst to me, crystal meth. I always wonder whether he would have made it through this without drugs if he had stayed with his last counsellor and learned healthy ways to cope with loss.
In the next couple of years, Ryan's work suffered as his drug use gradually impacted his performance. To meet the demands of his ongoing part-time self-employment as a security and surveillance systems installer, he needed to build a large inventory of wireless remote video cameras; no one was yet marketing this technology, and he saw a window of opportunity. Unfortunately, Ryan began using crystal meth to help him get through long hours of work. As he became more dependent on it, his judgement and productivity suffered. He got behind in his rent and was evicted from his apartment'he was a day too late with funds our family had loaned him.
On March 1, 2001, at 26, Ryan moved into a house occupied by several crystal meth addicts. I'm not sure he was aware of this initially - it was all he could find on short notice - but within a week or two he became severely addicted. He started calling me in terror and desperation. Until this point he had kept his crystal meth use a secret.
Ryan's decline was rapid: a first psychotic break on April 28, possessions stolen while in hospital, couch hopping, sexual recruitment/exploitation, sleeping under a bridge, whereabouts unknown for periods, in and out of hospital with three more psychotic episodes, one-room hotels between hospital admittances, and the final decision to end it all - all this occurred within 10 months of his first cries for help.
I tried frantically to get him help upon receiving those first terrifying phone calls, but he changed his mind so fast I couldn't catch him in time. He was convinced that a detoxification program would "reprogram his brain." And then there was the law, requiring that he first become a danger to himself or another before he could be forced into treatment. And so it was that when on two occasions he was found running in and out of heavy traffic, or when he tore up his shower stall, yelling threats and scaring his neighbours, he was finally admitted to hospital.
A parent's point of view
For Christmas 2001, prior to his final hospital discharge on New Years Day, Ryan was granted a day-and-a-half pass to come home. He certainly wasn't his usual jovial self. I have since wondered whether seeing us and how much he had lost had prompted him to make one last attempt to regain a drug-free life.
When he was discharged on New Year's Eve, Ryan didn't take his medications, and later, didn't pick them up from the pharmacy; nor did he keep his January 3 outpatient appointment. On January 10 he told two community mental health outreach workers, and me, that he had stopped his meds, was attending Narcotics Anonymous, and didn't need help. Based on the outreach workers' assessment - Ryan was pleasant, his speech was clear, and he was clean and well nourished when they visited - the community mental health agency closed his file.2
Three days later, having only a trace of lithium in his blood,2 Ryan swandived off the Cambie Street bridge to the cement 30 feet below, dying instantly of a massive head trauma. The police report recorded his last words to a woman who tried to coax him down from the railing (bless her heart): "I'm breaking down at the cellular level ... Is it going to hurt?"
I've since learned that when someone who is bipolar is coming out of depression, they are at the highest risk for suicide. Suddenly stopping antidepressants and/or lithium can also cause suicidality. And the horrific crystal meth withdrawal symptoms remain for a long time, even after the drug becomes undetectable in the blood and tissues. Sadly, for Ryan and for those who knew and loved him, his 'hitting bottom' was his final bottom.
About the author
Kerry is a professional artist
- MacEwan, W. (2005, May 3). Methamphetamine and psychosis. Presentation at the Menace of Crystal Meth forum, Surrey, BC. Bill MacEwan, MD, FRCPC, is Director of the Schizophrenia Program in the UBC Department of Psychiatry, and Clinical Director of the South Fraser Early Psychosis Initiative.
- From the Coroner’s report on Ryan’s death.