January 25, 2007.
It was bitterly cold that evening, and black. In fact, everything seemed to be painted with an ominous cloak of foreboding that I could not shake. I got no work done at the Pentagon earlier that day.
Instead, I sat at my desk near the telephone, watching the clock and hoping she would call me.
She never called me.
Nancy was my neighbor.
At first glance, we were two completely different people. She was tall, blonde, and gorgeous; a 49-year-old Princess Diana lookalike who was also a seasoned DC businesswoman with a social circle that included names I regularly read in my Washingtonian magazine.
At the time, I was a 25-year-old military working wife and mom of a three-year-old, sporting stretch marks and flat hair, and my social circle was regulated to a furry little monster puppet and a big purple dinosaur.
She drove a Jaguar with a custom leather interior. I drove a Honda that smelled of sour milk and stale cookie crumbs. Her closet was filled with power suits and dresses made by French and Italian designers. I wore Target and Old Navy from the clearance rack.
But somehow, over the course of the year that we were neighbors, Nancy and I became friends.
As it turned out, we were both Midwestern girls: she from the suburbs of Detroit; me from the suburbs of Cincinnati. We both grew up Catholic. We both came from large families. We shared a similar sense of humor. We both loved Europe, and we both loved to talk, which we ended up doing a lot during the evenings when she would come over to my messy, cluttered townhouse that winter. She took great interest in my job and my passion for public relations, politics, news events, and communication.
At the time, I was a very low man on the totem pole at the Pentagon, convinced that any venture into the real world of Washington DC employment would be a spectacular disaster.
She constantly told me I was wrong.
“You are smart and amazingly talented,” she told me. “Stop underestimating yourself and your potential.”
To prove it, she took me to social events downtown during the fall of 2006 and introduced me to her friends; female powerhouses who worked at the White House, or had started successful international companies, or smashed glass ceilings within government. She loved to talk me up, and I didn’t mind it. It was the first time it dawned on me that maybe, hopefully, I could actually find success outside of the military.
Despite her energy and excitement over my budding career, though, there was a part of Nancy that was very dark. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could sense it. It wasn’t until months into our friendship that she started to open up about her depression. At first, she would just make a comment here and there. But one night in early January 2007, she really let it spill.
For her, it was not some passing mood swing. It was a real, debilitating sickness that started when she was a young college student and remained her entire adult life, rearing it’s chronic ugliness in several grave episodes over the years. Only a few close to her knew about it. Mostly family. She came from a generation where this sort of thing was not addressed openly.
When I asked how she managed to have such a successful career and never let on, she gave an impish smile and said, “I have a few very good friends who fly cover for me.”
She admitted that she needed me to fly cover for her. She was in a deep depression again and she was flying home to Michigan to get treatment at a clinic near her family that routinely sees clients who fly in on private jets. She was going to be gone indefinitely.
She needed someone to watch the house while she was gone, to tend to her mail and plants. Of course, I agreed. I didn’t see her again for weeks, but then one night, she was standing near her mailbox. I was surprised to see her and invited her over to the house for dinner. She seemed frail and a little confused, but agreed to come over. We spent the evening on my couch watching American Idol and holding hands. She didn’t eat the take-out I ordered. I gently asked her questions about her visit to Michigan. Her answers were vague, and there was more silence than usual. So I talked to fill the space.
At one point, she finally squeezed my hand.”You are a good friend to me,” she said.
Later, as I got her settled in her beautiful home, she finally opened up that the trip to Michigan had not gone well, that she had left the clinic midway through her treatment, and that she wasn’t sure if she should go back.
I told her she needed to go back, that she should fly up there the next morning, that I would drive her to the airport. For some reason, when she didn’t answer right away, I blurted out that I would even travel back to Michigan with her.She seemed shocked by that.”You would do that?”
“Yes,” I said, and I meant it.
However, she said she wouldn’t want me to miss work. But she did agree to go back to Michigan on her own. I said I would call her in the morning and take her to the airport the next day.”Call me when you are awake,” I said before leaving her house.She never called.
Nor did she answer my calls to her the next morning or afternoon. Initially, I thought maybe she was finally getting some restful sleep. Maybe she was making the travel arrangements for Michigan. I called Martin, who assured me he had seen Nancy during his lunch break, walking to her car and back. That brought me some ease, but not a lot.
I snuck out of my office early and went home. There was a taxi cab waiting in front of her townhouse with the engine running. This was a good sign. She probably didn’t want to bother me, I thought. I called Martin to ask if he knew about the taxi: he did, as he had seen Nancy talking with the cab driver as Martin left the house earlier for his night job.
Satisfied with his answer, I got Miss C settled for dinner, though I kept watch on Nancy’s townhouse through my window.I couldn’t shake the feeling.And then, just as I sat down with Miss C to watch some television, the phone rang. It was my other neighbor, Karen, who was wondering if Nancy was with me. The cab driver was growing impatient as he’d been out there for almost two hours now waiting for her to come out of her house again.
My heart started racing from somewhere in the pit of my stomach.I asked Karen to meet me in front of Nancy’s house. Later, Karen said she knew from my voice that something wasn’t right. But she agreed to meet me, and I will forever be grateful for her compassion and heart because had she not gone, I would have made an awful discovery all on my own.At some point between the time Martin saw her with the taxi driver to the time Karen called me, Nancy went down to her basement and shot herself in the head.
Later that night, after the police arrived, I was taken to the hospital due to an anxiety attack.
It took several months before I could go down into my own basement alone, right up until the time I deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It took one full year for the nightmares to stop.
It took several more years before I stopped getting the adrenaline rush whenever that image creeped into my thoughts.
In the military, there is training for supervisors about the warning signs of depression and suicidal behavior. There are steps everyone is encouraged to take if he/she suspects someone is hurting and thinking of suicide. It’s so easy to watch the videos and read the examples, and think these things would be so obvious, but in real life?
In real life, people want to be respectful, to keep a safe distance from another’s emotional pain. I understand the embarrassment. The perceived shame and weakness. I thought I was being kind and proactive when I gently prodded Nancy for answers. I thought I was being direct when I asked if she was thinking of hurting herself.
But I did not ask the most direct questions: Are you thinking of killing yourself? Are you feeling suicidal?
I learned afterward that she had been planning it for months. That trip to Michigan was a last-ditch effort, and really, she didn’t have any hope that the treatment would work. Nancy had a plan and she was an intelligent woman. Even in her depression, she was lucid enough to know that none of us ever expected her — the same nonviolent woman who cringed whenever we talked about my upcoming deployment to Iraq, who weeped at the idea of me in a combat zone — to go out of her way to purchase a gun.
It was part of her plan to call that taxi driver with the hope that he would be the one to discover her.
What she didn’t plan — or couldn’t realize in the fog of depression — was that two neighbors cared enough to rush into her house to check on her.
The evening of January 25, 2007 changed my life. So did the following week, when I flew to Michigan to be with her family and attend her funeral. A few months later, I left for my deployment and dealt with all the emotion and stress of that adventure. That was a rough year, to say the least.
But it made me question and reflect on the way I thought about mental illness and suicide.It made me wonder that if society was a little different, if we talked about depression, death, and suicide as freely as we talk about sex, politics, and religion, then perhaps Nancy wouldn’t have suffered in silence for so long.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have needed friends to quietly fly top cover to safeguard her career and social standing. Perhaps I would have been more brazen with my questions to her. Perhaps Nancy, who had all the connections and all the resources in the world, wouldn’t have felt she had to violently end her own life alone in her basement.
Today, suicide prevention made the headlines as the Surgeon General urged new focus on suicide prevention. The number of Americans taking their own lives is rising, especially amongst military veterans. There are plenty of resources for both those who are hurting and those who are concerned, like HERE, and HERE.
Depression is serious, but it is not shameful. Neither is asking for help.
Fortunately, the good memories I have with Nancy outshine that one horrifying, heartbreaking memory which no longer scares me. Despite that awful tragedy, beautiful things resulted from it. I remain good friends with her family, at one point returning the favor Nancy paid me by giving writing advice to her niece when she was applying to college. The confidence Nancy had about my career still buoys me to this day, especially when I get nervous.
First and foremost, we were friends and I’ve never felt anger or regret over the things that happened. Sadness and grief, yes. But I learned a lot of positive things from her.I learned to be a better listener and to trust my gut more.
And I speak up more, which is why I’m posting about this today, to both honor Nancy’s memory, and to maybe, hopefully, in some small way, remove the stigma of depression and mental illness.
People do care.