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Surviving Ben’s Suicide, a book review

Posted Oct 01 2008 4:17pm

My first exposure to mental illness was shortly after High School when my grandmother had a stroke and was moved to a nursing home near my folk’s house. My memories of my grandmother were not of a warm, fuzzy and kindly old woman. She was crabby until she had her stroke. The stroke rendered her paralyzed on her right side. I don’t know if the stroke changed her personality or if she just realized that she was at the mercy of others now and had better start to be nice.

When she was in the nursing home she took it upon herself to set me up with one of the many young women that were aids in the home. A lot of the people who worked in the home were high school graduates or drop outs. If one was not interested in me, grandma would start talking me up to another woman. I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend but if it made grandma happy…

Finally she found a girl who at least feigned interest in me. Our first ‘date’ was to visit a friend of hers in the hospital (not an auspicious beginning). As it turned out it was a young man who’d tried to commit suicide. He seemed nice enough and didn’t come across as particularly troubled. I remember thinking at the time that he was probably gay and wondered if that played a roll in his suicide attempt.

My date talked rather matter of factly with her friend, “What the heck is going on? Why would you try to kill yourself? Don’t you know I’d really miss you?” He just smiled sheepishly and said that he would miss her too.

After a half hour or so we left him after he promised to never do such a thing again.

The dating never worked out. Her suicidal friend did end up taking his life the following year. I remember thinking at the time that it was beyond me how someone could get to that point in their life. Now I understand it a little better.

Years later I dated a woman whose ex-boyfriend came by her apartment and threatened suicide if she didn’t take him back. She didn’t and he didn’t.

When I worked for the police department as a dispatcher (a “piglet” as my friend called me) I fielded several suicide calls. Some were from suicidal people asking for help, others were from family or friends who discovered their remains.

Once a police officer I worked with took a call from his wife right outside the dispatch offices. They argued and she slammed the phone down, or at least that’s what he thought at first but it was instead the sound of gunfire. The poor guy heard his wife end her life. I cannot imagine his grief and guilt.

Suicide has touched me and many of the lives of my friends and family.  Just a few years back I Googled a good friend’s name when I was at work. He lived in another town and I didn’t have Tom’s address and wanted to send him an email. We’d talked about a month before and wanted to get together after he’d gotten his classes at school squared away. The first item that came up was an article about his death in a car-train accident in a distant north-eastern state. He had no family in that state that I knew of and it was a long way from home on a Sunday morning before classes on Monday.

In our last phone call he had told me of his treatment for depression (bi-polar) and how memories of sexual abuse were coming up and he didn’t know if they were real suppressed memories or a product of his depressed mind. He was distraught about his illness and under tremendous stress at the university where he worked. The head of the department he worked in was trying to fire him. I’m fairly certain that he took his life.

Tom’s death affected me more than I realized. When I was in a doctor’s office talking to the doctor about my health I suddenly found myself getting very emotional as I related Tom’s suicide. He was the first friend I’d ever lost and the closest person I’ve known to commit suicide. It devastated me.

Since then I’ve worked with people who’ve lost children to suicide and have a relative through marriage whose father and a cousin both took their lives. It’s not as rare as it should be.

So with this all behind me it was with some hesitation that I picked up C. Comfort Shields’ book Surviving Ben’s Suicide. Although it’s only 229 pages it took me a while to make it through as it’s a very difficult subject.

Comfort writes quite openly about her relationship with Ben, a young man she met and fell in love with as a 19 year old while attending Sarah Lawrence College in New York in the early 90s.  Comfort details the emotional roller coaster that was her life’s right of passage into adulthood, the world of mental illness, suicide and survival. From hearing about a good looking former Navy man on campus, to their meeting, falling in love, struggling through his emotional turmoil and ultimately surviving his self destruction - this is not your typical girl meets boy story.

Told in a back and forth narrative Ms. Shields creates the feeling of how difficult life was being in love with a deeply troubled young man and how surviving his death has forever shaped her life. Not knowing what to do with her feelings and the response of others who didn’t know Ben, Comfort confronts the shame, sorrow, anger and guilt that is the suicide survivor’s world.

The author came from such a different background than my own that I found it easier to identify with Ben. He was something of a sensitive loner with a military background who found himself in a liberal arts college surrounded by others who saw him as something of an anomaly. His inner struggles caused him to pull away from people ultimately including the very woman who loved him and struggled to understand him. This pulling away is perhaps one of the most confusing things for people to understand when trying to relate to someone with depression or other illnesses. Why do they withdraw when I love them, want to understand them and help them?

Comfort comes to realize that while we struggle to love & understand one another, our influence over the many people who come into our lives may be great but ultimately we have no control over their actions. It’s a hard lesson for a young woman in love to learn. The way she weaves together her life before, during and after Ben it seems she learned that lesson well.

Recommended with some reservations - for those struggling to understand suicide and its aftermath but not for those in the midst of their own struggle with depression.

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