The Closing of Suicide Prevention Month: A Story
By Doug Segal
This is my brother, Dan’s story. Please read. Please share. Let’s keep the conversation regarding suicide and mental illness going, or at least, let’s try to get it started. Thank you.
On July 24th, 2015, I lost my little brother, Dan – my only brother, and also, my best friend – to suicide (by way of depression). Given that more than a year has passed, and that September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, the time now feels right for me to share his story.
Dan and I grew up in a very loving, nurturing, and supportive family. I never thought that suicide could ever happen in my family, but then again, who does??? But I have learned that suicide knows no boundaries, and if it can happen in my family, right under my nose, and unbeknownst to me, then surely, it could happen in any family.
That is why I have decided to post this, despite my inclination towards privacy, and to share Dan’s story. I am a very private person by nature, as was Dan – and by no means do his depression and his suicide define who he is or was as a person, he was soooo much more that that, and I am so proud to call myself his brother, not to mention that I am so incredibly grateful that I had him in my life for 35 years – but I am determined to do my part to help shatter the stigmas associated with suicide, and to help people to recognize some possible signs and symptoms. Maybe someone reading this can relate on some level to a friend or loved one of theirs, so hopefully this will empower them to try to take action. It is my sincere hope that I could help someone out there in some way, somehow, to prevent future tragedies such as these from happening. If I can help even one person, then writing and sharing these personal and otherwise private thoughts and memories will all have been worth it.
When we were younger, Dan was always a happy kid, as well as also being very sensitive. He used to cry a lot as a baby, and this continued all the way through early adolescence.
In December of 1993, our father passed away, relatively quickly, from lung cancer. Mourning the loss of a parent is never easy, and different people handle such losses differently. I was 20 years old at the time, and Dan was only 14 years old, just barely a teenager. We were very close with our father.
I don’t know if our father’s passing was the exact time when Dan’s depression / mental illness took root, but I do know that I don’t recall ever seeing him cry ever again after that traumatic incident. I also now know that there is a link between mental illness, and experiencing early childhood trauma.
My mother and I immediately noticed this change in Dan’s behavior, and we recognized that it was not healthy to keep one’s feelings all bottled up inside. We tried to encourage Dan to open up some more, and to talk about his feelings with us, or to talk with a therapist, but he was either unable, or unwilling, to do so; he resisted and pushed back, saying simply that he was “fine.” As the expression goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And so, we let it be at that time, figuring that at some point, Dan would eventually feel the need to cry or share or talk about or release these pent-up emotions regarding our father’s loss. But the bubble of emotions continued to grow and swell within him over the years, and never burst.
As the years went by, despite this profound loss, Dan proved himself to be a brilliant and multitalented kid, and later young man and adult, who excelled at anything that he ever put his mind to. The kid was simply brilliant.
In 2005, Dan moved to Toronto. He continued to remain very close to his family back home after moving there, but there were some changes in his behavior that were gradually noted. Because he had some extra distance between himself and his family and friends back home, it was easier for him to keep us at arm’s length and to not be as accountable or as responsive as he was when he was living back at home. So, very often, it would take him days to respond back to messages by phone, email, text messages, etc.
Dan would also sleep a lot, and would keep all sorts of weird hours that were hard to predict, making him even more unreachable, in tandem with the distance factor. We had always thought that it was because he was involved in the after hours scene (attending and occasionally DJ’ing rave parties), which often involved staying up all night long to play at and attend parties, and we just assumed that as a result, he had never really developed a proper circadian rhythm / sleep schedule.
Also, despite being well educated, and possessing an absolutely brilliant mind, Dan was never really able to commit to selecting a career for himself, and never worked a 9-to-5 job, much less committing to either a specific or general career path. He graduated university with a Bachelors’s degree in Mathematics in high honors, and started to pursue a Master’s Degree, but he never completed it. He also completed a technical program in Audio Engineering, as well as taking some online courses in computer programming, but ultimately, he never pursued a career in those directions, either. He had so much upside, but he never knew it, or never believed it. He also didn’t know how to leverage his skill set and his aptitude into a career. We thought that he had some form of “Peter Pan Syndrome”, i.e. that in a sense, that he didn’t want to “grow up” just yet. And who was I to judge, as I myself had only decided to go back to school when I was 30 years old, to pursue a career in Chartered Accountancy. But it seems clear now that Dan’s depression is what prevented him from striving to grow and to select a career path, or at least a full time job.
We had assumed that Dan would follow a similar path that I did, which is to say that we assumed that he would ultimately figure things out in due time. Better late than never. We tried to keep him grounded and focused on picking a career, and we tried to encourage him to send out some résumés, and to test the job market. On several occasions, I offered to review his résumé and to put him in contact with some of my friends who work in digital marketing, which was an interest area of his… but Dan never took me up on that, and as far as I know, he never really looked that hard to find employment.
If sleeping-in and taking his time to find work or to pick a career path were the worst of my mom’s and my concerns, that would have been more than manageable for us. However, Dan’s behavior over the last couple of years of his life started to become even more bizarre, and unpredictable, and (in retrospect) started to become of increasingly greater concern to us.
Whenever he would visit his family back home, Dan would always appear to be the picture of happiness. However, over the last couple of years of his life, Dan’s visits back home started to become less and less frequent, and for shorter and shorter durations. It was almost as if he was not comfortable visiting his own family anymore, or venturing for too long or too far outside of his comfort zone of Toronto, or possibly was not comfortable in his own skin. It was also noted, during these visits, that his physical appearance would be a little different with each visit – his hair would be disheveled, he wouldn’t always brush his teeth, he would always wear a baseball hat, etc., and he would always seem in a hurry to return back home to Toronto. I realize now that Dan was wearing a mask while in the presence of his family, especially in the last year or two of his life, a mask that would portray himself as happy – an illusion that he was somehow capable of maintaining for each visit.
Also, in the last year or two of Dan’s life, phone calls and text messages and emails went unreturned for even longer than were previously the case. And when he did finally get back to us, his excuses for not being in touch got sloppier and sloppier, to the point where we expected him to say that the dog ate his computer or his cellphone. Dan also gradually cut off contact with most of his friends, and stopped doing many of the things that he loved doing, such as playing tennis, DJ’ing at parties, making new music, etc…
In the final year or so, we also gradually began to become aware that Dan was either unable, or unwilling, to meet his financial obligations. Bills would go unpaid, or were paid very late after the fact, and credit cards would be cancelled with large outstanding balances owing.
Much of this we only found out after the fact. But I was also a witness to some of this, as when Dan was much younger, I had co-signed for a credit line, to be used by Dan. The arrangement that I had agreed upon at the time with Dan was that the credit line was entirely his to use or not use at his discretion, but it was up to him to make the required monthly interest/principal payments, and to ultimately pay down the credit line. Over time, the credit line was maxed out, and the payments that he made were minimal. Eventually, it got to a point where Dan often neglected to make the monthly payments on this credit line, and never communicated this to me, and as a co-signer, I found myself getting threatening phone calls and letters from the bank. I would then sit on Dan to ensure that he would make the payments, which he would eventually do. And I would urge him to not allow this to happen again, as I did not want my own credit history to be jeopardized, but this pattern kept repeating with increasing frequency. I was getting increasingly infuriated as a result, and would often have some harsh words for Dan, who would then know how to say all of the right things to reassure me that this would not happen again. But sure enough, a couple of months later it would happen all over again, just like Groundhog Day.
In the last few months of his life, Dan had stopped paying his rent to his landlord. This was not known to his family for much of this time, until Dan’s landlord reached out to us, to make us aware of the problem.
My mother and I were both very concerned, to say the least. I tried to take more of a “tough love” approach to handling this, figuring that instead of coddling Dan, maybe he needed to fall down – and potentially risk getting evicted from his apartment – in order to get back up again, and to realize that a big change was needed in his life. Of course, all of this was coming from a place where we did not know or suspect that Dan was suffering from depression. Had I known, surely my response would have been much different.
However, when I noticed how our mother was so upset and concerned and beside herself about Dan’s behavior, about his failure to pay his rent, and his not returning phone calls, sometimes for up to five days, I decided that enough was enough, and I knew that I would need to get more involved.
I then had a very harshly toned phone conversation with Dan. I came down hard on him about how he was increasingly becoming a burden on us, and especially on Mom, and about how it wasn’t normal for a person to become less responsible and accountable over time, as usually it tends to work the opposite way. I told Dan that he was really worrying Mom, and that she would then increasingly lean on me for support and guidance. I told him that from that point on, every time Mom would lean on me for support and advice when he would make us worried, that I would lean on him ten times as hard, so that he would understand how much he was making his family worried about him. I also used this conversation as an opportunity to ask Dan if he had any problems that he wanted to share with us. I left the question open ended, not sure if the issue at hand had to with a serious drug problem, money / cash flow problems, depression, other forms of mental illness, or possibly all of the above. Dan immediately and strongly denied any such problems, and once again apologized and promised to make things right. For his part, Dan sounded very groggy and out of it on the phone, which certainly did not alleviate my concerns, but being my brother, and knowing that he had a good heart and was my best friend, I trusted him to make right and gave him the benefit of the doubt. But regardless, the phone conversation definitively ended on a harsh tone / note, as I was trying to give Dan the swift kick in the arse that I felt that he needed, in order to wake him up, and to try to give him a greater sense of urgency.
This conversation took place on July 17th, 2015, and unbeknownst to me at the time, this would turn out to be the last time that I would ever speak to Dan. And I now live in a world of could haves, should haves, and what ifs…
On the morning of Friday, July 24th, 2015, my mother got “the call” from the Toronto police, that my brother, Dan, had completed suicide. He was just shy of 35 years old. I will spare the graphic details, so no trigger warnings are needed here – but suffice it to say that his end came extremely swiftly and suddenly, and needless to be said, very unexpectedly. If there is any comfort or consolation to be taken from such a situation (of which there is very little comfort), we were told that there was no suffering involved, as his life ended immediately.
I was at work that day, and I remember my mom calling me after lunch, and trying to find the right words, finally telling me that Dan was “gone.” My immediate reaction was, “Gone…. As in evicted?” It did not even occur to me that Dan had taken his own life.
Of course, our family was in complete shock and denial, myself included. As bad as things seemed with Dan, especially of late, he never shared his troubles with us, much less his suicidal ideations. He had become very private after moving to Toronto, and he always presented himself as happy when we spoke to him, or when he visited us back at home, so we were completely blindsided by this tragic and sudden turn of events. And that is what makes suicide and mental illness so scary, too.
My only previous major loss was the passing of my father from cancer. In the case of my father, I had a long enough time to make my peace and to say my goodbyes, but I knew immediately that there would never be any sense of closure that I would feel from Dan’s passing. His life was taken away from us too swiftly to ever have any form of closure. And there will always be that absence of a proper goodbye, as well as plenty of “what ifs,” had we known more about Dan’s inner demons.
As appreciative as I was of the support and outpouring of love and comfort from friends and family, I was dealing with so much grief and anxiety at the time that I was living in a fog, and I barely remember anything from the week or two following his passing, including the funeral, shiva, and the aftermath when that all ended.
Dan had left a note behind. It took us about three weeks to obtain it from the Ontario police, for reasons that are still unclear… And three weeks seems like a lifetime when all you have are questions with no answers. My mom I were not really comforted by Dan’s note – we were satisfied that we were able to obtain it after such a long delay that was torturous, but he only mentioned his family as almost an afterthought, so his words were really of no consolation to us, and really left us with more questions than it did provide answers. I know now that trying to explain a suicide is very much like trying to piece together a puzzle – only you have no idea what the puzzle is supposed to look like, much less how many pieces there are in the puzzle, and if there are any pieces missing, or possibly too many pieces… In short, trying to explain the rationale for a suicide is an exercise in futility…
To say that the weeks and months following Dan’s passing were incredibly confusing would be an extreme understatement, as is presumably the case with all suicides. Of course, we had no idea that Dan was dealing with and battling depression or any form of mental illness, whether diagnosed or otherwise, as he had never shared this with us. As mentioned earlier, he always presented himself as being extremely happy when visiting or speaking to his family, and his friends in Toronto never suspected anything major or serious, either. As the expression goes, “You never know what someone is hiding behind a smile,” and Dan had clearly become very adept at hiding his inner demons from his family, his friends, and from the rest of the world. And it is very hard to gauge such feelings in someone else unless they open the door first and want to talk about it. It’s a form of social contract that we all tend to take for granted, but here, Dan didn’t follow the script and so this made this a complete blindside, for those who loved him.
I, personally, felt a lot of guilt over Dan’s passing… Guilt for not being there for him when he needed me, and especially guilt for that last conversation, where I came down hard on him, as I felt that maybe I had prompted him to do what he did, or at least possibly gave him a nudge in that direction. However, over time, I have learned that I should not feel guilty, as Dan never shared his depression nor his suicidal ideations with me nor with his friends nor the rest of his family, and never reached out for help in any identifiable way. But even that said, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, knowing that my kid brother, who idolized me – and whom I idolized in turn – was in so much pain that he felt that he had no alternative but to do what he did, and it was right under my nose all along, so to speak.
I personally do not know how Dan managed to hide these feelings for so long, as I am a very sensitive and emotive person who wears my heart on my sleeve, so it would be nearly impossible for me to wear a mask like that in public for any extended period of time, without giving away my true feelings.
I also don’t know how or why Dan was unable or unwilling to confide in anyone about his depression or his suicidal ideations. They say that in a suicide, the suicide victim does not want to die, but rather wants their pain to end, so I can only assume that he was in pain for a long time. I get that. However, it still strikes me as odd – and incredibly tragic – that he never confided these dark feelings in anyone, and that he never sought help from a medical professional or even therapy, to try to give treatment of any form a chance before making such a drastic and life changing, life-ending, decision. But the more that I read up on and inform myself about suicide and about depression, the more that I am aware of the stigmas associated with them, and how people perceive themselves under such circumstances to be weak, and that society would look differently upon them, so I understand the issues and concerns from Dan’s perspective much better now than I did at the time of his passing.
I know that I will definitely never be the same person again, I will never look at the world the same way ever again. I just need to try my best to be able to find my own happiness in spite of this huge loss, and in spite of my grieving. That is my challenge. I do take comfort, however, in knowing that Dan’s pain is finally over, and that he is resting in peace.
And though I was never a religious or a spiritual person, given that half of my immediate family has now crossed over to the other side, I take great comfort in believing that I will see Dan again someday, in some way, some form. Energy is neither created, nor is it destroyed, so I have no choice but to believe that we will all be reunited again someday – but hopefully not anytime too soon.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read Dan’s story. Please feel free to share this post as you see fit.
Born and raised in Montreal, graduated with a BA in Psychology from McGill University, and a Graduate Diploma in Chartered Accountancy from Concordia University, Doug Segal has over ten years of experience working as a Chartered Professional Accountant in Montreal. He recently relocated to the Greater Boston Area, living with his girlfriend there, and working as a Tax Manager at a large, public environmental, energy, and industrial services company. He is a foodie, whose other passions include (in no particular order): traveling, craft beer, religiously following the sport of boxing, and his girlfriend’s Boston Terrier.
When I saw Doug’s story on his Facebook wall, I asked him if I could share his story, to which he immediately said YES. Like Dan Shiff’s story from last week, I also grew up, went to school with, and carpooled with Doug Segal. I have fond happy memories of Doug and his warm younger brother Dan. Please share this important message, and please feel free to leave Doug a comment– he will be reading.