Author’s note: I am sharing this story because I hope it will help those caring for a loved one with mental illness or who may have lost one to suicide. My husband was a very high-functioning person. I never could have conceived that his story would have ended in the way that it did. Although he was a very private person, I am choosing to share his story publicly because I believe his closed nature prevented him from getting the proper help that he needed. I want to start a healthy conversation around mental illness. I hope that by sharing, I will help others come out of isolation, seek the help that they need, and realize that they are not alone in their suffering. I wholeheartedly reject any shame or stigma related to this debilitating disease. By sharing our stories, we can develop coping methods and heal together as a human community. —Penelope Draganic
On March 6, 2014, my husband took his life in the midst of his struggle with severe clinical depression. No one is prepared for the agonizing heartache that comes in the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide.
It was a knee-buckling descent into a dark, swirling abyss, a devastating infliction of heartache that threatened my ability to function, let alone find passion for my life again. I longed to find my footing in the wake of this devastation, to show my late husband that I deeply protested his final surrender. I needed to be strong for our two children, to shield them from the trauma that was so unfairly thrust upon them.
My foray into heartache actually began a year before Zarko (lovingly known as Z) died, when he slipped into a depression so deep that I no longer recognized him as the person I had known so well for so long. Mental illness is terrifying to cope with, especially when a family member suffers from it. Those who are afflicted may often look and act like themselves, but confusingly, they’re not. It is an invisible and complicated ailment because it all takes place in the privacy of their mind, and there is no way to follow, or make sense of, where their minds are leading them.
Before the fall of 2012, Z was the high-functioning, driven, kind, sensitive man whom I’d known and loved for many years. After a decade of being his own boss and working at his own pace, he went back to a stressful, all-consuming job, one too taxing for him to handle during a very fragile time of his life. Z, a brilliant engineer, had followed his young dreams to Silicon Valley, where he worked at groundbreaking companies before founding his own successful venture.
Following the sale of his company and a successful exit, he went on “creative hiatus” to build a family, pursue his passions for sailing, and provide support for green energy companies and initiatives. After a decade away from the grind, he decided to get back into the technology game. His later re-entry back into a tech startup made him feel anxious and insecure, no longer feel relevant in an industry he had once dominated. Stress is a key factor in activating mental illness. This, coupled with his garden-variety midlife crisis, was a toxic cocktail for the depressive personality traits that lay dormant in his system. He could no longer visualize a positive future for himself, and his fears dictated a new, delusional truth.
During this period, Z began to suffer panic attacks; he was restless, hopeless, sleepless, and convinced he was going to fail. I tried to help him see things differently, but he was unable to hear anything other than the critical voice inside him. That voice had always been present and in the background; he had spent the majority of his life muffling it and proving it wrong. Now it had tremendous amplification: It was an undertow with a megaphone, a tyrannical internal dictator determined to destroy all possible hope.
Backed into an isolating corner, Z sought help from an unvetted psychiatrist, one who, in my opinion, spent too little time trying to understand his history with depression or past reactions to medication, one who seemed more interested in a quick fix. She prescribed Z meds that completely jolted his system. I still marvel at how quickly doctors can diagnose and prescribe high-risk medication without any real monitoring of the impact other than the patient's self-reporting.
Z became uncharacteristically manic after taking his prescription antidepressants. (I learned later that he should have been taking a mood stabilizer in addition to the antidepressant, although I sometimes question whether, in his case, any medication would have proved effective.) Taking these meds seemed to take Z from a wrong turn to a worse turn, a pendulum swinging too far and fast to control.
After four months of trying to nurse him out of his depressed state, the resulting new hypomanic personality change was a startling reversal. Z was newly energized but also uncharacteristically edgy, unreasonable, unfocused, emotionally unrecognizable. It was painful to watch him so hyped up. He was unkind, dismissive, unreliable; he fled our quiet, contemplative life, centered around family and community service, for a life filled with spontaneous and solo travel, idea chasing, new people. He rarely slept, staying up until all hours of the night working on bizarre, mission-urgent tasks that only made sense to him. I once woke up at 4 a.m. to find him furiously calling a Google executive he knew in China because he was trying to erase the search footprint of the price on a house we’d briefly listed for sale, fearing that the public price would ruin the true value of our home forever. Another time, he was hammering in his workshop all night trying to jerry-rig espresso machine components into one superior coffee machine.
The mania only escalated from there, even with no medication in his system. Z was quite good at acting relatively sane, just sane enough to be believable to someone who wasn’t paying close enough attention. I was painfully disappointed by how many “friends” found it funny or commented almost enviously on how much “energy” he appeared to have, without realizing that a biochemical imbalance was driving his behavior.
I suffered in silence during this time because I knew that Z would be furious with me if I told our friends the truth about his illness. In his altered state, he refused to believe there was something wrong with him, dismissing me as anxious, critical. His self-aggrandizing thoughts made him believe he was a genius with prescient powers, superior to everyone around him. He went skydiving, kite-surfing, even spontaneously ran a triathlon in Hawaii without any training whatsoever. He bought every electric car on the market; he traveled across Europe initiating rogue business deals for his company, leaving the leadership team out of the loop. An avid sailor, he plunged himself into the America’s Cup race’s endless activities, jumping on a different boat every day with new people willing to take advantage of his boundless energy and generous spirit.
It was a spectacle to witness his mind convincing him of Superman capabilities, seeing his body obey him despite little sleep or nourishment. It was a lonely and frustrating time for me as he wanted nothing to do with a wife who looked at him with perpetual concern, a wife who told him he was not well, when his own mind was finally telling him that he was better and more brilliant than ever before.
His mania gradually subsided and offered some glimpse of normalcy as we worked together to repair the damage. It was encouraging at first because Z started to care again about his former life and wanted to put the scattered pieces of the last six months back together. He still lacked some ability to reflect and engage emotionally, but he was no longer as frenetic and unsettling to be around. Unfortunately, it was only a short time before he succumbed again to the paralyzing pull of depression. Dark, tortuous thoughts entered Z’s psyche, a familiar negative narrative now telling him that his life was irreparably damaged. Z felt he had nothing to offer and could no longer keep up with the perceived mess he felt he had made of his life. Tremendous shame about his behavior while he was manic led him to lose faith in himself entirely.
A tortured look became permanently etched on his handsome face during this time, a painful, hopeless scowl, the visual representation of pure agony. With a new doctor in place and the hope of better medications to “autocorrect” his serious condition (now diagnosed as bipolar), we stitched together a plan for getting him through moment by moment, one day at a time. I quit my job and tried to never leave his side. He reassured me that he would never hurt himself, but I nonetheless felt perpetually uneasy about what he might do. The confidence of his new, “prominent” doctor reassured me that he would be fine once the new medications took effect, all of which made me push aside my nagging intuition that harshly whispered he might be losing this battle.
On the afternoon of March 6, I made Z lunch, took him on a slow, uphill, and rather morose hike, and left him briefly alone while I took the kids to their afternoon activities. As I was leaving, he looked at me with his beautiful, almond-shaped sad eyes and softly uttered, “Thanks, honey, I love you.” Those were the last words I ever heard him say. I hugged him and told him that I would be home very soon, only to race back shortly thereafter with the sudden, devastating feeling in my body that something terrible had happened. Z chose to leave this world that afternoon, left to his own temporarily crippling devices, with no foreseeable way out of his psychological pain.
I believe that the new medications Z was taking gave him a surge of energy while he was in this dark, hopeless place, an energy that probably gave him the strength to choose not to be in this world anymore. After he died, I read all of the disclaimers on his prescriptions pills, which included strong, ominous warnings, foreshadowing a tragic ending that I hadn’t anticipated. If Z had told me that he was having these thoughts, we could have taken him to a hospital, but the laws don’t allow you to hospitalize someone who hasn’t expressed such a desire.
My heart didn’t just ache in the moment I discovered he was gone; it was flooded with dam-breaking grief, energized by a love for him so powerful that I felt I would either explode or crumble to the floor—or both. I was left to face our two soon-to-be heartbroken children and our many loving family members and friends, who would—like me—likely never come to grips with the fact that this brilliant, charming, resilient, larger-than-life man we all knew and loved would no longer be a physical part of our lives.
How does one heal from devastating heartache? I didn’t even know how to approach healing, but I had to believe I was capable of it in order to carry on. The first decision I made was not to buy into the stigma of suicide and mental illness. I had felt his shame and my own at times during Z's painful struggle, but I stood firm and rejected it after he died, replacing it instead with compassion: a deeper place of acceptance, one that understood how difficult, how painful and how human Z’s journey was. I let my kids know that their father died because he had a disease, not because of a personal failing or external circumstances. I disarmed people with my openness about him, his illness, my pain of losing him, my vivid memories of him in better times. But once they realized that I was OK with talking honestly about Z and his illness, they engaged with me and were relieved to share their pain around his passing or the stories of their own loved ones who struggled with mental illness.
I also cried—a lot. I cried in the car, watching movies, in others’ arms, running up a quiet mountain trail, when an unexpected song came on the radio, or the glistening sunlight hit the San Francisco Bay just so. I cried when I thought I heard his car parking in the driveway, when my computer needed to be fixed and he wasn’t there to do so, when a boat sailed into the harbor and I wished Z was sailing home to us. I let myself cry in front of my kids and explained why I was having a sad moment. It allowed them to feel the feelings they also had inside but weren’t quite able to articulate themselves. Sometimes they would wake up in the night and just crawl in bed with me, hugging me tightly. I would seek them out for a regular hug, a snuggle, reassurance that we were in this together and that love was going to pull us through. It was important for my children to know that grief was healthy and human and that it can hit you without warning, that this is how we process loss and learn to carry on.
My children and I also laughed. We went on travel adventures, played games, watched funny movies, laughed at our silly cats and our goofy dog. Every evening we sat down to a mandatory dinner together, lit candles, broke bread, shared the stories of our day. Our house was open to friends and family of all ages, at all times; a revolving door of fresh energy and love circulating through and around us. We lived each day now knowing how valuable life and togetherness was, for in our hearts we carried the reality of losing someone who meant so much.
The most critical decision I made in the wake of my tragedy was to unabashedly choose life. In fact, the crater of loss made me want to embrace life again ever so tightly, to feel its powerful force and plunge myself into the act of living. Two weeks after Z’s death, overwhelmed by grief fueling my racing mind and hurting heart, I sat in the backyard of my parent’s home. I mindfully attempted to take in the present moment to escape the pain. After some deep breaths, I paused and peeked at my sweet, calm daughter sitting cross-legged on the grass organizing her freshly picked flowers; and my son, adolescent limbs draped over an outdoor lounge chair, reading his well-worn book with a smile on his face. I will always remember thanking the heavens for this gentle and reassuringly familiar sight, a simple glimpse of quiet but present-time vitality. Their existence and contentment in that moment gave me a crucial seedling of hope, one that grew over time to help me carry on. I was determined to hold onto this and not let it go.