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Survivors of Suicide

Desiree Cooper

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Doug Merrill
(Desiree Cooper)
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Today is the 10th Annual National Survivors of Suicide Day. Survivors are the ones left behind when someone commits suicide. There will be conferences all over the country to help people learn more about depression and suicide. More than 32,000 Americans take their own lives every year. It's the fourth leading cause of death for adults and the third leading cause among 15 to 24-year-olds. For the survivors, getting over the grief, anger and the lingering questions can be difficult. Doug Merrill has had to struggle with how to carry on. He's lived through the suicide of eight people - most of them teens - in the bedroom community of Bowling Green, Ohio, just south of Toledo. Weekend America's Desiree Cooper went to hear his story of survival.

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Doug Merrill has spent his entire life in Bowling Green. His fondest childhood memories are of playing Whiffle ball in the front yard. And of Dawn, the girl he fell in love with in seventh grade.

"I remember that she kicked me in the shin first," Doug laughed, "and later I did a shoulder bump. It was our way of saying, 'Hey, I like you!'"

Doug and Dawn were buddies through high school, going to dances and singing in the choir together. They thought they'd be friends forever, but in May of 1987, all that changed. Out of the blue, one of Doug's wrestling teammates killed himself. At 16, Doug took it hard. Dawn took it harder. A few days afterwards, they were on the school bus when Dawn asked whether their friend had gone to hell.

"My answer to her haunts me to this day," said Doug. "Even now, I'm having a difficult time telling you about it. I looked her straight in the eye and said, 'No, Dawn, I don't believe he's in hell. I believe when you and I die, we'll talk to him the same way you and I are talking now."

I asked him why it was so hard for him to recall what he said to Dawn.

"Because we were having two different conversations, and I didn't realize that," he answered. "I thought I was making her feel better. But she was actually using me to remove that last hurdle of doubt for something she already wanted to do."

Later that day, Dawn hanged herself. Doug was past grief. He was angry.

"If she didn't want to be a part of my life, I didn't want to be a part of hers," Doug said. "I did not attend her visitation; I did not attend her funeral. In many ways, I wiped her from my mind."

At school, he yelled at a student who was lowering the flag in Dawn's honor. He didn't want anyone to glorify her suicide. Alarmed by his outburst, the staff put him into counseling. He wasn't happy about it. He worried other students would either think he was crazy or an attention hound.

But it was in counseling that he revealed his secret. "I hadn't spoken to anyone about that conversation I'd had with Dawn the day before," he said. "I wasn't 100 percent sure I hadn't done something legally wrong. I felt responsible for killing her." Counselors assured him that he'd done nothing wrong. But still, Doug couldn't forgive himself. He kept those feelings bottled up for years.

Then when Doug was 20, a friend died in a car crash, and he just couldn't take it. He drove to southern Ohio, left a goodbye note in his car, then stood on a cliff preparing to jump. When a stranger happened to walk by, he lost his nerve. Instead, he went to visit his friend's grave.

But at the cemetery, he stumbled over something. "When I stopped to see what I tripped on, I saw this name on a tombstone. Dawn was here."

Here's the thing: He didn't even know she was buried there. Remember, he'd refused to go to her funeral. Now he was face to face with the anger he'd carried all those years. That's when he spoke to what he calls the demons of suicide. He stared them down, saying, "You almost got one more, but you lost and you're going to continue to lose."

Four years later, Doug was back at his old high school - this time as the baseball coach. He showed me the trophies he'd won as a member of Bowling Green High School's baseball team - and the recent championship trophies he'd won as the coach.

Things were going well until April of 2004. That's when an assistant coach reprimanded a baseball player, Derek, for chewing tobacco.

Derek went home and hanged himself.

Caitlyn Lanseer had dated Derek off and on. She was devastated. "After Derek's death I started to get angry because I just didn't understand," she said. "I just didn't understand."

The school provided counseling for Caitlyn and others. In fact, it implemented an action plan that's like a page out of the homeland security playbook. All threats are taken seriously. All freshmen are given training on preventing and detecting depression. All of the counselors have experience in crisis management.

Still, the suicides kept happening, again and again. Between 2004 and 2007, four students at BGHS killed themselves. There were three other attempts in a single week. The principal, Jeff Dever, couldn't believe what was happening in his school of 1100 students.

"We serve a suburban population 80 percent, 20 percent rural," said Dever. "We're out in the middle of northwest Ohio. We're hometown USA." No one could figure out a reason, but maybe there wasn't one.

Dever said that statistically, when you have one suicide, chances increase that you'll have more. "The window is usually anywhere from 5 to 6 years long," he said. "We're about a year out from that original suicide, and hopefully, we'll be OK."

I went to visit Caitlyn Lanseer, the student who had dated Derek, one of the recent suicides. She's now at Bowling Green State University. Last year, she even joined a sorority, where they knew her as the "happy, go-lucky, bubbly girl." But just like Doug, her anger came back to haunt her.

In the middle of February, she fell into severe depression. When Doug ran into her earlier this year, he noticed the trouble signs.

"She did not embrace anything that life had to offer any longer," Doug said. "She had a hard time getting herself ready for work or for school. But the biggest sign was that she flat out told me that she didn't want to live anymore. That catches your attention. So I told on her. Her parents were able to have the opportunity to get involved, she was able to receive some counseling."

"He stepped in at the perfect time," Caitlyn said. "I've been healthy, happy. But my biggest fear is feeling like that again."

Doug realizes that the battle against suicide is never-ending. But he has a secret weapon for his own fight. He shared it with me as he pointed out the house where his friend Dawn used to live.

"I run past this house five times a week," he said. "Every time I do, I hold my index finger and my thumb out to form an 'L.' That stands for 'live.' It's a way to let that demon know that I know about him, and he's going to lose."

  • Music Bridge:
    Glimpse
    Artist: Helios
    CD: Caesura (Type)

Comments

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  • By randall bergman

    From amherst, NY, 11/26/2009

    My wife and I were out for a walk this Thanksgiving morning at the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Virginia. We received a friendly "hello" from a good looking gentleman as we passed each other on the path. A little further ahead we saw a motorcoach with the same man's photo emblazoned on the side and of course learned that it was Coach Doug Merrill. Since he was the first man who had turned my wife's head in years I thought I better find out who this guy is...what a guy, and what a time to see such a selfless man giving so much of himself on Thanksgiving Day. We wish him the best on his important mission and will be watching his progress with great interest. Needless to say, we will be pleased to donate to the cause.

    By Betty Johns

    From Fayetteville, NC, 11/22/2009

    Doug,I just wanted to say thanks after reading your story it helped releive me of my guilt I was carrying around after my husband also were having 2 different conversations also he ask me the same question about someone going to hell and like you I was trying to make him feel better not knowing the next day he put a gun to his chest and took his life. He made me feel like I was telling him it was ok. I had a real hard time with that, you really helped my conscience, Thank you, Betty

    By m m

    01/02/2009

    Scott is so right. Abraham Lincoln once lamented
    "If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would be not one cheerful face on the earth.
    Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell: I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me". If we listen carefully to those words we hear what Scott is saying and we must listen because it is from the sufferer speaking up that we will find answers.Stay in this world Scott and Cory, you have important things to say.

    By Scott Knowles

    From Gig Harbor, WA, 12/09/2008

    I don't listen to Weekend America regularly and missed this show and story. But I know if I had listened I would have been mad at Doug, not for what he did but for what he thought and felt about his friends' suicide. I am a survivor of my own attempt and near attempt, and the folks who are left behind don't get it.

    It's not about you or anyone else, but that one single person who has lost the will to live. They aren't thinking much of other people except how bad they feel and how bad they have failed, at life, with friends and family, and at being. They don't want everyone else to feel bad about them and their choice.

    I applaud Doug's help with Caitlyn and that's she better. Changing the feeling of suicide is hard because it doesn't come from others but from within. Others can help, as does therapy, drugs, activities, etc. the individual with the feelings. But what's deep inside the person isn't expressed so that others can tell unless you know what to look for, which is what most of the "surviors" in and about this story usually don't see, because it's not something they would contemplate.

    I've also lost a nephew to suicide and a brother to lifelong depression which may as well been suicide. And no one around them seems to understand what it's like to stand at the bottom of well in complete darkness, a spiritual emptiness, an implosion of the soul, and all signs of light and life are gone far above you. There are no choices, only two answers, which you can't describe and can't define, but you end up deciding.

    Anyway, interesting story. The idea of someone's thoughts of suicide is best expressed by a friend of Townes Van Zandt, "The terror and sorrow of a sensitive man who looked into the abyss, and saw, the abyss." And then sitting at the bottom surrounded by the abyss, and nothing but. Only you and time know the answer whether you survive or not.

    By Sherri Burris

    From Laguna Niguel, CA, 12/06/2008

    My boyfriend called me into the bathroom one afternoon, put his arm around me, leaned his head against mine and shot himself in the temple. That was 1985. Now, 23 years later, I can look back on the event with a bit clearer mind, but it still effects me. That incident forever changed me and shaped who I am today. Suicide is the most selfish thing a person can do to another. If you go to counseling they talk to you about the stages of grief. What they don't tell you is how long it may take to get to those stages. Twenty-three years later and I'm just now getting angry.

    By Sonja Brouwers

    From Henderson, NV, 11/23/2008

    I listen to Weekend America on my MP3 player while out on my Saturday afternoon run. Please warn me ahead of time if you plan to air another story as sad as the one on Survivors of Suicide. I looked like such an idiot running down the sidewalk crying like a baby over the loss of young people and the wounded people they leave behind.

    By Corey Mondello

    From Boston, MA, 11/23/2008

    As a person who has suffered from Depression for many years, as I listened to the "replay" on my radio, I was brought to a place of sadness, gratitude and anger.

    Sadness for all those who feel the need to end their lives, those who believe it is still the answer. As I still struggle with this, this is both an empathetic and sympathetic emotion.

    Gratitude for still being alive, and when looking back, unable to believe that I could ever feel as happy and comfortable in my own skin, as I do today. It would never have been a possible option or even an idea that I ever could be who I am today.

    Finally, anger.

    I am angry that most Americans do not take seriously mental illness. What can we expect, seeing as even our own government, the Pentagon, wanted to and still wants to in some cases, deny that depression, PTSD and other mental illnesses are a reality.

    Along with this, what angers me is that stigma that is attached to mental illness; the very name is a negative one. It’s as if when someone believes that a gay man gets HIV it is his own fault because he engaged in unsafe sex, but if an hemophiliac gets a tainted blood transfusion, they are less "guilty" or "dirty" and do not deserve to be HIV positive.

    I never asked for depression, I do not want it, am treated for it, and must keep an eye on it at all times.

    I do not call it a "demon" as Doug does in the article, because I do not believe in demons, hell, a god or heaven.

    Depression is a part of my make-up, most-likely part nature, my DNA, and nurture, the way I grew up and the culture around me as I was a child.

    Taking responsibility is part of the way to "own" the problem.

    I have read that cancer patients that accept that the cancer is part of them, and not some random enemy, then tend to feel more involved and empowered to take actions to "fight" this part of themselves, not in a way that one fights and enemy, but by looking at our own responsibility to ourselves, first and foremost.

    Corey Mondello
    Boston, Massachusetts
    www.CoreyMondello.com
    11-23-08

    By MaryElizabeth McIlvane

    From Altamonte Springs, FL, 11/22/2008

    What courage does Doug have to carry these stories out of his heart into the community. I have experienced a lost way for my spirt, soul, and mind in my body but today as I stood in my kitchen making cranberry nut muffins for Thanksgiving I am grateful that I can connect in my heart and mind to his passion for each of us to know the power of the wonder and mystery of being human. It is good, we are good, you are good. Thank you, Doug.

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