Archive for Thursday, August 30, 2001

Ghost of depression

August 30, 2001

If she had it to do over again, Jill Wohlgemuth would have called the police. When her fiancegan acting strangely at a friend's house, she wouldn't have hidden from him in a bedroom.

But everything happened within an hour, she said. Davey Knifong drove down the road in his beloved pickup truck, ending his life with a gunshot and a car crash.

Although Davey's bouts with depression punctuated their six-year relationship, that doesn't dominate how Jill thinks of him speeding around on a four-wheeler with friends at Lake Perry, taking care of their pit bulls, playing with their son, Tyler, who looks like Davey but with Jill's nose. Yet depression remained an integral piece of Davey's life, and Jill believes the disease ended it as well.

"I'll never understand why he took his life knowing Tyler needed him and little Davey needed him," Wohlgemuth said, referring to their son and Davey's son from a previous relationship. "There were so many things he had here to live for."

Social pressures

Although many still don't take the disease seriously and put a stigma on it, Diane Whitten, nurse practitioner in psychiatry, knows better. Working for the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, she said the people she sees represent about half of all people who suffer from depression.

"I think there are more people out there than you realize," Whitten said.

Even though Knifong knew he had problems, Wohlgemuth said he was reluctant to seek help. Up to three or four times a month he seemed very depressed.

"There was a lot of things he couldn't tell people because he's a guy," she said. "His hurt was there because his brain couldn't hold it."

He was the type of person who wouldn't even see a regular doctor.

"If he was sick, he'd lie downstairs with a blanket and sweat it out," Wohlgemuth said.

Because he wanted to be strong and fit society's definition of a man, Wohlgemuth said he resisted counseling.

It's not unusual for men and women to look at depression and suicide differently, Whitten said. Although women attempt suicide more often than men, their usually-subdued attempts taking pills for instance mean they aren't as successful as men, who typically commit suicide more violently.

Whitten said men's socialization as well as possible previous experience with handguns influence they way they commit suicide, although women are using handguns more often.

Knifong also loved living fast, especially when it came to motorcycles and four-wheelers.

"Davey loved speed," Wohlgemuth said. "Whenever he got anything, he took it to the max."

Although depression and suicide aren't mutually exclusive substance abuse and terminal illnesses can lead to suicide as well the majority of the 30,000 who kill themselves each year suffer from depression, Whitten said. Half of them are not in any kind of treatment, she said.

Though Knifong wouldn't seek help, his fiancee, whom he was supposed to marry this fall, said she will.

"It's one thing to talk to a friend, but it's another to tell it to someone who doesn't know your problems," Wohlgemuth said.

More than just 'the blues'

His depression left him living life day-to-day, Wohlgemuth said.

"He didn't set any goals for himself," she said.

People who are depressed have more than just a case of the blues, Whitten said.

"It doesn't involve your whole body," she said, adding that those who suffer from depression also experience aches and pains, appetite changes and sleeping troubles. "The blues are having a bad day, a bad week. Usually it just takes time and a friend to talk to."

Knifong's depression may not have disappeared, but friends were everything to him, Wohlgemuth said.

"It was like he loved his friends more than he loved himself," Wohlgemuth said.

Substance abuse in combination with depression can precipitate suicide.

"You lose your inhibition," she said.

Aside from a couple beers occasionally, Wohlgemuth said Knifong didn't use drugs or drink alcohol regularly.

Looking for clues

Although Knifong would make offhand remarks that worried Wohlgemuth like comparing the couple to Romeo and Juliet, lovers who committed suicide she said she never really thought he'd go through with it.

No matter how far-fetched they may seem, Whitten said, comments like that should be taken seriously.

"There's a myth that if you ask them about it, they will do it," Whitten said. "You have to ask them directly. If they say, 'I don't know,' ask them 'Have you thought about how you're going to do it.'"

Follow a pattern of questioning, Whitten said. For instance, if the person tells you they thought about shooting themselves, ask the next question: Do you own a gun?

Other signals include signs of hopelessness and anxiety, but that doesn't mean they're always easy to pick up on.

Because Knifong never came out and said what he intended to do, Wohlgemuth had a hard time listening to the signals. Now, they seem to make more sense.

"He wasn't telling us. He was beating around the bush," Wohlgemuth said. "He was crying out for someone to help him."

Calling for help

Looking back, Wohlgemuth wishes she would have called the police when Knifong began acting strangely, but because he had a gun she feared for her own life and thought of their son.

Her instincts were on target, though. Whitten said the first thing to do if someone threatens suicide is to take the person to the emergency room. If they refuse to go, call the police.

"The police have a way to screen them," Whitten said. "They can assess on the scene if they're high-risk. Most of them will talk."

Some cities, Whitten said, have mobile crisis teams that bring a police officer, nurse and social worker to the scene.

Before an emergency arises, those who think they are depressed or know someone who might be have resources in the community, like Bert Nash and Headquarters in Lawrence. Bert Nash has free depression screenings every day, Whitten said. The screen lasts about 30 minutes, and afterward refers patients to other services. Those interested can call 843-9192. The screen isn't for people who already know they are depressed, Whitten said.

Dealing with the loss

Wohlgemuth and Knifong's friends would like to spread his ashes on the dunes he loved riding over so much. They are also preparing a cross, signed by loved ones, to mark the site of his crash.

Although Wohlgemuth still has good memories of her fiancee seeing the movie "Titanic" on one of their first dates, fingering the necklace and bracelet he bought her, watching her son sleep Knifong's death left her wondering "why?"

Wohlgemuth said that if he walked in the front door she'd ask him, "What the hell were you thinking?"

Loved ones left behind by suicide feel anything from denial to anger about the loss, and guilt because they didn't do more to stop it, Whitten said.

"They say, 'I could have helped if I'd just done this differently,'" Whitten said.

Wohlgemuth was honest with their son about his father's death. Tyler knows his dad got sick and was in a car wreck, and now he's in heaven.

But how much is too much to tell?

Whitten said family counseling played an important part in the recovery process, and a counselor can be especially helpful in determining how much a child should know and when.

"I don't know that there's a right way to talk about it," Whitten said. "Certainly a child needs to talk about a loss, and a therapist can guide them."

As Wohlgemuth struggles to understand Knifong's decision, she misses her lover and companion. She said their dogs jump up at the window when they hear a car with a booming base like Knifong's, thinking their owner is back.

"I can't wait to get to heaven to give him a big hug," Wohlgemuth said.

Yet the finality of his death hasn't really hit yet.

"It seems like he's gone for the weekend, and now it's time for him to come home," she said.

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