What I Wish I Knew About the Signs of Suicide: Should I Blame Myself?

TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide method mentioned

I woke with a start. It was 1:03 AM on Thursday, November 20, 2019. I reached over to pick up the phone, fully expecting to see Johnny’s name on the screen again, and instead, it said Douglas County Sheriff’s Office.

I answered, “Hello?” and the voice said, “Hello, ma’am, this is (officer name) with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. I’m at your front door. Please come down. I replied, slightly irritated, “Do you have Johnny with you again?” and he said, “No, ma’am. I’m sorry—I do not.”

A cold chill went through my veins.

I rolled over, shook my husband, and whispered loudly, “The police are at the door. It’s Johnny.” Startled, John jumped out of bed. We threw on robes, hurried downstairs, and opened the door. A woman in a black shirt and pants was standing in front of a police officer in uniform. The woman in black asked, “Mr. and Mrs. Stack, may we come in?” We let them in and led them into the living room, where we intuitively knew we should sit down.

The woman said, “Mr. and Mrs. Stack, I’m with the coroner’s office. I’m so sorry to tell you that your son is deceased.” I felt John’s grip on my hand tighten. I blinked and stared at her for a millisecond, not quite comprehending what I’d heard. I asked stupidly, “Deceased? What do you mean, deceased?” “He’s dead, ma’am,” she replied stoically. “He jumped off the top of the six-story RTD parking garage at Lincoln Station.” I screamed and fell into John’s arms, sobbing.

I was now living every parent’s worst nightmare.

Why Did Johnny Jump?

To make a 5-year story short, in 2014 when Johnny was 14 years old, marijuana was legalized for recreational use in Colorado for adults over 21 years old. The drug dealers showed up at his high school, and Johnny and his friends started smoking it illegally. This usage included dabbing (slang for inhaling) a designer form of chemical (non-plant) marijuana called wax, which is an extract of 80% or higher THC, the hallucinogenic element that causes the “high” in pot. The THC concentration of wax is unregulated, and these products are readily available in Colorado (soon to be coming to your state, too, if not already). Adolescents tell their parents its “vape” and use it right under their noses. By 17 years old, Johnny was dabbing nearly every day.

The adolescent mind is still developing into the mid-20’s. Dabbing wax can cause Cannabis-Induced Psychosis (CIP), and repeated CIP incidents can trigger permanent mental illnesses (see the research we’ve compiled here). By the time he was 19 years old, Johnny told us the mob was after him, his university was an FBI base, and the “whole world knew everything about him.” Johnny’s psychiatrist told us his high-frequency use of high-potency marijuana while his brain was still forming had caused schizophrenia. He refused the anti-psychotic drugs that he now needed, because he thought he wasn’t sick and didn’t need them (common to schizophrenia).

When he died, the toxicology report showed he had NO illicit drugs in his system. For at least four weeks prior to his death, he was sober and trying to be a better person (in his words). Johnny had dreams of taking his puppy to the beach and having a career in computer programming. He wasn’t depressed, neglected, on drugs, or unloved. He was psychotic, paranoid, and delusional. His torment caused him to take his own life to escape his pain and his persecutors. People with schizophrenia can sometimes act on suicidal thoughts impulsively and without warning https://www.webmd.com/schizophrenia/schizophrenia-and-suicide#1.

In the days that followed, we agonized, what could we have done? What did he say that would have told us? As we pieced it all together like an intricate puzzle, it became clear he had a plan to end his life. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, it pains me to admit we can now see many suicidal signs we missed. To us, they seemed like regular conversations. But he hid everything and never admitted he was thinking about killing himself, because he knew he would end up back in a mental hospital. The last time he got out of the mental hospital, he swore to me he would never return.

Johnny’s Puzzle Pieces

Here are some of the signs of suicide I wish we would have seen:

Reaching Out to Loved Ones. A couple weeks before he died, Johnny spent hours on a Facetime call with a friend he’d known for many years, never uttering any thoughts of suicide to her. He drove over to visit our older daughter, Meagan, in her new home. None of us knew that would be the last time he saw her in person. Three days before his death, he visited his grandmother and raked the leaves in her front yard for her. The day he died, he texted his younger brother, James, with the simple words “I love you.” “I love you, too bro,” James texted back, unsuspecting. At the time, none of these incidents seem connected.

Drawing Closer to God. On a Sunday night, three days before he died, Johnny came over to our house at 5:30 PM for dinner. He said he wanted to go to church, but the service was that morning. I was happy and thought, “Oh, this is fantastic—he wants to go to church—he hasn’t been to church in such a long time.” He said, “It’s too late for me,” and I told him, “It’s never too late, love. It doesn’t matter church is closed, because you don’t have to go to church to ask the Lord back into your life. You were baptized as a baby and again when you were 12, and God promised us He will never depart from us. Just pray for forgiveness, make a commitment to live for him, and ask him to come back into your life.” It didn’t occur to me that Johnny was unusually happy with those words.

Making Amends. Then he pointedly told me, “I just want you to know you were right.” “About what?” “You told me smoking pot was going to screw up my brain. It’s ruined my brain and my life. I’m sorry, and I love you. You were a great mom.” I was so happy he wanted to reconcile, because he could become mean during his psychotic episodes. Our relationships had been strained for many years, so, I missed this sign, too.

Wanting Drastic Changes. Suicidal people can feel an urgent need to leave or run. Two days before he died, Johnny asked John and me to meet him for burgers at Red Robin, one of his favorite eateries (besides Krispy Kreme). When we sat down, he said, “I need to move to California.” “What, why? It’s November, and there is snow on the ground.” “Yeah, I need to get out of Highlands Ranch. I’ve got to get away from everyone here.” “When?” “Tomorrow. I need to pack up and leave.” We just saw this as frustration with is current job and suggested we make a plan for him to move in March. He told us we were the worst parents in the world and stormed out of the restaurant. We hadn’t paid for our food yet, so I didn’t go after him. I wish we would have.

Making Final Arrangements. Suicidal people often ask questions related to care for pets, plants, cars, or the house. During the California discussion, he asked, “What will I do with my dog?” “What do you mean? Benji is your dog—you take him with you of course. You’ll have to figure out where you’ll work and how you’ll care for him.” We didn’t catch the question as odd, as we knew he loved his dog. His psychiatrist suggested if we got him a dog, Johnny wouldn’t leave. Wrong again.

Foreshadowing. The day before he died, he came to our house to apologize for how he acted at the restaurant. I begged him to take his medicine. We ended up arguing about how to approach his mental illness. “I’m afraid your mental illness is going to take control if you don’t take your medicine.” “Mom, I’m not going to take that medicine for the rest of my life. It makes me feel stupid, and I’m not going to live my life that way. I need you to promise me that you’re going to be okay with me doing it my way.” I didn’t know what he meant. He was telling me, and I didn’t catch it. I was just so worried he had stopped taking his anti-psychotic meds. John told him, “Son, I don’t know what your life looks like without the medicine.” He said, “Well, I do. Anything wrong with my brain I can fix myself.” Another miss.

Suicide is Complicated

Of course, this list isn’t fully comprehensive, as it is only our experience. I share these signs of suicide in the hope you’ll see if a loved one is struggling. We didn’t put the pieces together collectively as a family until afterward, when we had full information and access to his devices and journals. I didn’t recognize the delusional thinking in his language, since he hid it from us, but his written journal entries made it very clear. His brain literally turned on him, and he was not himself. And we are not ourselves now.

Regret. Guilt. Wishes. Dreams. I wish…lots of things. That I would have made different decisions. That I’d been more educated and taken more control when he was younger. That I could re-do the last three days of his life. That he would have taken his medications. Instead of begging him, I wish I would have just held him. And listened. And loved him better somehow. Maybe it would have changed the outcome, I don’t know. I never will.

My therapist assures me these incidents sounded like normal conversation that no one would have picked up on. In hindsight, of course we would have made different decisions, but that’s illogical when you’re making them based on the information you have at the time. I will never understand why he did it, but I have learned that you can’t rationalize the irrational.

On April 25, 2020, I attended the virtual American Association of Suicidology 32nd Annual Healing After Suicide Loss Conference. Ronnie Susan Walker, the Founder and Director of the Alliance of Hope, said something that resonated with me. To paraphrase, “There aren’t always clear signs. Instead of thinking suicide is preventable, we should be thinking suicide is complicated. This will help get rid of that guilty feeling that you somehow you missed the signs,” she said.

Her words were very healing and reassuring, and I cried. If you read all the signs above, it was clear that Johnny was suicidal. But it’s complicated. I do believe he lived longer than he otherwise would have, because he knew how much we loved him.

May 5, 2020 is Giving Tuesday

I am compelled to keep Johnny’s spirit alive and educate parents and teens about the dangers of dabbing high-THC marijuana products. So, I started a nonprofit named for people who want to save their children and grandchildren from the same fate, www.JohnnysAmbassadors.org.

Will you help us?

In the age of COVID-19, our teens have real problems. They get bullied; they spend too much time on devices; they have family, friend, and social media issues that cause sadness, loneliness, anxiety, and anger. https://www.wired.com/story/covid-19-is-hitting-teens-especially-hard. To push the feelings away and feel better, they can turn to what they believe are ‘harmless’ marijuana products to soothe their anxiety. In Colorado, suicide is the #1 leading cause of death for adolescents ages 10-14. As a parent, you have more control over your younger teens and need to directly deal with marijuana before signs of psychosis emerge. We don’t know whose brain will be susceptible, so we must try to prevent use.

May 5, 2020 has been declared as “Giving Tuesday Now,” a campaign to help nonprofits for the good works they are doing. The CARES Act created a new “above-the-line” deduction for up to $300 of charitable cash contributions in 2020. In other words, if you take the standard deduction on your 2020 tax return (the one that you’ll file in 2021), you can claim a brand new “above-the-line” deduction of up to $300 for charitable donations you make this year! Plus, you will also get the standard deduction.

Today and during the month of May, which is Mental Health month, Johnny’s Ambassadors would be honored and grateful to receive your contribution of any amount, which will allow us to start our work educating teens about mental illness, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. With every day that passes since Johnny died, I am given new hope that we can make a difference. Any amount helps. To support our mission, please visit https://johnnysambassadors.org/donate.

Take the time to purposefully reach out to a child or loved one who is feeling down and just listen. If sharing our experience saves one person, it would be a potentially positive outcome to very tragic situation.

22 Replies to “What I Wish I Knew About the Signs of Suicide: Should I Blame Myself?”

  1. Laura,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. As I type this I am in tears. They are tears of sadness but also thankfulness that you wrote your story in a way that allows action.
    I have a family member who has attempted suicide 3 times and refuses to take the meds for the same reason Johnny refused. I will do more to reach out and be compassionate because of your words. I will also pass on your message to many in my network.
    Thank you for sharing

    1. Lenora, it gives me great joy to read this! I’m glad my story could help in some way. Thank you for sharing it and for your honesty. Prayers that you can reach your family member.

  2. Hi Laura, I am a friend of Brett Figueroa’s and have contacted you before. Your story is so sad as is mine. My son shot himself in the head over 5 years ago. The trauma for me was so intense that I myself became extremely suicidal 3x. I was in the Suicidal Trance. A terrible voice took over my brain and it was like I was in another horrible captive world that was so hideous that all I wanted to do was die. The voice got stronger and stronger and directed me that the only way out of this horror was to kill myself. I felt it was definitely a step into mental illness. I had never felt or imagined this state before. Here’s an article about it. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201004/the-inner-voice-drives-suicide

    One time when this trance happened, I was at work at Jenny Craig and I was alone. I felt so horrific that I didn’t know what to do. I had a moment of sense enough to look up on the internet foods that were high in serotonin. One of them was oatmeal. We had oatmeal in the food room so I cooked one up in the microwave and within 15 minutes, I felt normal again! Oatmeal literally saved my life! I know food is an important factor in mental health. Now, when I get into the depths of grieving Andy’s death, which is always extremely painful if I really grieve heavily, sometimes I feel as if I want to die, but not quite suicidal yet. I eat an oatmeal and it balances me again. It’s my miracle food. I try to eat it now every day for breakfast.
    2 days ago, I tried fasting to help jump start a diet and I started feeling like I wanted to die again after drawing a picture of my son covered in sheets in his casket as a way to help me grieve. I draw pictures of my pain to help me grieve. It usually helps because then the pain is on the paper and not inside of me. I have no one to help me grieve. My husband died shortly after Andy and my daughter is angry with me and hasn’t spoken to me in 5 years. I have no other immediate family. Just 2 nieces, one who lives near you in Castle Rock. It’s so painful!! And ongoing!!! There’s no closure! Losing the 3 of them in less than a year was unimaginable! So I draw pictures. I had to eat an oatmeal to break my fasting to help me feel back to normal.
    Since my son’s injury was to his head, I didn’t want to see his body. So before we had him cremated, I asked the funeral home if I could just touch his hand. They covered him with white sheets and had only his hand visible. That was the horrible way I said good-bye to my precious son.
    3 years before my son completed, he attempted suicide by taking hundreds of pills. He was a drug addict unbeknownst to me starting with prescription pain killers. I was the one who found him and saved him so this is another trauma I live with. What a double shock!
    The only way I can bear all of this is to be in denial most of the time and force my mind onto other things. I can’t even bear to look at pictures of him. I don’t care much about life anymore. Nothing relieves the “deadness” I feel inside.

    1. Diane, wow, thank you so much for sharing this. It is so healing. Johnny’s psychiatrist said he would have most likely heard a voice just like this! I appreciate you sharing your story so much. I’m so sorry you lost your Andy. When we can get together, let’s have coffee because I have some groups and resources I’d like to share that might help. xo

    2. Diane,
      My heart goes out to you. I, too, survive using denial ad distraction. The pain of losing my son at 29 last August is unbearable. Your words resonate strongly.
      With love,
      Diane J

      1. Diane, I’m so sorry you lost your son, too. I find writing to be very healing, plus I get wonderful notes from kind people like you. Hugs for your hurting momma heart.

  3. One more thing. since I was suicidal myself, (mentioned in my last post) I totally understand why my son took his life. I know the horror of living in the Suicide Trance and it gives me a tiny sense of relief that I understand. He had no other choice.

  4. I can so relate but in different ways. My beautiful son Matthew took his life March 31 this year. And the end he was visibly depressed and couldn’t stop the marijuana we were absolutely hounding him to do it because it did make him psychotic and it didn’t make him nonfunctional. I missed so many signs to, I like him telling me two days before he died but he wanted to die for God. I took that as a sign he wanted to we dedicate his life to God and at one point he talked about becoming a pastor. The grief and the guilt is very new for me and I do believe he was schizophrenic. I also believe he was schizophrenic because of his heavy marijuana use that started at 16 and we didn’t know until he was 18. He wouldn’t take the medications either. He said they made him feel empty like he wasn’t even a real person anymore.

    1. Oh, Wendy, I am so distraught to hear this and am so, so sorry you lost your son Matthew. I know exactly how you feel, sadly. Yes, it sounds much like Johnny’s story with the marijuana and schizophrenia and delusion. Send me an email at [email protected] so I can get you connected to some grief groups online that are very helpful to me as you begin your grief journey. You are not alone!Love, Laura

  5. My dear cousin, my heart melts and rejoices for you simultaneously. Thank you for sharing, for endeavoring, persisting, pushing, changing…Jeremiah 29:11 is a hallmark in my life, and I see it evident in so many others. While we never know the eternal purpose of why things happen, it’s always been my belief it’s our duty to respond with an eternal response. Focusing on turning tragedy, to hope. Sadness, to joy. A season for everything, and I’m beyond proud and humbled by your families bravery to develop Johnny’s Ambassadors and I know you all will move mountains.

    1. Thank you, dearest cousin. Your work helping children is such an inspiration! I guess God has called us both to save them for himself. We must be obedient even in our times of mourning. He invites us to cry out to Him in our grief!

  6. Laura,

    You and John are wonderful parents. It sounds like Johnny wanted to be sure you to knew that.

    Stay strong and committed to your cause. I’m sure Johnny is at your side, as a child of God, helping to pave your way.

    1. Mark, him coming over to tell me he was sorry and loved me made me realize later that he didn’t want to die without making sure I knew that. It gives me great peace and compassion for the great pain he must have been facing. I just wish I could have taken it away and tried so hard to help him. It’s hard not feeling like I failed, but I know I did everything in my power. The rest is in God’s hands, and I know Johnny’s in the Lord’s presence, finally free and healed. I will miss him until I can see him again.

  7. Laura,
    I wanted to leave a note letting you know no matter what, Johnny LOVED all of you. As our friendship was formed in the hospital, Johnny ALWAYS talked about his family with sincere compassion. He said “I made some poor choices”… I told him to stay strong, that if he stayed on his meds regularly he would see the benefit of them. (I am Bi-Polar with manic depression and personality disorder.) Johnny and I became fast friends. He always asked, “How do you smile when you’re so sad”. My answer was a simple one. However, for Johnny, this was just starting. I tried to be supportive and a friend. After we were out and home, I called him a few times. At first he was responsive and always ended with “We got this right Marie” and I said, “WE DO!!” Thinking he was doing better, then I reached out to him and I didn’t hear anything… So Thank you for taking the time to let me know of Johnny’s passing. I was broken for over a month… “I wish I would have”, “I should have” all ran through my mind… I am SO SORRY he chose this path. As a suicide survivor, I can tell you, he NEVER wanted you to hurt… We see it as, stopping the pain. We don’t see it as it is and what it does to the rest of the family. If I can offer anything to you, it would be that Johnny was a beautiful young man, just terribly lost. He did love you very much!

    1. Marie, your note is such a blessing to me! Now that it’s been a few months, I’d love to talk again someday and hear your stories of what you remember about him! They give me great peace. There was definitely nothing you could have done, so don’t feel bad about that!

  8. Laura,
    I am sorry for your loss. I have a son that is now 20 and can’t imagine what you are dealing with. In 1984 when I was 22, my dad that was a farmer had a crop failure and that led to a downward spiral for him. On my birthday feb 3, he shot himself alone out in the country 3 miles from our farm. Now looking back and knowing the signs, we might have been able to get him help. Back then, it was a sign of weakness to ask for help, so he suffered in silence. He saw no way out of the debt and interest rates of 20% . I work in the farm equipment industry and there has been alot of suicides lately from the down farm economy much like the 80s but now there are hotlines and some help. Knowing the signs of suicide is critical. I am personally aware of this as I have been down for no reason but had vitamin D levels checked and were extremly low. I started supplimenting and it has done wonders. I also take vitamin b3 niacin which has clinical proof of helping schizophrenia verses using prozak and other drugs.
    please checkout Dr. Andrew Sauls website http://www.doctoryourself.com
    he is not a quack but has made it his lifes work to provide free clinical research on several health subjects using vitamins and nutrition for healing.
    May God’s grace sustain and strenghen you and your family during this time.

    1. Jeff, I’m so sorry to hear about your father and how desperate he must have felt. So hard that he suffered in silence, and you all felt so helpless. It’s definitely not your fault. I’m learning to reframe guilt into regret. I think we all have regrets, but you didn’t cause anything.

      That’s good to know about Vitamin D! We’ve all been inside so much, it wouldn’t surprise me if mine is low, too. Going to take some now. 🙂 Thank you for reaching out and for your prayers.

  9. Laura,
    Something inside of me said, “you HAVE to share this story”, and share I did. I sent it to work colleagues, close friends, and people who live all around the country – I am from New England. If this article can help just ONE person, it has done its job – and so have you. THANK YOU for writing this. I can only imagine the heartache, tears and time it took to complete it. You are amazeballs! 🙂

    1. Tina, wow! I have a big smile on my face reading your note and thinking about all the people who might read it. You’re exactly right – it only has to help one person – and it was worth the pain of writing it. We can only help by talking and being open about our experiences! I’m grateful for your sharing!

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