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.