My son’s suicide—the ultimate price of my family’s struggle with alcoholism

“Matt shot himself.” It was my son, Jared, on the phone. I couldn’t believe my ears. Was this a dream? Would I awaken and realize it was a terrible nightmare? No, it was Jared’s voice. “Mom, are you there?” “Jared, what are you trying to tell me?” I replied. He shouted into the phone, “Matt shot himself.”

I had married young, just barely after my 21st birthday. The day I walked down the aisle, I had seriously worried who would be the drunkest, my dad or my new husband. Yes, I knew I was marrying an alcoholic, but I was sure that I could change him.

After 36 years of doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results, I called it quits and divorced my husband. The last five years of our marriage, I had sunk deeper and deeper into depression, taking a sabbatical from my position as senior pastor at a recently established medium-sized church. During my sabbatical, I isolated myself and moved to an island in South Carolina known as the “end of the road,” in the real sense of the word—next stop, the Bahamas.

The only time I ventured out of my condo was to attend a Monday morning women’s group.  Occasionally, I would agree to go to the local coffee shop afterwards with some of the women. That’s how I met a woman who became my best friend.

Early in September in 2005, I admitted to her my story, and the misery and sense of powerlessness I had living with alcoholism. To which she replied, “I know where you can get help.” “Me? Get help? It was my husband’s problem, not mine!” Lovingly, she replied, “I know where you can get help.”

I had no idea she, too, was living with alcoholism in her family, and had been attending Al‑Anon for years. Immediately, she put me in touch with two different women whom I could call that very day, and every day that week, until she would personally take me to the Sunday night Al‑Anon meeting. I made the calls and found loving, caring people on the phone line who understood everything I was going through.

At my weekly Al‑Anon meetings, I consistently heard my story in 20 different versions. Not only did the other people at the meeting identify with my story, they were all willing to share their personal experience, strength, and hope. Through sharing and studying the Twelve Steps, I began to see myself and my situation more clearly.

I learned that I was flirting with insanity by doing the same things, expecting different results, for 36 years. I found it necessary to admit, accept, and subject myself to a Higher Power that could and would help me to recover. I learned that I could trust and depend on other Al‑Anon members to be supportive, to maintain anonymity, and to be available to talk at any time. 

As I studied the Twelve Steps of recovery each week, I began to regain my sense of personhood and value. In 2008, I came to the conclusion that my participation in an unhealthy relationship with my husband had to end. Even though divorce is tragic, I felt the happiest, and more like myself, than I had in years. I was poor as dirt, living in my friend’s condo, yet more at peace with myself than I had ever been.

I begged my grown sons to go to Al‑Anon. Then, I realized I could only control my own behavior and no one else’s, including my own sons. As far as my husband’s alcoholism and drug addiction, I didn’t cause it, couldn’t control it, and sure as heck could not cure it. But when I divorced him, my son, Matt, took up with his dad where I left off. He became his dad’s caretaker in almost every way that I had for 36 years of marriage.

Over the course of two years, trying his hardest to control his dad’s addictions, Matt became very depressed. My son, Jared, his wife, and I all worried and tried to convince Matt to get professional help.

Try as we might we could not convince Matt to get help. Shortly before he died, I told him, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” I have often wondered if my words were the wrong thing to say to my son. Yet, I am aware that no one’s words caused him to commit suicide. 

The horror of his death has affected just about every aspect of my life. I would be lost without my Al‑Anon group and the understanding and support I receive there. I found myself eating my own words, “Get help.” I maintain participation in Al‑Anon, a suicide/grief support group, and a spiritual personal relationship with my Higher Power that includes prayer and reflection. It is true—pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Now, two years after Matt’s death, I am ready and willing to share my personal experience, strength, and hope with others. I am convinced I didn’t cause Matt’s death. I couldn’t control his actions and I sure couldn’t cure him. All I could do, at that time, was love him and encourage him. All I can do now is love him and pray for him. I had to let him go; but I will always love him.

Today, I am attending a workshop to learn about Alateen. While Matt’s suicide challenged us all in our relationships with each other, my son Jared and I have a much stronger mother/son relationship. I am now married to a man who is available to me on a spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional level. His strength and support are indeed a blessing. I was able to resume my profession. I am newly retired and looking forward to working with Alateens and traveling with my husband in our RV. 

My husband and I are doubly blessed with Jared, his wife and two small children, my husband’s daughter, her husband and two young children. Together, we have four lovely grandchildren, a huge family, and circle of friends. And I still have my mother and step-dad. I try to focus on what we have, not what we have lost or who is not here in this world.

Did I graduate from Al‑Anon? The answer is no. Help is available. It’s up to me to go out and get it!

By Debra B.
The Forum, August 2013