Note: My son Jacob killed himself at age 21. The autopsy revealed he was 100% clean and sober at the time of death. Ironically, I’d hoped he WAS stoned so that he would have felt less pain. What follows here, unfortunately, is merely speculation based on fragments of conversations with him and my reflections after his death.
The Purpose of Drugs
Jacob started with cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana in his mid-teens. That was much later than most of the kids around him. I told myself that every year he’d delayed using was a gain for his chances of emerging intact.
Jacob informed me, later, that he had sneaked out of his bedroom window many nights (even school nights) to get drunk with his best friend, and that he was stoned all day at school, most days. By the time he left for college, he had drunk enough alcohol to put a hole in his stomach.
Why? To be cool, alleviate boredom, and be a rebel.
He said he’d partied way too much in high school–although he never appeared tipsy or stoned, and got caught only once with weed, which was illegal in those days.
Jacob later wished he had put more effort into school and said he’d wrecked his chance to get into a “decent” college. It didn’t matter that he got into his first-choice school on a picturesque campus in the majestic mountains of Colorado. It didn’t matter that this school had a great reputation, because by then Jacob’s standards for himself had elevated to impossible levels.
He didn’t give up the first three substances; rather, he added psychedelics, which he felt allowed him to “expand his mind.” He brought acid on a family trip to Europe the summer before he died, telling me on the last night that he’d smuggled it onto the flight over.
“I’ve been tripping this whole time,” he coldly informed me. “I’ve had to, to put up with you and this annoying trip.”
Maybe that sounds like an entitled American kid, but in hindsight, I see that Jacob always got extremely stressed by travel; even more so in his last couple of years.
Once back on campus, his anger blew over and he called to apologize. He lamented our time together that he’d “squandered;” this would be a theme for him during the coming months, as his state of being under the influence, alternating with his sheer-will efforts to quit, would send him into rollercoasters of emotion and illness that he held tightly, privately, inside.
Jacob said “sorry” again and again. We started having one- to two-hour conversations from his dorm room to our home, and he began to confide bits and pieces about his drug use. Across the distance, there was little that I could do to stop him. Only later did I realize that he was not communicating with anyone else. He began not to trust anyone; and as his drug use increased, so did some terrifying correlated symptoms.
That fall, Jacob admitted to experimenting with “brain-enhancing” designer drugs. He downplayed it, claiming that most college students imbibed in some sort of prescription or street stimulants, just to get by.
“It’s just like ADHD medication,” Jacob claimed. He made it sound very mild, no worse than the equivalent of a few cups of coffee. He needed it to stay up all night studying. The self-imposed pressure was on, and anything less than an “A” was unacceptable.
Jacob had an XL gene for addiction, courtesy of my side of the family. We talked about this danger from his childhood onward. It made him especially susceptible. He knew that’s why I never dabbled (because I feared I would become addicted). Add to that, his need for:
- Relieving social anxiety
- Staunching past trauma
- Suppressing his appetite
- Needing to escape
- Striving for academic perfection
We also had many cases of bipolar and depression in our family … And the combination of drugs and genetic vulnerability turned out to be lethal.
Denial: A Mother’s Best Friend
Choosing Hope Instead of Seeing His Descent
For many months and years, I convinced myself that Jacob would grow through this phase. He had a brilliant mind and strong ambitions to earn his Ph.D. and conduct laboratory research in molecular biology. That summer (his last), he served as an intern on a project to invent a way to transmit medicine to specific cells rather than to span the entire body, and he loved it. He said he’d never been happier than in that lab.
So, I saw what I wanted to see; hope for his future. I failed him. I didn’t try hard enough to help him. Everyone tells me, “You didn’t know about the drugs, and you didn’t know Jacob was planning to take his life.” But I knew he was suffering.
Too Late, I See the Signs
As proud a man as he was, holding it in and snapping at me not to treat him like a baby, I could see it in the way he held his body, so taut. Since late high school, he’d grown rail-thin, and once, he even admitted he had anorexia. He denied himself food, telling himself, “I don’t deserve to take up space.”
Why did I imagine that statement pertained only to his eating disorder and was not a cry for help?
His sunken eyes, which looked so sad in the photograph we used for his memorial. He was only 15 then. Each year his eyes grew more hopeless and bitter … and lonely. How could I have not seen that he’d lost the will to live?
“I Broke My Brain”
His First(?) Psychotic Break
As the autumn and winter of his last year of life progressed, Jacob nosedived into depression. He withdrew into a swirling interior reality full of plots against him: housemates hacking his laptop and phone and trying to electrocute him, murderers shooting guns outside his bedroom window, A.I. monsters invading his brain …
He’d insisted on returning to campus after his winter break. He withdrew from a few classes to lighten his load, and he agreed to seek counseling and psychiatric evaluation. Still, he crumpled. I flew out to try to help, and he told me those few nights in a hotel were the first time he’d felt safe in a long time.
Very soon after that, Jacob returned home on medical leave from school.
That first night at dinner, he confessed to my partner and me: “Guys, I broke my brain.” He shrugged, looking down. “And it’s too far gone to be fixed.”
His Nightmares Overtake Him
Jacob rallied for two more months, seeing a young, smart psychiatrist (who was too green to realize his patient was at great risk), reading books, taking walks, and drafting plans for his future. He even put a few pounds onto his skeletal frame.
It was on the morning that Jacob disappeared that he revealed, through an array of drugs scattered around his childhood bedroom and tiny handwritten notes to us, just how many different substances he’d ingested. He seemed determined to decimate whatever was left of his brain.
He left evidence on his laptop of his wish to run far away, and of his fears that he–and his family–were in dire danger of being killed by the demons that lived under our house.
We hired a forensic psychiatrist (not the idiot whose passivity contributed to our son’s death) to sift through informed theories of what might have led Jacob to drown himself. He said he thought that Jacob truly believed we were in imminent danger, and that by running and diving into the ocean, he could divert the demons into following him, thus giving his life to save ours.
Cause of Death: Drugs
Now that I’ve read a library full of articles and books and spent many sleepless nights ruminating about Jacob’s descent into death, I firmly believe that without the drugs, he would have survived.
Jacob did have a genetic propensity for depression and bipolar. He did have early, repeated childhood trauma, another factor in risk for suicide. However, just as an alcoholic can wind up dead from liver failure, so Jacob died of brain failure. The drugs that began as a lark by an experimentative, rebellious boy, evolved into a weapon he used against social anxiety, weight, and sleep, aimed against what he perceived to be a mediocre mind.
Just before he died, Jacob had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. If he’d had the strength to struggle through that first psychotic break, his statistical chances of survival would have been very good.
But the substances that began as recreational had progressed to self-imposed neurological experimentation that killed brain cells and altered reality until, in the end, Jacob turned against himself in the most irreversible way possible.
The drugs he’d intended to “fix” him wound up killing him.
Open-source image courtesy of christopher-lemercier-12yvdCiLaVE-unsplash.