I was standing in our 1950s kitchen when Kevin came up behind me.
“Do you want to watch?” he asked, as I stirred spaghetti sauce on the stove. His voice sounded odd, so I turned around, spoon still in hand -- and was horrified to see my police officer husband holding his service revolver next to his mouth.
My first thought was that of relief, that none of my children were in the room when it happened. My second was fear that he might actually carry out his threat. He didn’t. My rational, concerned response made him realize his actions were unnecessary -- and would only make more problems for our already troubled family.
That night, when I felt something akin to terror that Kevin might really kill himself, I had to weigh the possible consequences of my own reaction. If I dialed 911, I knew that Kevin might not just lose his job -- his career would be over. A career that was his life. It had been, ever since he followed tradition by becoming part of the “thin blue line.” All the men in Kevin’s family were in law enforcement, and he made the decision to do the same when he was just a small boy.
Because Kevin seemed to calm down, and it appeared to me he was merely acting out in response to family stressors, I never made that phone call. So Kevin continued working as an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent and no one was the wiser. However, not long after, when the stressors of both work and family continued to build and impact Kevin negatively, I was left with no choice.
That’s because I take mental illness very seriously. So I’ve never regretted having my second husband committed to a psychiatric ward -- and would do it all over again, if need be. I take it this seriously because I’ve been mentally ill myself. Which means I know the risks involved, for myself and for my loved ones.
I’ve been openly discussing my own battle with major depression and PTSD symptoms since I left Chestnut Ridge Hospital in 1991. I wrote about it in "Sister of Silence," my memoir. I entered CRH voluntarily, because of an unrelenting fear that I might end up taking a life -- mine. Or that of my children.
I lived with that fear almost daily during my marriage to their father. And although our divorce was final in February 1991, I was still feeling the effects of years of abuse at his hands. I felt like I’d never move past the violence he exposed us to. So I decided to get help for the overwhelming feelings of sadness I was still experiencing. That’s when I checked myself into CRH.
In 1991, mental illness -- from depression to PTSD to schizophrenia -- carried with it even more stigma than it does now. But I knew I wasn’t alone, and I wanted to share my life-saving experience with other people who also might need mental help. That’s why I wrote a column about my hospital stay for the local newspaper where I then worked.
I discovered that my framed column hangs on the walls at Chestnut Ridge quite by accident. That’s because I saw it there when I went to visit Kevin in April 1996. It wasn’t very long after his suicide threat that night in our kitchen. He seemed to be getting better but then suddenly, he was worse again. Arguing unreasonably with my four children, over the most ridiculous things.
I’ve kept diaries most of my life, so I still have the entries from that time period. One entry in particular stands out, showing how much everyday things were affecting Kevin. Things like kitchen chairs. Yes, kitchen chairs. One of my daughters wanted to sit in one to do her homework, but Kevin said it was his chair, “so you can’t use it.” The entries show the effect the family dynamics had on him -- they were turning him into an insecure and frightened child.
Kevin and I married in November 1995, turning him into a parent overnight. I thought he would make a great stepfather, since he hit it off right away with three of my four children. What I didn’t count on was Eddie, my children’s father and my ex-husband. Eddie became like a dog whose territory had been threatened by another canine, and immediately took steps to try to regain his territory.
Suddenly, he was lavishing the love and attention on my children they had been begging for since they were old enough to talk. He was using them to spy on Kevin and me, grilling them for details about our life during his weekends with them. And he was telling our children that he would never stop loving me, no matter what.
Eddie’s tactics took the normal level of stress that occurs in any new stepfamily and exacerbated it beyond belief. Even though we had been in family therapy for several months, it was all Kevin and I could do to keep up with each successive psychological attack from Eddie. By the time March 1996 arrived and Kevin threatened to kill himself with his service revolver in the kitchen, everyone’s emotions were running ragged.
By month’s end, doctors decided that one of my children -- who had been a patient at Chestnut Ridge’s day hospital program for her own battle with depression -- was well enough to be discharged. Kevin and I got the news at our weekly family meeting, and then went for lunch while hospital staff completed her paperwork. As we drove a short distance to a nearby restaurant, Kevin began arguing with me. “She’s not ready to come home. She might still have problems and we can’t handle them!” he told me.
I tried to pacify him, telling him if the hospital thought she was ready to come home, then she must be. As I tried to eat my lunch, I watched the man who had once been my knight in shining armor -- debonair and handsome, with curly blond hair and green eyes -- rant and rave, making little sense but growing angrier and angrier. Then he said it -- the words that struck terror into my heart.
“I’m going to kill myself and if anyone tries to stop me, I’ll kill them, too!” I took one look at him and saw such an intense level of pain and anger there, I almost couldn’t breathe. Especially when I saw the weapon -- the .357 Smith and Wesson service revolver he always wore -- concealed beneath his denim jacket.
Somehow, though, I kept on breathing -- and then the first chance I got, I ran to a pay phone and called one of the hospital therapists. I could do this because Kevin had left the restaurant ahead of me, when I refused to get into the vehicle with him. He threw the keys down, turned around and began walking along the road.
During that phone call, the therapist’s response was all the confirmation I needed to validate my own fears. “You need to fill out commitment papers,” she said, “so Kevin can be evaluated. They’ll make sure he’s seen by a psychiatrist, who can determine how much of a danger he is to himself and other people.”
I’m sure I was shaking as I hung the receiver back in its cradle. It was all I could do to walk out and get into our vehicle, much less drive back to Chestnut Ridge to fill out the paperwork. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.
And I’ve imagined the scene as Kevin related it to me at least a thousand times. Tried to picture the humiliation that must have swept over him. Wondered if he knew then he could never -- no matter how hard he tried -- forgive me. That day, though, all I cared about was saving a life, or perhaps more than one.
Kevin was standing at a pay phone across town when two patrol cars squealed to a stop nearby. Four police officers jumped from the vehicles, guns drawn, pointed directly at Kevin, as they ordered him to drop his own weapon. From there, he was handcuffed and put in leg shackles, and taken to the emergency room. A psychiatrist evaluated him, confirming he did need psychiatric help. A commitment hearing occurred, the mental health commissioner ruled he was a danger to himself and others, and just like that, Kevin was sent to the psychiatric ward.
After months of outpatient therapy and much personal work on his own issues, Kevin was finally able to live a normal life again. But my decision to report his dangerous threats, and his involuntary commitment, was not without great personal sacrifice. It cost Kevin his career and, ultimately, it cost us our marriage.
Would I do it again, if I could go back in time? Yes, in a heartbeat. Because I take mental illness -- even depression -- very seriously. I just wish everyone else would, too.