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What I Learned from My Therapist’s Suicide

It was a typical morning on May 8, 1997. I woke up in the same black mood that I had been experiencing for the last eight months. I was in the midst of a severe depressive episode and was scheduled to go to my therapy group that day. Normally, my wife Joan would help me get ready and then drive me to the Pacific Counseling Center. This day, however, she took me aside and said, “We’re not going to day-treatment today. I have something I need to share with you.”

Joan took me by the hand and we went outside, walking down the tree-lined streets of Portland’s Alameda neighborhood. After we had gone a few blocks, she stopped and said, “Somebody you know has died. “

I thought about the many friends who were helping me through this horrible depressive episode. Could it be one of them? I asked Joan who it was.

She responded, “I’m sorry to bring you this bad news, but your therapist Anne has died.”

I was stunned to hear those words. Anne was a relatively young woman and as far as I knew in good health.

“Are you sure? How did she die?” I asked.

“She died by suicide,” Joan responded.

My first reaction was that of shock. How could this be? I knew that Anne had been severely depressed since the recent loss of her therapy job and the death of her father. But I didn’t realize that she was experiencing this depth of despair.

I hadn’t worked with Anne for nine months, but the memory of the three years I spent as a member of her therapy group was fresh in my mind. I started attending the group during a painful separation from my wife Joan. Over time, the group had become my new family. The five other members and I had become very close, and Anne was the glue that held us all together. I couldn’t imagine that she had left us. I was silent as I processed the many painful feelings I was experiencing. After a few minutes, Joan asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m alright,” I replied. “I just need some time to think about this. I’m glad you prevented me from going to my therapy group today. I could not have focused on the group with all of this on my mind.”

As the day progressed, I thought about my memories with Anne and how helpful she had been. Then, I thought about all the times during this depressive episode that I had contemplated suicide to end my current torment.

Suddenly, I realized that Anne’s death was showing me a path I did NOT want to take. My survival instinct had become activated, and a voice within me called out, “I want to live.” I also considered the effect that my death would have on my friends and family; a trauma that could last for the rest of their lives. I knew that if I killed myself, they would not only be grief-stricken, but angry and feeling guilty as well. “Why drag my loved ones into my nightmare?” I thought. I remembered the words spoken to me by a friend, “Suicide doesn’t end the pain; it just passes it on.”

In the days ahead, I had new insights about Anne’s death. During her depression, she left Portland and moved to southern California to live with her daughter. Anne’s support system remained behind in Portland, making it difficult for her to connect with those of us who cared about her. I felt sad that she did not get the help she needed. Thinking about her isolation made me realize that I needed to reach out for more support in my own life.

Anne’s death brought about a determination to stay alive that was an important factor in helping me to survive my suicidal episode. After my recovery, I decided to take what I had learned through my depressive ordeal and use it to support others who were going through similar mental health crises. This led to the publication of my book Healing From Depression, the creation of my website healingfromdepression.com, my depression recovery YouTube channel, and my website overcomingsuicidalpain.com. I developed the latter website to give people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts the hope that they will be able to recover from their ordeal and the tools to do so.

Anne’s life was tragically cut short. Yet, twenty-four years later I still think about the impact she had on my life. She guided me through a painful period and helped me to survive a difficult transition. This is why I dedicated my book Healing From Depression to Anne Zimmerman with these words: “Although you could not save yourself, your spirit lives on in the lives of those whom you loved and served.“