Monday, April 19, 2010

Tim Leifield suicide

My letter to the Daily Camera on covering up Tim Leifield's suicide and Daily Camera's response

By Rick Cendo

On April 5, the Daily Camera reported,

"Timothy Leifield, well-known for his work on behalf of Boulder's nonprofit and gay communities, died last Tuesday at his Boulder home. He was 55.

"The Boulder County Coroner's Office hadn't ruled Sunday on his cause of death, although no foul play is suspected."

In fact, no one really knows for sure what day Tim Leifield died. He was found dead in his home on Saturday, April 4, and, presumably, the coroner estimated his day of death to have been the previous Tuesday. He left an extensive suicide letter, widely shared on the Internet, which is probably why "no foul play is suspected."

The Daily Camera chose to not report the death as a suicide, presumably in deference to the wishes of his friends and family, and instead decribed him as "the life of the party," in the words of a "longtime friend".
Daily Camera
This is an ironic deceit. It harkens back to the days when young men died from complications due to AIDS, and newspapers censored this information in deference to the wishes of friends and family. The irony is that Tim dedicated his life to bringing AIDS out of the closet, encouraging its open confrontation as director of the Boulder County AIDS preoject and STOP AIDS NOW.

Furthermore, Tim's long suicide letter expressed no shame in his decision to kill himself nor any admonishment to sweep this under the rug. His only admonishment is to "be kind, be kind, be kind."

And that's a good one! Most people want to be kind, including me.

But then there's the question of what is truly kind. An immediate impulse is to shield one's friend from the cruel, gossipy world (Was he gay? Did he have AIDS? Is he mentally ill? Did he commit suicide?).

But in doing so one creates the implication that what this person is, or has, or did, is shameful -- something unspoken.

There are two problems:

First is the violence visited upon the individual deemed to be shameful, whether for homosexuality (me and Tim), or mental illness and suicide (Tim), or AIDS.

Tim expressed no shame in his mental illness nor in his decision to commit suicide. To quote Tim's suicide letter:

"I have sought out help, and been on any number of drugs. Most scripts were for the wrong reasons, SSRIs for depression. It wasn’t until 2007, when I saw a new psychiatrist who diagnosed me as having Atypical Bipolar Disorder, that I started on a new combination of drugs and felt better than I had in a long time. I went back to work and was doing pretty good. But I couldn’t sustain the energy needed to be happy and productive fulltime. For the past two years it’s just been a matter of running out the clock. And the bank.

(Please do not for an instant think that the drugs have led to this decision. They kept me alive three years past my five year plan.)"

Treatment did not work, ultimately, for Tim. But it does work for millions of other Americans who suffer from mental illness, including 10's of thousands who have suffered severe trauma serving our nation in Iraq and Afganistan. If you feel you may suffer from a mental illness, don't deny it. Get help. The phone number for the Boulder County Mental Health Center is (303) 443-8417.

Second is the stigma impressed upon everyone else.

Let's say you read in the Daily Camera that a 55-year-old just happened to have died, suddenly, cause unknown. And then you learn through the grape vine or Internet that this was not so much a mysterious death as a suicide, brought on by a lifetime of struggling with a bipolar disorder.
The message I receive is that suicide is shameful.

Ditto mental illness.

That is exactly the message people inferred 25 years ago about AIDS or 50 years ago about homosexuality.

Homosexuality. AIDS. Mental Illness. Suicide. These are all part of the human condition -- things we should acknowledge without shame. If you are hiding these things, you are not helping.

Shame can be useful (Tiger Woods and Jesse James come to mind). But it is counterproductive for AIDS and homosexuality (we know) or mental illness and suicide (we're learning).

In the words of the early AIDS movement, which Tim championed, "Silence = Death".

boulder weekly


Mr. Cendo:
Kevin Kaufman the editor of the the Camera here.

First, I wanted to thank you for your submission, however, I'm not inclined to run it at the moment. Here's why, which I hope also will explain some of our decision making in covering Mr. Leifield's death and the facts as reported to date. We certainly didn't conspire to keep anything secret or to deceive.

Our general policy is to not report on suicides, except in a few cases, such as it being in an extremely public place, witnessed my many. While some may not feel suicide carries a stigma, many in our society and community still do. And we particularly wish to be sensitive to the families of the deceased, who often are overcome with grief, which also often is exacerbated by the fact that their loved one committed suicide.

We only covered Mr. Leifield's death because he was such a well known person in our community. Had he not been so known, there would not have been any mention of his death unless the family placed an obituary or death notice. In those notices, which are paid notices, families then decide how they wish to address or not address cause of death..

Regardless, we felt Mr. Leifield life and contribution to the community rose to the level that we needed to report that he had died.

In such a case, we rely on the county coroner to determine when the person died. That determination is the official date reported on the person's death certificate. It really is the only way we can know date of death, which is a relevant fact that we need in our basic reporting. I do not know what all facts or tests the coroner did to determine that date, but I'm confident they did their best to be as accurate as possible -- our coroner, while he indeed has his weaknesses, is a real stickler for detail and accuracy.

Regarding the cause of death, we were not at all attempting to deceive and surely you know that.
At this point, we still have not yet received a definitive cause or if it was suicide. While we did indeed have friends of Mr. Leifield tell us they believed that it was suicide or that they'd heard it was a suicide, we must rely on an official determination.

And while you suggest that Mr. Leifield had no shame in his suicide -- I have read the purported suicide note you speak of and no it doesn't appear to me Mr. Leifield felt his act was anything to be ashamed of -- I do not know the authenticity of the note, if in fact his death was a suicide, or if it was how family feels about that fact being publicly reported. And, frankly, I am more concerned with what his family wishes than his friends' desires. (Also of note, Mr. Leifield seemed very deliberate in his act, to the point of supposedly providing his note to family and key friends to distribute. He apparently chose not to include the Camera or other media as a recipient of that, so I can only assume that in doing that he meant the knowledge of his suicide and his thinking leading to it to be kept among them, although that's only my assumption.)

Anyway, since we do not as a policy routinely report suicides, because such an official ruling has not been issued and because I don't know the family's feelings about that being made public, I don't feel it would at this time be appropriate to publish your piece.
Should some of those circumstances change, then I'd be more apt to consider it.

Hopefully that will work for you at this point. Also, if you have family contact information we'd certainly appreciate it.
... kk


Suicide Letter

30 March 2010

Dear Friends and Family,

I imagine there are many among you who are shocked and saddened and angry. How could he do this? What happened? Could I/we have stopped this? I will try to explain and elaborate and hopefully lessen the pain that I know I will have caused. I also hope that I have avoided any birthdays or personal holidays, so future events won’t be clouded with this anniversary.

First of all, let me say that my suicide has nothing to do with Stephen Henderson’s. (For those of you who do not know of Stephen, he was a good friend who died on November 27th.) However, his suicide did affect my timing and plan. He delayed my action; I had originally planned to kill myself in early December. I know that this would have saddened holiday plans, but I thought that it would also have kept folks from having to travel twice. Families would already have been together for Christmas.

From Stephen’s death, and his lack of having left a more detailed note, I learned that I had to try to describe what has been going on with me and how I came to this conclusion. I would guess that the existing consensus would be that I was a happy, healthy individual. The truth is that I’ve been unhappy and sick for quite some time. Which is not to say there haven’t been good times.

But for as long as I can remember, I’ve had times when I just felt too sad to get out of bed. I assumed these were normal, that everyone had these periods of melancholia. And they are normal, except perhaps for the frequency. I imagine everyone thinks about suicide, probably once a month or so. But for the past 25 years I’ve been thinking about suicide on a weekly basis. For the past 15 years, probably on a daily basis. For the past five years it’s been hourly. I’ll find myself at a dinner party thinking this will be that last one with this group. I’ll be on a hike, thinking this will be the last time I see the Continental Divide. It’s not with sadness that I’ll have these thoughts, more just a notation. For as long as I can remember this has been inevitable.

I’m enclosing/attaching a column I wrote for my college paper in February of 1977. It’s titled “Dark Thoughts” and deals with depression and thoughts of suicide. My summary at the time was to concentrate on the good times to get through the bad. And yes, there are still many good things: dinners with friends, walking the trails with our dogs, a round of bridge. But for me the darkness has been just too heavy. I’d go home and collapse and want to be done with it. The utter hopelessness of everything would just wash over me.

I know it will be hard to understand what I’ve been going through, and how it intensifies. Outward appearances can be deceiving, and you don’t want to be a buzzkill, so you often mask what’s going on in your brain. I think growing up gay laid the foundation for excellent over compensation skills. In my case, I never wanted to be “found out,” so I became quite proficient at having girlfriends and doing just enough sports, of watching my gestures and speech, of wearing the right clothes.

I have sought out help, and been on any number of drugs. Most scripts were for the wrong reasons, SSRIs for depression. It wasn’t until 2007, when I saw a new psychiatrist who diagnosed me as having Atypical Bipolar Disorder, that I started on a new combination of drugs and felt better than I had in a long time. I went back to work and was doing pretty good. But I couldn’t sustain the energy needed to be happy and productive fulltime. For the past two years it’s just been a matter of running out the clock. And the bank.

(Please do not for an instant think that the drugs have led to this decision. They kept me alive three years past my five year plan.)

I know that some of you have known of my suicidal ideations and tried to come to my aid. I appreciated your efforts, but I really just wanted to be dead. For all, I apologize for not having said goodbye. The trouble is, in our current society, you cannot announce your plans for suicide without people feeling an obligation to do something to stop it.

I’ve never been one to have a “life is all” approach; that we must rally to fight off death with every ounce of our being. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s because I don’t fear death. (I do fear dying; the pain, the possibility that I’ll screw it up and be crippled or wind up in a coma.) I don’t have a clear belief about what comes next. I certainly don’t buy the heaven and hell scenario. I feel there’s energy and energy doesn’t just stop. Beyond that, who knows.

This may seem to be a rather cavalier, nonchalant attitude, and an affront to those who are struggling to stay alive. I would willingly trade my body for theirs, keeping my mind, but it doesn’t work that way. I’ve considered shooting myself in a parking lot of a hospital that takes organ donations, but the risk of being “saved” is too great.

In reviewing my life I have to acknowledge so many blessings. I believe I grew up in the last golden age of the United States. I’ve had a happy, healthy family with seven siblings and twelve nieces and nephews. I’ve wanted for nothing. And I’ve been surrounded by dear friends my whole life.

I hope that I have left my little corner of the world in a better place than when I arrived. I hope that I didn’t hurt anyone’s feeling through words or actions. I hope that I will be remembered as a guy who showed up for his friends. Please forgive me for the pain I am causing; please let your current anger – over time – be replaced by joy at the memories of our times together.

Be kind, be kind, be kind,