Like a whole bunch of people in the Chicago area in late July of 2017, when Mike Malinowski completed suicide, I was crushed.
On the outside, if his social media activity was our only peek inside his life, the guy looked like he was living the dream: expensive cocktails and smiling ladies and fun looking vacations and hip hop shows and live music and a stable full of friends.
However it looked on the inside, I don’t and won’t know, but it was obviously a shitshow that none of us were invited in to witness.
I was 37 at the time of Mike’s death by suicide, and what’s weird about the whole thing, is that it’s almost like I don’t remember who I was before he died.
That morning, I remember, was eerily gorgeous. It was a Saturday or a Sunday, I had nowhere to be, but I woke up early anyway. It must have been close to 5am, which sucks because I NEVER get to sleep in and here I was waking up when I didn’t have to. I did what most people do, I grabbed my phone and headed to the bathroom to start my morning.
Within the first five seconds of opening social media while on the toilet I knew something was off. I had like four facebook messages, and no one ever wants to wake up to that shit in the first place, but these were from people I hadn’t talked to in a decade or more. Like everyone else would, I ignored the fb messenger notifications and started scrolling.
There it was. Mike’s final post. He had typed, just a half hour earlier, maybe 40 miles from the toilet I now sat upon, that he wasn’t a pussy and that he couldn’t take it anymore and that he loved his friends. But he was out.
That was it.
Of course at this time of the morning there were only maybe a dozen reactions, and I did what I bet everyone else did, I went into fb messenger and typed out “what did you do?” and sent it to him.
No response. Ever. Still.
I checked those messages I had tried to ignore. Every single fucking one said “what just happened?” or “is this fucking real?”.
My friend, hell one of my favorite pint sized musicians, had completed suicide and left his note as a post that I would morbidly stalk every few months just to remind myself that it actually happened.
Mike’s fucking gone, he peace’d out just after he said goodbye to everyone, on FACEBOOK no less, and here I was thinking I needed to be more like Mike, more in tune with what’s right in my life, more aware of how awesome the shit and the people around me are.
At 37, with the most beautiful woman in the world as my wife, and with three incredible, healthy, energetic children all still asleep in my house, I was fucking devastated.
Like, punched in the stomach, dragged through the streets, every ounce of everything inside of me depleted, just, devastated.
I remember returning to bed and sort of sniffling a bit and my wife turns to me and says “what’s going on?” as she’s still half asleep.
“Remember Mic One?” I say through ragged breaths.
“The littlest rapper?” she jokes, because it’s true. We fucked with Mike so hard, everyone did, because we loved the hell out of him.
My wife knew Mike, the rapper, because he was the sole reason why we postponed our first wedding anniversary trip waaaaaay back in 2005, all because he offered my band The Cankles an opening slot at one of his shows. His shows were epic sold out parties, every time, and his support to any artist on the come up in Chicago was huge, if even only on the inside. Mic One shows were where any musician in the indie hip hop scene wanted to be. My wife knew Mike as the guy who said shit no one else would even dream of saying on the social medias, he was the guy your wife rolled her eyes at. Always.
“Yea.” I responded. “He’s dead. Suicide. He posted about it on facebook about a half hour ago.”
Julie went up on one elbow, seeing my face as it dove for her chest, she didn’t say anything.
I spent the better part of a half hour just sobbing. Not just because he was gone, but because I felt like his taking his own life was sort of a kick to my own stability. If Mike couldn’t handle this shitstorm, how the fuck was I going to?
The rest of that day and the week to follow all went by in a sort of blur. I was communicating with friends I hadn’t seen or spoken to outside of social media in over a decade. Everyone was fucking hurting.
How did we not see this?
Why didn’t someone say something?
Why didn’t he ask for help?
I was a pile of absolute shit.
I should tell you, because it matters in this here story, that I’m an “elected official”, an alderman, in a small city in the Chicago suburbs called Yorkville. There’s 19,000 people, it’s rural-ish, but with way more suburban folk who wanted less people and bigger yards, it has all the comforts of a larger suburb closer to the city, without a lot of the noise.
Anyhow, my mayor at the time, Gary Golinski, got word of what had happened and, because he’s fucking awesome, he called me to check on me. I told him I was a pile of shit and I didn’t know how I was going to bounce back from this sort of blow. He listened to every mumbled word I said one night and asked me, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” to which I responded, “I don’t think there’s much I can do, he’s dead.”.
And then he said something I’ll never forget. “Well, you gotta do something. I’ll wait.” and then there he sat, on the other end of the line, just sitting patiently. He wasn’t offering me much, but he was present.
Over the next half hour, as I sort of talked to myself with Mayor Golinski listening, I sort of went over my options.
I could do nothing, which is what I had been doing for the last week, basically ignoring everything in my life.
I could say something at a meeting some day soon, but those are just words. I needed something a bit more public and uncomfortable.
Together we decided that I needed to make this a turning point in my life, and make a public and official testament that suicide is an issue, that there are resources available to those who need help, and that just saying hi or simply being present for someone can help turn their day around. Oddly enough, that last part was a direct result of Mayor Golinski just being there on the phone with me as I worked through my shit.
That night I drafted what would become the National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month Proclamation. And with the direct support of my city, the United City of Yorkville, we were going to proclaim, with Mayor Golinski as my bullhorn, since I still couldn’t talk without crying, that September was Suicide Prevention Month, that suicide was an issue, that mental health resources were available, and that a little slice of humanity can go a long way when someone is having a tough time.
We adopted that proclamation in late August 2017. The night of that meeting I went home and emailed every elected official I knew and asked them to do the same. I was hurting, but I was fucking fired up. I’m sick of people not knowing they matter, sure, but I’m also sick of that fact that whenever I say the word “suicide” people look at me like I just screamed the word “MASTURBATION” in a catholic school.
Denial about a subject doesn’t make the subject any less real, talking about it seems like the best way to make something taboo less terrifying.
Sure, I was terrified of having to talk about suicide, but I knew that if I didn’t, someone else I love might consider it their only option and then actually follow through and I’d lose someone else.
I was fucking done sitting still.
I haven’t sat still since.
In 2018, I got permission to conduct official outreach on behalf of the United City of Yorkville a bit earlier, and I ended up sending out about 3,000 emails on my own and got 234 cities, and 20 counties, in 40 different states to official talk about suicide by adopting the NSPAMP.
That same year, I reached out to a group in Chicago called Hope For the Day, a proactive mental health and suicide prevention non-profit, and immediately fell into step with their approach and knew I had found a home for the fire lit under my ass.
While working parallel in my own little suburban bubble, HFTD saw something in my communication style, and rather than them just high fiving me for continuing to talk about suicide from my position as an alderman and a dad, they nudged me to consider being more physically involved in the proclamation project than just a guy sending emails.
In 2019, along with Hope For the Day, I’ve still sent out 1,000 or so emails, but my numbers are only in the 70s as of this writing, but I don’t care, because we’ve already visited and presented in front of a handful of city councils in the state of Illinois. We’ve directly interacted with those impacted by suicide, and we’ve demonstrated to those who have NOT been impacted by suicide, how devastating the loss of one human from suicide can be.
In 2017 and 2018, I was still unable to attend many of the readings and adoptions of the proclamation, because it was still hard to talk about.
In 2019, it’s not any easier to talk about, but fuck everything else, I’m not done trying to make sure that Mike Malinowski didn’t die in vain and that I can’t do what I can do impress upon humanity how important we all are.
We’re in this shit together whether we like it or not, so I’ll be around if you wanna fucking talk about some shit. I also like tacos.
Oh, and I just got hired by Hope For the Day on August 15th, 2019, as their new Public Policy Director to directly communicate with people on all sides of government, to not only ensure the money we spend as a country on mental health and suicide prevention is well spent, but to make sure we all realize it’s human to hurt and our job is to talk about what sucks so that it doesn’t end up hurting someone or losing one more person to suicide.
So, yea, I cuss when I talk about pain and suicide and hurting and shit, but it’s ok not to be ok, and I’ll grow up someday (I’M LYING).
TALK ABOUT SUICIDE.
BUT TALK ABOUT THE SHIT THAT SUCKS.
Sunday will mark five years since my sister died. I had a hard time losing my sister to bone cancer. She fought for over three years with bone cancer that caused her daily pain and stress.
Her life ended when she’d had too many surgeries and her body couldn’t keep up. Losing my sister is the hardest thing I’ve experienced.
I don’t feel bad for her now, because she’s free from all of that. But I do miss her; more than I miss my grandparents who have passed away. Her death was a trauma for me, as her 27-year-old soul was ripped away from my family and we were left with a forever empty chair at the table.
Now, I have a daily regimen of seven medications that keep me here on this earth from antidepressants to mood stabilizers and sleep aids. I fight suicidal thoughts and feelings near-constantly during this time of the year.
I have two girls; the younger one is my lifeline. I was pregnant with her when my sister died and I live in fear that she will die and leave me just like my younger sister left my mom.
My faulty logic says that little sisters die; I am so afraid that I will lose her. Her presence is one of the biggest comforts to me, which makes me love her more than her sister.
There, I said it: I love one kid more than the other.
What can I say? What else is there to do but keep pushing on, trying to move past a pain that is so old and yet so fresh.
I love you, Wends, and I will see you one day.
Today kicks off Autism Awareness month.
Today we also remember the autistic children who have eloped and died.
A 2017 study found that almost a third of reported ASD (autism spectrum disorders) missing person cases related to wandering/elopement from 2011 to 2016 in the US ended in death or required medical attention. According to this study, accidental drowning caused over 70% of lethal outcomes, followed by fatal traffic injuries. Injuries or traumas found ranged from minor scrapes and bruises to non-fatal traffic injuries, near drownings, dehydration, and physical/sexual assaults after elopement.
Pie chart courtesy of the National Autism Association
Lethal outcomes to autism elopement occurred at a rate of about once a month on average in 2011 to about two to three times a month on average in 2015 and 2016. Children at ages 5 through 9 exhibited the highest number of deaths, while children under 5 faced the highest lethal risk with cases ending in death nearly 60% of the time.
Most people who elope or wander off were found in or near water, traffic, at a stranger’s residence, or in the woods. Low-sensory locations are also a common theme such as abandoned areas and vehicles, cornfields, farms, tree nurseries, libraries and other typically quiet settings.
People in this study were under different types of supervision when the elopement occurred, with non-parent supervision accounting for 45% of cases. Times of transition, commotion, and stress increased elopement risk, and those who were noted to be upset or agitated showed a higher risk of abruptly exiting into traffic or other high-threat situations.
Today is one of the saddest days of the year for many on the autism spectrum as well as family members and loved ones of children on the spectrum. It’s the day that we remember those autistic children who have wandered away, died, or drowned over the years.
Why are we remembering these kids?
Because children on the spectrum are attracted to high-sensory places. In fact, when a young autistic child goes missing, families are told to head straight to the nearest body of water to look for them.
It doesn’t take much water to drown. A little boy was with his father walking in a park last year and had gotten a bit ahead of Dad, still close enough where dad could see him, when suddenly the child bolted.
After several hours of searching, they found the child face down in a stream in six inches of water. Six inches of water is all it took.
When I mentioned I was writing this piece, people asked me why kids autistic children are drawn to water. It’s because when we’re in water we tend to feel relaxed and comfortable. For someone on the spectrum, like me, I can say that most of us like it because there’s even pressure on our bodies.
Young children only know that they feel comfortable; kids don’t think about the fact that they can’t breathe, and we all know the end result of trying to breathe underwater:
Death by drowning.
How can we prevent these tragedies from happening? If we know we have a runner, we can focus our attention keeping them close. We can teach them to swim. We need to alert the local authorities about our children who wander so they can prepare in the event of an elopement. We can get a service dog.
Most people think service start at $10,000 and skyrocket from there but that’s not true. My service dog, Tye, came from Dogs Nation in southwest Missouri and is a rescue dog, just as all dogs are at Dogs Nation.
They work on a donation basis (and not from the families that take the dogs). They rely on donations of food, flea and tick prevention, dog houses and financial donations.
A service dog can help block the child from entering the water and if a worst case scenario happens and the child hits the water they can alert parents or family members.
Shawn Abell of Dogs Nation told me a story of something that happened nearly a decade ago near her home: A child went into the water and a nearby dog, a non-service dog who was a retriever, did what he was trained to do and went into the water to retrieve the child and saved his life.
Today is an important day for parents, family members, and loved ones of children on the spectrum and a day to educate those that aren’t aware of just how serious a problem elopement is. Amongst deaths of young autistic children, 91% die by drowning and that is way too many. Even one is too many.
If you’re reading this, please share it with families of autistic children and their caregivers so that no child has to go through this again and so that next year we’re not remembering deaths from 2019.
There are days when I sit and think about my son’s addiction. I think about everything I did do, didn’t do or should have done. I start to disassemble his entire journey in my mind trying to find the missing piece. That piece that somehow I overlooked during our struggle for recovery. You see, my son had the worst outcome. The one every parent dreads but would never allow the thought to even cross their lips. My son overdosed and died of the very pills he was given to manage his post op pain.
His addiction snuck up on us like a thief in the night. Carefully and quietly taking us by surprise. Like the elephant in the room, we all knew there was a problem but no one had the guts to say the words. I called it our dirty little secret. Keeping it safe and sound between me and my addict son. Protecting both of us from the ugliness of the stigma attached to this most misunderstood disease. We had brief periods when we were given a glimpse of normal, tricking us into believing the demons had lost their grip and moved on. Then reality would hit as my son returned to his world of darkness and chaos dragging me along for the ride of my life.
His addiction consumed me as I struggled to find places where he would stay safe and I would get a much needed break from the endless worry constantly dancing in my mind. Finding the right fit of rehab was like finding a rose in six feet of snow. I fought to get him in and he fought to get out. Never feeling like the help and support he needed was available wherever he was staying at the time. I’ve learned that helping the addict is like matching fingerprints. Almost impossible. Hindsight is such a great gift if only it arrived before things were said and done, people were trusted and money was wasted on places that made promises that could never be kept.
There are days I feel like I failed him. After all as mothers our job is to keep our children safe. I have a double whammy. I’m not just a mom but also a nurse, a fixer. The very idea that I could not fix my son horrifies me. I allowed myself the sick illusion that I was in control of his addiction and I had the power to fix him. Even when that little voice of reason resonated through my brain, and was echoed by close friends and family, “you didn’t cause it and you can’t cure it” I still continued to beat myself up dissecting every fight, every rehab, tough love, no love or tons of love that we lived during his battle. Being the lone survivor of my sons addiction is a life sentence. I’m still shocked that he is gone. It feels like the beginning of my end. I have become my own personal punching bag. I have a million reasons why his death is my fault. I should have… begins my sentence when close friends try to set me straight.
There is nothing that can change my mind. I should have been able to save him. I had years of practice. So now my painful reality is every parents nightmare. Now, I must figure out a way to go on without him. I have become a sounding board for other mothers living the nightmare of addiction. In the midst of my struggle for survival and my fighting back at the broken system, I have made many contacts. By channeling my anger to make a difference I have stumbled upon people who have started the walk of grief before I joined this club. Together we find strength and hope that the bigger we grow and the louder we become the harder we will be to ignore. Parents whose prior struggle was to save their children. Working together to fix the breaks in the system we have come to know too well. A system that fought us when we were begging for help, a system that turned its back on a generation of addicts pleading for their lives. My son’s struggle has ended. Mine has begun. Everyday is a struggle. Trying to ease the pain that grips my heart and fighting to find joy in a world that has turned upside down. My new normal is just that, so new that even I have trouble adjusting. I pray for acceptance. I pray for peace. Until then I survive one day at a time.
Losing an adult child to Dextromethorphan addiction is a nightmare no parent should ever have to experience.
This is Ethan’s story:
Yesterday, the phone rang with the call some part of me has been expecting for a year or two now. It was the Galax Police Department calling to notify me they had found my 23-year-old son dead in his apartment after they were asked to do a welfare check.
It’s the call no mother wants to get, but after living with his addiction for so long, it was one I expected at the back of my mind. I thought I was prepared, but really, until the phone rang I clung to hope that he would turn his life around. I’m still struggling to wrap my head and heart around the idea that he really is gone. Our communication has been spotty for years, so full of anger at times, I’m used to not hearing from him for days or weeks. Just a week ago, he called wanting a PlayStation 4 for Christmas.
I told him no.
He’d skipped Thanksgiving, I think at least partly because he was angry with me over a Facebook post in which I was thankful for him, despite the fact that he hadn’t always been the son I imagined. I was uncertain over what Christmas would bring. Maybe that was the cloud that’s been hanging over my holiday. I hadn’t even bought him any gifts.
Now I won’t have the chance. Ever again.
There’s a picture of him on the living room wall, holding my dog last Christmas, sporting a goofy toboggan and a grin. When he was straight, he had a lethal sense of humor and was always worried about me.
In my memories, he is the golden haired little boy who trooped behind his older sister and worried her to death as she played; the elementary schooler who liked being smart and didn’t care for basketball or karate; the middle schooler who put on weight and had braces and didn’t like himself as much as he should have. I still loved his smile. He’s also the sullen teen who stretched out, became tall and lean, who gave up band and skateboarding, who put his fist through the wall and refused chores. Yet on good days, he still gave awesome hugs and when he managed a smile, the room lit up.
The good days, however, seemed fewer and farther between the older he got. Instead of correcting his path, he intentionally chose it, repeatedly. We argued, by text, at great length last month about all the wonderful things he thought his drug of choice did for him and whether or not he was happy. When he was high, he thought he was Death incarnate, or maybe god. He was immortal, capable of anything he set his mind to. He hated everything around him except the video games in which he could further escape from reality.
I know he had dreams – of being a video game designer, of having a family, of being a dad. He told me he wanted to be a good dad, which was so sad because his dad was such a deadbeat. My son was great with children. His nieces adored him. But he poisoned his chances at that when he started using drugs, when he chose to keep using them. In many ways, I lost my son when he and his best friend started getting high. He was never the same after that; moody, angry, scary and demanding.
He always thought that since it wasn’t an illegal drug, or even one he had to obtain illegally, that it was safe. Dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant and central nervous system depressant. It’s sold over-the-counter and safe in recommended dosages. Taken a whole pack or more at a time, however, it mimics the effects of PCP. It causes psychosis, seizures, organ damage, and potentially death.
He left home for nearly a year when he was 16, loading his belongings in a rage on the day my grandfather died. Even when he didn’t live with me, I gave him a phone to keep in touch, came to his rescue when he needed me, took afternoons off work to deal with a broken heart. He came home the next summer because they didn’t have room for him any more and I wanted him to finish school, which he did. But frankly, I was afraid of him and his angry outbursts. He turned 18 and graduated, still with no purpose or desire to have one, and I made him move out.
He had a few jobs, wrecked a few cars, and was living in his car when one last accident ended its usefulness. By then he was having seizures. He was unable to work, so I rented him an apartment and took him regularly to Winston-Salem to see a doctor and psychologist. We didn’t know that, even then, he continued to use. Then he found a roommate and they got high together, he went into a psychosis and pulled a Japanese sword on the roommate, and we found out the truth. He was in jail when we cleaned out his apartment and found bag after bag of empty blister packs of drugs he stole, by the way.
I should have known by the illogical rages, I guess. But even though I knew the drugs had caused the neurological damage that brought on the seizures, I didn’t know their effects as well as I would have some widely-discussed street drug.
(ed note: Will be creating a dextromethorphan abuse resource page in memory of Ethan. Love, love, love to you – Aunt Becky)
When he got out of jail, I refused to enable him any more. He moved to Virginia with my parents. He never worked again, except odd jobs at the church and for my family. When my dad’s illness meant mom couldn’t take care of him too, he first rented a house, then lost his job at the church, and wound up in the homeless shelter. During that time he been in a horrific wreck in which he should have been killed. He was high, in a blackout, hit a parked car and went over an embankment. He was ejected and broke multiple bones, including his back, but was not paralyzed.
We were all convinced he’d hit bottom.
For months, back at the shelter, he stayed on the straight and narrow due to random drug testing. He was a house monitor, had friends and was fun to be around again. When he moved into an apartment, the first thing he did was get high. This summer police called me and asked if I was his mom. I expected the next words to be a death notification. No, he was on the streets acting strange.
He spent two nights in jail for public intoxication.
I hate to admit how seldom I’ve seen him since his birthday in April. He was in a downward spiral that I knew I was powerless to stop. I talked to him on the phone fairly regularly and tried to make sure he knew I loved him. Often, his voice was unintelligible and I would strain to have a conversation, never knowing if he was high or if was an aftereffect of the drugs. Sometimes he called in tears from emotional pain. Lately there had been physical pain as well, but he would not see a doctor.
For years I’ve prayed for God to heal him, to help him choose sobriety, and more recently to take away the pain that seemed to drive him.
At last, Ethan hurts no more.
At one level, my prayers have been answered.
There’s a hole in my heart and an ache in my stomach. I’m not sure if writing about it makes it more real, or less. I know now I’ve had almost a day to process and I’m still not sure I’m ready to do anything else. I hate that, right now, so many of my memories are not good, but maybe that’s what I need to get through the next few days. I refuse to take a photo album down and bring happier ones to the surface.
I’ve been touched by how many people have reached out to me; wept again when I realized how many of my friends have already, in some form, walked this path. I don’t know what to tell people I need beyond time. I’m trying to go on with life, to do the things I enjoy instead of trembling in a corner in sackcloth and ashes. I know that may raise a few eyebrows, but my grief won’t change his death, just as it never changed the way he chose to live.
I know I’m fragile right now and I’m trying to take care of myself. I wish I could hug him one more time and remind him again that I love him – no matter what. That not being possible, I want to hold my daughter and granddaughters and feel the breath in their lungs and the beat of their hearts.
I want to somehow know that he’s finally at peace and that I won’t ever have to feel this way again.