With turkey leftovers filling refrigerators, and Christmas songs echoing throughout every store and restaurant, most Oklahomans are filled with holiday spirit. But for some, Christmas cheer mocks their own holiday realities — quiet lonely evenings, missing loved ones, or a growing mountain of bills.
For Edmond resident Norma Jean Johnson, this holiday season is particularly difficult. Only eight months ago, on April 29, her teenage son Luis “Angel” Lopez committed suicide.
Angel had been a well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky young man who loved football and lit up a room with his smile, said Norma Jean Johnson. “He was compassionate, and wanted to help others, always putting them before himself.” As a senior at Santa Fe High School, Angel played defensive end and was active in the youth group at Quail Springs Baptist Church.
Then his world changed. In December 2010, his best friend for more than a decade, Dylan Bays, hung himself. Lopez was despondent. “We saw a change in Angel,” Johnson said. “He grew more and more angry, more and more sad. (Dylan’s death) affected him tremendously. He went to a dark place (inside). We would ask him to tell us, to talk to us, and he would say, ‘I can’t talk to you the way I used to talk to Dylan.’”
Lonely and struggling, Lopez began dating a girl, but Johnson was worried that the relationship was unhealthy for him. She and her husband asked Angel to consider ending the relationship, but he wouldn’t listen. As time went on, Angel’s mental health seemed to worsen. The girlfriend told Johnson that Angel was threatening suicide. Johnson confronted her son about it, but he claimed his girlfriend was making it all up. And since he had never made the claim to others, Johnson believed him.
In March, the girlfriend broke up with Angel after a big fight. He came home and began punching everything in his room, breaking his ceiling fan and dresser, and cutting up his hand. Johnson received a forwarded text from the girlfriend in which Angel had said “I’m going to take my life if you don’t come back to me.” Johnson again confronted Lopez, but he claimed it was just threats, all talk. A few weeks later, Johnson pushed him about the cuts on his arm, and he admitted to having cut himself, saying it was the only time. Less than a month later, he followed his friend’s example and hung himself.
Her grief still raw, Johnson has few answers for why her son took his own life. The family had just spent a happy Easter weekend together. Angel had been taking steps to re-enroll in college, and had expressed desire to get his job back, which he had quit in a fit of temper earlier that spring. “Things seemed normal again,” Johnson said.
Cathy Bates understands her pain. She lost her own son David to suicide in June 2009. Bates was familiar with grief, having lost her husband, brother and both parents, but said this was a different type of grief. “It’s complicated. There is a social stigma to (suicide),” she said. “And it leaves so many questions. Questions there are no answers to.” Bates went in search of a suicide support group, and wasn’t able to find one that met close and regularly. So she started one herself – Survivors of Suicide. (SOS)
“It helps to be with peers who have gone through the same situation,” she said. “No one else can understand. Within hours (of my son’s death) my house was full of people and almost everyone said to me that they can’t imagine what I was feeling. They were right. But in support group, they have been there and they do understand.”
Bates said the holiday season can definitely be difficult, and SAD (seasonal affective disorder) can cause a spike in depression or “the blues” which goes away when spring arrives. But she also said it is a long-standing myth that the suicide rate increases during that time. “It isn’t completely unheard of, but it typically takes much more than ‘the blues’ to cause someone to end their own life,” Bates said. “It takes a much deeper level of depression.” Major depression or untreated bipolar disorder result in nearly 70% of all suicides, according to Mental Health America.
Such was the case with Jean Wood’s husband, Loyd Bottoms. Bottoms had dealt with bipolar disorder most of his life. In addition, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his days in Vietnam. Bottoms worked as a registered nurse in the psychiatric field at the Oklahoma Youth Center in Norman. He was one of 15 siblings, four of whom committed suicide, three of them murdering their own child before they killed themselves. His father also committed suicide.
In 1991, Wood and Bottoms had been married for 10 years and had one son together, Adam, along with two older children Bottoms had from a previous relationship. The last year of their marriage, Bottoms had stopped taking his medication and his bipolar disorder spiraled out of control. He became dangerous, and Wood once woke up during the night to find him holding a gun to her head. When Bottoms refused to seek help, Wood took Adam and moved out. Loyd then began stalking her, leaving dead animals on her porch, and constantly filling her answering machine with messages, regardless of the victim’s protective order Wood had against him.
“He was (exhibiting) signs of suicide — giving away his possessions, saying things like ‘the family would be better off without me,’” she said. “I spent months trying to get someone to understand that he was ill. But no one believed me. Loyd was well-liked and everyone thought I was just an estranged wife and was out to get him.”
On March 22, 1991, Wood called the police multiple times because Bottoms was watching her house, but he would leave before the police arrived. Finally, she took Adam and went somewhere she knew Bottoms wouldn’t find her. That night, Bottoms audio recorded a conversation he had with his 14-year-old mentally handicapped daughter, April, in which he discussed his failed marriage and how it was all Wood’s fault. The recording ended with two gun shots and April’s death. Bottoms then searched for Wood and Adam, and when he couldn’t find them, he called and left her a voicemail, saying goodbye before he shot himself.
Today, Wood blames much of this tragedy on society’s lack of education, something which she feels has changed dramatically since her husband’s suicide, but still has a long way to go. “Physical health and mental health always have been separated. That doesn’t make sense to me; the brain is part of the body. We need to start treating it all the same,” she said. “The strongest aspect (of suicide prevention) is respecting the illness, but don’t fear it. Treat it like a health condition.”
This includes not being afraid to say “suicide,” she said.“When you say it, it makes you less afraid of it. When you bring voice to it, you get it out of your head and it gives you power over it.”
Norma Jean Johnson wishes she had given more credence to the text Angel had sent his girlfriend. She’s learned that every threat must be taken seriously. Wood, an SOS board member, agrees. “(When someone threatens suicide), don’t take it as attention seeking or ‘crying wolf,’” she said. “Threatening it alone is a dysfunctional mental process. It’s a cry for help.”
Loyd Bottoms had another son by his first marriage, Anthony, who had inherited his father’s bipolar disorder. But Anthony has faced his illness. He respects the fact that he is at higher risk for suicide because of it, and openly discusses his feelings, Wood said. He also takes medication regularly.
“He stopped the cycle,” she said.
Others can follow Anthony’s path. Whether you or a loved one who is dealing with the holiday blues, depression, mental illness, or the aftermath of suicide, there is help. There are support groups, like SOS, with people who have been there — who have experienced the same feelings and fears, who understand and can help.
SOS Oklahoma meets 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. every Monday at Crossings Community Church, 14600 N. Portland Ave., and on the first and third Thursdays of every month at Integris Southwest Medical Center, 4401 S. Western. For more information, go to www.sosoklahoma.org.