January 27, 2002

Keith's Death and His Undaunted Courage

I am Keith's Dad. It has been nearly three years since he died. Perhaps you are reading this because your life has been impacted by Keith's death or by another suicide. Or, maybe your child or sibling has died. I hope you can learn something from me.

Looking back, we now know that Keith was depressed. Suicide is almost always the result of depression. The concerns, anxieties, and setbacks of life sometimes pile up so swiftly that a person is no longer able to cope. At some point in this downward spiral, the brain chemistry changes. The person does not feel right, does not think rationally, and cannot resist the impulse to end their life. Depression is an illness. Cancer is also an illness. We do not say that people commit cancer. We should not say that people commit suicide. People die of suicide because they are suffering from depression, a mental illness.

Keith was 29 years old, was active socially, and had dozens of friends. He loved the outdoors and was an avid fly fisherman. He participated in many outdoor sports and adventures. These activities often included challenges that pushed him to the limits. Examples include backpacking into the Grand Canyon, downhill skiing (on expert runs), rowing crew at UCLA, playing ice-hockey, sky diving, scuba diving, backpacking through Thailand, and long distance running.

After completing his MBA, Keith relocated to a new city and started a high-pressure job. Within six months he was dead. No one fully understood the extent of his anxiety over his assignments in this new job. He was given little direction, and was assigned responsibilities that he was not technically qualified to carry out. He was quite unhappy, and spent his last weeks vacillating between approaching outside recruiters and cramming by reading technical books late into the night. He cut back on his other activities. Keith had always been able to conquer intellectual and physical challenges during his life through hard work and persistence. This time, hard work would not be enough.

Keith had never before exhibited signs of depression or any other mental disorder. After six months on this new job, however, he was losing sleep and losing weight. He covered up his anxieties and depression in order not to alarm his friends. No one realized the danger he is was in. He finally exhausted his physical and emotional resources, and was defenseless.

Job pressures and life's stresses are something we can all relate to. There is another piece to the puzzle of Keith's suicide that relates back to his love of adventure and the outdoors.

For those of us that have been cooped up in an office on a sunny day, we realize how important outdoor activities are to our mental well-being. In his book Into The Wild, Jon Krakauer tells about several individuals who engaged in high risk activities in the outdoors. Jon is a mountain climber as well as a writer, and he tells how writing this book allowed him to reflect on "the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind."

There is a great possibility that certain people not only enjoy these bold activities but almost require them for their mental well-being. We know that physical exertion can produce chemical changes in the body. These changes can create feelings of well being, and at their limits, euphoria. For certain people, like Keith, their brain chemistry may actually require a push to extreme limits in order to achieve what normal people may feel at lesser levels of exertion and risk.

Jon Krakauer, in the same book, describes an experience of John Muir, the founding president of The Sierra Club. Krakauer describes how at the age of 36, John Muir chose to ride out a ferocious gale in the uppermost branches of a one-hundred-foot fir tree:

"Never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribably combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed."

John Muir is just one example of another young man who embraced extreme, physical experiences. I recently completed a book about the life of Merriweather Lewis. The book is Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose. The book is a detailed account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Merriweather Lewis is one of the most renowned explorers of the USA. Imagine my shock when I read about his success as an explorer, his friendship with Thomas Jefferson, his later frustration as a government bureaucrat, his struggles to complete a project, and his suicide. Thomas Jefferson described Lewis as having undaunted courage; these are the words I hold in my heart as I remember Keith.

It has been three years. As I have worked to understand Keith, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the beauty and challenges to be found in nature. Keith, with his courage and love of adventure, is in the company of many great men and women. These people tested themselves with some of the greatest experiences that this planet can offer. In his short life, Keith experienced things that many of us will never try, even though our lives may be two or three times as long as his. Because of this I have developed a deep admiration for his accomplishments, a compassion for his struggles, and a gratitude for the blessings that his life has brought to mine.

c 2002 Richard W. Loehr