For months after her older brother Allan’s suicide in November 2002, Amy Jacobson was numb. It was as if the Maryland college student had fallen into a big black hole of nothingness where the only emotion that churned inside her body, after the initial shock wore off, was total detachment.
Allan had been the brainy kid in the family, and his death a month shy of his 25th birthday in their parents’ basement seemingly came out of nowhere. It was only in the unforgiving glare of hindsight, she says, that her family realized he’d been desperately unhappy. Adding to her family’s distress was the fact that her father, who’d become a paramedic after retiring from the Navy, had found him but couldn’t revive him.
To allow herself to feel, Ms. Jacobson now realizes, would have been to acknowledge the anger, guilt and shame so many suicide survivors struggle with after the death of a loved one. But that’s a recognition of today’s 34-year-old self; back then, the fact her brother had taken his own life simply didn’t compute.
“You get lost,” she recalls. “Our lives completely fell apart.”
But worse days were to come.
Six months later, her baby brother Sam — the life of the party who’d always seemed so confident and sure of himself — met the same tragic end. Then in July 2004, her father also died by suicide, sending her into what would eventually be diagnosed as active post-traumatic stress syndrome. “My life continued to unravel.”
This past autumn, she started the long journey of healing her emotional wounds in a way she never could have anticipated: with a random 1.6-mile run along Rodi Road in Penn Hills that would lead to her signing up for the Pittsburgh half marathon on May 1.
Running as a lifeline
Growing up, Ms. Jacobson didn’t have an athletic bone in her body. Sam was the natural athlete, a daredevil who excelled in everything from soccer and football to wrestling and cross country. She was too shy to put herself out there.
“I never had the confidence to try out for anything,” she says.
Which explains why the immense pride the Penn Hills secretary felt after that first run on Oct. 11 proved so overwhelming as to be addictive. True, she probably walked as much as she ran. And when she did pick up the pace, “I was slower than a turtle in peanut butter.” Yet it got her so fired up about running she’s now training with Steel City Road Runners to compete in her first 13.1-mile race. She’ll also run a 5K the day before as part of the Pittsburgh Marathon’s Steel Challenge.
“Running has become my lifeline,” she says. “It has given me a reason to push on.”
Climbing out of the darkness wasn’t easy. As a survivor, Ms. Jacobson says, people expected her to be strong, especially for her mother. She was anything but.
“My life was out of control,” says Ms. Jacobson, who moved to Pittsburgh from West Virginia five years ago, not knowing a single soul, and now works for an accounting firm. “I couldn’t regain my grip, and I had no idea what I was going to do, or why I got up in the morning. I wasn’t living. I sure as hell wasn’t happy.”
Ms. Jacobson’s encounter with suicide sounds exceptional. Yet it’s more common than you might think. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., says David Brent, endowed chair in suicide studies and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. More than 41,000 Americans take their lives each year. And many more attempt it — approximately 12 people harm themselves for every reported death by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The risk is higher for family members of people who commit suicide because suicide typically doesn’t happen in a vacuum, says Dr. Brent, who directs the Services for Teens at Risk suicide prevention program at Pitt and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Most often it co-occurs with issues of drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness or psychiatric conditions such as depression or bipolarism, all of which often run in families. Even so, the “absolute” risk of suicide for relatives is still statistically low, he says.
“Genetics isn’t destiny,” he notes.
Learning to be sensitive to changes in mood or behavior can make one more resilient, says Dr. Brent. So can grief therapy, along with lifestyle changes that help minimize stress, such as getting some exercise.
Ms. Jacobson says she instantly felt better when she put foot to pavement. The first few times she ran, in fact, she cried.
“Everything that I’d kept bottled up was released,” she says. “That feeling of accomplishment, of doing something I never thought I could do, it’s indescribable.”
There might be a word for it: endorphins. Experts have long recognized that exercise eases anxiety and improves mood because it makes your body release these morphine-like chemicals, says Howard Aizenstein, a professor of psychiatry at Pitt.
The effect is two-fold. In addition to reducing one’s perception of pain, endorphins can trigger a feeling of intense well-being during and after strenuous exercise that runners sometimes refer to as a “runner’s high.”
“They’re like natural opiates in the body,” says Dr. Aizenstein, with a drug-like effect that people can get addicted to.
Studies suggest exercise can also lead to an increase in the gray matter in the hippocampus part of the brain, which correlates with improved cognitive function. Exercise also presents opportunities for socialization and can boost self-confidence when people set, and achieve, goals.
In Ms. Jacobson’s case, running also has helped her shed more than 70 pounds she’d packed on after being diagnosed at age 19 with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal endocrine disorder that leads to weigh gain, infertility and other problems.
Like many new to the sport, she started small last fall, jogging just enough to make signing up for the Jingle Bell Run on Dec. 13 not seem totally crazy. She surprised and amazed herself with a 34:34 finish. It was so incredible, that when she won entry into the half marathon during a week of giveaways, she decided to go for it. She started 2016 with a Steel City group run on New Year’s Day.
The running community, Ms. Jacobson says, has been an integral part of her road to success. “They’re so supportive and welcoming. For the first time, I feel a sense of belonging.”
It’s inspired her to pay it forward. This spring she started volunteering for the Western Pennsylvania chapter of The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org), a nonprofit. She’s committed to raising $5,000 for the 14th annual Out of the Darkness Walk in Pittsburgh on Aug. 27. “I want to take what I’ve learned and give back to others,” she says.
Which is considerable. Through running, she says, she’s learned you don’t have to accept what’s handed to you, that even when you feel like giving up, you can go on.
“It’s a metaphor for my life,” she says. “I have my ups and downs, good runs and bad, but no matter what, I keep putting on my running shoes and getting out there.”
So whatever her time on May 1, even if she has to walk some of her way to the finish line, she’ll feel victorious. Sam, she says, would be so proud of her.
“All of my hard work and persistence will have finally paid off, and I will be able to say that anything is possible as long as you don’t give up.”