Silent no more
For five years, Ashley Bloom didn’t speak of his father’s suicide. Now he readily shares his story to advocate for preventing similar tragedies.
Listen to Ashley’s Story
Howard Bloom worked as many as 18 hours a day, barely slept and poured his high energy and genius-level creativity into everything he did, especially his commercial real estate business. Around the office, where he was known as “Hurricane Howie,” the daily joke was to gauge, depending on what he had planned for the day, what level of storm they were in for –a category one tropical storm or a category five cyclone.
His “eccentricity,” as colleagues called it, was chalked up to quirky brilliance and an impulsive spontaneity. If, driving down the road, he passed a car lot and was struck by the thought, “I’ve always wanted a Mustang,” he’d stop, miss a meeting and come away with a new set of wheels. When he realized he needed a new suit, he might go out and buy a dozen. His peripatetic restlessness would lead him to live in more than two dozen houses over the course of his 58 years.
But to his youngest son, Ashley, his father’s restless enthusiasm simply made him seem more admirable. No one ever suggested it might have anything to do with mental illness because mental health wasn’t something the Bloom family ever discussed. For example, when Ashley was 4 or 5, his father’s mother died and his uncle, his father’s younger brother, came to live with them. Ashley was told Grandma had died because “she was sick.” More than a decade later, Howard Bloom would amend that statement, explaining his mother “hadn’t been sick” after all, but rather had been “forced” to take her own life as the only way out of an unhappy and traumatic home situation.
It would be many, many more years – which brought with them a growing awareness of more family members’ mental health struggles — before Ashley Bloom would realize the irony in his father’s explanation — “given that mental illness is an illness and you are sick.” But because his own understanding of mental health and suicide at the time was so deficient, it never dawned on him there might be something more to his father’s erratic behavior than just a personality on overdrive.
“His mania was just normal for me, because I just grew up around it,” says Bloom, now 48 and the managing director of a commercial real estate and land development firm. “That was just Dad. He was fearless and he used to give me really good advice. In fact, his famous line was ‘If I only listened to myself, I’d be in a lot better shape.’”
Bloom calls his father “a visionary,” but admits that in real estate “where the highs are high and the lows are low” sometimes you can be too much of a visionary. Thus, his father experienced both extreme successes and extreme failures in his career and personal life. One of the early casualties was his marriage. When Ashley was about 10, his parents divorced. After spending some time with his mother, he ended up choosing to live with his father during his high school years.
“I had always been a little bit of a Daddy’s boy,” Bloom says. “And, to my Mom’s misfortune, I think their separation was a significant wake up call for my Dad. He became a very different person after that, not so immature. And I was fortunate and blessed that after that, he became my business partner as well as my Dad and my friend.”
The two men would work “side by side” for the next 14 years, as the younger Bloom established himself as a respected land expert. In his mid-50s, however, Howard Bloom’s health took a turn for the worse. He experienced a stroke, heart attack and pancreatitis at once. Bloom believes he noticed a subtle change in his father’s mood and behaviors after that.
“It just seemed there was a change in his outlook where he seemed a little more negative, a little more down,” Bloom says in reflection. “But there wasn’t any downward spiral. There wasn’t anything glaring that said, this guy is going to attempt.
“Of course, a lot of my understanding comes in reflection. It wasn’t until after his suicide when I became more educated that I understood that manic behavior is a mental illness and just because you’re up all the time doesn’t mean you’re not also struggling with depression and anxiety.”
April 29, 2010 – the day Howard Bloom would end his life – was “a day like any other day in my life,” Bloom recalls. As he stopped to put gas in his car, his father called and they had what seemed like an ordinary conversation. Bloom went on to meet with a client, then tried to call his father back on his way home. He got no answer.
When he learned what had happened, he had “almost no reaction at all.” In a state of shock, he went to a real estate closing scheduled for the next day “in the mindset that he would have wanted me to go.”
Forty-five days after his father’s death, Bloom got married. Two weeks after that, his bride was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and they were on a plane to New York for her surgery. The additional emotional punches robbed him of the opportunity to process and grieve the loss of his father.
“I’d not only lost my business partner – which made the stress of work even worse because we were already in the Great Recession – but I’d also lost my father and my best friend,” he says. “It was a lot of stress, all at once.”
Though Bloom had never exhibited his father’s tendency toward the impractical and irrational, he did display a similar high energy level, a deep commitment to work and scant need for sleep. Fortunately, at the time someone suggested he try yoga and meditation to help alleviate the stress he was feeling. He became such a convert he built a yoga studio in his home; today he never travels without his yoga mat in his bag. Meditation also became a part of the daily mental health regimen he has adopted, at least in a part as a proactive response to his father’s illness.
About eight months after Howard Bloom’s death, the holidays arrived and Ashley Bloom’s postponed grief set in. With every major life event, especially those involving “the grandchildren he would never meet), Bloom could “really feel the hole of him sinking in.” Still, he stubbornly resisted talking about his father’s choice or what had led him to make it.
Then, about five years ago, Bloom learned of the death of a high school classmate by suicide; shortly thereafter, the classmate’s brother also took his own life. As a parent of two (his daughters are now 16 and 10), Bloom couldn’t imagine the pain of losing one child, much less two. When another high school classmate reached out to see if he would join a group honoring the loss of their friend by walking in the 2017 American Foundation for Suicide Prevention “Out of the Darkness” walk in Sarasota, he agreed to participate. The event became a “mini-reunion,” and the power of connecting with so many others who had also lost a loved one to suicide, radically altered Bloom’s perspective.
“I guess there’s comfort in numbers,” he admits. “To see that many people connected by tragedy, so many people who understand what you’ve gone through without your explaining anything, is very powerful. The name of the walk, Out of the Darkness, really says it because I was coming out of keeping my story in a dark place as opposed to getting it out, talking about it and having some healing.”
From that point on, Bloom made a determined effort to educate himself about mental illness and research data about rising suicide numbers. He began, for the first time, to openly share his story with others, many of whom reciprocated by sharing their own painful losses. And in 2018, he became a member of the AFSP board. The following year, he earned national award for drawing record-breaking numbers to the 2019 Sarasota Out of the Darkness event.
“Really, it was a change in my own perspective, that this was not something to be embarrassed about, that this is something that affects many, many people,” he says. “Once I made that change in my attitude, my perception, it became easy to talk about because I realized it’s nothing to be ashamed of and it doesn’t say anything about me, or anything about my Dad.”
Having just completed the 2021 Sarasota walk – it’s now a family affair; his oldest daughter sang the national anthem at the event – Bloom is more committed than ever to working to raise awareness and provide supports. The Covid-19 pandemic, he believes, has created a “perfect storm” of medical, financial and emotional stress that is fueling a dramatically rising suicide rate (suicide by girls ages 12 to 17, has shot up 54 percent in the last two years, becoming the second leading cause of death for that demographic), which make his advocacy seem all the more urgent.
Bloom is especially concerned about the impact of the pandemic on children, not only because they receive the majority of their mental health services through the school system but because growing up in a world where social media is so dominant has increased pressures exponentially.
“I think the world seems bigger and heavier to children today,” he says, noting the dramatic and often negative impact of social media. “When we were kids we passed notes. Now the whole world notices everything because on social media, everybody knows.”
Bloom says he’s been richly rewarded for his advocacy, not only in terms of the connections he’s made and the funds he’s raised but by those who, after hearing his story, have reached out to say, “I was having some suicidal thoughts and you really helped me go in another direction.”
“How do you respond to that other than just being grateful that you made a big difference with one person and a small difference in a bigger fight,” he says. “I’m proud of myself that I no longer need to have any filter or barrier with my story. It’s just my story. I’m inspired to help other people have that understanding because of how much relief and healing it has provided me.”