When there is no happy ending
Rick Spielberg’s wife was severely depressed during the 21 years of their marriage. Now he wrestles with his guilt that she is gone.
WARNING: This story contains a frank and intense discussion of a death by suicide. Please exercise judgment and self-care in choosing whether to read it. If you or a loved one need help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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A psychologist once told Rick Spielberg he was the type of person attracted to others who needed “fixing,” be it a broken leg or a broken heart. Spielberg acknowledges that was pretty accurate.
After all, it’s what led him to choose a career as a fire fighter and paramedic. It’s what drew him to offer help to a troubled and depressed young woman who worked in the administrative office of his fire fighting agency. And it was what kept him trying for more than 20 years to provide enough love and support and compassion to her to forestall what one psychiatrist told him was an “inevitable” outcome.
When Spielberg first reached out to Bea, the woman who would later become his first wife, it was as a compassionate colleague. The mother of two young children, she was stuck in a bad marriage, her mental health rapidly deteriorating. Spielberg encouraged her to consult a divorce attorney, but when she did, the lawyer told Spielberg Bea was “such a psychological mess” he couldn’t advise her until she’d sought medical help.
That prompted the first of what would become a long string of hospitalizations, none of which did much more than instruct Bea in how to game the system in order to get out. When she was released, she returned to the divorce lawyer and, due to her instability and medical debt, reluctantly gave up custody of the children. The societal disapproval that ignited only caused her more guilt and emotional strife. Since she had no “safe” place to go, Spielberg offered her a room in his three-bedroom house, “no strings attached” and, with reservations, she agreed.
Over time, as they grew closer, Bea confided things about her past she’d never revealed to anyone before: sexual molestation, parents who set no boundaries and provided no nurturing, a husband who tormented her physically and psychologically. Eventually, the two friends fell in love. Even knowing the depth of her trauma and the fragility of her state, Spielberg nevertheless proposed and they were married.
“I don’t think you can necessarily stop romantic feelings,” says Spielberg, who retains a slight Northeastern accent though he has lived in Florida for most of his adult life. “I fell in love with her. I didn’t look at it as any different than I would a person who has cancer. What’s the difference? It’s an illness. I don’t walk away from people and I wasn’t going to leave.”
But it was an illness with no cure. Diagnosed with severe depression and borderline personality disorder (“which puts it in a much more complicated and difficult realm” Spielberg adds), Bea continued to experience depressive cycles that were “very deep and very close” according to her husband.
“She would say, ‘Imagine your very, very worst, saddest, most miserable day of your life. Now imagine having that day every day of your life,’” he recalls. “With Bea, there weren’t any good days, there were just horrible days and bad days. It was a degree of horrible.”
Spielberg lent support her in every way he could, going with her to every psychiatry appointment and treatment session. Yet she continually begged him to help her to die, saying “I know you know how to make it work.” When he said he simply couldn’t do that, she’d add, “Then do it with me.” That was no option either.
One day Spielberg came home from work and found Bea in their bed, in a pool of vomit. She’d taken every medication in the house and was breathing but unresponsive.
“And so I had a dilemma,” says Spielberg with breathtaking honesty. “Do I walk away and let her die because that’s what she wanted and it wasn’t far off or do I intervene? That’s were mental illness becomes really difficult for the loved one. It’s hard to decipher if you’re doing things just because you, the family member, doesn’t want to go through the pain of losing the person.”
He called paramedics. Bea spent the next 11 days in a coma in the hospital and on a ventilator. No one could say if she would regain consciousness, or what damage there would be to her brain if she did. Keeping his promise to her that he would never allow machines to keep her alive, he requested a DNR (“Do not resuscitate”) order be placed on her chart.
Nevertheless, when doctors took her off the ventilator and she went into cardiac arrest, they revived her. That caused Spielberg another tsunami of guilt because “I had made her promises that I would never let her be in that state.”
Remarkably, Bea recovered and eventually returned home. But because their insurance refused to cover any treatment for physical consequences of a suicide attempt, they were overwhelmed with medical bills. After they declared bankruptcy, Spielberg returned to work, hoping to salvage what little they had left. But every day he was terrified to leave in the morning for fear of what she might do and terrified to come home at night for fear of what he might find.
For the next 10 years, Bea’s lows were neither as low nor as frequent, but her depression was relentless nevertheless and she continued to ask her husband to help her die. In 2002, Spielberg retired from the fire department and, hoping that a change of place might provide a new beginning, the couple moved to the hills of North Carolina. But before they left, he spoke to the Fort Lauderdale psychiatrist Bea had been most successful with, who dishearteningly told him: “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. I have no doubt that at some point, she will be successful.”
Finding a good psychiatrist and effective treatment in North Carolina provide futile so, still plagued by the weight of their financial situation, they moved to Colorado so Spielberg could take a position with the Department of Defense, a decision he now calls “a fateful error.” The good part of the DOD job was that, after five years, he’d be able to retire and retain his federal health insurance, the best in the country for mental health needs. The bad was that he would be assigned, for a year at a time, wherever in the country the department deemed he was most needed.
His first year away went relatively well; the second year he was able to work in Colorado. But as the third year began, with him working in Kansas, Bea’s mental health again began to decline. She periodically went off her meds and her tendency toward obsessive behaviors resurfaced. She complained that no one would help her. And while Spielberg “saw all these warning signs and knew what they were, I didn’t know what to do.”
One night in 2013, he called home, as he always did at the end of the day. There was no answer. He left messages and tried to believe in the reasons he manufactured. The next day, he wrestled with whether to call again and how soon, ultimately deciding to wait until evening.
“As hard as it was for me, I made the decision, if she was in the process of taking her life, to not interrupt that and make her suffer more,” he says, choking. “I knew from everything the doctors had told me this was never going to have a totally happy ending. Her illness was so severe, she had tried everything, and she was going to be one of those patients that either we continue to allow to suffer, or allow to take their own life.
“I made my decision out of love for her, not out of wanting to be rid of the situation. She was never a situation, she was the person I loved more than anything.”
When he called that night and there was again no answer, he was “pretty sure what that meant.” A close friend who lived nearby went to the house, then called Spielberg to say, “I don’t think this is going to be good because I just went over there and there’s a note on the door that says, ‘Don’t come in. Just call the police.’” Police and paramedics found Bea, who the coroner later said had likely died the night before, in the hallway just beyond the front door.
That was eight years ago and Spielberg, who has since remarried (to FACEing Mental Illness podcast producer Laura Randall), still struggles with a guilt he knows in his head is “100 percent inappropriate.” He readily admits that he has not dealt with the tragedy in a healthy way, simply compartmentalizing it, without examination.
“What you should do after something like this is not what I did,” he says. “I am a seriously broken person after all of this. Although I understand 100 percent on an intellectual level that I am not responsible for her suicide…in my heart, I know that if I had been home, it wouldn’t have happened.”
His wife’s death impacted him not only personally, but professionally. Though he is now retired, the intensity of her illness made him see the people he often encountered on EMT calls – who had overdosed, attempted suicide or were otherwise in a mental health crisis – with a fuller understanding and greater empathy.
“The only difference between people that have a mental illness and those that don’t is that those who say they have a mental illness admit it, and the rest of us don’t,” he says. “As horrible as a mental illness can be for the person suffering and their loved ones, sometimes I think everyone needs to have an incident where they or a loved one have mental illness, so they can finally understand and we can change the things that need to be changed.”