Brotman: Parents grapple with teen's suicide — (Chicago Tribune)

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Chicago Tribune

Barbara Brotman

August 29, 2011

Oak Park family tries to move forward after student’s death

The Nordstrom shopping bags are still on the floor of her room, the new shoes inside untouched. Spiral notebooks are stacked on a table. Next to the bed is a DVD of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Season 1.

The shoes will have to be returned. The notebooks will never make it back to Oberlin College. Buffy will go unwatched.
How would you react if your deepest dread came to pass? Carmen and Ilhan Avcioglu, friends of mine from Oak Park, couldn’t have imagined it.

“I used to think, if the day would ever come, how could I go on? I couldn’t,” said Ilhan, 48, a high school history teacher.

Two weeks ago, the day came.

Depression, the darkness that had first gripped their daughter, Rachel, in high school, returned, and this time struck a fatal blow. Rachel, 19, took her life by strangulation in her bedroom while her parents slept in their room only a few steps away.

And now Ilhan and Carmen are going on.

They have a 16-year-old son, Rafael, whose welfare urgently occupies their minds. They have each other. But they also have the bitterest of legacies.

“I keep asking myself if I did everything in my power to prevent this,” Ilhan said. “All these questions are still going through: What if we had done this? What if we had done that?”

Ilhan especially has been replaying Rachel’s life in his mind, questioning everything. That troubled romance she had during high school ­ had they tried hard enough to intercede?

“We could have done more,” Ilhan said to Carmen, 51, a pharmacist. “We could have moved.”

They had taken their daughter’s depression seriously. The day after Rachel told her mother she was depressed and showed where she had been cutting her legs, they had called a counselor to start treatment.

They had gotten her into therapy. They had watched worriedly as she went through several anti-depressants before finding one that worked. For three years, they had watched for danger signs like sleep problems and social isolation, being especially vigilant after romantic breakups, which tended to send Rachel’s emotions tumbling.

But the depression was unfolding during adolescence, when turmoil is common. “It’s very difficult as a parent,” Carmen said. “Do you think, this is depression, or is this just teenage stuff?”

Rachel had loved her freshman year at Oberlin, in Ohio. But toward the end of this summer back home, she had been having trouble sleeping.

Ilhan had suggested that she cut back her late-night computer time to wind down for sleep. Now he wishes he had done more.

“I could have said, ‘Rachel, is something bothering you? Is something keeping you up?’ ” he said. “But I didn’t.”

“Looking back, we see that, yes, there were some red flags,” Carmen said, enough that Rachel’s psychiatrist had increased the dose of her anti-depressant one week before her suicide. “We can kick ourselves: ‘If only we would have done this, if only we had done that.’ But even with my knowledge, I didn’t see the signs.”

She recounted all the positive signs: The Zumba class Rachel attended that night with her mother, the family dinner where she read a funny newspaper story aloud, the ice cream outing afterward with friends, her remark to them that for someone who had once dealt with depression that had been catastrophic, she was doing pretty well.

And there was the text conversation with her earlier that day, full of plans for the future, from an appointment for a haircut to a proposed dinner with her dad at a Bucktown restaurant she liked because it makes pizza without cheese.

“She’s lactose intolerant,” Carmen explained, catching herself.

“She was lactose intolerant,” she said.

Carmen and Ilhan want people to see depression as a disease, a potentially fatal one. They want mental illness to be treated with the same openness, and insurance coverage, as physical illness. They want to urge people whose children are diagnosed with depression to put together a strong web of support and emergency plans.

Carmen wants people to carefully read the warnings she and other pharmacists put in anti-depressant packets warning of the medications’ risks. She is mindful of the increase in Rachel’s dosage only a week before her suicide, and plans to report it to the Food and Drug Administration.

The Avcioglus have succeeded in starting some conversations, judging by the number of parents who have whispered to Carmen that someone in their family, too, is fighting depression and can they talk to her privately some time?

Suicide is the third leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 10 and 24, resulting in some 4,400 deaths a year. Experts list a number of warning signs, including talking about wanting to die, about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain or about being a burden to others; sleeping too little or too much; withdrawing; or feeling isolated.

People who know someone who exhibits these signs are urged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK.

Carmen hopes that someday she can channel her grief into the creation of a suicide prevention foundation.

Ilhan says, “I wish we could turn the clock back.”

But the clock goes in only one direction, that of going on.

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