For one family, the unexpected becomes the unthinkable
By Kim Marquis | JUNEAU EMPIRE
The thought that their accomplished, vibrant daughter would kill herself never occurred to Mary Ellen Arvold and Dave Haas.
Elizabeth Arvold Haas graduated from Juneau-Douglas High School as a top student in 2000. She was on the varsity basketball team and loved anything outdoors, including hunting and snowboarding. She set goals in her life and went about accomplishing them on her own terms, her parents said.
But unexpected events, some of which her parents didn't discover until after her death, changed the course of her life.
She killed herself on a December morning in Juneau. She was 20.
"The shock was not just that she did it, but that it could happen," David Haas said. "All you work for is so your kids could have a chance to be happy."
He and his wife, like many others who have lost children to suicide, realized how a child can keep parts of their lives hidden from their parents and how difficult it can be to help their children fight depression. They also learned how to reshape their lives in the face of an overwhelming loss.
Arvold and Haas started noticing small changes in their daughter during Christmas break of her freshman year in college.
"I think it was a heavy feeling," Haas said. "It was born out in some of the ways she acted. We thought she was struggling with her injury from a car accident."
The accident the previous April had left Liz Haas with a badly damaged foot, and by Christmas she still hadn't recovered. Their once-active daughter who now had a pronounced limp was no longer interested in exercise.
Arvold worried about her daughter's moods, and now recalls she had always been bothered by the lack of light during Juneau's winters. As a senior in high school she asked her parents if she could move somewhere else, and then picked a sunny place to attend college, at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Other problems piled up in her life, but she hid them from her parents by acting like everything was fine, they said. She told them the accident just meant she needed to slow down and be more reflective, convincing them she was OK.
The changes in her seemed subtle at the time, but looking back now, her parents said they know she had started to lose her direction.
She had chosen to travel for several months before starting college, going to South America with a girlfriend. While working in Ecuador in a rain forest planting trees, she was raped. She never told her parents.
They also later found out that she began using pot and other drugs, such as LSD and psychedelic mushrooms, before and during college.
The self-driven, confident and happy woman began to fade away.
Serious problems with Liz Haas' mental health emerged during the summer after her freshman year. She abruptly left a job working at a remote lodge, flew to Juneau and called her parents.
"She told us she had a bad experience with a young man at the camp, but wouldn't elaborate," her mother said. "She was paranoid and afraid of everything. We don't know, but we think maybe she had taken LSD."
When she came back from the camp, she hadn't slept for two days. Her mother called a psychiatrist the next day, who suggested she see how her daughter was after getting some sleep.
Two days later, she had seemed to recover and started acting normally but told her parents she wouldn't go back to college.
The family went on hikes and joined a gym to exercise together, but her parents still knew something was wrong. She had a million ideas about what she wanted to pursue and kept changing her mind – something so unlike her, her father said.
In late October she had another paranoid episode. She saw a psychiatrist and a therapist several times each and was prescribed an anti-depressant. She initially did not want to take the medication, her mother said, and did not want to attend therapy sessions.
Arvold, a pediatric nurse practitioner, became more worried and insisted her daughter keep going to counseling sessions. She knew there were things her daughter wasn't telling her, and said she felt it was important she talk with someone.
In the second week of December, Liz Haas skipped work for two days, saying she felt sick. On the second day her parents came home as they always did during lunch and found that she was not there.
She had died on a trail near their home, and her parents found out when a stranger knocked on their door.
In the years following her death, they have pieced together details about her depression, what might have caused it and how it progressed. Shock was replaced by a realization that their daughter was deeply depressed.
The last days were like Liz Haas was living in two realms, her parents said. She had written a check to pay for a bill, and her father had seen her researching colleges on the Internet. They believe she had divorced the events of her daily life from what was overwhelming her mind.
Dave Haas said while the thought that she might kill herself never entered his mind, when he looks back he sees that she was confused and quietly anxious.
"She had always been good at figuring out what to do. She had always been competent," he said. "It just wasn't her. She seemed like a different person."
Her mother has done research on the effects drugs can have on young people's brains. She thinks the LSD her daughter took in the year before her death likely changed her daughter's brain chemistry.
Some types of drugs can make symptoms of depression worse or even accelerate the disease, according to Dr. Paul Topol, director of Bartlett Regional Hospital's mental health unit. In particular, psychedelic drugs can have this effect.
"It's so critically important to not put those drugs into your body in those younger years and into your 20s. You're so much more susceptible. Some people might say (other people) get through it, but with some it's different," Arvold said.
And despite the fact her daughter faced huge hurdles – a rape, a lingering physical injury, some emotionally abusive relationships with young men, and drugs – she otherwise could have overcome the depression, her mother said.
"I think she had too many strengths to not be able to deal with the other things," Arvold said.
Liz Haas had taken anti-depressant medication for only five days before her death.
"You may think you have a lot of time to deal with depression, to ease through it but obviously sometimes you don't," her mother said. "It's like an emotional cancer that can take you quickly."
The response by friends, family and others in Juneau was what David Haas and Mary Ellen Arvold needed to deal with the death of their daughter. They had constant contact with people and support from many directions in uncountable ways.
"It made us feel held by a community," Arvold said.
That isn't always the case, according to volunteer grief therapist Ron King, who said that sometimes friends don't know what to say to parents who have lost a child by suicide and avoid the grieving parents, who then feel alone.
Still, Haas and Arvold were gripped by grief.
"You want to take off your skin and get a rest from that load," she said. "You just want a rest from it and there is no rest from it."
Her husband did a lot of jogging to try to shake off the grief, but felt like he still had more to get out. At times he'd drive around Juneau for a release, screaming as loud as he could with the windows rolled up.
For the first year, they said they felt anxious all the time. They also worried about their son, Jake Arvold Haas, who was 18 at the time of his sister's death. "You thought you knew your child – such a good, accomplished child – and you find out you didn't," Dave Haas said. "How could you then think you know your other child?"
The terribly difficult grieving process shaped their son into an openly sensitive and compassionate person beyond his years, Arvold said.
A year and a half of doing anything and seemingly everything to stay active – from ice hockey and dancing lessons to woodworking classes – resulted in the decision that they needed something different. They bought a cabin and renovated it with focus and heavy labor.
Arvold and Haas have come to a point where they evolved from their constant grief.
Nature especially reminds Arvold of her daughter now: a sea lion's startling breath as it emerges from the water or a bird that catches her attention. Anytime she sees something beautiful, she said she thinks of her daughter.
"It isn't what you want, to have your daughter's suicide be the thing that defines your life," Arvold said. "We will miss her immensely forever, but are grateful we got to have this incredibly loving and gifted soul in our lives for 20 years.