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The Stockton Record
Alex Breitler, Record Staff Writer Credit: Michael McCollum/The Record
Published Monday, Jul 17, 2006
Mother works to break down the stigma of suicide and turn her daughter’s death into a lifeline for others
TRACY – Tucked in a quiet corner of Nancy Kettner’s back yard is a garden. Tomatoes bulge on the vine, dime-sized daisies brighten the day and orange blossoms draw butterflies.
But it’s the sunflowers, twisting their necks toward the sky, that make this a sacred place for Kettner.
“Annie’s garden” is a living memorial to Kettner’s daughter, who committed suicide less than two years ago at age 29.
Annie loved sunflowers, how they faithfully find the sun each morning and follow its course to the western hills.
Kettner’s own course since her daughter’s death has been, at times, one of darkness and despair. But unlike some families that bury a tragic past, she has grappled with her grief painfully and publicly in the hope that Annie’s story might bring life for someone else.
This coming weekend, Kettner, 54, will march with thousands of others through San Francisco, a dusk-to-dawn 20-mile trek designed to break the stigma of shame that surrounds suicide.
The march is remarkable enough, but there’s more to Kettner’s story. It reminds us of the relationship between suicide and depression, and that, despite more than 300 suicides in San Joaquin County since 2001, there is no support group in the county designed specifically for the families of these victims.
Even now, Annie’s death is somewhat of a mystery to her mother.
“Every day you’re asking why. Why?” Kettner said. “You still ask. You’ll never get an answer.
“It’s hard, but I don’t like to hide things. I’d rather honor her life and memory by trying to help others.”
Kettner and her children, John and Andrea – better known as Annie – moved to Tracy in the early 1980s.
Annie grew up there, attending Tracy High School while her mom worked in the district office. The cheerful girl taught herself calligraphy, danced with her friends and was known as a talented baker.
Then Annie left for California State University, San Diego. A framed photo above Kettner’s piano keyboard shows her daughter with curled auburn hair, backpack on her shoulders and life within her reach.
She became an accountant and moved to Georgia, where she lived with her husband, Brandon.
Kettner wonders if it was the stress of such a far move from home. Or if there were other problems in Annie’s life. Whatever the cause, Kettner knew something was wrong when she saw her daughter at a family funeral four years ago.
She was gaunt. She had lost 20 pounds. She was anorexic. Why, her mother didn’t know.
The eating disorder accompanied a severe case of depression. At Kettner’s prompting, Annie sought counseling and went on medication.
One summer day in August 2004, Kettner’s phone rang at home. It was a detective calling from Atlanta.
Kettner won’t – or can’t – say any more about her daughter’s death or the life she lived in Georgia. She does say, however, that she believes the medication meant to ease Annie’s depression instead led her down a path toward suicide, a theory gleaned from reading her daughter’s journal entries over those last months.
“She said there was no way out,” her mother recalled. “The pain has to stop sometime.”
Two-thirds of those who commit suicide suffer from depression, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Women experience depression twice as often as men and are twice as likely to attempt suicide, although men are far more apt to complete the task.
Research into the link between depression and suicide, and the possible negative effect of some medication has picked up in recent years. For the first time, the foundation was able to fund $2 million in studies this year, medical director Paula Clayton said.
“Depression is lethal,” she said. “You die from cancer. You die from heart disease. You die from depression.”
Those beginning to recover from depression may be most vulnerable, Clayton said. As their foggy minds become clear, they may be better equipped to carry out suicidal plans.
Just a few weeks after Annie’s death, Kettner sought help in the form of a support group. She eventually found Shirley Kaminsky, a Sunol nurse whose teenage son took his own life 19 years ago.
Kaminsky facilitates monthly meetings of the Tri-Valley Survivors Suicide Support Group, which draws from all over the region. Survivors from San Joaquin County must either travel to Sacramento or find Kaminsky’s group in Livermore, although she hopes to establish a support group east of the Altamont Pass.
Kettner kept quiet for the first few sessions. Slowly she became more comfortable speaking up and is now helping families of more-recent suicides.
“We’re a community no one wants to belong to,” Kaminsky said. “But a survivor often feels like they’re very alone in this world. Here, they can talk about their experience. They can talk about the feeling.”
Some keep their grief inside. Others, such as Kettner, learn to let it out.
“I just honor Nancy so much for what she’s doing,” Kaminsky said. “We have to do that work. We have to go public to make people feel more comfortable talking about (suicide).”
Saturday’s overnight march in which Kettner will participate will raise money for suicide prevention, education and research. Kettner, who has been walking three miles a day to prepare, completed the same walk last year in Chicago.
She believes this much: Her daughter will be with her at 6 a.m. Sunday in San Francisco, when Kettner takes her final steps as dawn breaks over the East Bay hills.
And back home, Annie’s sunflowers will turn toward the new day.
Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 239-6606 or email@example.com
About suicide. Some facts from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
- [It is pharma-funded, and does not acknowledge the significant number and percent of suicides that are caused by antidepressants. The organization purports to educate people about suicide, while disseminating misleading information about depression, and omitting crucial information about medication-induced suicidality – Ed]
- Fifteen percent of people will suffer from depression at some point in their lives.
- While most depressed people are not suicidal, two-thirds of those who die by suicide suffer from depression. In 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 25,203 men committed suicide in the United States. That compares with 6,281 female suicides.
- Women, however, are twice as likely to attempt suicide because of an elevated rate of mood disorders. [Woman are drugged about twice as often as men – Ed]
- Firearms are the leading method of suicide for both sexes.
For more information about Nancy Kettner’s walk, visit www.theovernight.org. To learn more about Tri-Valley Survivors Suicide Support Group, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.