The Honorary Co-Chairmen of the NAMI Northwest Walk to be held in Portland, Oregon in 2006 will be the two U.S. Senators from Oregon (one a Democrat and one a Republican). Senator Gordon Smith lost his 21 year old son to suicide in 2003. Senator Ron Wyden's brother died in 2002 after a 30 year struggle with schizophrenia. Mental Illness really does not discriminate. It strikes every segment of the population.
Writing Book Helps Senator Cope With Son's Suicide
By BRAD CAIN, AP
Sen. Gordon Smith hopes that "Remembering Garrett" will help parents who have experienced a similar tragedy or are struggling to help a child cope with depression or other mental illness.
PENDLETON, Ore. (April 15) - It's unusual for U.S. senators to shed a tear over personal problems in public. But Gordon Smith did so in July 2004, when he spoke in the Senate about his 21-year-old son's suicide.
The Oregon Republican's testimony was remarkable for its emotional intensity and frankness, moving other senators who listened to him to tears.
Smith has opened up even more about the ordeal, in a new book he's written titled "Remembering Garrett."
It's an often wrenching account of the life and death of Garrett Lee Smith, a popular kid with a big smile who quietly struggled with learning disabilities and clinical depression most of his life.
On the day before his 22nd birthday, while attending Utah Valley State College, Garrett dimmed the lights in his apartment, put on soft music, then swallowed a large quantity of sleeping pills and whiskey. Before passing out, he knelt alone in his closet with a noose around his neck.
The Sept. 8, 2003 suicide devastated Gordon and Sharon Smith, who adopted Garrett as a newborn.
Smith, in his second term in the Senate, was wracked by grief and by guilt over the large amount of time he spent away from home pursuing his business interests, then his political career. For a time he considered resigning from the Senate.
With the publication of "Remembering Garrett," Smith is hoping to help parents who have experienced a similar tragedy or are struggling to help a child cope with depression or other mental illness.
Smith says writing the book has been "cathartic" for him and has helped ease sorrow that for a time was so deep and abiding that he "envied the dead."
In his book, Smith vividly recalls the night police came to his Washington-area residence to give him the news about Garrett.
"In an instant, it all seemed meaningless, even vain,' " Smith says of his political career and his success in the frozen food business, which has made him a multimillionaire.
Smith writes that he "staggered up to Garrett's room, fell on his bed and spent a night in hell crying out to him .... and pleading with God for understanding, for forgiveness, for the strength to go on."
In an interview in the couple's home in the eastern Oregon town of Pendleton, Gordon and Sharon Smith said their Mormon faith and help from family friends and Smith's Senate colleagues have helped them recover and have helped Smith make a full return to politics, where he's become an advocate for suicide prevention programs.
To a degree, Smith has come to terms with the guilt he feels over Garrett's death. Smith said Garrett's psychiatrist assured him that Garrett killed himself because he was gravely ill, most likely manic depressive, and not because Smith often was away from home.
Still, Garrett's death is a raw subject for Smith. At times he struggled to keep his composure during an interview with The Associated Press.
"It's not that I'm emotionally unwell in any way, but I'll never get over this," Smith said, his voice cracking. "There's nothing like burying your child to acquaint you with grief."
In these politically fractious times, it's noteworthy that Smith won support from Democrats and Republicans alike in 2004 for his bill, called the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which increases federal funding to combat the problem of youth suicide.
There's also a show of bipartisanship in the book itself.
The introduction to "Remembering Garrett" was written jointly by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The promotional blurbs on the book's back cover are written by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
Smith, in his book, has words of praise for one particular Democrat - his Oregon colleague, Sen. Ron Wyden, whose brother Jeff died in October 2002 after a 30-year battle with schizophrenia.
Smith says he and Wyden are part of a "fraternity of sorrow" - people who have lost loved ones to mental illness - and that Wyden has offered him a lot of personal support.
"Ron has been, in all of this, a real brother," Smith said.
Wyden, who narrowly defeated Smith when the two ran in a hard-fought 1996 special election for an open Senate seat, said he's glad Smith made the decision to write "Remembering Garrett."
"Not a day goes by when Gordon and Sharon don't spend a lot of their waking hours thinking about Garrett," Wyden said. "This book is going to give them some relief."
The book, published by Carroll & Graf, pulls few punches as it retraces Garrett's life leading up to his suicide.
The Smiths say symptoms of Garrett's depression became especially acute in his final year, although there were troubling incidents earlier in his life.
When Garrett was a fifth-grader, Smith went to pick him up after school and was shocked to find his son sitting on a curb, by himself, staring down at the pavement. He was despondent because he was having trouble understanding his teachers.
"Dad, something's wrong with me," the distraught boy told his father.
Smith recalls another instance in 1995 when he decided to make his first run for the U.S. Senate, which, if successful, would result in moving his family to Washington.
Asked what he thought of the idea, Garrett said, "Dad, I'd rather you run for coach."
"I was devastated by Garrett's answer, and I am haunted by it still," Smith said.
After overcoming the shock and initial period of grief over Garrett's death, Smith made the decision to commit his son's story to a book.
Most of the book was written in a two-week period in August 2005, when Smith holed up in the family's cabin in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon. He wrote the entire story by hand, working for hours at a time, then calling Sharon to read her his latest work.
Sharon says she hopes the book will be helpful to other families struggling with a child's mental illness. She says writing the book has been therapeutic for her husband.
"He was really having a hard time, and I saw this book as a way to help him get better," she said.
Smith is satisfied with the way the book turned out, and says that it has helped him, though he thinks about Garrett all the time.
"It's sort of a chapter that never ends. There's a hole in your heart that never closes."