Monday, February 28, 2011

A New Realization: I Lost a Friend

I was thinking again the past two days about how families stay close and how we become friends and I thought of two very different kinds of time together. There are the family gatherings where we all enjoy being in a group and sharing time with each other, the kind that cements family closeness but in which there's never really time for any kind of personal closeness or intimacy, time to talk in depth with another person. Those times are what cements a personal closeness as opposed to a group identity and closeness. So often, once children leave home, find their adult friends, become immersed in careers, move away and have their own families, we only have the first kind of visit. The one-on-one or just parents and adult child kind of visit happens infrequently if at all. It happens with siblings, too, for many of us.

When I was considering this, I realized why we felt so close to Leif. He WAS with us as an individual all of his life except for his years in the army. We had him to ourselves, with time to visit, time to talk about so many things, time to be close. And that revelation suddenly brought another one. I hadn't just lost a son when he died. I lost a friend. A dear and close friend whose company I enjoyed. It was a loss in so many ways, the loss of our son, the loss of his future, the loss of the grandchildren we'd hoped to have, but it was also the loss of a friend, and I realize I've been mourning that as much as the others, without even knowing it until now. I miss my friend.


These photos were taken in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1991 when Leif was sixteen years old. I'm with him in the second one. When I was in San Juan a couple of weeks ago I pictured him on those streets and down by the harbor.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Leif at the beach in Puerto Rico

Leif loved the beach all his life, though without a companion here in Florida he rarely went. When he was with us, we had a beach vacation every year but for three years we lived in Hawaii and went to the beach often, and for two years we lived in Puerto Rico and went to the beach now and then, especially when Leif and Peter W. were SCUBA diving.

This photo was taken on the beach in Puerto Rico, probably Luquillo Beach, in February 1991. We had been in Puerto Rico for six months and Leif was 16 years old.

I look at these photos and I'm so grateful I have them, so glad to have a record of his life. The last couple of days I've been in a kind of funk of sadness on and off. The questions I had put out of my mind for a time came back to haunt me, and I am acutely aware that we are coming to the third anniversary of his death in April. For some reason having another year pass is very hard. The knowledge reinforces the finality of his death.

Peter W. is again talking about how Leif had so many things that should have given him a good life . . . good looks, height, a strong and happy family background, brilliant intelligence . . . and he asks how this could have happened. I reply that with all Leif's gifts, he was somehow cursed with the same misery that took my father's life, and my father's aunt's life. I find that some days it hits me and I can't get past it. He was and is so much a part of our lives that I don't think we will ever really be over it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Leif and El Morro - San Juan, Puerto Rico - Ages 16 and 17

One of the places in San Juan, Puerto Rico that we would all remember is the fortress of San Felipe del Morro, which people just call El Morro (the rock). It is a huge Spanish Fortress dating back to the sixteenth century. Approaching it via the expansive park grounds is beautiful but doesn't give one the full scope of it's enormous size. Near it are a famous cemetery and the School of Fine Arts (Escuela des Artes Plasticas). You can see El Morro in the background of one of the photos of Leif and the art school in another one, and I've included a photo of El Morro I took from the ship and one of the art school taken on the cruise I went on last week. The other photos of Leif show him on the walls of El Morro, a place he found very impressive. I wonder if visiting it, and some of the other places we visited in his childhood and youth, helped to further his interest in belonging to SCA and his fascination with swords.

Leif was sixteen in the photos of him at El Morro in 1991, and he's wearing his trademark Oakley sunglasses and the current fad in clothing at the time. The guys pushed their pants up to just below the knee and their socks down to the ankles and showed off their hairy calves. They were also fond of "muscle" shirts. The other photo, with El Morro behind Leif across the bay, was taken in 1992 at the time the tall ships sailed into San Juan harbor to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus. He's wearing another fad, a tie-dyed shirt that changed colors with heat and sunlight. he was seventeen.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


We all have our scars, those injuries life has dealt out to us that heal over but leave their image and imprint on us forever. Sometimes they are things we would fervently wish that we had never experienced. Sometimes the experiences were worth the pain. Sometimes we learn from them. Sometimes we grow. But sometimes, they are just wounds that heal over but leave us irreparably harmed. The scars of our lives, whether visible or invisible all have stories, and all those stories are worth telling. How different they are than tatoos, which also may have stories, sometimes even ones from invisible scars, but which usually are meant as decorations on the body, not evidence of wounds. So, although I think Leif would have heartily approved of this t-shirt saying, I think that scars and tatoos are quite different.

Leif was fond of saying he had no regrets though in the end I don't know whether that was completely true. He also believed that it's the things we don't do we regret, not those we do. Both are popular viewpoints, but I am not so blithe in either assertion.

There are so many things that remind me of Leif, of his life, of the things he said, the things he loved, the places he lived and visited. I just returned from a Caribbean cruise that visited San Juan and St. Thomas. We lived at Fort Buchanan in San Juan for two years, during Leif's sophomore and junior years of high school, where he attended Antilles High School. I've written about him during those years on this blog. They were good years for Leif, years when he blossomed in many ways. I hadn't been back to Puerto Rico since we left in 1992, and each place I walked in Old San Juan was a place I'd walked with Leif many times. I remembered him there, remembered the times we took him with us out to dinner, the visits to El Morro fortress, the trip to the Bacardi Rum Factory, the trip to El Yunque Rain Forest, swimming at Luquillo Beach, sailing to Vieques, and so much more. How I wish I'd been able to take him back there again.

We visited St. Thomas, too, and I remember climbing the hill to have lunch at Blackbeard's Castle, the place I saw this t-shirt. The restaurant is now gone, replaced by a gift shop and a bar, but the view is still spectacular, now "graced" with statues of famous pirates. Leif would have gotten a kick out of the story of Blackbeard, a man Leif's size who was a giant in his time, when the average man was 5' 2". He wore 6 pistols across his chest and would put cannon fuses in his hair and light them, then jump on to a ship with his hair on fire, yelling at the top of his lungs, and scare the daylights out of the crew of his victim vessel. They say he had little need of his guns to intimidate them. Leif would have loved hearing that.

I think that Puerto Rico and the Caribbean was the closest place to a home where Leif really felt AT home, where, after an initial series of difficulties, he made good friends, had an active social life, fell in love the first time, and loved the climate and culture. I am grateful he had those years.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Doomed by a Gene for Depression?

Today is the 51st anniversary of my father's death. Donald Gerald Kundiger took his life by swallowing cyanide around 2:00 a.m. on February 10, 1960, in the bathroom of his home. I heard him fall and found him on the floor.

Forty-eight years later, my son, Leif Ashley Garretson, somewhere in the wee hours of the morning of April 9, 2008, put a gun to his head and took his life. I found him the next day.

Were both these men doomed from the start by a gene for depression? Or did they have it and it was "activated" by some trauma? so many unanswered questions, but some things they both had in common include brilliant intelligence, the ability to concentrate piercingly, excellent memories, winning smiles, thinning hair, brown eyes, an interest in music and world politics, a fascination with science . . . and death.

Do you think they resemble each other? I do. I think the resemblance is striking. It's hard to find them in a similar pose at the same age so that the comparison is easy, but these two photos show it. Leif would even more like him if he hadn't started shaving his head when his hair got thin on top. The one of my dad was taken on February 27 1954 when he was 41 years old. You would not believe that in six years he would be dead. The one of Leif was taken on May 31, 2003, when he was 28 years old. He would be dead five years later.

They each chose a method they knew a lot about. My dad was an organic chemistry professor and poisoned himself with a deadly chemical to which he had access. My son was a trained military armorer who had many guns and know how to choose a weapon and a type of bullet which would accomplish his task fully.

But there are startling differences. My father lived 13 years longer than Leif. Was it because he had a real career in a field he loved, a wife and four children, a home? Leif had none of those things. Yet in the end, they did not keep my father happy, healthy and alive. In the end, he chose to exit this life.

I wonder, sometimes, if all these years later anyone but me remembers the day of my father's death. His birth family members and cousins are no longer living. His other children were so young when he died they don't remember him, only the stories we tell about him. There are people who remember who he was, but I think I may be the only one who, in my heart, thinks of him on this day and on his birthday and still wonders why, even though, like in the case of Leif, I can name and tick off reasons. They are not sufficient for me.

I wonder if they would have liked each other. How sad they never had a chance to get to know each other. The surely could have matched their wits against each other.

I miss them both, these two men who were closest to me. I will always miss them and wonder why they could not live.

And I am thankful I did not inherit whatever terrible gene that took the joy from their lives, made them say they felt dead inside, made them want to end it all. How sad that I passed it on to my son.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How Depression is Diagnosed

Looking at this photo and the one I posted last, both of which Leif had designated as avatars for online things he was involved in, I see clearly how sick he really was. We were worried about hims, terribly worried at that time, when he was so terribly depressed in February 2003. He was still struggling to make it back from the depth of depression when he was suicidal, but he put on a good front around us. Although we were worried, we never saw these faces. These are photos I found on his computer after his death, more of his self portraits. If you compare this unhappy man to the one in the photo at the top right of this blog, when he was glowing with happiness on Thanksgiving 2003, you can clearly see what a difference there is in a depressed and a happy man. How fervently we wish he had been able to keep that happiness and bask in it.

Leif may have considered later that he had PTSD, and whether he had that or severe depression, or even bipolar disorder, we will never know. However, given the possibility that he inherited the tendency to depression from two grandparents I think there's a strong likelihood he was severely depressed and my also have suffered from PTSD. How many times can one climb out of such a deep pit of depression? I know he did it twice. The third time was too much.

I found an excellent article about depression at this website (click the word DEPRESSION below):


If you or a loved one is suffering from undiagnosed and untreated depression, or you don't even know it's depression but aren't finding enjoyment in life, please go there and read the article.

I am going to repost a long quote from that article here, for those that won't go read all of it, and I hope that if you read this, you will reconsider.

Most people who are depressed do not seek psychiatric help and must rely on their  family doctor. Unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles associated with  this approach:

Studies suggest that although at least 10% of patients who visit a physician are suffering from major depression, most cases are unrecognized or inadequately treated. One study, in fact, reported that only 25% of family physicians accurately diagnose depression.

 Patients themselves may be unable to sense or admit to their own depression. In one study, although 21% of patients who visited their family physicians were depressed, only one percent described their problem as depression.

To compound the problem, half the physicians in one study admitted to deliberately diagnosing a different problem, such as fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, or headache, in some of their patients who had depression. Reasons for doing this included uncertainty about the diagnosis, a concern that insurers wouldn't reimburse the patient for a diagnosis of depression, or because of the stigma attached to such a diagnosis.

 Depression can be confused with other medical illnesses. Weight loss and fatigue, for example, accompany many conditions, some serious, but they can also occur with depression.

 Many people lack insurance that will cover mental health costs. Such people are also likely to have adverse socioeconomic situations that increase their risk for depression.

Although not all patients who visit their physician should be screened for depression, certain individuals, such as the following, may be at higher risk and so warrant  a screening test:

People with a family or personal history of depression.

 Patients with multiple medical problems.

 Patients with physical symptoms that have no clear medical cause.

 Patients with chronic pain.

 Individuals who visit their physician more frequently than expected.

 Screening Tests

A mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist, social worker, or psychologist, is the best source for a diagnosis of depression. Such health professionals may administer a screening test, such as the Beck Depression Inventory or the Hamilton Rating Scale, which consists of about 20 questions that assess the individual  for depression. Studies are finding that even computerized phone interviews are valuable as screening tools for depression. It is important to note, however, that these tests are limited, and mental health professionals generally diagnose depression based on symptoms and other criteria.

I tried asking Leif about depression, tried sending him online self screening depression tests, but he would not admit that he was depressed. I ask you, though, when you look at these photos, when you look at the top right photo of him happy in 2003 and his birthday photo in 2008, his last birthday, can't you see the difference? See the hollow smile in 2008, the eyes that don't smile?

I'm sure that there are times each of us is unhappy and has a sad countenance, but when it becomes frequent, pervasive, it's time to look for help.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Difficulties of Diagnosing PTSD and What to Do About It

Leif took more photos of himself than he did of anything else. I sometimes wonder about this. He took few pictures of his friends. He photographed his wife and some of the women he dated, but not all of them. He took pictures of his vehicles, but not much else, after he grew up. As a teen he photographed cool cars and our cat, and architecture he liked, but as an adult, his photos were overwhelmingly of him. I always photographed my sons a lot, so it wasn't that no one else was taking pictures of him. So why all the self-portraits? Was he trying to see himself, to define himself in some way?

This photo was one of a series he took when he shaved off his beard a mustache (that look didn't last long) and was dressed up to go to a job fair. He chose this one from the series as an "avatar" to use somewhere online, but wasn't using it to my knowledge at the time of his death.

In this series of photos, you can see the depressed and haunted young man that he was at that time. They are sad photos. They came to mind when I read a long and interesting article about the history of the diagnosis of PTSD and what treatment versus disability benefits might mean. If you're interested, please click HERE for "PTSD's Diagnostic Trap."

A quote from the article seems to describe Leif very well:

They called it "Post-Vietnam Syndrome," a disorder marked by "growing apathy, cynicism, alienation, depression, mistrust, and expectation of betrayal as well as an inability to concentrate, insomnia, nightmares, restlessness, uprootedness, and impatience with almost any job or course of study."

Leif was never diagnosed with PTSD, though he told at least one friend he thought he might have it. It was clear that he suffered from all of these symptoms but one . . . he had no trouble concentrating, but often concentrated on things that didn't help his welfare.

Not diagnosed (I don't think he ever brought it up to his VA doctor), and not treated, Leif also did not receive any disability benefits for it, though he did for his increasingly problematic asthma. He could hold down a job, but became disillusioned and unhappy with every one he had. He once said to me that he wished he could just get a "job that didn't suck."

We hoped Leif would climb out of his depression, but he didn't. The point this article makes about the importance of treatment is paramount. I don't know what would have helped him, but I wish he'd given something a chance. Yes, he had a long series of unhappy events and tragedies in his life, but we always hoped he could overcome them.

If you know someone, military veteran or not, who suffers from these symptoms, urge them to get help.

"On the Rocks" at Lover's Point, Monterey, California

Here's another photo of Leif in a brief moment of stillness when he was climbing around on the rocks at Lover's Point in Monterey, California where his paternal grandmother lived at the time. He loved climbing on rocks, logs, anything like that, when he was a kid, like a little mountain goat, always sure of himself. I was the nervous mommy, hoping he wouldn't fall and get hurt. He never did. This was taken in July 2980 when he was five and a half years old.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Leif's MySpace Profile Is Back

To my surprise, Leif's deleted MySpace profile actually did get restored. It doesn't have the background photo of the x-ray of his collarbone with the metal plate and screws, but it seems that the other information is there. I had given up hope that it would ever be resurrected. It's a small thing but oddly a little comforting, that this page that he created is there again. The photo I've posted here is the one he chose to go on that page, a self portrait he took on March 20, 2003, his spring semester as a senior at Kansas State University, when we was coming out of his depression over his failed marriage and beginning to look hopefully at the world again. He looks so innocent and vulnerable in this photo, so different from those taken two years or more later. If you'd like to visit Leif's MySpace page, click the link or paste in: