Dan Abbott had been spiraling for two weeks, feeling overwhelmed and haunted by the thought that he was a fraud and that the image others held of him as a competent, able engineer and educator was false.

He told his wife, the distinguished Maine author Monica Wood, that he was feeling suicidal. She immediately removed his flare gun from their Portland home and drove him to the Maine Medical Center emergency room, so he could talk about his feelings with a psychiatrist. Abbott fooled them both.

He told them what they needed to hear, that he would never kill himself. “It’s such a selfish act,” he said, and spelled out his plan for getting help. Instead, he got another flare gun, something he used often for his work with the Coast Guard. Two days after his trip to the ER, at around 10 a.m. on April 19, 2016, Abbott stopped on Interstate 295 near Brunswick and shot himself in the mouth. In the two years that followed, he underwent more than a dozen medical surgeries, an aggressive form of psychiatric treatment and a self-imposed isolation that sent him into a deep depression with feelings of shame and humiliation, particularly because of how he feared his suicide attempt would affect the public persona of his wife.

Dan Abbott Staff photos by Brianna Soukup

Now, Abbott is speaking publicly for the first time about what he went through. He is glad to be alive, and wants to help other people who might be caught in a major depressive episode similar to the one he found himself in two springs ago, when he felt helpless, hopeless and convinced the world would be a better place if he wasn’t part of it.

“The fact I exploded a flare gun in my mouth and ended up living is astonishing to me,” Abbott, 67, said in an interview at his Portland home with his wife. “I don’t know how much closer you can come to being successful at suicide. I was in a burning truck, bleeding profusely and I couldn’t breathe. Basically, I had killed myself.”

He wanted to end his life and had no concern how his death would affect the people who loved him and whom he loved. He probably would have died had a fellow traveler not stopped his vehicle and pulled Abbott from the cab of his pickup truck. Another motorist helped extinguish a fire that had begun in the cab, preventing an explosion. An ambulance arrived a few minutes later and paramedics performed a tracheotomy as Abbott was taken to the hospital.

A MESSAGE OF HOPE

Abbott hasn’t considered suicide since, and this spring semester at Southern Maine Community College, where he has taught mechanical design, technical graphics and other courses in the architectural and engineering design program for nearly 30 years, was the most rewarding of his career, giving him a renewed sense of purpose.

He’s speaking out because several things happened in June that made him realize the value of life and why it was important for him to talk about his psychotic break, the events that led to it and how he and Wood have recovered, individually and as a couple.

Dan Abbott, 67, poses recently with his wife, Maine author Monica Wood, in the backyard of their Portland home. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

In early June, he was at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston recovering from delicate oral surgery to repair the roof of his mouth when fashion designer Kate Spade and, three days later, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain both hanged themselves, prompting public conversations about mental health and suicide – and stirring something inside of Abbott, too. Even though he’d never heard of Spade, the news of her death was a jolt. He heard himself saying out loud, “Why didn’t she call me?” It haunted him that night, then hit him again when he heard about Bourdain.

“Both of their suicides felt familiar to me: two people whose image of themselves was at such odds with that of the rest of the world that they also felt that suicide was the only solution to something. I’m obviously not famous, but like them, I was generally seen as highly successful and confident by others, and I had ample evidence of that myself,” Abbott said. “Most of the time I believed I was confident and I felt useful and capable. But sometimes I was unable to believe the evidence, and two years ago my sense of being a fraud and my anxiety over not being good enough spiraled into a psychotic break.”

Those feelings aren’t uncommon but often go unspoken, according to a national suicide expert, who also said that hearing others talk about them can be very effective in suicide prevention.

The other and perhaps larger factor that moved Abbott to speak publicly about his suicide attempt was the death of his sister-in-law Betty in late June. Betty was Wood’s elder by three years, and Wood has described her sister as “a human sunbeam.” Betty was developmentally delayed, with an absolute lack of shame or embarrassment about her disabilities and unrelenting kindness and concern for others. Her death was a blow to everyone in the family and within her community, and Abbott took it especially hard, because of the loss and because, in her death, he realized the value of a life.

At the funeral, Abbott read a poem by Emily Dickinson, “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking”:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

At the funeral, the family distributed two baskets of stones and asked people to take one with them and commit a random act of kindness on Betty’s behalf.

The next week, Abbott told his wife he was ready to talk.

His decision, he said, is not random, “but I think it might be an act of kindness, at this time when suicide is being discussed so extensively, to have someone talk about a suicide attempt and recovery. Someone might recognize himself or herself in my story and take some comfort in knowing that you don’t have to be famous to have this happen to you, and see that one person made a decision that many other people have contemplated, and returned from it thankful and blessed to have been unsuccessful.”

His message of hope and life is timely.

Suicide rates are up dramatically across the United States. This spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report indicating that suicide rates rose in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with a national increase of 25.4 percent during that time. In Maine, the rate of suicide rose 27.4 percent, according to the CDC. According to data from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, an average of 229 people in Maine kill themselves each year.

Nearly 45,000 people killed themselves in the United States in 2016. That is double the number of homicides, leading experts to begin treating suicide as a public health issue and not a mental health issue. Among men, the suicide rate was highest for those aged 65 and older, 32.3 per 100,000 people. Abbott was 65 at the time.

According to the CDC, more than half the people who killed themselves in 2016 did not have a known mental health condition. That describes Abbott exactly.

BEING MONICA WOOD’S HUSBAND

Originally from Rumford Point, Abbott met Wood, who grew up in neighboring Mexico, in a community theater production of “The Music Man” in 1976, when they were in their 20s. They married the next year – 41 years ago this month. Much of that time, Abbott has spent in the background of the blossoming career of his wife, who writes novels, memoirs and plays, many of them based on her experiences growing up in Maine. This spring, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance gave Wood its Distinguished Achievement Award for “exceptional and steadfast contributions to the Maine literary arts.” Her most popular book is her memoir about the death of her father and growing up in a mill town, “When We Were the Kennedys.”

Dan Abbott poses recently in the living room of his Portland home. He said events in June, including the high-profile suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, prompted him to reassess the value of life and to want to share his experience and his recovery with others who might be contemplating a similar fate. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Abbott lived his life in relative anonymity. He was raised on a farm and worked alongside his father in his machine shop many years. A machinist himself, he’s always been handy with tools and fixing things. He’s served as a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary more than 20 years, and most of those as a coxswain, commanding the boat.

He’s been quietly competent all his life, rising through the ranks to leadership roles. And yet, he often saw himself as a failure or fraud, despite what he acknowledged as “objective evidence of my own competence.” When he confided his feelings to his wife, as he sometimes did, she told him, “Yes, you have fooled everyone into thinking you are competent – by being competent.”

Abbott cannot point to one specific action or event that led to him feeling suicidal. It was a combination of things that added up, some related to stress at work, others that he imagined. But overall, it was a lifelong feeling of never quite measuring up in his own mind to how other people viewed him.

“There was no one thing, but there is no question over the course of my life I have felt like people’s reaction to me was not in line with who I truly was, that people somehow felt I was better than I was,” he said. “Especially when they find out I was married to Monica Wood. They would say, ‘You’re married to Monica Wood?’ Go figure.”

Somewhat suddenly, he suffered what has been diagnosed as an acute major depressive episode. Wood called it “a bolt from the blue. So many people said to me, ‘If this can happen to Dan Abbott, it can happen to anyone.’ And I would say, ‘You’re right, because the guy you see is the same guy I have been living with for 40 years.’ The same guy – easygoing, sweet, confident, generous.”

Wood’s renown complicated the aftermath of Abbott’s immediate and long-term recovery, as well as Wood’s ability to deal with her own shock, grief and mental health. The suicide attempt was dramatically public, and the media covered it. Two days after the suicide attempt, the Portland Press Herald identified Abbott as Wood’s husband.

“I was really angry at the paper, really angry,” she said. “It wasn’t that I was sorry it was out there – it was going to be out there, but I felt I had been robbed of the opportunity to do it myself and the way I wanted to.”

When friends and family flocked to the Abbott-Wood home in Portland, some people began talking about shielding Abbott from public shame. Wood halted that discussion immediately. “I said, no, we’re not. That was the first day. I said we are not hiding this. This happened, and it takes so much energy to hide and so much less to be forthright and say, ‘This is part of life.’ It’s not a part of life we thought we would ever experience. We had zero experience with any mental health issues. Zero. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but my instinct from the beginning was the correct one.”

When he learned that his suicide attempt was widely known, Abbott was distraught. He was upset he had brought unwarranted attention to Wood when her reputation was so stellar, and he worried that people would make assumptions about his personal life and their marriage. “My big fear was that people would think, ‘What’s wrong with that relationship that would cause him to do this?’ And really, it had nothing to do with our relationship. My tunnel vision eliminated any concern for anybody else. The fact that I was in a position where I didn’t even think about Monica is really dramatic.”

It wasn’t just his wife who disappeared from his mind in the moment. Monica’s sister Betty also disappeared, as did all his other family members and friends. “I have wonderful relationships with my nephews and nieces,” he said. “If I thought, ‘What is this going to do to them,’ it would have been horrifying. But nothing about any of those things penetrated at that point.”

When Wood learned those details, she was shocked. The fact that he didn’t think of her proved to her how ill he was, she said. “He always thinks of me first. Always has, always will. To think that I disappeared from his brain in that moment, wow.”

Afterward, Abbott also assumed everybody judged him for his suicide attempt. Part of his recovery and his re-entry into the world involved accepting that people were supportive and understanding and grateful that he was alive.

It took a long time to get there.

GETTING TREATMENT

When he returned home from a month in the hospital, Abbott went into a deep depression that grounded him to a standstill. His suicide attempt humiliated him, and he didn’t willingly leave the house for a year. He couldn’t take a shower, he could barely look at himself in the mirror. He stopped driving, stopped playing the guitar and lost all sense of his former self.

“Everything shut down,” Wood said. “But one thing I have to say too is that, even though he was completely shut down, his basic nature never changed. He was sweet and gentle. I was really impatient sometimes, and he never bit back, not even once. It was clear to me, he was trying as hard as he could. He just had nothing to work with. Everything was just gone.”

He and Wood met with several counselors, who helped her a lot but did little for Abbott at first. A Jungian therapist, specializing in analytical therapy that bridges the conscious and unconscious mind, helped Wood understand some of the underlying issues that led to her husband’s suicide attempt, as well as how slow his recovery was going to be.

Late that fall, just before the holidays, a psychotherapist recommended electroconvulsive therapy.

“What is that?” Wood asked. The answer horrified her: Shock therapy, in which seizures are electrically induced in the brain in an attempt to relieve mental disorders. Their immediate answer was no. It sounded too scary.

But eventually, they said yes. More accurately, Abbott consented to Wood’s wishes.

“One thing that was happening is that Monica made virtually every decision,” Abbott said. “Everything I did, I did because she wanted me to. ECT I resisted and resisted and resisted, and then I just said, ‘You’ve caused her enough agony. If she wants you to do this, just do it.’ Every counselor, every therapy session, I just showed up. I literally didn’t know I had a new therapist until she told me that I have a different therapist.

“Her insistence that she was going to bring me back, I am not trying to turn her into a saint, but her instincts were really good.”

Abbott spent one month in the hospital in Portland and six months in therapy trying various drug protocols. Nothing worked.

He began shock therapy just before the holidays in 2016, seven months after his suicide attempt. He underwent 18 treatments over six months, and hated every one of them. Wood witnessed the sessions and described them as “the most humane therapy for severe depression I can imagine. You go in, they take your vitals and you’re under anesthesia for about two minutes. They cause a seizure in your brain, and it doesn’t look like anything is happening. You don’t convulse or anything like that.”

Each session lasted about 30 seconds, she said.

“And then you go home, and you don’t remember much about it because you had anesthesia.”

Some people who undergo ECT experience memory loss. Abbott remembers most things from that time, but was surprised when he learned he had 18 sessions. He thought he had about five.

He also doesn’t remember the 60th birthday party for his wife’s sister Cathy, which he attended. “But that’s it. That’s the only memory that’s been dropped,” Wood said. “It wasn’t that great a party anyway.”

“It wasn’t?” Abbott asked.

“No, it was actually really fun. I am sorry you missed it.”

They both laughed.

RETURNING TO LIFE

Eventually, Abbott got better. Wood noticed gradual improvements over time. He started taking showers, getting dressed, cooking breakfast and leaving the house on his own. He also found a therapist who helped him talk through some of the big issues involving mental illness and perceptions. At one point, he told his therapist how embarrassed he was to be mentally ill.

“And he said, ‘I never said you were mentally ill,’ and I said, ‘Well, I tried to commit suicide and I’m a basket case. If I am bat-shit crazy, aren’t I mentally ill? He said, ‘No, you had a psychotic event. I don’t think you are mentally ill. I think you are going to get through this and get back to normal.’ At the time, I just didn’t believe him.”

Abbott challenged his therapist about the medical aspect of mental illness. This isn’t cancer, Abbott told him. He made a decision to end his life. He brought it on himself with his decision-making process. The therapist argued back, telling Abbott that his brain is a physical part of his body that malfunctioned. “He said, ‘It’s no different than getting cancer or having a heart attack,’ ” Abbott said. “And I didn’t buy it.”

Does he buy it now?

Abbott paused and laughed uncomfortably. “My wife was hoping you wouldn’t ask. Intellectually, I buy it. I think in my gut emotionally, I still don’t quite. It still feels different to me. It was something I caused and something I could have prevented had I been more savvy.”

Last spring, a full year after his suicide attempt, Abbott made the decision to go back to work at SMCC. The school and his colleagues had been supportive throughout. His department co-workers covered his classes, and SMCC made clear that he could return at his will, when he was ready – and that the school absolutely wanted him back.

When he could look at himself in the mirror without self-loathing, he made a pledge: “You are going to make Monica happy this summer and you are going to go back to work this fall. That is what you need to do and that is what she needs, and you are going to do it.”

He told his wife of his plan, and she offered to help by driving him to campus to ease his way back in. It happened to be spring break that week, and Wood knew the campus would be relatively quiet.

The first morning she drove him to campus, he couldn’t get out of the car. The next day, he got out of the car and stood in the parking lot. The day after that, he walked to the door and unlocked it, and the fourth day he made it all the way to his office. Wood went with him.

The next week, he went back again and stayed. He began reconnecting with his colleagues and students, and nobody turned their back or tried to walk away uncomfortably. Nobody shamed him, and he said he never felt judged.

That was critical to his recovery, he said. “Nobody made the judgment about me that I was making about myself, at least nobody said they did. And I doubt that anybody did based on their reaction.”

Even the machinists – the men’s men of the department, who, like Abbott, aren’t accustomed to talking about their emotions – let Abbott know they cared and understood, and other people on campus confided their own deepest emotions about suicide they had told to no one before.

Abbott has become a safe person others can talk to about suicide, a role that he is comfortable in but feels unqualified to perform. Mostly, he listens.

“It’s overwhelming how many people have wanted to talk to me about it, and no one has said, ‘What exactly happened?’ It’s almost always led to a personal conversation about themselves or a loved one.”

A FAMILIAR TALE

Bart Andrews, a licensed psychologist and member of the board of the American Association of Suicidology, said Abbott’s story is familiar. Many people suffer from feelings of inadequacy and believe they are living a life of lies by projecting themselves as competent and confident, and most of those people never tell others about their feelings.

His organization promotes the understanding and prevention of suicide and supports those who have been affected by it. Andrews, who survived a suicide attempt 20 years ago, is involved at the national level in writing lifeline protocols and training suicide intervention specialists.

He said survivor stories are often the best way to help people who are considering killing themselves, and he applauded Abbott for speaking out and for speaking out so soon after his crisis. Andrews said it took him 16 years to tell his story, long after he joined the American Association of Suicidology and began serving at its executive level. “It’s a very scary thing to do, but in terms of Dan telling his story, it’s absolutely vital. Dan telling his story publicly is one of the most important things people who survive a suicide attempt can do.”

Their stories are powerful, because “people don’t recognize that suicide can happen to anybody. It can happen to people you love, it can happen to you. We always think of these people as the ‘other’ – this other group of people. When people like Dan come out and tell their story, we begin to realize it can happen to anyone. Stories of hope can be incredibly helpful.”

Andrews also credited Abbott and Wood for their decision to pursue ECT. It’s an aggressive therapy, and it’s not for everyone, he said, but it has been shown to be effective in reducing depression and suicide. “It can have a life-saving result for some people. It can be the difference between having a quality of life and not having a quality of life,” he said.

Abbott knows he’s lucky to have any life at all. He’s lucky – and smart – that he didn’t have a real gun in the house, or he’d be dead. He owns a gun, but keeps it elsewhere. He’s lucky someone stopped to help. He’s lucky he lives near excellent hospitals, surgeons, doctors and dentists. And as nearly everyone has told him for the last 40 years, he’s grateful to be married to someone like Monica Wood, who fought for him when he was unable to fight for himself.

In the hospital room after his first surgery, Abbott was almost unrecognizable “except those beautiful blue eyes were those same eyes,” Wood said.

He couldn’t talk, but he took her hand and spelled the words “I love you” in her palm with his finger.

And with those blue eyes, he told her he was glad to be alive.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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