Ed Shoener calls it a blackness, a lasting despair that would settle over his daughter like a shroud.
“It was just overwhelming,” he said. “She couldn’t read three words; this was a person who loved books.”
Kathleen “Katie” Shoener, 29, had fought bipolar disorder since her senior year in high school. Her father says with certainty that she did not want to die.
But he and his wife, Ruth, also knew that irrationality was handmaiden to the blackness. Earlier this month, before the police officers who had shown up at their door in Scranton, Pa., said a word, the Shoeners knew the blackness had prevailed.
“It was always in the back of our minds,” Ed Shoener said.
Katie, who had stayed in central Ohio after earning her MBA at Ohio State University, had died by suicide on Aug. 3 at her apartment complex on the Far North Side.
Shoener will not say his daughter committed suicide. “Commit” sounds as though she is guilty of something.
“She did not want to die from suicide,” he said. “She did not want this to happen.”
As he wrote Katie’s obituary, Shoener envisioned only a Scranton audience.
“So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness. People say that “she is bipolar” or “he is schizophrenic.”
“Over the coming days as you talk to people about this, please do not use that phrase. People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar — she had an illness called bipolar disorder — Katie herself was a beautiful child of God.
“The way we talk about people and their illnesses affects the people themselves and how we treat the illness. In the case of mental illness there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further. Our society does not provide the resources that are needed to adequately understand and treat mental illness.
“In Katie’s case, she had the best medical care available, she always took the cocktail of medicines that she was prescribed and she did her best to be healthy and manage this illness — and yet — that was not enough. Someday a cure will be found, but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from cancer, heart disease or any other illness.”
The global response astounded him.
He heard from a California woman with bipolar disorder:
“We need more people discussing the realities of struggling with a mental illness and, just as you say, empathy that it can be as difficult, painful, and sometimes terminal as any other serious illness. … We need to break through the stigma.”
From a woman in Alaska who lost her husband to suicide in June:
“I shared this on my FB page because I think so many people need to read this, and perhaps if they do and truly understand what you’ve laid out, in some small way it might begin to chip away at the stigma of mental illness.”
From a mother in Ohio:
“Our daughter suffers with bipolar as well, and the stigma is real.”
Different people from different places with different stories, all using the same word.
Shoener uses the word, too. He sees it even in some of the feedback to Katie’s obituary, in which people called him brave and courageous. Why should it take courage to speak frankly about a loved one’s illness?
“That doesn’t say anything about me,” he said. “That says more about our country, and where we are when it comes to dealing with mental illness. That tells you how pervasive the stigma is.”
Ed and Ruth Shoener are in Columbus this weekend to pack up their daughter’s belongings, including her many books. The Rev. Tim Ahrens, senior pastor at First Congregational Church on East Broad Street, has said his congregation will find the books a proper home. Ahrens, who has highlighted mental illness in weekly sermons, was one of the many strangers who reached out to the Shoeners.
Katie Shoener was many things, but she was not bipolar.
She was born on Oct. 31. “Halloween in our house was always a blowout affair,” her father said.
She was a soccer player, salutatorian of her class in high school, and a member of the National Honor Society.
She was kind, and she was funny. “You’ll be happy to know I have a dog, and her name is Mary,” she told her dad, who is a Roman Catholic deacon.
Even as her condition worsened, she was committed to getting better. Shortly before she died, she was planning to move to San Diego to live with one of her three brothers. She thought the climate might do her good.
She was a lover of cupcakes, a planner of parties and a consummate gift-giver. She once gave her father a Buckeye rosary. He expects to carry it until the day he dies.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline, 614-221-5445 or the Lifeline national organization for suicide prevention, 1-800-273-8255.