Depression & Suicide in Rural America: Joey’s Story

Who’s Joey?

Joey’s a white, 54-year-old male living in a small town in rural North Dakota. He’s been married for 29 ½ years to fellow Napoleon native, Missy (Sperle).

He’s the proud father of three grown children (Amanda, Megan and Elijah) and has an adorable 9-month-old grandson.

Joey’s the middle child with two sisters and an in-law to Missy’s 12 siblings.

He’s provided for his family as a restaurant owner and manager, retail manager and maintenance worker at the Napoleon Care Center.

Joey loves spending time with his family, especially hunting with his son, mowing the lawn and watching TV.

He’s described as kind, soft-hearted, genuine and sweet.

Joey loves people, but is shy.

He works hard not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

Joey can also be a prankster and a joker.

He has a strong Catholic faith.

Joey has suffered with depression for 34 years.

On December 9, 2016, Joey ended his life by suicide.

Battling Depression

This wasn’t Joey’s first attempt at ending his struggle with life.

Three times he overdosed with medication chased by alcohol. The last time by a fatal gunshot in the master bedroom.

“In the 35 years we were together, it was like a roller coaster ride,” said his wife, Missy. Joey was hospitalized for the suicide attempts. He saw doctors for decades and took a variety of antidepressants. He even had shock treatments, which worked for a few years, but, according to Missy, also affected his short-term memory.

Joey’s depression peaked when he was under pressure or conflict was present in his life.

“Joey loved his family so very much but I believe the suffering just got to be too much. He was so tired of the struggle to keep going,” shared Missy.

Suicide’s Effect on Family

Joey’s children felt deep guilt in the months after his death. “These days were very hard. The kids felt guilty because they didn’t call or visit their dad more often.”

Somehow they believed if they’d have reached out and visited more frequently his suicide could’ve been prevented.

Not likely.

Hilzendeger Family

Joey and Missy often talked about suicide because of his 30-year depression battle. “I knew the day would come where he’d accomplish it. However, I always figured it’d be by means of overdose and not by shooting himself on a day when all the children were coming home.”

Missy assured and comforted her children and told them what she’d say to any family who’s suffered such a loss:

1. This is not your fault. Depression is an illness like cancer, diabetes or alcoholism. It is no one’s fault and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

2. Use available resources for helping you cope: support groups, pastoral counseling, therapy, physician visits, retreats, spa services-whatever is available to you and makes you feel better.

3. Stay strong. It may feel like you will never get over this. It is not easy and you will never forget. Each day does get better and you will learn to live with it. You have to believe God loves you and will help you through this.

Though she coaches her children and others to be guilt-free, Missy sometimes blames herself for Joey’s suicide. “We were together for 35 years and I just couldn’t bring him back from the darkness this one last time.”

However, Missy has never been angry with Joey for what he did. “We were together so long and I knew how much he struggled on so many occasions. I can’t be angry with him.”

She admits, though, she’s been disappointed that he didn’t fight harder, especially after they had their first grandchild. “He was so unbelievably proud of that little boy.”

Missy is comforted knowing that she and the kids did not miss any warning signs of Joey’s impending suicide. “He battled depression for 30 plus years. Though it was difficult, it was part of our lives for so many years.

I wish I could have him back, but for Joey’s sake, knowing how much he suffered for so long, I truly hope and pray that he is now at peace.”

Moving Forward

Joey is terribly missed by all. Thinking of him brings both a smile to Missy’s face and tears to her eyes.

She talks to him regularly, asking him to watch over the family and to keep them safe, always, but especially from the current pandemic. “I pray every day that Joey is at peace and is right beside God.” That was always his greatest wish.

Missy’s relies heavily on her immediate and extended families to cope and is deeply grateful to each of them for their commitment to her. “They’ve helped so much with everyday life since Joey’s death. I wouldn’t have been able to get through this without them and my faith.”

Her toughest days were the grief-filled ones the first four weeks after Joey’s death. “I cried every day, many times a day. I remember thinking I’d just lost my husband yet everyone is moving on like nothing happened.”

She returned to work and kept busy, yet when summer arrived, she was hit with another wave of grief. She was alone to tend to yard work-one of Joey’s favorite chores that he enjoyed so much.

I had a wake-up call. Life was moving on with or without me. “The pain of his death has not gone away. I have just learned to live with it.”

“It’s been 3 ½ years. Every day is anyone’s guess how the day will be. Some days I feel like crying when I hear a certain song or relive a special memory. The next day, I’m just fine.”

Wishing Missy and her beautiful family days of peace and happiness ahead.

Thank you for sharing your story so that others may have hope.

If you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, please seek immediate help from a physician or mental health professional. In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For more information, visit the NSPL web site (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org).

Pinochle Tournament

Keeping Legacy Alive

Joey loved playing pinochle https://bicyclecards.com/how-to-play/pinochle-2/, as do many in the Napoleon, http://napoleonnd.com/ North Dakota community.

To keep Joey’s memory alive, every March his family hosts a pinochle tournament in Napoleon with funds donated to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in memory of Joey Hilzendeger.

If you’d like to make a donation to the card tournament, send a check to Missy Hilzendeger 322 Avenue C East, Napoleon, ND 58561.

Or, you can donate directly to AFSP online in memory of Joey Hilzendeger. https://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=cms.page&id=1390&eventID=2043

The 5th Annual Pinochle Tournament is scheduled for March 2021. The day is not yet available.

What Can You Do?

  • Seek help if you are suicidal. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
  • Leave notes of encouragement for Missy below.
  • Donate and participate in the Pinochle Tournament.
  • Send a donation in Joey’s name to AFSP.
  • Encourage loved ones to seek help.
  • Objectively listen and pay attention.
  • Keep the lines of communication open.
  • SHARE this post with others struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts.
  • SHARE with family members left behind.

North Dakota Facts

North Dakota saw the nation’s largest increase in suicide rates from 1999 to 2016- 58 percent.

That was more than twice the national increase of 25 percent, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That means that in North Dakota, which has the nation’s 10th-highest suicide rate, a person dies by suicide every 57 hours.

In 2019, 154 people committed suicide.

Guns are the leading means of suicide nationally as well as in North Dakota. They account for slightly more than half of all suicides in North Dakota.

Easy access to firearms, along with increased social isolation and lack of behavioral health services, are among the reasons cited for higher suicide rates in rural areas.

Learn More

https://www.theitem.com/stories/the-pain-of-suicide,339546

http://www.ndaap.com/uploads/2/6/4/7/26479511/reaching_zero_suicide_in_nd.pdf

https://bismarcktribune.com/news/state-and-regional/suicide-numbers-keep-rising-in-nd-but-there-s-help/article_41deb409-b5b9-5efa-b48c-6b0d6efe7753.html

https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/the-sin-of-suicide.html

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/men-and-depression/index.shtml

https://www.governing.com/gov-data/health/county-suicide-death-rates-map.html

https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/01/30/americas-suicide-rate-has-increased-for-13-years-in-a-row

https://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/suicide-rates-are-rising-especially-rural-america-n1050806

https://www.kfyrtv.com/content/news/Resources-in-ND-available-when-mental-health-and-suicide-grief-becomes-too-much-567637891.html

https://afsp.org/state-fact-sheets

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Linda Leier Thomason writes freelance business and travel stories along with feature articles. Her work experience includes a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government, entrepreneurship and small business. Read more about her background and qualifications by clicking on the “Meet Linda” tab above.

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Navigating Decades of Depression & Anxiety

Major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the United States. (National Institute of Mental Health) More than 1 out of 20 Americans 12 years of age and older reported current depression in 2005–2006.(Pratt LA, Brody DJ. Depression in the United States household population, 2005–2006. NCHS Data Brief. 2008(7):1–8.)

Here One Brave Follower Shares Her Struggles With Anxiety & Depression. If you have a story you’d like to share, contact me. Linda

depChildhood Illness Shakes Family of 8
I am the youngest of six children raised by a RN mother and draftsman father. At age eight, I suddenly became ill with three debilitating autoimmune disorders: Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma and Raynaud’s phenomenon. These diagnoses changed my life forever and disrupted our family dynamic. Today I know these factors are the root cause of my lifelong struggle with depression.
My mother was my lifeline and I developed an unnatural physical and emotional dependency on her to the detriment of my siblings. For example, my sister who is five years older than me had challenges with anxiety and demonstrated symptoms of hypochondria to get attention from our Mom. For many years, Mom and I left home every three months for three days at a time to get me non-traditional treatment at an osteopathic clinic. Thankfully I was able to keep up at school with the help of some amazing teachers.
I missed out on many events, both at school and at home. At family holiday gatherings, I was typically on the couch or in my room. I was spoiled and everyone knew it. We weren’t wealthy so soda pop and cookies were rare, but since I was underweight, my parents bought me any food I requested, hoping I’d eat it and gain weight. One of my brothers was observant enough to understand this and often asked me to request certain food for him. I did.
Because there were no identified treatments for my condition, I was left to battle the challenging symptoms and the accompanying barrage of viral and bacterial illnesses with the aid of my constant companion, my mother. Antibiotics worked for the bacterial infections, but I more frequently had viruses that couldn’t be treated. There were no pharmaceuticals at that time for my autoimmune conditions. There probably are today.
Junior High Challenges
I spent junior high with low self-esteem and a very small circle of friends because I’d become extremely self-conscious of my condition. While my health had improved by this time, my self-image was framed by the previous years of illness, residual health challenges and a telltale facial butterfly rash. I was isolated by the illnesses and only had friends when I wasn’t sick. I’d developed an unhealthy belief I was defective and unworthy. All of this was exacerbated by depression and anxiety challenges that I’ve since learned are associated with autoimmune disease. I was never able to physically participate in gym class activities from second grade forward and without participation I didn’t develop any skill and had physical limitations in my hands and elbows. I missed a lot of school, but kept up enough to get good grades. I was never diagnosed with depression because at this time depression and anxiety conditions were rarely discussed or treated, especially in children. It wasn’t until I was in college that a general practitioner treated me for anxiety. I was given medication I took when I felt I needed it. Even at this age, I continued to lean on my mother for support.
College Obsession for Perfection
In college I became obsessed with the one thing I thought I could control in my life – my grade point average (GPA). Achieving that meant I was good at something, but the resulting stress I placed on myself to get a 4.0 required my taking anti-anxiety medications. Unless I got 100% on all tests and papers, I felt I failed. I beat myself up for less than perfection. This causes depression. I studied a lot. I did date some, but studying and grades were my priorities and certainly there was no play before all studying was complete. I lived at home so I didn’t have the same social experiences that those who lived with other students had. I did start college in the dorms, but I had to work food service to pay my room and board. I had a full class schedule so I went to class and studied and tried to have fun, but I couldn’t handle it physically and got mononucleosis (mono) so I had to withdraw from school to recuperate. That was a real low in my life. I finally felt like I was gaining my independence and my health, once again, prevented me from doing so. I lived at home for the rest of my college career. I was very capable socially with adults, as I spent a lot of time with my parents and their friends. I didn’t do as well with people of my own age. I was unpracticed and self-conscious.
I was anxious and depressed all through college but not enough not to participate in life. I had goals and hope for my future. Good grades gave me the self-esteem to muster through and to enter graduate school.
Never Good Enough
Following graduate school, my measurement of self-worth shifted to achievement in my work and resulting job titles. However, there was never sufficient evidence to convince me I was good enough. The unfulfilled expectations of me resulted in heightened levels of anxiety and depression. At this point in my life I was married (and beginning to feel trapped in the marriage) and working at my first job. My depression led to hyperventilation. I didn’t know that was what was happening. It wasn’t like you see in movies. I couldn’t detect a breathing issue. I just felt like I was going to pass out. After being passed around to several doctors, I was sent to a neurologist, who diagnosed my depression. This is when I was put on an antidepressant that I took for many years. The number, shape and colors of the antidepressant medications changed over the many years to follow as hyperventilation and other symptoms of anxiety and depression escalated. Remember, talk therapy was not mainstream then either. In fact, I didn’t experience this until after my divorce.
Debilitating Hopelessness
A marriage, subsequent divorce, and later the death of my mother, and two reductions-in-force (job losses) resulted in a deepened state of hopelessness and heightened anxiety. My low point was after the second job loss. The first lay off was as bad as I thought it could get, but the second one exceeded the first. I didn’t have the energy or hope to go on. The depression and anxiety became debilitating. I couldn’t do anything but sleep, shake and cry. I ended up in a psychologist’s office and admitted I didn’t want to live. I wasn’t suicidal per se, but I simply had no hope for a future. She referred me to an inpatient depression program. It really didn’t help me. What I needed was a job. That’s the only way I could regain a semblance of a life. Somehow I could quit bouncing my leg and get myself together for interviews, and I did get a job that I really didn’t want because I didn’t want to move out-of-state. At this point I was on some pretty powerful medications, but I still wasn’t doing well emotionally. I was living in another city, feeling all alone and out-of-place. I was alive and going through the motions, but was not myself at all. New and more pills were prescribed with abysmal results, but I battled on…..barely.
Suicidal Co-Worker Saved Me
Miraculously, I was able to rejoin a previous employer and return to my home, but the anxiety and depression remained prominent. Because I was back in my home and in a familiar city, I was better emotionally but still struggling mightily to get through a work day. My biggest challenge was short-term memory issues caused by depression. With what I attribute to serendipity, I subsequently hired a vibrant young woman who later disclosed her past suicide attempt while taking antidepressants. Her mother, an RN, was desperate to find an effective alternative treatment. What she discovered was an amino acid protocol, the results of which literally save her daughter’s life.
Because of the honesty of my co-worker and the success I’d seen her have on the amino acid protocol, about 18 months ago; I made a successful transition from traditional antidepressants to amino acid treatment. While my results haven’t been as dramatic as hers, which I attribute to my auto-immune disease and the many accumulated years of depression and anxiety, I am functioning much better than I was while taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs, and without their many undesirable side-effects. Today I take no prescription anti-anxiety or depression drugs.
Gratitude and Hope
I feel grateful for finding a treatment that more effectively manages my depression and anxiety without the many unpleasant side effects of traditional drug therapy. I am exercising, traveling, following a healthy, gluten-free diet, and functioning better at work than I have since my second job loss.
Being open and honest about my struggles with depression is not easy. I chose to share my journey, hoping others who personally suffer, or are close to someone who suffers, from depression and anxiety will find hope.
I wish you well.

Resources for those needing more information.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

National Institute of Mental Health

National Institute on Aging

©Copyright. February 2016. Linda Leier Thomason

All Rights Reserved.