Fraturnity of Sorrow
Wednesday, September 08, 2004
DON COLBURN - The
The first unmistakable hint came four years ago, the summer
after Garrett Smith graduated from Pendleton High School. He chose to serve
a two-year Mormon mission abroad and filled out the health questionnaire.
One answer jumped off the page when his parents read the
completed form. On the question about whether he suffered depression, Garrett
had checked yes.
"That was the first time we ever knew," says Garrett's
mother, Sharon Smith. "It was shocking to us."
They asked Garrett about it, broaching the idea of a counselor
and wondering whether the mission might be too stressful.
"No, I think I can keep it in check," Garrett's mother
recalls him saying, "but I didn't want to lie about it."
In hindsight, she says, "I believe Garrett felt that if
he went to a doctor, he would have to acknowledge he had a problem."
One year ago today, Garrett Lee Smith, son of Sen. Gordon
and Sharon Smith, killed himself in his apartment in Utah, where he attended
college. He was one day shy of 22 years old. Like most suicides,
Garrett's came out of the blue -- and didn't. As shocking as it was to
family and friends, Garrett's death fit a classic pattern of youth suicide.
The danger signals were there to be seen, or not seen, or seen and somehow
These days, Sharon Smith carries a business card from
the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It posts eight warning
signs of suicide.
"Look at this," she says, ticking them off one by one.
During the last year of his life, Garrett exhibited all eight.
"A lot of times," she says, "you don't see it until later."
During the past year, Gordon and Sharon Smith have tried
to turn their private grief to public good by campaigning for de-stigmatized
attention to mental illness and prevention of youth suicide. They have
joined what Gordon Smith calls an involuntary "fraternity of sorrow."
Three large packing boxes in the basement of their home are filled with
letters and messages -- upward of 10,000 -- the Smiths received after Garrett's
death. Many came from strangers.
"I never expected to be in league with them," Gordon Smith
says. "I think I can count on one hand the number of days in my life when
I have felt depressed. For me to relate to it was late -- and, I fear,
too late to be of help to our son."
What the Smiths now know is that depression is not rare
or peculiar -- but can be deadly. It affects one in six Americans at some
point. Hardly a family goes untouched.
Outwardly, he seemed a model child. Eagle Scout. Devout
Mormon. Plenty of friends. A job pumping gas at the local Chevron station.
The Smiths adopted Garrett when he was a few days old.
They have a 24-year-old daughter, Brittany, and a 15-year-old son, Morgan,
who were also adopted.
"Just a little bear cub of a boy," Gordon Smith says of
Garrett. "His friendship was easy, but his needs were greater than you
realized because he did not value himself."
He liked to hunt and fish and tinker with cars. He was
a good sport about showing up at campaign rallies for his dad.
"Garrett was a regular, normal boy," his mother says.
"He was one of those kids everyone loved. There was nothing peculiar about
"I've got three great kids, but he was my easiest child."
Yet Garrett struggled in school. He was dyslexic. Reading
and writing came hard, and he had trouble spelling ordinary words.
Sometimes he would withdraw to his room for an entire day. His parents
chalked that up to a lack of confidence and his troubles with schoolwork.
One day when Garrett was 13, his mother found him in his room, crying.
She asked what was wrong and remembers him saying he could never marry
because he would not be able to take care of a wife and children. She thought
he was overly worried about his learning disability.
It's one of those incidents, she says, "that at the time
meant one thing and now means another."
After Gordon Smith won a U.S. Senate seat and bought a
home outside Washington, D.C., Garrett attended a private school in Maryland
for two years. But he moved back to Pendleton High School for his senior
year to graduate with his hometown friends. Another reason: He had briefly
gotten into trouble with alcohol.
During his two-year mission in England, Garrett and his
family sent audiotapes back and forth. He seemed content, though occasionally
he mentioned he was "kind of down" or seemed unduly quiet. Garrett
came home from his mission in October 2002. He and his best friend, Ethan
Brown, planned to live together and go to Utah Valley State College.
They had been friends for as long as either could remember.
They became Eagle Scouts the same day, and both served church missions.
Their families sometimes vacationed together. At first, Garrett was
excited to be home and see his friends. But then his mood darkened. Both
parents sensed that he seemed lost without the regimen and clear goals
of the church mission.
"He was really down," Ethan says. "He just wanted to sleep
all the time."
Since high school, Garrett and his friends had liked daring
sports: cliff jumping into the Columbia, mountain biking, snowboarding.
But increasingly, Ethan noticed, Garrett held back and withdrew.
When Garrett moved to Provo, Utah, before starting classes in January of
last year, the Smiths asked whether he needed to see a doctor. Again he
said no. Again they took him at his word. In February, Ethan called
the Smiths to say he was worried about Garrett. What he did not say until
later was what prompted his call.
Garrett and Ethan had decided to go to the Sundance Film
Festival in Park City, Utah, with friends. On their way out of town, they
stopped to get cash. Garrett said he didn't want to go after all and walked
home. Late that night, when Ethan got home, he found Garrett in the
apartment, drunk and morose. It was the first time Ethan had seen Garrett
drinking since before his church mission. Worse, Garrett confided he had
swallowed one-third of a bottle of pain pills along with the beer. Ethan
stayed with him to make sure he didn't pass out.
"In retrospect, it was a cry for help," Ethan says. "I
was kind of in denial. I thought it was just the pressure of school or
girls and everything that happens when you move out on your own."
Garrett's drinking bouts grew more frequent. He was drinking
hard liquor now.
"He would tell me: 'It helps me forget my problems. It
numbs me, so I don't have to feel anything,' " Ethan says.
Ethan urged Garrett to tell his parents about the drinking,
which is forbidden in the Mormon faith. "I thought part of his depression
was from not telling his parents."
After finishing the term with B's and C's, Garrett took
a summer job conducting telephone surveys and moved into an apartment by
himself in Orem, Utah. Again, he declined to see a doctor, but he
had started taking medication. After Ethan's February call, Sharon Smith
asked a doctor in Pendleton to prescribe antidepressants and had them sent
by overnight mail. How faithfully he took them is not clear.
Ethan sensed Sharon Smith's bewilderment as well as his
own. "She had never encountered anything like this," he says.
But his message got through. "It was loud and clear Ethan
was worried about Garrett taking his life, even though he didn't say that
in so many words," she says.
In May, Garrett agreed to see a psychologist in Utah twice
Meanwhile, Garrett's friends learned of a second suicide
attempt -- this time by cutting his upper arm. Garrett's parents did not
find out specifically about the two attempts until after his death.
Ethan felt caught. "I was very worried about Garrett,
but I didn't want to parent him. And it never really hit me that he could
actually take his life."
But Garrett's condition clearly was deteriorating. He
had put on weight and often slept into the afternoon.
"That wasn't just Garrett being quiet and keeping to himself,"
Ethan says. "That wasn't just being under pressure. It wasn't normal."
It's easy -- and painfully hard -- to see that now. Ethan
says the lesson is: "Don't let those things go ignored. It's a red flag."
One midsummer night, Ethan decided to confront Garrett.
"I said, 'Garrett, can I take your guns away?' " To his
relief, Garrett did not protest. "He said, 'Yeah, that might be a good
Ethan carried the guns -- a shotgun and a small-caliber
rifle -- to the trunk of his car.
Increasingly worried, Sharon and Gordon Smith visited
Garrett in July. His weight had ballooned to more than 200 pounds. He wasn't
shaving. He seemed disconnected from friends and often didn't answer his
phone. When his mother asked about the scar on his arm, he said it
was from mountain biking.
"We were at a loss what to do," she says. In desperation,
they asked Garrett what could lift his mood. When he let on he'd like to
go back to England, they dropped other plans and arranged a two-week British
"We saw it as a chance to reconnect him with a period
that had been fulfilling to him," Gordon Smith says. "But in retrospect,
we realize he was simply saying goodbye."
Before they left, Garrett's psychologist suggested he
see a psychiatrist -- who could alter his medication. The first available
appointment was the day after he was to return from vacation. The
trip went fairly well, with fond reminders of Garrett's mission days. But
there were three days, the Smiths recall, when he curled up almost in a
fetal position in the back seat of the car and kept to himself.
On the last evening, at a hotel near Loch Lomond in Scotland,
they had a heart-to-heart talk. More urgently than ever, they voiced concern
for his health.
"All of a sudden, there was this steely look out of his
eyes, the most frightening thing I've ever seen," Sharon Smith recalls.
Garrett began to weep. "And he told us he was struggling so much with depression
that 'I think I may take my life.' "
The Smiths stayed up much of the night talking to their
son, trying to convince him, as Gordon Smith puts it, that "there was a
good and happy place for him in this world." Garrett's family and his church,
they said, would always be there for him.
The scariest thing, Gordon Smith recalls, "was that he
was beyond my reach. I was powerless to make it better for him."
Still, by morning, Garrett's spirit seemed to have lifted
-- as if, his father says, a switch had turned off. The family flew from
Glasgow to Atlanta. From there, Garrett flew on to Utah. The airport
departure was his parents' last glimpse of Garrett.
"It was a very happy parting," Gordon Smith says.
"Garrett kissed me on the lips," Sharon Smith recalls.
"He had never done that." He also promised to come home for the Pendleton
Round-Up in September.
"I still believe," Sharon Smith says, "that while a side
of him was desperate, another side of him still had all those wonderful
The psychiatrist Garrett saw once -- two weeks before
he died -- later told the Smiths he showed signs of bipolar disorder, a
condition of alternating manic highs and depressed lows. Trying to convince
Garrett there was reason to be happy, he said, was like telling a diabetic
he didn't need insulin.
But at the time, Garrett's parents thought he had turned
a corner. They sent him the family dog, a bulldog named Ollie. Garrett
seemed delighted to have Ollie with him and even joked about Ollie being
"a babe magnet."
Garrett, who loved to cook, also seemed excited about
majoring in culinary arts.
During the first week of school, a series of events befell
him that might have been mere annoyances for a less troubled person. The
landlord left a note saying dogs over 25 pounds -- Ollie wasn't -- violated
the rental contract. Someone hit Garrett's BMW in a parking lot. A date
with an old girlfriend bombed.
At some point during that week, Garrett gave away his
TV and a collection of videos. He stopped answering the phone and changed
the message to: "This is Smith. Please don't call again."
Sunday morning, Garrett was seen playing with Ollie in
his yard for hours. Later he set up a makeshift kennel in the apartment
with extra dog food. He typed a letter "to family and friends" and left
it on the screen of his laptop. He left the door unlocked. Sometime
that night, Garrett swallowed a bunch of pills, chased them with Jack Daniel's
whiskey and passed out in his closet with a noose around his neck.
A friend found him the next afternoon, after he didn't
show up for class.
A year ago tonight, two officers went to the Smiths' home
in suburban Washington, D.C. Gordon Smith was upstairs in his pajamas when
he heard the doorbell and then Sharon calling urgently. Even before
one of the officers spoke the word "tragic," Gordon Smith knew instinctively
it was awful news about Garrett.
"At that moment, my life seemed pretty vain," he recalls,
"and I felt the ultimate failure."
At first, Sharon Smith was the stronger of the parents
in dealing with their loss. She was better able to see depression as disease,
like cancer. Gordon Smith told friends: "I spent the last 10 years
trying to save the world, and I should have been trying to save my son."
It was cathartic, he says, to join the public struggle
"If Garrett's tragedy has any meaning, it will be because
we prevent other kids from a similar fate," Gordon Smith told a Senate
subcommittee in March. In December, Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed Sharon
Smith to the Oregon Task Force on Mental Health.
The note Garrett left offered bittersweet balm to his
parents. "If it is any consolation, your love is the only thing in my life
that I knew would not change," it said.
"I just wish I could feel the same about myself. I love
you so much."
Don Colburn: 503-294-5124;
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