Brothers forever: (L to R) Matt and Wade Christiansen
Wade Christiansen was 23 when he committed suicide after returning home injured from service in Afghanistan. His family thought he was moving on, going to school, sharing his life with his brother Matt, 25, and a young woman, Grace Anderson, 20. His parents had become accustomed to Wade’s mood swings from the medication, oxycodone. Matt moved back to Montana to share a home with Wade and Grace. For the first time, Matt started observing his brother’s withdrawal. Either Wade would skip pills, determined to get off the addictive drugs or he would run out.
“You become a different person,” explained Matt. He saw his brother lose connection with everyone and sink into the deepest, irrational despair. “It is entirely without hope.” He realized it was not something he could talk Wade out of by being logical. Wade stayed in bed all day that Tuesday, May 28. He did not feel well from the withdrawal. Anderson brought food to the house. Matt was home but had gone to bed early. Wade’s mood changed and he could no longer sit still around 1:00 a.m. Anderson said Wade experienced depression; it was situational, c o m i n g a n d g o i n g . Although not diagnosed with PTSD or other underlying psychological problems, she said he was going through something. Wade decided they would go together to the ER for help. Suddenly, Wade decided Anderson was not going; he was going alone. Alarmed, Anderson tried, without success, to go with him. She then tried lowering the garage door to stop him but he barreled through in his Jeep.
Anderson jumped in her car to follow him. She called and spoke to him as they drove but couldn’t see him. Wade told her he was going to the ER to kill himself and hung up. As she neared downtown Main St. in Bozeman she saw two blocks barricaded off. Not realizing the barricade concerned Wade, she asked an officer there if he’d seen Wa d e ’ s v e h i c l e a n d described him. She thought she still might meet him at the ER. Then, the officer directed her to the ER. “I work at the ER on Tuesday nights,” Anderson explained. “When I got there they told me the ambulance was coming back; the call was cancelled. That means one of two things: the person is ok or the coroner has been called. As I drove back, the police returned my earlier call and told me to come downtown.” When she arrived, the police started questioning her about Wade and she realized he was gone.
“It was a physical addiction that he didn’t choose,” she said directly. “There is that helplessness, hopelessness that comes from addiction.” He had surgery expected in the s u m m e r, b u t i t w a s rescheduled for the fall. Anderson said, “That meant he would miss more school and fall behind.” “He didn’t think that he’d ever be able to stop taking these pills,” reflected Anderson. They did help him. He endured constant pain in his jaw. With the pills she said, “He could actually eat something. He needed to numb it-long enough to go to class, to sleep, to eat. It’s a horrible thing but what is a better solution?” They had only been together nine months. She thought he went to the VA about once a month. She said he used his last days trying to wean himself off the addictive quality of the pills. She believed he still had four left while awaiting the refill. “He was monitoring himself,” Anderson said.
Anderson is frustrated. “The fact that the veteran suicide rate is as high as it is, is beyond alarming. It’s grotesque. We have the resources available. These are men who won’t ask for help. Wade handled it absolutely the best he could. There’s more we can do.” Once Wade had decided to take his life, Matt said it was typical of him to pick the ER to least burden his family. Afterwards, Matt spoke to three of the five officers at the scene. Wade was stopped for speeding in downtown Bozeman before he reached the ER. He had gotten out of the Jeep holding a gun to his head.
“They tried talking to him,” Matt sighed, knowing it was futile. Once again, Wade had plummeted to a depth where no one could reach him. They said Wade spoke loudly and vaguely of hopelessness. Then, he pulled the trigger and killed himself. Even if he had survived this time, Matt said, the risk would have continued. “How many veterans are prescribed these drugs without knowing the risks,” he wondered.
A recent V.A. study coauthored in 2012 by Dr. Karen H. Seal reported little VA oversight in prescribing addictive opiates to veterans. It found: “receiving prescription opioids was associated with increased risk of adverse clinical outcomes for all veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan." The study also stated veterans diagnosed with PTSD and a drug-use disorder were “most likely to be prescribed opioids” representing 33.5 percent, with PTSD patients prescribed higher doses and at greatest risk. In 2010, young veterans, 18-30, were the subject of a V.A. study published in the National Institute of Health Journal (May/April, 2010). It assessed monitoring and management of opioid drugs prescribed for young veterans, a high-risk group. It found chronic opioid use increasing and low monitoring. Less than a third received urine drug testing, less than 5 percent signed treatment agreements. The largest number of those in pain showed no improvement.
The 2012 study said physical and mental pain may be hard to separate and recommended improvement in monitoring and more pain care specialists, suggesting, “…that patient distress can drive potentially inappropriate opioid therapy, perhaps because physicians do not know how else to handle these challenging patients.” Both studies noted opioid treatments were primarily by VA primary care physicians, as Wade received, not pain specialists. In February, the FDA held a hearing on opioid prescriptions, hearing arguments for and against maximum doses and terms.
Billings psychologist, Dr. Alan J. Bauer said after a suicide, it is important not to continue guilt and blame. “This is a conflict culture when what is needed is closure. It is healthy to grieve and move on without guilt. But society sees everything as polarized: all or nothing; win or lose. There is nothing wrong with the middle ground. You are not forgetting. At some point, a family must break the cycle to be healthy.” Matt thinks they are getting there. “I still worry if I can’t remember him clearly and can’t quite believe he’s gone. I’ve changed. I will be a little more daring in life. My parents’ friends are there for them.” Wade will not be present as planned to greet the injured veterans that Operation Second Chance, a local nonprofit serving injured veterans, is bringing to Red Lodge this month. However, Matt and his parents will be there. “We all feel Wade was doing just what he wanted to do,” Matt reflected. “My father supported him totally; my mother was terrified. She made him promise to go to college when he came out. But I know Wade. If he could have, he would have redeployed.”