Michelle Watts sat in her parked car in the Taco Villa lot as her 17-year-old son, seated in the passenger seat, told her something didn’t feel right.
“Mom, I don’t know what’s wrong,” Jordan Watts said. “Something’s wrong with me. I feel like I am literally standing still and the world is moving around me. It’s like my feet are two-ton rocks and I just can’t … .”
Michelle immediately recognized the signs of depression. It surfaced throughout her life and the lives of her family members.
Michelle scheduled doctor and counseling appointments for her son, but it wasn’t enough.
Jordan hung himself in his room at the age of 19.
Rewind nearly 50 years when Michelle was born into a pastor’s family. She said she felt called to continue being a part of the Christian ministry — and that she did, marrying Nick Watts, a youth and music minister, on a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1988.
As Michelle and Nick prepared for their second child in 1993, Michelle noticed she was sicker than usual. She thought she could be pregnant with her first son.
“The whole time I was pregnant with him, I really felt a great, great burden to pray for his health,” she said. “You always pray for your baby’s health, always, but for him, I really felt it. And I couldn’t explain why. There was no reason for it.”
Jordan was born July 12, 1993, with a true knot in his cord. The doctor noted of the 1,200 babies he delivers each year, two will have a true knot and one will be stillborn.
“God has something big planned for this child,” the doctor told Michelle.
Jordan struggled with depression nearly his entire life. Michelle said she would pick up Jordan from kindergarten only to find him sad.
“I used to tell him I would give him a quarter if he would just smile,” Michelle said.
Things didn’t get easier for Jordan as he grew older. He was bullied in middle school. He was called everything from a fag to a band nerd.
Describing Jordan as tender hearted with feelings that were easily hurt, Michelle said it wasn’t just peers who verbally bullied Jordan, but also his teachers.
“I think he suffered from depression a lot longer than we knew or even he knew,” she said.
But now, without Jordan and a quarter to fix everything, Michelle and the Watts family are dealing with the aftermath of Jordan’s suicide, trying to cope and move on.
“It’s completely devastated our lives in a way that nobody can describe,” she said. “Nobody can understand unless you’ve lived it. Would it be different if he died in a car wreck? Yes, it would be a million times different. I can’t compare my grief to other people’s, but everything I’ve read so far that suicide is a complicated grieving.”
Kristen Lewis, a counselor at Monterey High School and a friend of Michelle’s, is one of those people who said dealing with suicide is a complicated grief.
However, the Watts family is no stranger to depression. Nick grew up in a violent, alcoholic home and his grandfather shot and killed himself, Michelle said. Michelle also has traces of depression in her family. She even planned her own suicide after having her third child.
“People don’t understand depression,” Michelle said. “They don’t get it. It’s not all about being sad your whole life — it’s not about that. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s a black hole that you can’t get out of. I know because I’ve been in it. I had my own suicide planned. I knew I was going to slit my wrist in the bathtub after Macy was born. I just couldn’t find a time when my kids wouldn’t find me. That’s the only reason I didn’t do it. I was so depressed and sad.”
Jordan’s suicide wasn’t his first attempt. Michelle said his first attempt is not a secret; but it wasn’t something she talked about until now.
Michelle described Jordan’s beloved hammock he moved from outside their home to his room. A chain hung the hammock in his room. A hammock — something that typically conveys peace and calmness — was used in Jordan’s first suicide attempt at age 17.
“He told me that he had put the chain around his neck and stood on the stool and just dared God, screaming at God at the top of his lungs, to just kick the stool out from under him,” Michelle said.
Jordan eventually told his mother about his first attempt to kill himself, but promised her he would never try again.
That promise wasn’t fulfilled.
“I’ve spent hours talking to some of his friends to see if we can find out anything,” Michelle said. “We’ll never know why.”
She recalled clues leading up to Jordan’s suicide. Thinking back, she rests her head in her hands.
To grow closer to God, Jordan’s church group fasted for an entire week before he died. Even with Michelle’s concern for Jordan fasting without doctor supervision, she ultimately decided he was old enough to make his own decision.
Jordan later approached Michelle and Nick, concerned his current medication didn’t seem to be working well and that he needed something different.
The doctor suggested Jordan try 30 more milligrams of his current medicine — Cymbalta, an anti-depressant — for two weeks.
The two weeks were up on a Friday. He killed himself the following Monday.
Michelle racked her brain, thinking of the minutes leading up to Jordan’s death.
“I was asking Nick the other day, ‘How could he make the noose and not think about us? How could he make that noose and not think about what he’s about to do and how it’s going to hurt his family? How could he do it knowing how we would we feel?’” Michelle said.
Through counseling and talking with people, the day of Jordan’s death has been explained as a sort of out-of-body experience to Michelle.
“The best way this guy described it — and it was so perfect,” she said, exhaling. “It’s like when I leave my house and go to school and I end up here and I’m like, ‘I don’t even remember turning, seeing things. I don’t remember anything. I just got here. And so, that’s how I have to look at it. It was more of a robotic thing. I know he had thought about it before. He was a magician. He had made nooses a billion times as a kid for different tricks he would do and all those kinds of things. So he didn’t have to think how to make the noose. He just knew how.”
Michelle has spoken with Jordan’s friends since his death, but has avoided asking them if her son ever mentioned suicide. Jordan’s best friend apologized to Michelle for not telling her about his conversations with Jordan about depression.
“I’ve talked to his friend, and he said he did talk about depression a lot — talked about it a lot,” Michelle said. “But I haven’t asked (his friend) if he mentioned suicide a lot. I’ve never asked him that question. I don’t want (him) to feel guilty. He’s already apologized to me. ‘Michelle, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you. I’m so sorry.’”
Michelle wrestles with the guilt of not demanding Jordan spend more time in counseling, of not going with him to the doctor, and of not being able to stop the suicide.
After all the horrifying thoughts Michelle deals with, she now is capable of tuning them out.
“I can continue living because I’ve experienced God’s faithfulness before in my life,” she said, pausing. “I would not say it’s easy. It’s certainly not. And there have been times when I’ve had doubts. Oh, my gosh. What if — what if God’s not real. Satan comes and whispers those things in your ear and I just have to remind him that I have experienced miracles in my life after having prayed specifically for things, not just to have a baby, for Jordan and the knot in his cord — I mean I could go on and on, but I sense his presence in my heart and when I am in despair.”
Breakdowns of crying and screaming happen often in the Watts family, Michelle said. But their days must go on.
Michelle’s co-worker and friend Laurie Brehmer said Michelle’s first instinct always is to turn to God when she faces tough times.
“She is just one of the strongest faith-built people that I’ve ever been around,” Brehmer said. “She just turns it all over to God and looks for joy in every circumstance.”
Michelle’s friend Lewis agreed and said Michelle is not overcome with fear.
Even with her Christian faith, Michelle said she sometimes still feels weak in the midst of the hurt.
During a family getaway in the mountains a month after Jordan’s death, Michelle was looking for reassurance.
Because rain has symbolized God’s presence throughout her and her family’s life, she said she decided to exercise her faith once more.
“I asked, ‘God, please make it rain,’” she said.
And in the middle of the drought in Ruidoso, N.M., it began to pour as Michelle and Nick sat in a Starbucks.
“And the guy at the Starbucks counter said, ‘Oh, my gosh, It hasn’t rained like this in four years,’” Michelle said. “That’s exactly what he said. I started bawling. I just started bawling. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘OK, God. OK.’ I mean I feel like the children of Israel. ‘I know you’re there. I know you’re there. And you’ve proven it to me over and over again. Thank you for making it rain.’”
Since Nick Watts spoke at Jordan’s funeral, several people have asked Michelle Watts and Nick for help. Because of raising awareness of suicide and depression, Michelle said the couple knows of four suicides that have been prevented.
“Although my heart breaks every day,” Michelle said, “I can rejoice knowing something good has come out of it. God has made beauty out of ashes. Maybe this is the something big God had planned for my son — to help remove in some small way the social stigma associated with depression — to save four lives.”
Michelle and Nick welcome and encourage anyone struggling with depression to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or talk to a counselor or doctor or call 1-800-SUICIDE.