A death without warning

01:43, Jan 31 2009

It was a bewildering and catastrophic slide into the abyss of depression, which Nelson businessman Peter Noonan did not find his way out of. Gaile and Crissie Noonan talk about their experience of coping with suicide, in the hope that it prevents others having to deal with a similar tragedy. Tracy Neal reports.  

In the aftermath of her father's death almost two years ago, Crissie Noonan heard several people say how suicide was such a selfish thing.

"I said to them, `well I grew up for 16 years hearing that same thing from my dad, and then he did it'. How could someone go from saying suicide is a selfish thing, to doing it? But I realise now that to do this, your state of mind is not in the right place," Crissie says.

For Gaile and 18-year-old Crissie, an obvious conclusion about the inexplicable loss in July 2006 of a father and husband, Peter Noonan, could be drawn from the rapid slide into a depressed state that manifested itself in clear physical symptoms.

Within weeks Peter had gone from being an articulate, funny, family man, who could be sharp of tongue and not afraid to speak his mind, to a grey, elderly man who shuffled and picked at his food.

The coroner's findings in October last year described Peter Noonan as a "respected businessman" but his life began to "go awry" after he decided to change direction in his career.


He had been a valuer all his working life, then in March 2006 he left valuation firm Duke and Cooke and switched to real estate. Gaile said the job as a valuer brought a lot of pressures with it, and her husband was a workaholic who strived hard never to fail. It wasn't long after the career shift that she saw a change in him.

"It was a different choice for him, and he was successful at it. I know that having now done the same job. I'd be amazingly happy if I could achieve what he had, but nothing made him happy." Gaile described Peter as a very wise person.

"A lot of what he started we continued because they were good decisions my career in real estate, some of our investments, and thoughts and views on life and people. "He was very astute with people and he could read them better than I can. The people we are friends with are very good, solid people." Crissie believes her father had been good at hiding his depression, until it began to show in his appearance.

"He was trying to hide it from us for a while.

"He tried talking to me the week before he died. I was at home sick, and he was trying to talk to me about it, asking when I thought he had started feeling that way, and I said I wasn't sure.

"I don't think he was aware he was depressed until it hit him and he began to wonder what was going on," said Crissie, who from an early stage had shared a tight bond with her father.

Gaile said Peter had "really tried" to do everything he was supposed to do, including medication. A week before he was placed on an anti-depressant drug, he had sunk to such low depths he had become a shuffling, elderly man.

"He'd aged incredibly. It's scary stuff. I'd never heard of anything similar," Gaile said.

Soon after the medication started, Gaile saw Peter become very muddled. She later learned he could be expected to get worse before showing signs of getting better, but this was never explained at the time.

Nelson coroner Ian Smith said in his findings that Peter was prescribed the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor anti-depressant drug Aropax days before his death in July, 2006.

At the time of the hearing, Smith had been investigating a possible link between SSRIs and the effects on people suffering mental illness, particularly an increase in suicidal thinking and behaviour.

The family is reluctant to speculate further on any link, and is aware of the minefield it represents. They are trying hard not to lay blame anywhere, despite some fairly hard-hitting statements in the coroner's report about gaps in the safety net.

Gaile firmly believes Peter had completely shut down by the time he took his life.

"I remember his face at lunchtime that day, and seeing the obvious pain he was in.

"He kept holding his head and saying, `you've got no idea', and I kept asking if he was muddled, or confused. He was very, very muddled." By coincidence, Crissie had come home from school for lunch that day. "It was an odd thing for me to do. I came home the day before he died and the day he died. I got home and he was just sitting there, staring into space. He was staring at me but couldn't see me. I went quite close and he jumped, and said `hi', like he had never seen me," Crissie said.

Gaile said Peter had by then, completely lost his mind. "He never would have hurt his children."

However, the family went into an immediate tailspin. Crissie has endured some big battles. Son Michael chose not to take part in this interview.

Gaile comes across as a resourceful woman, with an interesting quirk of humour which she has no doubt drawn on to pull herself and the family through the mire. Friends and family provided vital support. "I talked to a counsellor for a while. I felt like I was okay, but maybe I wasn't. She reinforced I was okay. I'm not one to look back because I don't think you can. That only causes grief and you have to let go of things you don't have control over. If you don't do that you will struggle, like you're on a spring and it's pulling you back. You have to keep facing forward and keep going." Last year, on the anniversary of Peter's death, and for her own 50th birthday, Gaile booked the three of them on a holiday in Japan. "I wanted somewhere that was a challenge to take our minds off things, and it worked very well. We had a fantastic time, and in a different time zone to home, so I didn't have to wonder that others might be worrying about us." Time out now for Gaile is spent re-creating a Japanese garden within the substantial outdoor area of the family's new inner-city apartment.

"Otherwise we like shopping, going to the movies, and going out to lunch.

"I'm enjoying decorating the house, and Michael has had a big hand in that." Crissie is currently attending leadership college at Annesbrook Church and working part time.

She is going on a missionary trip this year to work in an orphanage, and to work with Aids victims.

"I would love to help people any way I can." Gaile's advice to anyone in a similar situation is to keep watching. "There's a reason for hope and people need to know that most people make it," she said.

An annual charity golf tournament was organised in memory of Peter Noonan and was played for the second time on Friday last week. It raised more than $12,000 for three charities: the Big Brothers, Big Sisters mentoring programme, the Nelson Women's and Children's Refuge, and the Rotary Foundation.

Help available: DHB Mental Health Crisis Services (03) 546 1800; Victim Support (03) 546 3847; Youthline 0800 376 633, txt 027 4 YOUTHS, or cellphone call free 0800 211 211; Lifeline (03) 546 8899 or 0800 423 743.