Suicide leaves everyone asking why

In Selawik, 17-year-old's death becomes the first of several

May 16, 2009 

SELAWIK -- One of his daughters screamed. Then one of his sons.

Willie Ballot launched out of bed and into the bathroom. There he found his oldest girl, 17-year-old Dorcas, hanging from the shower curtain rod.

He lifted her over his shoulder. His nephew helped pulled the belt from her neck.

"Put her down. Started doing CPR," recalled Ballot, whose wife, Krystal, is the head health aide at the village clinic.

"But I could already tell her esophagus was not going to ...

"She wasn't coming back."

The death of Dorcas Mildred Ballot on Dec. 1 began a three-week string of suicides and suicide attempts that quietly punched holes in families and villages across Northwest Alaska. And served as a reminder: After decades of planning and spending, training and talking, suicide continues to take the lives of rural Alaskans at a distorted, alarming pace.

Last year, 162 Alaskans killed themselves, according to preliminary numbers from the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.

That's the most ever recorded in one year in Alaska. The state suicide rate is roughly twice the national average and the rates are even higher -- in some cases, much higher -- in Alaska's rural areas.

A week after Dorcas died, a 42-year-old mother in Selawik hanged herself. Alaska State Troopers were in town after that suicide when they learned that a 15-year-old boy had killed himself in nearby Noatak.

Young men in Kiana and Brevig Mission killed themselves too.

The region, which includes the hub of Kotzebue and a cluster of smaller villages straddling the Arctic Circle, has had the highest suicide rate in Alaska over the past decade, according to the state.

"It's definitely one of the highest in the country," said Wylie Tene, spokesman for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

And that's just part of it. For every suicide in the region in 2008, there were another 13 attempts, according to Maniilaq Association, the Kotzebue-based regional health and social services agency.

"There was how many girls after (Dorcas)? They just catch them on time," Mildred Foster, president of the Selawik elders council, recalled in an interview in her home recently.

"Maybe there's five or six of them already hanging, but they catch them on time."

Foster helped raise Willie Ballot, 38, who gave his daughter her middle name. As in many villages, nearly everyone in Selawik is linked by blood or marriage.

After Dorcas died, another daughter tried to kill herself too, Ballot said.

On a recent spring afternoon, the smell of fish sticks, a gift from a cousin's recent ice fishing trip, filled the Ballot kitchen. Jeans of all sizes hung from a clothesline strung between the wood panel walls next to a poster for "High School Musical."

Ballot stood up from the kitchen table, balancing his 1-year-old son against his chest as another boy hollered for attention: "Dad! Daaad!"

It's been five months since his daughter killed herself. Ballot said he's been thinking about her more than ever this week. He caught himself calling his other girls by her name, he said. He caught himself thinking about suicide too. But he's got responsibilities, he said, his son in his arms.

"I'm not going to give up."

THE PAST WAS DIFFERENT

Rivers slice Selawik into three pieces, each with its own landmark: school, post office, airport.

There are about 800 people, most of them Inupiat. The Ballot family -- Willie, Krystal, nine kids -- lives on the school side. There, boardwalks connect small, wooden houses to an L-shaped apartment complex that's straight out of East Anchorage -- except the plumbing froze over the winter, meaning renters were back to using buckets for bathrooms and hauling in water. Four towering windmills look impressive but barely dent soaring energy bills in the village.

Across the Selawik River is Middle Island. There you find two small grocery stores where a fancy frozen pizza sells for $21.79. Foster's house is the green one on stilts, closest to the water. It's starting to sink as the river erodes the ground.

A stack of sheefish and a dead, frozen wolf lay outside the door.

"Problem wolf," the family explains.

A pair of binoculars sits next to her VHF radio on the entertainment center. Villagers use the radios as a combination cell phone/bullhorn to communicate and air messages across town. Selawik used to share the same channel as other nearby villages, but Foster lobbied to change the frequency when the other communities complained about the kind of things some people in Selawik were saying, she says.

In her day, Foster says, parents were strict. The tribal council was strict. After school, you had time to do your homework and chores -- washing clothes by hand, hauling dishwater -- and little else.

There was no electricity.

People thought about survival, she says, not suicide.

Many things have changed, the elders say. There are more kids, and more kids having kids. Nearly half of the village was under the age of 18 during the 2000 Census.

And there is alcohol.

Selawik is technically a dry village, meaning residents voted to ban the possession or sale of alcohol. But residents say bootlegged or homemade liquor is readily available.

The school, which fixes kids breakfast and lunch, locks sugar, yeast, juice boxes and anything else that might be used to make home brew in a closet-sized room next to the cafeteria.

A black-market bottle of R&R Canadian whiskey sells for as much as $200.

For more than 20 years, Selawik had a village public safety officer who would sometimes arrest bootleggers. Meet them at the airport when they tried to smuggle liquor on one of the local air taxis from Kotzebue, Foster says.

But he left the job two years ago because he was "unable to follow the policies of his employer," according to the state. In January he pleaded guilty to selling homemade liquor for $50 a gallon out of his house.

"He find out he can make what -- $2,000, $3,000 in a weekend," Foster says.

The village also has things that cities don't.

If you are hungry, someone will feed you caribou soup or dried sheefish. They will let you sleep in their home, borrow their winter clothes, ride on their snowmachines.

Norma Ballot, 50, a distant relative of Willie Ballot, was born here before telephones, when you hung a white flag outside your home to signal a death in the family. Now she teaches Inupiaq language and art at the high school.

When someone dies she sometimes takes the kids on a field trip to see how the men make coffins and the women prepare food. Two months before her death, Dorcas wrote her name on the whiteboard in Norma's classroom. The kids like to make their mark, Norma said. The name is still there. After Dorcas died, someone drew a cross around it and wrote "R.I.P."

"The kids sure took it hard," Norma Ballot said. "This is their classmate. This is their friend. Their cousin."

Other suicide attempts -- including teens and young adults -- followed, she said, though she doesn't know how many.

Maniilaq has counted 17 attempted suicides in Northwest Alaska between January and April.

DAYS STAY THE SAME

"We pretty much live the same day over and over," says Margaret Smith, standing outside one of the Selawik stores. A dog clutching a frozen fish in its mouth trotted after a snowmachine.

Smith is 17 years old and about to graduate. Next year, she goes to college.

The day goes something like this:

After school, you go to open gym to play basketball. Later, when the stores close, you go to one of the "home stores" around town, where people sell soda and candy and rent DVDs. You listen to iTunes. You download "Twilight" on your computer, but you wait six days because the Internet connection is so slow.

When the state troopers aren't in town -- and they usually aren't -- teens sometimes hold house parties. "Kids younger than us, they get wasted at weekends," Smith said.

Smith learns and reads at home, she said. School is for hanging out.

"In school, they don't talk about, like, suicide. They don't talk about drinking and alcohol and substance abuse."

She wore yellow-and-blue Nike sneakers in the snow.

School was nearly finished for the year. One day this week, less than half the high school kids came to class, said principal Gerry Pickner. Absenteeism is a big problem, he said.

MANY TALENTS

Across town, Willie Ballot laid his daughter's trophies across the kitchen table.

Here's the all-conference basketball medal. Here's the second-place snowmachine racing cup she won beating the boys on her black-and-pink Polaris. Here's her prom princess sash.

"She was pretty good at mechanic-ing too," he said. "Used to wrench on her own snowmachine."

"Once in awhile I'd help her and show her how to do it. But usually she did her own wrenching."

Dorcas was short and pretty. Hard-headed and smart.

Spoiled, her family says. Her snowmachine read "The Brat" across the front with pink flames on the side.

As the oldest girl, she looked after her brothers and sisters.

Another of Willie and Krystal's daughters plunked a heavy glass basketball trophy on the table. One of Dorcas' friends, Clarissa Cleveland, from the village of Ambler, won this in her honor at a village tournament, Ballot said.

About two weeks before Dorcas' suicide, Cleveland was riding on the snowmachine that plowed into an Anchorage pediatrician who was mushing outside of Kotzebue. The doctor was killed and the man driving the snowmachine is charged with second-degree murder because, police say, he'd been drinking, smoking pot and doing cocaine the day of the crash.

Ballot's T-shirt -- "Don't blame me ... I voted for Pedro" -- covered a pair of tattoos. On one shoulder is his wife's name, at the center of a winged heart. On the other is a wolf, the Selawik school mascot, and a moon.

About two years ago he saved another relative, a girl, from hanging.

People here don't talk about suicide, Ballot said, but lately he's been thinking that should change. That someone needs to do something.

"You'll hear them say 'suicide prevention' once in awhile. But I never see any," he said.

They open the gym for basketball to give kids something to do. That's one of the things Dorcas loved, along with snowmachining and Guitar Hero II and music. But not everyone plays ball.

As Ballot talked, a woman with glassy eyes knocked on the door.

Was Krystal home?

The woman held up her hand, swollen and red. A dog had bitten her and she needed help. This happens a lot, he said. There's no 24-hour emergency room in Selawik. When someone gets hurt, they come to the Ballot house.

But Krystal was in Anchorage for health aide training. The next morning, she attended a class on suicide prevention.

Krystal didn't want to go. But she discussed it with Willie that night and he said it might feel good to talk about it.

"I didn't say anything. I just listened to the lady talk and cried," she said later.

Krystal had taken a month off after her daughter's death. Then, in mid-January, she got a call. The clinic needed her to check on some guy but didn't say why.

It turned out to be another hanging, she said. This time, someone cut the man down in time to save him.

Krystal and another health aide put him in a sled and took him to the airport.

"I was looking at him and I was thinking, 'Man, I wish this was my daughter.' "

DANGER SIGNS

Her family and her teacher say they noticed a change in Dorcas in the weeks before she died.

Willie knew something was wrong when she brought home a report card filled with Ds and Fs. She didn't join the basketball team. She wouldn't talk about what bothered her.

"She got quiet," said Norma Ballot, the bilingual teacher, who knew Dorcas as a happy-go-lucky kid.

Dorcas skipped class so often that the school pulled her from the enrollment list. She'd started dating. She'd started drinking, though Willie thinks that only happened a couple times.

"Whenever I drank, me and my wife would end up arguing or something, and she didn't really like alcohol at all," he said.

Before, she had always brought her problems to Krystal, the steady presence at the center of the family, and Willie considered her one of his best friends.

When things changed, they thought she was just being a teenager.

"Even though I knew the warning signs, I didn't see them. I guess I was trying to block them out because it was my daughter," Krystal said.

NO NOTE

Two days before she killed herself, Dorcas was instant-messaging with her second-cousin, Kristen Ballot: "Hey what's up?" "How's school?"

"She gave me no signs or any kind of signal," Kristen said.

Dorcas didn't leave a note.

They held her service at the high school gym. Family arrived from Deering and other nearby villages. They buried her in the cemetery on the middle island in her pink-and-black Slednecks snowmachine suit.

Despite the high suicide rate in rural Alaska, the death shocked the village, residents say. Students wrote tributes to Dorcas on their MySpace and MSN Messenger accounts. The school district sent a counselor, who opened the gym for kids to talk about what happened.

Outside of school, people didn't talk about it much. But quietly they asked questions. Or tried to guess why she did it. Or blamed themselves.

Mary Ann Thomas, a 22-year-old who lives in the village of Buckland, about 30 miles to the south, was one of Dorcas' friends. In an e-mail on Thursday, she told a story about the time they had both broken up with their boyfriends and Dorcas went to stay at her house.

They went for a walk, then paddled a canoe past a boy's house. Got stuck. Smoked a cigarette. Friend stuff.

In the note, Thomas wrote how Dorcas loved Guitar Hero and to travel to other villages and was everyone's friend.

P.S., she added in the e-mail. "I just lost another friend to suicide yesterday afternoon." "He's from Deering ... He shot himself ..."


Coming this week: Life in a village of 800 people that can only afford one part-time cop.

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