A week ago today my cousin killed herself and I shared my grief over my cousin’s suicide with the online community. My grief has been a surreal existence that combines extreme sadness, regret, confusion, moments of being numb followed by moments of intense pain, times of feeling like I’m floating over my body, times when I go between questioning the trivial, frivolous parts of our days and in the next breath feeling that the most meaningful parts of our lives lie in the smallest, seemingly most banal details of our days and interactions with others.
The hundreds of messages that I have received from people, some whom I’ve never met, since sharing yesterday’s blog entry on Facebook have been a source of comfort and reassurance. I am incredibly grateful for the outpouring of love and support and understanding. I have read each message carefully as I have navigated this ocean that is mental illness.
What has really struck me is the way that, like when I had each miscarriage, when I shared each of my 3 miscarriages with friends and acquaintances after they happened (pre-Facebook days so it was through old-fashioned conversation), I realized that almost everyone I knew had had one. And yet I had had no idea. The same thing has happened with my opening up about my cousin’s rapid decline from what one would assume to be situational depression, to within 7 months throwing herself in front of a speeding train.
As I learned more about Mona’s illness and the way she ended her misery, I kept thinking, “WHO WOULD DO THAT?!” She was gorgeous, smart, has a great husband and kids, beautiful home, no debt. The kind of mom I see everyday at the store – doing her best to stay healthy, in shape, employed, on top of the kids’ activities and welfare. But then she lost her job and with it her sanity.
Many people have in the last 6 days shared with me tragic stories, some from the past, some ongoing, of depression in their families – or of their own. When I think of the Mona I knew and loved, and listen to her sister Britt’s description of the sick Mona, it is clear to me that this Mona, the one that decided that her husband and two teenaged children would be better off without her “ugly” self in their midst, was not really Mona. When I hear of the desperate measures that Britt, their parents, and Kalle took to try to help Mona, it is clear to me that there is nothing they could have done. That any of us could have done. Mona’s illness had progressed to the point that it was as if an alien had taken over her brain and she was no longer in her body.
I am not a mental health professional by any means, but am intrigued by the subject of depression and it is reflected in the work I do as a coach as well as in the community with my volunteer work. Many of the links I share on Facebook and Twitter have to do with mental health issues. When I talk to people about weight loss, one of the reasons these “quick fix” weight loss cleanses and diets and workouts frustrate me is that they are so superficial – and only serve to feed our insanity as they make the sellers rich. Addiction to food, thinness, alcohol, drugs, porn, gambling, Facebook, professional sports, reality TV, cigarettes, religion, sex, work, etc – they are all ways for us to numb our pain or other unpleasant feelings. And we are all susceptible to craving a way to numb the discomfort. The quick fixes don't last because they ignore the root of the problem, and then we are left feeling like failures when the numbing habits creep back in.
The last 24 hours has made me realize a few things that I either hadn’t realized with such clarity, or simply didn’t think about before.
1. Mental illness (depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, anxiety, self-injury, etc) is EVERYWHERE. Every single person I know is affected by it in some way – either personally, within their family, friend circle.
2. Mental illness is a taboo subject. Our first instinct, as a family affected by mental illness, is to circle the wagons – figure out what we need to do, protect any children, protect reputations, walk on eggshells, become insular. We feel shame. We mostly feel fear and bewilderment. We don’t know what to say. We start to question our own sanity. We start to wonder if a normal funk is the start of a downward spiral to a place we are terrified of reaching. We may experience denial.
3. It is much easier to create laws, policies and regulations than deal with mental illness. Laws are in black-and-white. The brain is an infinity number of shades of grey matter. Very messy grey matter.
4. The survivors of suicide, and the loved ones of those afflicted by mental illness, are in a really tough place. Cancer absolutely sucks but it is something that people share openly, without shame, and for which there are treatment options that most people are familiar with. It is impossible to go to a store these days and not see something with a pink ribbon on it. Depression, on the other hand, is often greeted with judgment, fear, misunderstanding. It is easier to refrain from telling your friends that your wife is seriously depressed, than to risk feeling like you’re a shitty husband because you can’t keep your wife happy. But mental illness is like cancer – it has a life of its own and it can often be contained if dealt with early through professional help, it can be in remission but must always be monitored. It can in spite of all efforts progress to a point where there is really nothing we, the loved ones, or medical professionals, can do.
5. We are all impacted by depression and related mental illnesses. Mona’s illness affected everyone on that train, as it took hours to clean up the mess. I have no doubt that people on that train who never knew Mona or my family, have had their lives deeply affected by knowing they were part – passive but still involved- of someone’s desperation.
My husband and kids and I live about five miles from Sandy Hook, CT. Every day as my son boards the school bus my heart drops for a moment as I think of my friends who saw their kids off on a school bus; the last time they saw them before their little angels collided with someone who was so mentally ill he felt compelled to shoot up a school.
But we are also affected in the way that life can be brutal. I don’t know anyone who has not at some point had a hard time functioning due to grief, despair, lack of purpose, physical pain. It is at this point that we must reach out. Even just a text to a close friend.
I think though that knowing how precarious our mental wellbeing really is, is part of our fear. On some level I believe we all feel like while we are saying “WHO DOES THAT?” we may on some level think, maybe not to that extent, but on some level I could get there.
A few days ago I learned of a local mother who took her life last year. Her suicide came as a complete shock to her friends, since like Mona, she seemed like everything was fine. We all have challenging times, but that’s part of life, right? When these things happen it’s scary. It’s like when your friends suddenly announce they’re getting divorced. You start to scrutinize your own marriage. Your best friend announces she’s an alcoholic. You start to wonder if your own evening cocktails are something deeper than “just taking the edge off.”
It’s so easy to hear about stuff in the media and think, gosh, what a nutjob, I could never abandon my kids/ cheat on my wife/ steal from my employer/ drive my kids into the ocean/ drive drunk at 9am/ sever ties with my family member/ let my addicted son live in the streets/ sell my body for drugs/ eat till I weigh 500 lbs/ try crack… When we quickly judge, and deny that we could ever do something, in that moment we are making ourselves feel better through our sanctimonious righteousness. We make it a Them (Crazies) vs. Us (Normals). The danger of reacting in this way to “crazy people” news is that we lose the opportunity to show empathy. To others and toward ourselves.
True cultural change will not begin until we are able to engage in open, compassionate, empathic, authentic dialogue about the reality we all live in. A lot of the conversation we engage in about depression and other mental illness is polarizing, such as the debate over whether or not to medicate. I think a more important conversation should be about the following questions:
Why are so many mothers depressed, and self-medicating through alcohol and/or pills?
Why are so many adults deciding that if they cannot succeed as a bread-winner, their life is meaningless?
Why are so many children feeling so disconnected and lost, resorting to substances, self-injury, suicide, violence?
What can we do to provide more support for the survivors and caretakers of those afflicted with mental illness?
And a major shift needs to occur in terms of societal stigma. An open dialogue will allow those who suffer in silence to seek the necessary professional treatment that can delay or prevent catastrophe. By now most people know the telltale signs of a heart attack, but most people are still clueless as to the signs of depression and anxiety, nor do we really know at what point to seek professional help. In certain areas, having a therapist is as common as having a hair dresser, in fact in some areas it is even common to have therapists for their dogs. Meanwhile, for many people it is seen as a “luxury” or an unnecessary addition to the schedule, or a sign of weakness, to schedule time with someone who will help you sort through your inner turmoil. Instead, we may resort to the internet to find out what foods or exercises will help us. In many cases this will be enough to get us going down a healthier path, but in too many cases there is a lost opportunity to stop the descent down the rabbit hole. Today, most of us women know that we are supposed to check our breasts once a month in the shower to see if there are any abnormal growths. Perhaps one day we will practice the same self-awareness, and instill it in our children, regarding our sense of inner peace and self-acceptance.