Yesterday I taught a yoga class for a group of very special women, who work in a line of work that is typically characterized these days as being extremely stressful. Teachers feel the pressures from every direction, and many doctors and mental health specialists will tell you that many of their most worried and worrisome patients are in the teaching profession. I love the yoga class I have with this particular group, since it is a guaranteed hour of laughter. I am supposed to be helping them relax but I come out of that class feeling like while I may have contributed to their fitter abs and glutes, their sense of humor is like my weekly dose of comic medicine. Amazing stress relief.
When I pulled into my driveway I got the call that has sent me reeling. That has led to grief like I haven’t experienced since my mom died ten years ago. Complete bewilderment. Shock. Anger. My cousin Mona killed herself.
Mona and I grew up together although I was in Mexico and she was in Sweden. We saw each other every other summer, we kept in touch through regular letter-writing. When the internet was invented, we emailed. When Facebook was invented, we connected that way. Every time I went to Europe to visit my sister in Denmark, or go to my cousin’s wedding in England, I’d pop over to Sweden to see her and her sister Britt. The four of us (me and my sister, Mona and Britt) have always been as close as possible given geography and all the busyness of motherhood and careers.
It thus came as a shock to me to hear that Mona became depressed after she lost her job last fall. Apparently it was a quick descent into serious depression. She sought professional help but after a week on the prescribed medication, said she didn’t like what it was doing to her, so she stopped taking it regularly. Mona always had to do things her way. The kind of stubbornness and independent spirit that was admirable when it paid off in her projects and adventures. But when mixed with mental illness, disastrous, especially in the violent way in which she orchestrated her death.
On Saturday I came across Pastor Rick Warren’s upcoming Easter sermon. His son, who had suffered from depression, committed suicide 5 days after Easter last year. In his sermon, Warren spoke of this, and related it to Easter, the occasion we Christians associate with Hope. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear the sermon because it kept timing out on my phone, and I haven’t been able to find it since. On Monday I tried frantically to find a recording, to no avail. That was the day Mona decided to follow through on her plans, which she had apparently been working up the nerve to do for a couple of weeks.
Last night, while trying to figure out WHY, not able to talk to my family because of the time difference, I opened Skype. I rarely open Skype but I did last night, and there was a message there from Mona, asking to connect a little over a week ago. I will always wonder if she was reaching out to say good-bye. I know there is nothing I could have done to prevent her final act. Her husband and sister and parents had tried everything. But I will always wonder what that conversation would have been about, had I been home and for some reason had Skype open. And why didn’t she send me a Facebook message instead?
In the Brene Brown eCourse I am taking right now about her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, I am working on the part about Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle. Just Monday I had started work on my Calm Map, and while I definitely think of myself as laid-back, better than average at avoiding and managing stress, the exercise was interesting for me as I sort of did a Bad Feeling Inventory and mapped out some coping mechanisms I employ (or should employ).
Mona was your typical mom in that she was extremely attractive but never felt thin, pretty, or lately, youthful enough. She worked and did a great job managing that plus helping her son deal with bullying, while encouraging her daughter’s soccer passion. So to all outward appearances, she had it all together.
Someone who has it all together does not step in front of a train at 1pm the day after Easter.
Given my current studies (Dr. Brown’s course), I am seeing a lot of what I observe in life through a Shame & Vulnerability Filter. In my coaching, it has affected my approach when talking weight loss, running, really everything. Now, with Mona, I look at what happened, what is happening within my own family, with that same filter.
There is a lot of shame involved in mental illness. Sweden is not unlike the US, where appearances are paramount. Swedes are not unlike New Englanders, where we keep to ourselves, especially when it comes to skeletons in the closet and dirty laundry. When I think of the train wreck (literally) that Mona has left behind, especially her two beautiful children who are now motherless – by an act that apparently came by conscious, preventable (?) choice, not by an accident or a disease like cancer – I can’t help but think about the prevalence of depression and other mental illness, and how inept our society is in dealing with it. The hopelessness families feel when doing our best to help our loved ones. And when we add in the shame, which is driven by fear, the problem is only compounded.
If you or a loved one are/is depressed, I want you to know these truths:
1. Nothing is permanent. I promise that – anything you are going through right now is going to pass. It may take a few hours, a new day, a few weeks – but however horrible and painful what you are going through feels right now, it will pass.
2. No matter how isolated you feel, there is at least one person out there who loves you and wants to help you. I promise that. I am one of them. Please do not suffer in silence. And do not mistake superficial communication for real connection. There is nothing like talking with someone over the phone or better yet, in person.
3. The shame you feel about your or your loved one’s depression, or substance abuse, or eating disorder, or self-injury problem, or whatever it is – it is a shame that you have built in your own mind. It is not a real, tangible fact. It is a constructed feeling. Whatever the problem is that you are enduring, it does not define you. It is something that is happening and it may be overwhelming and horrible, but it is not a reflection of your worth as a human being.
4. If you are feeling like you have lost all control over your body. Your wrinkles. Your finances. Your marriage. Your home. That is all just STUFF. It is separate from you. Your loved ones don’t give a shit about how old you look or what size jeans you wear. They care about whether or not you love yourself enough to love them. If you will open up about this to one person, release your shame to them, you will see that we all face the same pressures and many of us have figured out ways to stop them from taking over our mental real estate before depression becomes our normal existence.
5. Do yoga. I am not kidding. Ever since my own experience with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have seen yoga through a whole new lens. It is not surprising that increasingly, war veterans are being prescribed yoga. When you go through trauma, you experience a disconnect with your body. You lose trust. Your body chemistry changes. The same thing happens with depression. Yoga bridges your body with your mind and spirit in a gradual, organic way. It is one of the most powerful therapies out there and there are no side effects or FDA approval required.
6. God. God is always available as a source of hope, comfort, peace. There are countless verses in Scripture about God being here for us when we most need Him. My own faith has been tested over the years but it is at its strongest yet, and I cannot imagine enduring this tough rollercoaster known as life, without the comfort of knowing that an all-powerful, ever-loving God has got my back, and that of my family. No matter what I do or don’t do, God is a source of unconditional love. And if you allow Him, God is waiting for you to explore an intimate relationship with Him too.
7. If your mother or father committed suicide, it doesn’t mean you will also suffer from mental illness. Yes, you may be more susceptible to it, and you should talk to a mental health professional about staying on top of things. But your succumbing to depression or whatever the illness is, is preventable with awareness. You are not defined by your genes or the actions of your family members. Create your own story, and don’t be too proud to try to do it alone. Knowing our sources of vulnerability and sharing them with loved ones creates strength, not weakness.
Mona Wikland, May 22, 1969- April 21, 2014
Forever remembered as my kindred spirit: fun, irreverant, adventurous, athletic, smart, witty, incredibly loving. Amazing mother. Martha Stewart and Bob the Builder rolled into one. Mona, you lived life to the fullest, always made everyone around you feel loved. I will always cherish our memories, and promise to do my best to guide your children to live wholeheartedly. I miss you.