Big Trigger warning: Depression/suicide
There is a thought that has snuck up on me several times since I started entertaining the idea of this blog. Sharing stories about mental health can be risky for several reasons. My biggest perceived risk is that people will jump to two conclusions: 1) they think I’m being overly dramatic and am just looking for attention, or 2) they assume the only option is to send me away to the ER on a mental health hold, where I will be forced to ingest three-day old sandwiches and tiny cans of Shasta cola. (note: to anyone who ever has been on a mental health hold in the ER, I do not say that to make light of your experience. I worked in an ER for several years and saw so many kindred spirits – others suffering from mental illness who had nowhere else to turn or were hanging on by a thread. I see you.) (second note: to anyone who works in an ER: now would be a good time to check the expiration dates on the sandwiches. They’re gross. I don’t think that’s even real meat.)
Two memes popped up on my Facebook feed within a few hours of each other. I took it as a sign that I should share what’s on my heart regarding this topic. Both pictures hit close to home on so many levels. They are similar, yet different. Both have to do with our society’s affinity for jumping to conclusions.
The first one speaks to me on a very personal level due to recent happenings in my life. It also speaks to me from the perspective of someone with a blossoming passion for mental health awareness and education. The subject of suicide is just about as welcome in everyday conversation as Lord Voldemort is at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For those of you who aren’t Harry Potter nerds…that is very unwelcome indeed. Psychotherapist Stacey Freedenthal (2018) states, “I don’t fault those who avoid naming suicide. Instead I fault society and social conditioning for teaching us to treat suicide as unspeakable. If we can’t acknowledge suicide when a person has died, then how can the living expect to talk openly with friends and family about their urges to end their life? It’s awfully hard to help suicidal people – and for them to ask for help – if we treat suicide as if it is a dirty word.”
A dirty word.Because I love the power of definitions, I decided to look up “suicide” in the oh so tactful Urban Dictionary. I was curious to see how Joe Shmoe off the street might define this concept. Definition #7 tugged at my heart strings because it addresses the emotional side rather than the physical act of permanently stopping one’s breath. It says that suicide is “what people do when they start to fear life more than they fear death” (Suicide, 2016). Take a moment to absorb that.
Now imagine that sense of fear and despair magnified a million times over because this society makes it nearly impossible to be open about our struggles – it pours stigma on top of shame on top pain. It is naïve and reactive, rather than educated and proactive. Our vulnerability backfires! Instead of openly discussing depression, anxiety, PTSD, or any other illness that may lead to suicidal thoughts, society has done a damn good job of brushing feelings, and the people who feel those feelings, under the rug of social propriety. Then, when someone has the courage to ask for help, it’s far more comfortable for someone else to call 911 and have them carted off on a mental health hold than it is to see their pain…to feel their pain…to understand their pain. How tragic that “this silence about suicide can be deafening, making it exquisitely hard to hear those whose cries most need to be heard” (Freedenthal, 2018).
Obviously comments about suicide should not be taken lightly.Never assume they aren’t serious or that they are just looking for pity. By all means, call 911 if it is genuinely the right thing to do. But take a quick second to go back and reread that meme. Sometimes it’s a cry for help and empathy, so don’t jump to the conclusion that it is an egocentric plea for attention. Sometimes we just need to talk. Sometimes telling someone that you have entertained ideas or have formulated a plan provides the reprieve you need to NOT go through with it. Giving up that secret is a powerful motivator to survive, while harboring that secret only encourages it to grow and swallow you whole. If someone comes to you and says they are having suicidal thoughts, talk to them. Their fear of you jumping to conclusions may be what keeps them from asking you to pull them back from the ledge and to stop them from jumping themselves.
See the difference. See the similarity.
In her 2004 article Coming out about Mental Illness, Sarah Albert shares a powerful quote by Joyce Burland: “Our cultural understanding of mental illness is that you are just not trying hard enough. We never say that about cancer or heart disease. America thinks mental illness is something that can get self-corrected, and that is a vast misunderstanding.” Misunderstanding stems from ignorance. You know how they say ignorance is bliss? Yeah…not so much. Ignorance and misunderstanding cause humans to jump to conclusions. If you don’t take the time to educate yourself on the impact of chemical imbalances in the brain, for example, of course you might conclude that depression or anxiety is just an excuse to be lazy or to seek attention.
More and more I am realizing that surviving my ongoing battle with anxiety and depression is part of my identity. I have battle scars that run deeper than any physical wound. Like that meme says, I want you to understand what has led me to become the person I am. It’s what is actively making me into the person I will become. This blog, and any conversation that requires me to open up and show those ugly scars, is NOT a pity party. Each day I survive brings me one day closer to the real me. I want to take pride in my scars. I want to help others take pride in their scars. That is the purpose of my exercise in risky vulnerability.
One of my recent favorite authors, Jenny Lawson, wrote this incredible book called Furiously Happy(2015). I am going to share a paragraph from that book that literally turned my life upside down several weeks ago.
“When you come out of the grips of a depression there is an incredible relief, but not one you feel allowed to celebrate. Instead, the feeling of victory is replaced with anxiety that it will happen again, and with shame and vulnerability when you see how your illness affected your family, your work, everything left untouched while you struggled to survive. We come back to life thinner, paler, weaker…but as survivors. Survivors who don’t get pats on the back from coworkers who congratulate them on making it. Survivors who wake to more work than before because their friends and family are exhausted from helping them fight a battle they may not even understand. I hope to one day see a sea of people all wearing silver ribbons as a sign that they understand the secret battle, and as a celebration of the victories made each day as we individually pull ourselves up out of our foxholes to see our scars heal, and to remember what the sun looks like.”
Jenny Lawson’s words inspired me to permanently ink myself with the anxiety awareness ribbon. A lovely teal ribbon. It is a constant reminder that I am who I am because I have survived many battles and am surviving the war. I have some ugly scars because of it, but I would not be me without them. I am proud of who I am and want to share that.
You can jump to the conclusion that I’m crazy. You would be correct. But don’t jump to any other conclusions about people who want to – no, needto – feel they can safely talk about their suicidal thoughts or internal demons. It is risky. But you can make it worth their risk.
Albert, Sarah. (2004). Coming Out About Mental Illness. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/coming-out-about-mental-illness
Freedenthal, Stacey. (2018, June 14). Let’s (Really) Talk about Suicide. Speaking of Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.speakingofsuicide.com/2018/06/14/lets-really-talk-about-suicide/
Lawson, Jenny. (2015, Sept. 22). Furiously Happy: A funny book about horrible things. Flatiron Books.
Suicide. (2016, August 18). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Suicide