I’ve been quiet on this blog lately, for a lot of reasons. One of which is getting caught up on other projects, another of which is evaluating in which directions to move this space.
But I shared this on my Facebook, and it’s practically a novel, so I thought I’d share it here too. If you’ve been reading me for awhile, you’ve heard some of this before.
I lost my mother to suicide.
Social media, for me, has been a minefield the last couple of days.
I usually stay quiet at times like these, because the grief comes back all to easily, and with grief always comes a difficulty with words – a trouble expressing. And there is always that old truth; that it is easier to hide pain than to show it.
Which brings me to the first point I want to make.
A very popular response to news like this is to share National Suicide Prevention Hotlines. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong. Get that information out there. Keep sharing it. Having this resource is an excellent first step.
But I can’t help but think of all that I know about actually trying to access care. It is not as simple as calling a phone number. It is not an answer, as all those #chooselife and #dontgetsolowyoucantgetout hashtags imply.
The phone number is a crisis response. It’s a band-aid while you wait for surgery.
Trying to access care looks like months of waiting. Years of ‘trial and error’ with medications. Getting turned away from emergency services because the beds are full.
This is the unavoidable truth:
While we’ve seen radical advancements in technology and medical science, our response to mental health illnesses has remained relatively the same for hundreds of years. We isolate and segregate. We stigmatize. Did you know that schizophrenia occupies the most hospital beds compared to any other illness (even cancer), yet continually receives the lowest funding in research for new treatments?
Our mental healthcare system as a whole is desperately, dangerously, perilously underfunded.
A crisis hotline is a reactionary measure. Our entire mental healthcare system is based upon a reactionary response system. We react to mental illness. Until we stop reacting to mental illness, and start proactively building mental health – our system will remain overburdened. We need to restructure the entire system, and there are no easy answers. Hell, there aren’t even answers at this point.
The Suicide Prevention Hotline is a crisis intervention. It is not a solution.
Which brings me to the second point I’d like to make. The next most popular type of post is ‘I want my friends to know that I am always here to talk. Reach out if you need help.’
And I believe you. I know you mean it.
Giving help is far easier than asking for it, however. Reaching out, being vulnerable, is hard AF. We live in a society that has a strict view on what qualifies as ‘strength’, and vulnerability is rarely a part of that equation. For example, I am outspoken about how I lost my mother, and each and every time – whether it be on the news, on social media, in an article I’m writing, or speaking about it to an audience or just one person… requires me to be vulnerable.
It is terrifying every single time.
It doesn’t fit neatly into my script – the one where I am strong, happy, successful, capable, competent. It is uncomfortable to bear my scars publicly. It is uncomfortable because as a culture, we do not know how to deal with emotional pain. I can see when someone doesn’t know how to react, what to say, how to support me. Most often, I end up soothing whomever I’m talking to – letting them know it’s okay (it isn’t really) and that I’m okay (I am, even when I’m not. It’s okay to not be okay.)
For every time I speak out, there are 10 times I don’t.
Because it takes herculean amounts of energy and courage and willpower to do so. It is far easier to say nothing.
I was talking to a war veteran recently who had been newly diagnosed with PTSD. He was struggling with whether or not to tell his family. It didn’t fit into his script about himself. That he was the strong one, the rock for everyone else. It felt like his diagnosis ran in contradiction to that, that ‘PTSD’ took away ‘strength’ from his identity.
I suggested that maybe we have to redefine what constitutes as ‘strong’. Maybe being the best role model for his daughters didn’t mean being flawless, impervious in the face of trauma, but being courageous enough to show the cracks in the amour. To have the strength to show vulnerability and imperfection. To be honest about struggling, to be a living example that you don’t have to be ashamed to struggle. That we all struggle. To be human is to be perfectly imperfect. That we can value courage over perfection.
That maybe the measure of a man isn’t whether or not he struggles – because struggle is an inevitable side effect of living – but how he faces that struggle.
Because that’s a script that desperately needs changing.
We need to stop stigmatizing mental illness. People who suffer from mental illnesses are not ‘weak’. They are demi-gods who somehow manage to lift the unbelievable weight of suffering and pain and still go on to accomplish incredible things like founding a multi-billion fashion empire – or becoming an internationally-known personality traveling the world exploring culture, cuisine, and the human condition.
People living with mental illnesses are demi-gods who still manage to raise families, hold 9-to-5 jobs, live life, and do all the things the rest of us do in our day-to-day lives all while maintaining that herculean effort it takes to live with a mental illness.
People who die by suicide, did not die in ‘a moment of weakness’.
They were defeated by an illness.
I’d like to end with quote that I always share during the course of my Living with Suicide Loss volunteer work or at Suicide Prevention Awareness events. I found it on an online message board shortly after I lost my mother. I hope it speaks to you in this time of grief as deeply as it speaks to me:
“Our friend died on her own battlefield. She was killed in action fighting a civil war. She fought against adversaries that were as real to her as her casket is real to us. They were powerful adversaries. They took toll of her energies and endurance. They exhausted the last vestiges of her courage and strength. At last these adversaries overwhelmed her. And it appeared that she lost the war. But did she? I see a host of victories that she has won!
For one thing — she has won our admiration — because even if she lost the war, we give her credit for her bravery on the battlefield. And we give her credit for the courage and pride and hope that she used as her weapons as long as she could. No one knows what she suffered in the silent skirmishes. We shall remember not her death, but her daily victories gained through her kindnesses and thoughtfulness, through her love for family and friends, for food and books and music, for all things beautiful, lovely and honorable. We shall remember the many days that she was victorious over overwhelming odds. We shall remember not the years we thought she had left, but the intensity with which she lived the years she had!”