I wrote an article about suicide, mental illness, the San Francisco Bay Bridge and my mother’s death. It’s very personal. I could tell you it took me a long time to send out, that I fretted about it and that I was nervous about strangers reading it. That’s all true, but it’s a moot point. It’s published and you are welcome to read it.
What I didn’t fully anticipate about writing an article that addresses several taboo topics are the responses I’ve gotten. I’ve had very supportive responses (thanks guys!) and I’ve also gotten a number of notes telling me stories about personally being affected by suicide, death, and mental illness.
People are willing to be open when you write about taboo things.
The thing is, it’s not about me. Yes, I wrote a personal story but I’m not the only one who has a story like this or who turns to writing to make sense of it all. When we think that we’re the only one, we do a disservice to the challenges we face as a society and the collective problem of suicide, mental illness and grief.
People opened up to me because we as a society are crappy at talking openly about taboo topics. We silence discussions about grief, suicide and mental illness by telling Lifetime movie stories that only show the triumphant return from death or the overcoming of illness or the emergence from grief. The problem is, that’s not the way the world works. Our lives include death, mental illness and people who jump off bridges. We mourn the loss of those people. It sucks. It isn’t tied up in a bow at the end. Grief doesn’t end. Mental illness doesn’t always have a happy conclusion. Suicide makes a mess that can’t be cleaned up.
Pretending these things don’t exist means we cheat ourselves of seeing the way the world actually is.
One of the reasons we don’t want to talk about taboo topics and we greet them with embarrassment, silence and walking away is that we have no useful social scripts to tell us what to do. We say automatic Hallmark card things like “I’m sorry for your loss”, or “Don’t be sad” or “She’s up in heaven now” or “Let me know if I can do anything for you” not because we think saying them will actually do anything but because we don’t know what else to do.**
When you are the one experiencing pain, these automatic words start to sound more and more hollow. In the middle of grief, hearing the automatic words can make you want to scream that it feels like your heart has been chiseled out with a spoon. Or that you’re secretly relieved that this person is at peace and it felt like it was loss long ago but not anymore. Or that you’re just numb and words feel clunky and useless.
Friends who have experienced depression say that comments like “Cheer up!” can feel meaningless and even cruel. It’s like telling someone who has an amputated leg that if they try harder they’ll be able to walk.
Suicide is particularly insidious and there is a deep and pervasive shame about it. Whole families hide the cause of a loved one’s death pretending it’s an accident and fearing the social stigma of suicide. If we love someone who died from suicide, we may ask ourselves over and over – “If only I had…” would it have helped? It’s impossibly hard to know that someone who was battling internal demons lost that battle.
But it is the reality.
The reality is not about an individual. Yes, you may have loved someone who committed suicide, or attempted suicide. Yes, you may know someone who is mentally ill and it sucks and there may be no easy answer. Maybe you are that person. Yes, grief is painful and it has no end. Let’s not trivialize how shitty this all is. But at the root of this pain is the idea that we are singularly alone in dealing with it.
You aren’t alone. I’m not alone either.
We miss something when we look at these problems only from an individual perspective. Our society is losing beautiful minds, hearts and bodies when we don’t care for our veterans in pain. When the mentally ill can’t get care or medication and roam the streets we have an unsightly “problem” instead of a loss of human capacity. We help no one by arguing needlessly (and endlessly) about protecting bridges from suicidal jumpers. We know that when we try to prevent all suicides, it can make a difference but we have to be willing to fund those initiatives. We may support suicide hotlines (which I am ALL for), but fail to pay attention to the mentally ill in our own cities, the neighbor that needs a Xanax to get through the day or a friend who just lost a parent.
Let’s actually talk to one another about how crappy these things are. Online, in person – it doesn’t matter. Let’s just be there with someone who is in pain instead of trying to fix it. Let’s let go of the Hallmark sentiments and scripts that don’t help. Let’s start acting like these issues matter. Let’s say collectively that we care about suicide and mental illness, that we are sad when we lose someone, and that it’s all of our responsibility to be there for one another.
Photo: “Bay Bridge Embarcadero Sunrise” Richard Fay