Easy and selfish?

A short status update on social media by a friend of a friend had an impact on me that surprised me by the ferocity of it.

His update was about some news that he had just received about a close friend from high school. He is just over 10 years out of high school and this news came as a shock to him presumably. His friend has killed himself. Horrible news and I can understand his shock and how raw his feelings must have been. What he said however struck me. His words were to the effect that he is more angry than sad and that suicide is “the easy way out” and leaves everyone else in pain. What followed were other comments by his friends offering comfort and support. One other remark in particular that “suicide is the most selfish act” got me riled to the point that I jumped in and made a comment. Not enough to get it off my chest there though…

Sadly, I understand all too well that anger and that hurt that comes with losing someone from suicide. What sent me into an almost blind rage today was the publicly accepted sentiments that suicide is “easy” and “selfish”. In my mind, nothing is further from the truth.

Having watched my son go through hell struggling over wanting to die and not wanting to all in the same moment…after reading his journals and seeing what went on inside of him while he dealt with mental illness…It wasn’t the easy way out. There is nothing easy about getting to the point of ending your own life. Nothing easy about taking that final step that you know will end it all, forever. We, as people, are simply made to go the route of least resistance, the easiest way. That’s why so many of us live our lives in complacency and routine and unhappy. Because staying the course is easier than change. Suicide is the most profound change you can make. On top of that, we, as human animals, are hard-wired with a sense of self-preservation. That’s a basic instinct that is there. To overcome that and end your life when every part of a rational brain and body screams to fight, to live… that’s not easy.

Is it selfish? You could argue for and against on this one. People end their lives for so many reasons. Is it selfish to succumb to cancer? Is it selfish to die of a heart attack? No one would ever suggest that. Yet someone who lives with a psychosis and has a break and tragically ends their life is treated very differently. A major psychosis is an illness that destroys a person just as savagely as a terminal physical illness like cancer. “Simple” depression can become clinical and alter a person to the point that they are not capable of what we would consider logical or rational behaviour. What about the person who has a terminal physical ailment and chooses to end their life on their terms and on their timeline rather than become incapacitated? What about those that make the choice, in part, to spare their loved ones the pain of a long and emotional death of weeks or months? Selfish or selfless, or neither? It’s too complex to sum up with generalizations.

These two blunt comments made me so angry because they are so typical of how we, as a society and culture, still firmly place a box around suicide and try to make it fit neatly within the confines that make us feel safe and better. If we can label it and categorize it and point at it and say it’s not going to happen to me because of A, B and C, then it doesn’t scare us as much.

The truth is suicide is scary because it can’t be neatly explained and contained. Talking about it and being open about it is the only way we are going to make a dent in the impact it has.

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We tried

I tried to make it better.
I tried to help you see that it would be ok.
I tried, even when I didn’t believe it myself
Even when I knew that it might not be ok.
Even when I was so scared that it wasn’t going to be ok.
I tried to promise you that, even when both of us knew I couldn’t promise it at all.
But I tried.
You tried to let me believe that you believed me.
You tried, when we both knew you didn’t.
You tried to make me believe that it would all be ok when you were gone.
Even when you couldn’t look me in the eyes while you told me that.
Because you knew it wouldn’t be ok when you were gone.
Even though you knew that it was goodbye you were saying with those words.
But you tried.

The Path and the Edge

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We all walk through life, most of us without any knowledge that this cliff exists. The edge that is there that if we cross – we’re done. I am talking metaphorically of course; not the actual Cliffs of Dover (although if you walk off that you are indeed done as well)

I’m meaning the edge of mental health wellness. Most people wander along so far inland (mentally healthy) that they don’t see the cliff. They may be aware it’s there but they don’t see it. Maybe they’ve heard about it from others or know someone who has gotten too close and come back or even someone who’s fallen off… but they’re ok.

Then there are those of us who come close enough to see it and smell the scent of what it encompasses. The depression, the fear, the sadness and the apathy… and so much more. Most of those that see it wander and come away from it again to go on their way, safe and all right. Sometimes they wander near again and again, but always back to safety they end up going.

There are those who spend their whole lives traversing close to the edge, dangerously close at times and barely less so at others… but always with that drop in sight. A hard path and a tiring one… but sometimes in the sunshine so that even though the edge is there it’s still sometimes not a bad way to walk.

Then there are those who walk so close to the edge… for so long.. and without the heat or brightness from the sun… those that start to move towards the edge even more closely. Knowing the danger and the potential… and starting to embrace it and even seek it… as a means to end the walking and the path that is just too hard.

Some take a running jump and leap, impetuously and with very little forethought… others walk so long and think so hard and then take a steady pace and are over the edge resolutely… some sit for what feels like forever, legs dangling over the edge as they contemplate and muse, then quietly – almost silently – slip off and are gone.

We all live within the edge… most have never felt it’s pull and so many of us that do feel it stay on this side of it. So many find that the edge is the only place that they can end their journey. Willie did. Missing him more than ever right now.

Hope and Belief

Thinking about Willie this weekend as I passed the second anniversary of his death. Thinking on how he couldn’t see past where he was to when things would be different and better… how I tried so many times and so many ways to convince him that it WOULD be different and better someday… the realization that I carry guilt that I feel like I failed him in that I couldn’t make him better. Knowing that the guilt isn’t accurate does nothing to lessen it.

After his death, reading his journals and hearing.. really hearing… for the first time maybe, his voice and the strength of his belief that not only would it not get better, it was probably only going to get worse. Talking with psychiatrists and counsellors and understanding that with mental illness, especially psychosis, the reality is that it may NOT ever have gotten better for him… that he may have been right… that it might have only gotten worse. Coming to the realization that all of my assurances were really just based on me wanting to make him believe it – regardless of reality.

Because the truth is, we had nothing to go on. No diagnosis other than depression and anxiety technically. A diagnosis based on what Willie chose to share with his doctors and not based on what he was sharing with others close to him or what he filled his journals with. We can look now at his journals and what he did share with a few people and see that it was far beyond depression and anxiety… that he was exhibiting symptoms of early psychosis – symptoms he was incredibly adept and determined at hiding. The facts are that I had nothing to base my promises on other than my desperate desire to believe that it was true that it would get better. Because the option that it wouldn’t wasn’t possible in my mind. When he would insist that suicide was the only option for him I fought that with everything – trying to make him believe that he was wrong… the strength of that belief based solely on my fear of loss and the inability to even conceive of a life spent without my child in it. But not based in fact or truth… just hope…

How ironic now that hope is the one thing that eludes me…as it did Willie. Ironic because I so adamantly held to hope then and now it feels out of my reach most days. I glimpse it every now and then and even feel it from time to time but the belief isn’t there. I want it to be, but I don’t feel it.

Inside the mind of mental illness

Mental Illness, as described to me by my son…

Imagine you’re on a train, like an old-fashioned passenger train. It’s comfortable and you’re sitting in a seat, with people in almost all of the other seats. A lot of the people you know and you’re friends with but there are also lots of people you don’t know. They’re walking around too and going from train car to train car, just doing what they do. There’s people talking and laughing, some just reading or being quiet. You’ve just been having a fun conversation with some of your friends but now you look out the window and there’s scenery going by; fields and lakes and mountains… and it’s pretty and you’re having a good time looking at what goes by.

You’re not sure how long you were looking out the window and you think maybe you fell asleep because things look different a little now. It’s not sunny anymore – kind of grey and cold looking now. The lakes are gone and the trees and grasses aren’t green anymore. You figure that you must have gone a really long way and you miss the way the scenery was. All this time, you’re not really sure where you’re going anyways.

You realize that it’s really quiet around you so you stop looking out the window and notice that the train is empty. Everyone is gone and you don’t know where they went or when they left. You don’t remember the train stopping or anyone getting off or even any of your friends saying goodbye to you – but they’re all gone now and you’re alone.

The train is cold now and you look back outside and it’s almost dark now. It’s all rocks and cold outside now and nothing is growing. You get out of your seat and walk up and down the train car alone. The doors at the end that led to the other cars are still there but they don’t lead anywhere now. You go to the window at the end that looks back on where you’ve come from and can see a faint light way back in the distance but the train car is speeding away from it so fast it’s almost gone.

You go to the window at the front of the train car that looks forward to where you’re going and it’s pitch black and ice is starting to form on the window because it’s getting so cold outside.

You know that you can’t stop the train car or make it go back to where you were. You know that the only way to not go where you’re heading – which looks horrible – is to get off the train… and that means jumping and that you’ll die. So you make the choice to do that … because you can’t go back and you don’t want to end up where you’re going.

This was how Willie described it to me one day when he was trying to explain what it was like inside his head… and why he wanted to kill himself. I haven’t shared this before as it was very private to me but I hope this helps people understand as much as it did for me when he explained it this way.

Not Just Another Day

Today, instead of celebrating my son’s 18th birthday, I’m grieving the loss of him no longer being here. Willie was 16 on Feb 1st 2012 when he took his own life and ended his struggle with mental illness in a horribly permanent way.

Willie wasn’t bullied, either in person or via the numerous cyber-bullying means which are so widely talked about and acknowledged now. He was one of the thousands of “others”. The youth who suffer from a myriad of disorders of the mind ranging from anxiety to depression to early-psychosis and so many more; too many to list. Mental illnesses that are quiet and internal – a veritable bullying from the inside for these youth. Depression and anxiety and the small early warning signs of psychosis that mimic other disorders don’t have someone to blame and point a collective finger at to demand help and intervention. There is no single antagonist, no group even to direct admonishments towards and strive to enact laws and consequences for behaviour that hurts and destroys like bullying does.

To often, for these youth, they suffer alone and many times purposely hide their symptoms and fears. I know my son did. Until it became too much for him and, in a moment of clarity, he reached out to me and asked for help from what was scaring him and destroying his own mind.

What followed was a journey that was short and so chaotic as to be unbelievable, even now, looking back in retrospect. A journey that highlighted, for our family, that there are glaring issues in the mental health system that need to be addressed and changed. I have come to see that the problems I encountered were not, and are not, isolated issues – but rather, an ongoing and well known lacking that is seemingly impossible to correct.

From our family doctor who ignored the first concerns when he was 13 as “normal teenage behaviour”; then brushing off my son’s note stating his desire to be dead as a “bluff”.

From the Adolescent Psychiatric Unit medical personnel who refused to see journals that outlined a dark and worsening mental illness. That choice resulting in treatment and a diagnosis that was akin to being treated for the flu when you have cancer.

From government agencies and contracted private counsellors who gave conflicting information of avenues of assistance upon his release from the hospital we heard the doors of help slamming shut on our son. Promises (made in writing) of who would provide follow-up psychiatric care ending with my phone calls and visits and questions in circles. Psychiatric care that never did come.

We were faced with “help” that was not designed to actually do anything other than move the youth out as fast as possible to ensure that the beds were available for the next one to come along who was in worse condition. A system that is tragically under-funded and has a demand on it that it has no way of satisfying in its current state. Staff and medical personnel that have their hearts in the right place but know that they are just putting bandages on wounds that need far more.

When my son gave me a handwritten note telling me that he thought he needed medical help; that he wanted to be dead and that he didn’t know what to do, I promised him we would find help and that it would be alright. I promised him that there were doctors and places for help for what he was going through. I convinced him to try and to hold on to that hope. He did – until he felt, from what he saw, that there was no hope.
I’m not certain how the changes need to be enacted but I do know that not one more person should ever get to the point that my son did of losing hope in a system that’s main reason of being is to provide that.

Bullying, from the inside

October 10th was World Mental Health Day. For the first time in a long time I did not go on Facebook for the entire day. It was on purpose as I knew there was going to be tons of posts and updates about a variety of observances and memorials. The majority of them revolving around cyber-bullying and teen suicide. Where my head is right now I just can’t quite face the barrage of it all. Even now, a couple of days later, the feed is filled with it and I skip past them instead of clicking and reading articles and watching videos. The pain of immersing myself in it, even to acknowledge it, is just too much. Not to mention that there is a side of frustration, and yes, some anger, that the focus seems to be almost entirely on teens that have committed suicide due to bullying. While this is a major issue, we also need to remember that there are thousands of youth that suffer quietly from depression, early psychosis, anxiety and a myriad of other mental illnesses. These are the kids that slip through the cracks of a faulty mental health care system and too many of them just simply give up and decide the only way to end their pain is to end their lives.
These kids are “bullied” by their own minds and their own thoughts. Who do you fight against as a mother when you see that it’s what’s inside your son that is causing him the trauma and the pain? What do you do when you see the system fail to help and see the hope fading from your son’s eyes with every avenue of “help” that is blocked or impossible to navigate? I had to outright lie to my son to keep his hope up at times. I lied to him that the Dr gave me info when in fact he had brushed it off and I had left with no help at all. Did I want Willie to know that the doctor who had cared for him since he was 4 years old tossed his letter written explaining his desire to kill himself like it was garbage? Instead, lecturing me on my parenting and my divorce. No, I hid that from him and told him I was contacting someone else.
So, yes, bullying needs attention, it needs awareness and it needs help. But don’t forget about the kids who have only themselves and their own minds that drive them to suicide. Depression and other quiet mental illnesses are not as marketable and commercially magnetic but they are every bit as deadly.