Picture Credit: ‘Building on Fire’ by Bjorn J (Creative Commons)
My life has been touched by two suicides in the last fortnight. Only distantly touched, it’s true, but touched nonetheless. The first, who I knew slightly, was a friend of a friend; the second, of whose existence I was unaware until the tragic news hit my twitter feed, was the son of one of America’s best-known pastors.
Both suffered from mental illness – one from depression, the other from bipolar disorder. Both had loving, supportive families and friends who were in their lives talking, encouraging, supporting and praying for them. Yet both went home one night and took their own lives.
My heart breaks.
It breaks for the families who have not only to bear the grief of losing a child, but who must find every waking moment flooded with fruitless ‘if onlys’.
And it breaks for these two young men who had everything, but had it ripped away by a malicious, ravening disease.
There are those who will think that these suicides denote the giving up of a fight; that these young men surrendered to the forces ranged against them; even that they chose death over battle, over life. There are those who will say they made an irrational decision. But from the little I understand mental illness, I don’t think this is an accurate understanding of the situation.
After the second man’s death, someone posted a link on twitter to this quotation from David Foster Wallace, who himself went on to take his own life:
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
What a powerful image, and a very helpful way of understanding the issue. And how utterly terrifying.
It terrifies me because my brother and my cousin both suffer from depression. They’re both seeing therapists, taking medication and talking with family, friends and strangers. I’m incredibly proud of them for their honesty, their vulnerability and their courage. Together, we’re all doing all we can to fight the fire. Yet it still rages, and I’m terrified that one day, despite all our best efforts, the flames will well up and consume them.
For really, it’s the flames that kill, not the jump; it’s the disease, not the gun or the pills. And I’m helpless before it.
My cousin tells me that talking is important, so let’s keep talking about it – the stigma around mental health is still huge, and we need to change that so people are no more ashamed of having depression than they are of having chicken pox – or perhaps malaria would be a better analogy, since it doesn’t go away, but lurks beneath the surface ready to pounce when all seems well. Either way, doctors can only help with the symptoms if they know there’s a problem.
Probably more money needs to be put into research, as the medication only seems to help to a certain extent. And if you know of charities working to help those struggling with depression, bipolar disorder or other suicidal thoughts, why not give a donation once in a while? The Samaritans helpline in the UK provide a lifeline when it seems there’s no-one else to turn to, and The Maytree Centre were an enormous help to my cousin. She is now raising money to help them help others in crisis, and I know she’d be thrilled if you gave to that.
If you’re the praying type, keep praying for those you know of, and those you don’t, who struggle with this, and for their families and friends as they love, support and encourage day after day and hour after hour.
I feel helpless, and I don’t like that feeling, but I’m going to keep doing all I can to fight the fire. Will you join me?