My friend Christine lost her battle with major depression on Tuesday. Despite the stigmas and stereotypes, mental illness is a disease like any other. Much the way your loved one lost a battle with cancer or diabetes, she lost a battle. She took her own life, and for those of us who loved her, this fact has been a stark reality to embrace.
If asked to describe Christine in a word, I would say "happy." Ironic, I realize. She had a beautiful smile complete with dimples, a smart-wit, and a genuine desire to help those she loved. In hindsight, that may have been her downfall: not her need to help per se, but her need to be needed, and her desire for approval, which she perceived as love. She looked to the external markers of validation that we are all taught to admire. But there is a fine line: to place your self-esteem on the receiving end of someone else's opinion of you is a volatile place to be.
My emotions have run the spectrum from shock to grief, to heartbreak, to anger (at both her and myself), to deep sorrow, to denial, and back again. I know I'm not alone in my confusion as to why someone beautiful and brilliant would end her own life. A number of people have said to me, "suicide is a selfish act." But I disagree. Because despite the grief I am currently experiencing, I also have a deep understanding of the battle one faces when struggling with mental illness.
I have never attempted suicide, but I have contemplated the idea. In the aftermath of 9/11, I suffered from major depression. Anxiety began to creep into my being. I lived in DC at the time, and suddenly could not get on the subway without tears. Each time a fire alarm went off in an office building, I had a panic attack. I feared for the lives of the people in my immediate family, all of whom worked as pilots or flight attendants in the airline industry. I was certain they would not all live to see Christmas.
My friend noticed my anxious state and recommended I seek counseling. I did. But as fall turned to winter, the anxiety that kept me awake at night shifted to depression. It was gradual at first. I slept a lot. Then I slept more. I justified my behavior as holiday aftermath. Who wasn't tired and depressed in the gray of January? But when tasks that were once routine became impossible, I knew I was in trouble. I was doing the minimum. When I wasn't going through the motions, I was sleeping. And then crying. All the time. My mind began to drift to how I could obtain a gun. How much would it cost? What was the procedure for getting a permit? How much time would it take? The effort to obtain a firearm seemed insurmountable in my state. Thank God. Before the thoughts turned to action, my husband noticed my pain and forced me to have a conversation with my counselor about medication. I was prescribed medication, and it probably saved my life.
Even now, I'm embarrassed to share the depth of the ugly, dark thoughts that my disease triggered. In the midst of contemplating death, I wasn't aware of a reality different from my own. I could not realize that I was well loved by many people. That I had worth. That my mere existence made a contribution in meaningful ways. I mattered. We all do. The fact that we were born means that we matter. Life is precious and fragile and a gift.
That's what I know as a healthy person. When you're healthy, it is impossible to contemplate life through the lens of depression. The thought of suicide does seem selfish. Why would you leave the world prematurely, creating insurmountable sorrow, all-encompassing guilt, and unanswerable questions for those you love? Because you are blind to the fact that you matter.
When you're ill, the idea of suicide feels like a release not merely for yourself, but for your loved ones, too. When you suffer from major depression, you know you're not well. Yet, you cannot fix it. Therefore, you cannot contemplate a future without pain. Your mental state feels permanent. And in that perceived permanency, you believe that you are a burden to those you love. If you cannot care for yourself and contribute to the well-being of those around you, why not release them and you? And through that lens, suicide feels like a selfless and practical act.
Only you're wrong. Because you're ill.
When we describe suicide as selfish, we, the living, are projecting our own pain. Now on the other side, I could never have contemplated the depth of unanswered grief I feel at losing someone I loved. For a loved one to take away the gift of her bright, shining presence and leave us, the living, broken-hearted does seem selfish. But only because I'm considering my grief and not hers, which is also a selfish act.
Rather than blaming the victims of illness, we must hold space for the struggle they endure. We are so quick to shun what we do not understand. What might our society look like if we chose compassion, or at least non-judgment? We must also hold space for ourselves. It's easy to Monday morning quarterback all the signs we should have seen, yet didn't. We didn't see signs because they were hidden. Society encourages us to lock and load our emotions rather than allowing us to create an honest dialogue. I still feel embarrassment about my depressive episode from 15 years ago. In addition to holding space for each other, we must first be gentle with ourselves.
As humans, there is more that unites us than divides us. Our ego is a sneaky b*tch, attempting to separate us from each other whether depressed or not. Until we can have vulnerable conversations about the reality of our suffering, we will remain unable to release it.