Knocking Yourself Out With Your Own Fist

My hope is that my story, told from the other side of this sixth stage, will be a catalyst for positive change in the way we approach, regard, and respond to the social fallout of mental illness.
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NYTimes bestselling author Mary Karr says, "In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it's done right."


Writing All the Things We Never Knew felt very much like knocking myself out, day after day, week after week, month after month. In the aftermath of my husband's death by suicide, I needed to make sense of what had gone wrong and to hold myself accountable for missing what I now know to be glaring signs of mental illness. The memoir is also a love letter to our then 9-year-old daughter, who deserved to know the truth about what happened to her beloved daddy.

The story of David's descent into mental illness is told, like most memoirs, from a subjective point of view -- mine. But I unmasked myself in a way that is so brutally revealing, close friends who reviewed the manuscript asked if I needed to include such unflattering truths about myself.

Yes. Mental Illness often masks itself as selfish, anti-social behavior. It waxes and wanes, especially in higher functioning people. And the extremes of the condition are triggered by trauma. I felt obliged to illustrate how my confusion, my denial, and my co-dependence worsened David's outcome. I searched for the truth. And when it didn't sound real on the page, or as brutal as it was in my memory, I dug harder.

I shelved the manuscript for almost six years while I volunteered for mental health organizations and researched best practices in mental health. I'd already written subjectively, now I searched for objectivity. Why is our mental health system failing America's families? Why have we relied so heavily on pharmaceutical solutions to mental illness when they originate in a crisis of mind, body and spirit? What works? And why aren't we doing more of that?

This book is for every caregiver who wanders onto Google in the middle of the night typing, "depression, "bipolar," or "suicide." It is for every family member or friend of one of the estimated 41,000 Americans who take their lives every year. All the Things We Never Knew is part memoir/part mental health guide, the book I wish someone had given me during the height of our family's crisis.

In every moment, we choose life or death. We choose to believe or disbelieve. We choose truth or lies, intimacy or isolation. David's reflex throughout life was to move apart from, and away from his unmasking. His suicide illuminated the choices before me--would I hide in shame and stigma, or choose vulnerability and honesty? I chose the latter.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has described the five stages of grief as denial, anger bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When a loved one commits suicide; that list is incomplete. We are haunted by the questions, "Why would he?" or, "What could I have done differently?"

I'd propose one more stage of grief to Kubler-Ross's list in the case of suicide; forgiveness. It was not until I reached this stage of forgiveness that I was able to sort out my own failings from those of my husband. In accepting responsibility for my part in David's death, I was able to understand his sense of futility, the level of his psychic pain, and his unwillingness to face his illness. I forgave him. I forgave myself. And in doing so, I've been better able to understand his decision.

My hope is that my story, told from the other side of this sixth stage, will be a catalyst for positive change in the way we approach, regard, and respond to the social fallout of mental illness.

Here's NYTimes bestselling author Cheryl Strayed on All the Things We Never Knew

Strayed says, "All the Things We Never Knew is a boldly beautiful page-turner about loving and losing someone with mental illness. With unblinking honesty and profound compassion, Sheila Hamilton brings us vividly into her confusion, sorrow, and ultimate healing. I'll be recommending this absorbing memoir for years to come."


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

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