“You Didn’t Have to Go”

An acquaintance from high school took his own life last weekend.  I can’t claim to have known him well, but when you go to a small school, you kind of know everybody.  I don’t really have words to understand what happened, and even if I did, I’m not sure I’d share them here: it’s not mine to tell.

But there are a few things I can say.  In a society where “I’m so depressed” is tossed around as loosely as Peyton Manning’s passes this season, it’s easy to forget that depression can be a life-threatening illness: its estimated mortality rate is as high as 15%, though likely somewhat lower depending on what definition of “depression” is used.  Statistics aside, think about that again: Depression can be fatal.

Popular culture would have us believe depression is constant sadness, never-ending crying, or just a persistent case of the Eeyores.  This is true for some people, some times. Earlier this week, a friend from high school wrote a beautifully conceived and executed Facebook post reflecting on this loss and on depression and mental illness in general.  He described depression as when “you stop participating in your life”–that’s probably as accurate a description as I’ve ever heard.  But depression is a shape-shifter.  It has many presentations, even for one person, within one episode–and that can make it hard to catch.

My boss told me one time that if I ever started to feel excessively guilty or worthless, or if I started to wonder what it would be like to be dead, to see a psychiatrist immediately.  I would add to that if you start doubting yourself (not just your judgment or choices–yourself) in ways you wouldn’t normally, or if you find yourself mysteriously unable to do anything, seek help.  Recognizing depression is important in its own right–self-awareness is a beautiful thing–but it’s also a necessary step in getting help, which I would argue is the greater value in the path to getting better.  It doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist or psychologist, at least not right away.  A friend, a family member, a teacher, a clergyperson if you’re religious, even a coworker or boss.  Someone cares and someone will care.  As my mother would remind me, it’s safer not to travel alone.

For those who are called upon to help: first and foremost, listen.  It can be uncomfortable.  It can be confusing.  It can be scary, especially if the person is actively suicidal.  But listen.  Don’t try to fix: leave that to the psychiatrist or psychologist later on.  Seek help yourself, in the stead of the other person, if you need to.  Be present.  Stay present.  Love.  And listen.

“Contemplation, normally regarded as a private pursuit, needs communal support.  We are most likely to risk its vulnerabilities and be faithful to its implications when we are embedded in a community that both evokes and witnesses our truth—a rare form of community in which we learn to ‘be alone together,’ to support one another on a solitary journey.  We practice being present to others without being invasive or evasive—neither trying to ‘fix’ them with advice nor turning away when they share something distressing.” (Parker Palmer)

“You can flip the switch by standing at a safe distance, on the threshold, and simply reaching in the door, but to enter the dark you actually have to step inside.  That may be real love, right there.  The willingness to be present, knowing there isn’t a damn thing you can do to fix anything.” (Kristin Richard Armstrong)

“Because our lives are hidden with Christ in God, we do not know the effects of even the smallest acts of love.” (Aaron Kheriaty)

Finally, a couple years ago, I put the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in my phone.  You never know when someone might need it, and you don’t want to be fumbling around on the internet in a moment of crisis.  You also don’t know if that someone might be you.  My friend who wrote the post I referenced above also recommended this, so I will do the same.  It only takes a moment–a moment now could be invaluable at some moment in the future.  Here’s the number: 1-800-273-8255.

I don’t mean to overdramatize this.  Drama aside, I don’t think I can overemphasize how important these things are.  The title of this post also came from my friend’s Facebook post.  And so I will close:

Please don’t go.

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Secrets

Many people have seen Kevin Breel’s Ted Talk about depression that went viral last fall.  If you haven’t, I highly recommend it.  Recently, he wrote a blog post for TWLOHA marking the third anniversary of the day he almost committed suicide.  He writes, “I found out that our deepest struggles don’t also have to be our deepest secrets.”  That’s a lesson I’m slowly, often painfully, learning.

I’ve written before about my journey this year in vulnerability–necessary, I’ve found, for real friendships to work.  It’s not all about how much I have done/can do to be be vulnerable about my story; it’s also just as much or even more about the people who were willing to listen and make themselves vulnerable, both in the present and in the past.

The people who told me they would listen–and did.  When they said, “If you want to talk, you can.”  The person who said, “I won’t judge you,” when she knew I didn’t want to talk.  The acquaintances who asked me if I was doing alright because I seemed to be acting a little oddly (of course I said, “I’m fine, just tired,” but I appreciated their words more than they knew.)  The person who was brave enough to tell me she was worried about me and then to ask if I thought I was going to hurt myself, even though we weren’t super close friends.  The people who keep listening to me now as I’ve been processing my thoughts and learning that “embracing your light doesn’t mean ignoring your dark” (Kevin Breel’s Ted Talk) and that “brokenness does not define us, but it is a part of how we fit into God’s story” (Scotty Smith at RUF Summer Conference).

To these people: thank you.

To the world: we need to become more like these people.  People who notice when something seems off–and aren’t afraid to say so.  People who care more about people than about issues.  People who cross the no-man’s land of stigma and silence.  People who are brave enough to make themselves vulnerable by asking other people to share their vulnerabilities and struggles.  People who know that small words like “I care about you,” and little actions, like a hug, make a big difference, like a life.

The video embedded below expresses this more eloquently than I ever could.  So take two and a half minutes of your life and watch it–it’s worth it.  It’s another Ted Talk, this one by a man who lost his son to suicide.  The entire presentation is good–the rest of the time motivates what he says in the clip–but if you’re pressed for time, 11:44-14:17 is one of the parts that needs to be heard most.