#IWasMadeFor

September 10 is National Suicide Prevention Day, which begins National Suicide Prevention Week.  My legal birthday falls during this time; although it is an observance of my birth, it’s also a nod to life in so many other ways.

Recently I’ve been asking former professors for letters of recommendation.  Typically, I give them some information about myself to help fill out their personal experience with me, including documents such as my cv and transcript.  My transcript is usually followed a comment from me something along the lines of, “If you look closely, you’ll notice that my GPA appears to follow an absolute value function over time.  This is not because I turned into a slacker for two years; I was just really depressed when I was a sophomore and junior.”  Thus far this has been met with nothing but grace and concern.

“Are you okay?”  “Yeah, I’m fine, I just wanted to let you know.”  “Okay, I just had to make sure.”  “Really, I’m doing much better now.”

“How are you now?”  “I’m a lot better.  If you need more explanation, I can say more.”  “It’s okay.  My daughter has had issues with depression too, and I know it can be difficult.”

The genuine expressions of caring–a tone of surprise and concern, then kindness; a momentarily scrunched eyebrow; a lean forwards; words of compassion–has made it that much easier for me to face the challenge of explaining the situation.  More important, if/when I hit a rough patch again, I hope that I can cling to those expressions of care, knowing that people–even people I don’t know that well, who objectively should have no vested interest in me–want to make sure I’m okay.

If you have the opportunity to be that person, take it.  For those of you have have taken it, thank you.  And for those of you who have ever needed such care and compassion, please STAY.

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“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.

No One Else Can Play Your Part

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, To Write Love on Her Arms is promoting the theme “No One Else Can Play Your Part” for the week of September 8-14.  Admittedly, I have some mixed feelings about TWLOHA as an organization/cause, but for now, that’s not really the point.  At the very least, they raise awareness, and that’s important.

No one else can play your part.  There have been times that this has been difficult for me to remember.  Today, I saw how much it works both ways.  Yes, no one else can play my part.  But no one else can play the parts of all the people in my life.  It’s easy for me to box out other people, which I suppose also makes it easy for me to forget that both they and I play unique parts.  One of my best friends posted this link on Facebook and tagged me and two of our other closest friends.  [Aside: Frankly, I believe that friendship is one of God’s graces to humanity.  If you feel that you haven’t friends, hang on.  I’ve been there.  It was a dark time, but it led to a lot of introspection and two important realizations: 1) Locking myself in the Impenetrable Tower of Invulnerability is a completely ineffective strategy to make friends.  2) Even if you feel surrounded by thousands of people who don’t understand you, someone will.]  It’s just a brief discussion of C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves with an excerpt, but I’ve copied out part (most) of the excerpt here because it illustrates why no one else can play your part.

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts. This love (essentially) ignores not only our physical bodies but that whole embodiment which consists of our family, job, past and connections. At home, besides being Peter or Jane, we also bear a general character; husband or wife, brother or sister, chief, colleague, or subordinate. Not among our Friends. It is an affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds. Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gave value to survival.

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.