Monday, January 13, 2014

Shame, suicide and the fragile mind

Twice now, in less than a year, I have gone to funeral visitations for people who committed suicide.  My cousin was the most recent.

I did not know my cousin well.  Barely at all, if the truth be told.  So I am not personally sad, but I feel sadness because of his mother's (my aunt's) grief, because of the grief of his siblings.  I feel sad because suicide leaves so much unsaid and unresolved.  If someone has a terrible disease and has struggled physically, there is almost some relief when death finally comes.  There is release from the pain, the struggle, for the one who died and those left behind.

With suicide, the mental anguish of the person who commits suicide is merely transferred from him to his family and loved ones.

Many times people say things like, "I can't understand why the person committed suicide," and that is a blessing for them, to have never felt so much pain and internal roiling that the only clear relief within sight was death.

When I was in the midst of my breakdown in 2004, I both knew I wasn't "right" in my mind and yet couldn't see how irrational my thinking was.  I never really considered suicide, but I did call a suicide prevention line because I was grasping for straws, trying to find a safe way to get help without someone knowing I was full-blown crazy and taking my daughter away from me.

I think back to that call when I explained the downhill slide that had gotten me to panic attacks in my sleep and constant crying.  I told her how my ob/gyn told me I might have to stop nursing my daughter, but my daughter wouldn't take a bottle and what was I going to do?

The "counselor" on the other end of the line started speaking reason to me.  I remember her saying something like, "Isn't it more important for your daughter to have a mentally healthy mom even if you have to give up nursing?  You've breastfed your daughter for 9 months, which is a long time."

But my brain, in its flawed, fragile state of the time, did not understand reason.  I heard the words she said to me, but they did not register as helpful.  They were words that only brought more fear and uncertainty into my heart.  To my mind, she was "siding with my doctor who didn't understand how important this was for me."

Nine years later, after therapy and experience and medication, I can look back to this experience and understand that the counselor was right.  It is critically important for my kids to have a mentally healthy mom, probably far more life-impacting than whether I breastfed them and for how long.  To my mind of this moment, it seems ridiculous that I was letting breastfeeding get me so upset, but then I remember that it wasn't that I was allowing something to get the better of me.  I had no control over what was going on inside my head.  Irrational thinking was in the driver's seat, and I was along for the ride, terrified by thoughts I couldn't stop, no matter how much I tried or hoped they would cease.

My brain at the time wasn't reasonable.  It was full of panic, worst-case scenarios, catastrophizing.  And this wasn't the brain of a depressed person; it was the brain of an anxious person who wanted to avoid death at all costs.

My experience with mental health issues makes me feel empathetic towards those whose demons got the best of them.  The ones who couldn't find their way back to their rational thinking minds.  The ones who didn't seek out help or couldn't find the help they needed fast enough.

It is the reason I don't want there to be shame associated with suicide, the pervasive sense of "hushing" that often goes along with this kind of death.  Suicide is sad, not shameful.  In the lost opportunity of someone's life is the opportunity to educate, to make mental health something we discuss without fear or disbelief.

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