Tuesday, August 12, 2014

About As Personal As it Gets

Today, when I have logged onto any type of social media, I have been bombarded with the newest topic up for discussion and debate: suicide.

Normally, these articles wouldn't affect me so much, and I could find a way to logically separate myself from the painful comments and dismiss them. However, due to recent events in my life, I have been incapable of stifling my emotions while reading articles, comments, and posts. Getting off of Facebook and avoiding the news have been the best route for me to go, but I felt compelled to write down my feelings regarding suicide and share them.  Typically, when I feel the overwhelmingly strong desire to write about something I feel passionate about, I am able to squelch the compulsion and move on. This time, not so. 

When I was a child, I often heard stories about my great uncle Cece. His black and white portrait hung in the hallway of my grandparents' house, and I often found myself drawn to his picture, studying his face. He was remarkably handsome (and young) in his army uniform. The smallest hint of a smile was upon lips, and the softness in his eyes suggested he was a kind man. By all accounts, Cece was a wonderful person; he loved his wife, adored his young daughter, and was well-respected. 

The thing I could never understand was why he committed suicide. 

I knew the details leading up to the incident: his wife left him for another man, took their daughter, and was threatening to keep him away from his child for the rest of his life. Feeling completely hopeless, he went to the train tracks, laid down, and waited. 

Emotionally, I knew he must be hurting to take his own life, but logically, I saw the ramifications of his actions decades later (a grandfather, who had been more like a father to his younger sibling, racked with guilt to his dying day) and came to the conclusion that suicide was incredibly selfish. Suicide had robbed his family of more time with the man they loved, and his child would definitely grow up without a father because of his decision. Of course, I felt sorry for Cece, but at the time, I had no way of knowing how complex human emotions can truly be. I also had no knowledge or experience with mental illness.

Years passed and I found myself thinking about Cece one morning. It was my junior year of college, and I was in the throes of prolonged depression. After struggling to admit I had a problem, I finally broke down and called my mother as soon as I knew she would be awake. I sobbed as I pleaded with her to come to Utah and help me. I knew something was wrong with me emotionally and mentally and that I couldn't overcome it alone. Thankfully, I was able to put aside suicidal thoughts, walk to my college campus, go straight to the counseling center, and stand there.

 I couldn't even ask for help. I just stood there and sobbed. 

 I remember the receptionist was looking downward as I approached her desk and quickly told me in a dismissive voice, "If you're here without an appointment, we can't help you today." And then she looked up. 

Whatever she saw in my face had her quickly changing her tune. She stood up, came around the counter, and hugged me as I sobbed. I managed to tell her, "I need help." She muttered some soothing words, took my hand, and walked me to a room. The walls were empty and cardboard boxes littered the floors. She quickly explained that the lack of available appointments was due to one of the therapist retiring that day. She continued on, saying he would make an exception and see me immediately. 

I don't remember what we talked about when the therapist eventually entered the room, but I do know I had come to my own conclusion that something inside of my mind wasn't right. I was struggling with the concept that I was now a "depressed person." How had this happened to ME?? My identity, for the large part, had always been based upon the fact that I considered myself to be upbeat and positive. In high school, one of my senior superlatives was "Most Distinct Laugh" because I was always laughing and smiling. The reality that I was no longer that charismatic person was unsettling and sent my whole mental state into a tremendous upheaval. I wasn't a depressed person. I couldn't be depressed because that meant admitting I had issues I couldn't handle on my own. 

Fortunately for me, though, I was finally able to ask for help when I needed it the most. I had loving friends who picked me up from the counseling center and then took me to IKEA (because it sounded like a "happy" place to me) while we awaited the arrival of my mother. Things improved for a while with the help of therapy. 

A few years later, I found myself utterly drowning again. I was a young mother with a colicky newborn, and I was battling extreme post-partum depression. For weeks, I wasn't able to make the connection that something wasn't right mentally and that I needed to ask for help. I had a beautiful, healthy child, a loving husband, a new home, and a seemingly wonderful life. Why was I so sad? Who was I to complain?

At church, I felt completely isolated by my depression. I  felt like everyone could see how miserable I was and that they could tell I was only pretending to fit in.  Illogically, I began to think everyone was judging me and condemning me to wear some sort of scarlet letter that announced I was a fraud. If they knew I was depressed, they might think I wasn't righteous enough or praying enough or believing in the Savior as much as I should. 

As I lay awake in bed one night during this time (listening to my colicky baby scream and scream), I was reminded of a scene from the movie The Hours. I had watched this film years earlier in a high school English class and one scene came to my remembrance with a powerful rush. Julianne Moore's character is a 1950's housewife who is struggling with severe depression. At one point during the movie, she drops her children off with a neighbor and goes to a hotel to commit suicide. She lays on the bed as she contemplates death and begins to dream. In her dream, the room is suddenly flooded by rushing water. She and the bed are engulfed by the flood, and she is literally drowning in her own grief and sorrow. 

That is how I felt. 

The next Sunday at church, a woman named Susan Evans McCloud taught the Sunday school lesson to the women of our ward. Sister McCloud wrote the LDS hymn "Lord I Would Follow Thee" and that Sunday, she explained the events that inspired her to write some of the moving lyrics. She specifically focused on the lines, "Who am I to judge another, When I walk imperfectly, In the quiet heart is hidden, Sorrow that the eye can't see." I found an interview where she states almost exactly what she shared in her lesson. Here is the excerpt that moved me the most:

My younger sister Lora's fifth child had been born with Down Syndrome. Sarah was delicate and beautiful, with dark black hair and deep, deep eyes. Her condition was critical because she had a heart defect which would require surgery if she was to live, but she had to become old enough and strong enough to survive the operation. She did not make it, but died gently, almost imperceptibly, in her mother's arms.The day following Sarah's death I went with my sister to shop for some things she needed, including a little locket for the baby to be buried with. As we walked through the mall, my heart ached. I longed to run ahead and say to each sales clerk we were approaching, "I know we just look like two young women out shopping, but her baby died yesterday. Please be kind to her."
Some were kind,and some weren't. But the experience had a lasting impact upon me. 
For years afterward I would watch people — look into the face of a man or woman who was being rude or impatient on the highway, at a store counter or waiting in a line.I would think: How do I know what they are going through? Maybe they found out they have cancer, or lost their job. Or perhaps someone they love very much has just died. What is happening inside, what burdens they are struggling to bear, do not show in their faces — any more than it had shown in my sister's and mine.

After hearing these words, I knew I was depressed.  I was almost desperate for someone to ask me what was wrong, yet terrified at the same time to admit I wasn't myself. I lived on the brink of a nervous breakdown and worried that even the smallest amount of criticism from a friend or even stranger would send me over the edge. As I thought about Susan Evans McCloud and her song, l began to realize (again) that in addition to feeling overwhelmed, there were also some chemical and hormonal imbalances in my mind. I eventually was able to receive the help I needed. I also knew her lesson had been the answer to my fervent prayers--said when I felt the weakest and most alone.

This song and its moving lyrics recently resurfaced in my life. While reading an article on suicide, the author wrote how stumbling across the words, "In the quiet heart is hidden, Sorrow that the eye can't see" helped her come to terms with her sister's death. I know I have been searching for comfort myself as I try to process the suicide of my stepfather. 

He passed away four weeks ago. 

After all of my own experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts, I still wasn't prepared for suicide to impact my life the way that it has. For the past 28 days, it doesn't feel like what happened actually took place. It's too horrible to process most of the time, so I try my best to avoid thinking about it. 

But when my children are sleep and I'm laying in my bed, I stay awake imagining how my stepfather, Steve, must have felt before he ended his own life. I have cried, pleaded with the Lord for understanding, and prayed for peace to come into to my heart. I have felt saddened, frustrated, confused, hurt, and found myself saying out loud into the darkness of my room, "Why? Why, Steve, why?"

Just a few weeks ago, I admitted that earlier this year I had suicidal thoughts due to my pregnancy related sickness. The night after my feeding tube was inserted, I cried as I tried to speak to the nurse in order to tell her I just wanted things to be over. There was too much physical pain and mental trauma. I didn't want to try anymore. And despite the feelings of empathy and sympathy, I still hurt. I still grieve. I hate that this happened. 

I want to be angry with someone, and I want to scream and voice every frustration and grievance. But, like my sister said, "suicide leaves you without someone to be upset with." How could we possibly be angry with Steve when he was obviously hurting without our knowledge? There were no signs or indicators to show he was depressed (and certainly not suicidally depressed), so our family has been left with a lot of questions and profound confusion. I keep coming back to the hymn and the fact that in Steve's case, his sorrow was truly hidden. He carried his grief alone; he allowed no one to shoulder his hurt (and that sounds like something he would of course do). 

It's been hard to separate the gentle man who so lovingly took care of my mother and was kind to my children with the person who took their own life. As I've thought about it more and more, I have come to the conclusion that it's hard to separate these two images of the man I knew because I shouldn't be trying to create a division in the first place; the Steve that committed suicide is still the same man who loved my mother, the Gospel, and his family. No actions will change that.

I have read hurtful comments that suicide is "selfish" and "a choice," but I disagree. With the cases of my uncle Cece and now my stepfather, I believe they both saw suicide as the only option. In some convoluted way, they thought that ending their own lives would actually mean they were less of a burden to those they loved. That might not make sense to some, and I suppose that's okay. It makes sense to me, and it's helping me come to terms with Steve's unexpected death.

I know that death (including suicide) cannot change the the character or the legacy of a person. Placing further judgment and condemnation upon a person who is already dead is never necessary. Instead, we should continue to love them and show compassion and mercy. I'm still learning how to do this, but I can say with a certainty that it is helping. As the Apostle Peter wrote, we are to have "compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous'" (Peter 3:8).

And lastly, I wanted to share some words from a talk given by Jeffrey R. Holland. I truly love this man and the counsel he gives.

Whatever your struggle, my brothers and sisters—mental or emotional or physical or otherwise—do not vote against the preciousness of life by ending it! Trust in God. Hold on in His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel we are “like a broken vessel,” as the Psalmist says,  we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed. While God is at work making those repairs, the rest of us can help by being merciful, nonjudgmental, and kind.

It is my sincere desire that we can be more willing to pause and lift one another and refrain from passing judgments. Let's just love and support one another rather than assume we know what is going on in the lives of others.