A few months ago, our good friend Barb took her own life after years of anguish and despair. A few years ago, my young cousin killed himself at the tender and promising age of 16. He went fishing, as was his passion, and hung himself from a tree with his fishing line. Fishing was his greatest passion and yet his pain was so enormous that he ended his life while doing one of the only things he loved. For him and the way his brain was wired, this moment of fishing was not good enough to keep him here. And the worst thing is, he couldn’t help feeling this way. Heartbreaking.
Their deaths reminded me that although I have had a firsthand glimpse into the world of mental issues, I am miles from fully understanding it. But I also realized that I do not need to fully understand it to feel empathy. We do not have to grasp the exact biology at work inside the body of a person dying of cancer to understand that they are dying. But we can and do empathize with them. Why is it not the same for mental illness? Why do we still think that mental illness is some sort of ruse?
With both these deaths––my cousin and my friend––I heard the same things over and over. “Why did he have to go and do that?” “How could he do that to his Mother?” “Didn’t he think of the person who would find him?” And: “What’s she got to be depressed about, she’s got a beautiful home and a husband who loves her?” “She should just get out and take a class or take up a hobby?” “She says she can’t get out of bed. I told her to force herself!’ This is, believe me, just a small sample of the shocking things I have heard.
I am not saying that these comments aren’t sometimes well-meaning, but they are given as a result of ignorance. Suffering from debilitating depression is a far cry from being depressed, as most of you know. I thank God I do not suffer any of these things, but I had a microscopic glimpse into depression, panic and anxiety during menopause and I for one gained a new respect for those who struggle fiercely every single day.
I heard a comment recently that left me stunned. “With all the innocent babies dying in the world, I think it’s disgusting when people expect sympathy for depression.” Wow. That statement made me so sad. It was so off-base and so without empathy. I couldn’t kneejerk as I usually would have as it was not the time or the place. But I did speak to the gentleman quietly at the end of the event and said that I know him to be a compassionate person and that I was certain he would feel differently if he learned something about depression and about mental health in general. I am happy to say that he was more than open to my plea.
Mental illness is a jail sentence. Your prison is your body, the jailer, your mind. Some people are lucky and find the treatment that works for them. Others search all their lives to no avail.
All their lives! Can you imagine?
I have one friend who wakes up each day and for a tiny teasing second, she thinks maybe, just maybe, it is going to be a good day. Then it hits her in the gut, and she claws her way through her bedclothes just to put her feet on the floor.
Empathy. It’s in all of us.
Barbara: Deb, this is such a difficult subject and I’m so glad you brought it up. Obviously, we can’t do it full justice in such a short post, but I definitely need guidance in this arena and this is as good a place as any to share our experiences and maybe find some common ground.
I am an empathetic person. Very very empathetic. Sometimes to my detriment. But so am I hard-wired to want and try to “make it better”. This often means offering advice or what I think of as possible solutions to emotional conundrums—whether people want it or not. The truth is—and you, Deb, have opened my eyes to this perhaps more than anyone—I don’t at all know what to do or say to someone struggling with serious mental illness.
I too have known people who have taken their own lives. It is devastating and confusing and heartbreaking for all involved. “If only we’d known…” But then what? If someone who struggles with mental illness can’t be cheered or can’t cheer themselves out of it, is there any form of helping hand we could have offered?
Deb has often reminded me that the best form of help is in the listening. As hard as it is to resist offering advice, it might be best not to. Often this kind of depression is relentlessly cyclical: good days followed by bleak pleas of “Why me? Why this? Why now?”. Possibly the only consistently successful offering in these dark times is the simple assurance that “it will be okay.” Because, like so many modern philosophers are saying, “In this moment, you are okay, and so shall you be okay in each moment that follows”.
And that, in a nutshell, is how even the most optimistic of us survives the ride.