Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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Suicide Prevention Reflection

I don’t know if it is a sign of my healing, or of my current stress level, that World Suicide Prevention Day passed almost without a second thought today (or – technically – yesterday). Given the way that my father’s suicide when I was not quite grown has shaped my life, that relative inconsequence certainly means something.

Since I am still up, however, I don’t want to let the day pass without any notice, and so I am re-posting the piece I wrote shortly after the world lost the tortured light that was Robin Williams.

Suicide is complicated. It is wonderful to have a day of awareness, but Facebook memes and one-day attention efforts are not enough. When we talk about suicide, we need to really talk.

So this is my contribution to the conversation:

Absolutes and Vulnerability

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Absolutes and Vulnerability

I have written about suicide before.

I have written about my processing of one such loss,

and the way that pain heals,

and the way that pain changes.

Losing my Dad to suicide when I was 19 does not make me an expert on suicide, but it gives me an urge to share from my experience. That urge is in part an element of my own healing process. That urge is also an effort to offer hope to others walking similar paths, because vulnerability can be one of the most powerful gifts to those devastated by this particular kind of loss.   

That power of vulnerability was in my mind for a completely unrelated reason as I scrolled through Facebook this evening. My feed offered a number of reflections on the suicide of Robin Williams.  The internet conversation on this topic is a mixed bag, of course, but one thread in that fabric grabbed my attention. I am referring to the commentary offered by blogger Matt Walsh about Williams’ death being a “choice,” as well as the impassioned response to his assessment.

I disagree with much of what Matt Walsh said, but those disagreements wouldn’t be worth a blog post. Most of my arguments were made by others in comments responding to the post. These comments cited research, and biochemistry, and personal stories – all presented with the same authoritative tone as the original blog post. And, while I agreed with many of the comments more than I did with the post, the whole feed left me feeling drained by the invulnerability of it all. It was as though the entire discussion was built on the common premise that the one who can claim the most invulnerable authority on the issue has the right to define, in absolute terms, the truth of suicide.

When we are talking about something as raw and devastating and confusing as suicide, absolutes seem to me to be incredibly unhelpful. And I think that help is really the most important thing that incidents like this can inspire. Help for those who are mourning suicides and help for those who are contemplating such an exit.

Now, I know that Matt Walsh trades in absolutes – that is his electronic identity in many ways – but this prioritization of helpfulness is actually evident in a key argument near the end of his post.

“To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw.”
Read more at http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/08/12/robin-williams-didnt-die-disease-died-choice/#5DKJGMxl2YMEwGMT.99

Walsh’s argument is that characterizing suicide as illness rather than choice does the opposite of helping them, and therefore is absolutely wrong. It is a position that can be argued back and forth and the result will be (as evidenced by the comments on the post) … an argument. I do not claim that Walsh’s position would not be helpful to any person considering suicide. I do not, however, believe that it would be absolutely helpful.  I do not believe it would be helpful to every person considering suicide.

I cannot believe this because of my own experience with depression. Not my Dad’s experience, my own.

This is where I have to live up to my challenge about vulnerability. While I have blogged about my dad’s suicide before, I have never before shared my own struggle with mental illness in such a public way. While this is not an active pain, it still feels too private to share. But… my intensely personal experience is why I feel so strongly that arguments about absolutes are more harmful than helpful in this context.

I have Major Depressive Disorder, which has manifested in four major depressive episodes. I am incredibly thankful that I have not had a depressive episode in ten years, but I can still feel that pain in my memory as a visceral, all-encompassing reality.

My experience of depression is like the slow, inexorable descent into quicksand. It’s just a pressure at first, a sucking drain on joy and energy that feels like I should be able to just shake it off. But the effort to shake it off triggers a much more vice-like grip. I try to strip it away, but there is nothing get hold of. My fingers slide through the suffocating pressure – small grains of pain are too insubstantial to grasp and deal with, but the very ease with which they slide away creates a pocket of empty space to suck at scrabbling fingers, always pulling down. It takes so much effort to struggle, and the effort only hastens the descent. It saps all energy and will to fight. It’s so much easier just to stop fighting. I know it will eventually crush me with its weight but the slow compression becomes almost like a tight bear hug. I am lulled by the promise of a final enfolding of sleep – so much preferable to the violence of lungs filling quickly with the sucking, pressing, all-surrounding pain that will win no matter what I do.

That is my experience with depression, an experience that gives me a small glimpse into the pain that ended my Dad’s life. It is only a glimpse because I have never gotten very close to suicide myself. As technical diagnostic levels go, my depression only ever reached a one on a scale of one to three. But even my relatively minor experience teaches me how utterly enervating depression can be.

It also teaches me that there is no absolute about what helps and what hurts. Sometimes talking about it helped. Sometimes it drove me deeper. Sometimes prayer was a lifeline. Sometimes prayer made me feel abandoned and alone. Sometimes understanding my depression as an illness helped to alleviate the crushing sense of guilt at not being able to snap myself out of it. Sometimes the label of illness made it feel inescapable. Different episodes resolved in different ways and there was no formula, other than the presence of friends, my husband, and God. Presence – because the only way out of quicksand is for someone not caught in it to stand close enough to grab hold of.

And that is the problem of absolutes in the public discussion of suicide. Suicide is possibly the most personal phenomenon I have ever encountered. As a result of my own experience with it, I am attuned to the stories. I have been listening to them and talking about them with those most directly affected for 18 years. Every story is incredibly individual, to the point where absolutes just break down.

I sympathize with the need to find a cure – to present a path – to claim the authority that reassures us there is a right way to respond to this devastatingly final pain. I just don’t think that is really very helpful.

Try vulnerability instead. Be vulnerable to the scariness of it. Be vulnerable to your own pain and to other people’s. Be vulnerable.

Vulnerability is really the essence of presence.

 

 

 


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My Hope Hole: Day 10 of the April Poetry Challenge

As part of the Messy Beautiful Warrior Project, I’ve been reading many of the thoughtful, inspiring, and vulnerable stories of fellow contributors over the past several days. I have been deeply moved by the courage that so many of these women have shown in painful situations, including some situations that connect directly to a piece of my own story. Their words have evoked my memories of the darkest time in my life, but those memories have brought not fresh pain, but rather an awareness of healing.

Today’s poem is for all those warriors who are fighting the pain each day. Here’s to hope.


 

They say “time heals all wounds.”

I think that’s true.

Near eighteen years past loss, and I’ve moved on,

lived nearly half my life,

and I am healed.

Yes! Even blessed.

No longer mangled by the ripping pain…

Dad’s suicide.

 

This week I’ve read so many tales of loss

by messy, beautiful warriors carrying-on

through the agony of darkness, barely gone:

a failed parent,

a bi-polar diagnosis,

a father died too young.

And each could be a trigger,

a sharp slap of memory:

of a Dad who couldn’t love me back,

of tortured, hurricane emotions,

of the final and irreparable loss.

 

And yet…

 I find that I am not undone.

I read the stories with deep empathy,

knowing the pain involved

from inside,

from experience,

but when I write my own messy beautiful tale,

Dad’s death was only a small footnote,

not the controlling center.

 

Ten years ago, it certainly would have been,

but

time heals.

 

The healing is not quite what I’d expected, though.

It has not made me whole,

returned my heart to its uninjured shape,

perhaps with just a scar to show the hurt.

Instead, the hole remains, unfilled.

Dad was and is still missing,

from my wedding,

from eighteen Christmases and birthdays,

from my children’s memories,

and that “missing” is a gap within the fabric of my life.

 

The miracle of time, of healing, is

that broken threads of love have been rewoven,

the edges of the hole no longer frayed.

My heart is not the same, how could it be?
But… it is whole.

The hole of loss has grown to be a part of my heart’s shape.

And in that hole, that space that can’t be filled with life that carries on,

there is now room to carry

Hope.


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Valentine Perspective

Valentine’s Day has historically been quite a difficult day for me.

I am hardly unique in this respect, but I venture to presume that the reason the 14th of February pulls at the scars on my heart is relatively unusual. It is not the lack of romantic attachment that brings pain. I am lucky enough to be married to my best friend. It is not a sense of isolation. My life is very full of love and companionship. It is not even a memory of past betrayal that sours this day, at least not in the traditional sense.

No. A cloud has obscured the heart on the calendar for the past 16 years because Valentine’s Day is also the day my Dad was born, and 16 years ago my Dad was no longer there to be celebrated. The previous summer, when I was just 19, my Dad had taken his own life.

Anyone who knows about grief can tell you how difficult anniversaries are. Birthdays, death days, any date that bears special significance in a lost relationship has the power to reopen wounds. For me, Valentine’s Day has offered a little extra twist to the knife of loss because of its irony. A day to celebrate love is such a fitting and awful day to associate with my Dad’s life. It emphasizes the love that I lost when he took himself away, but more than that it focuses attention on the pain that led him to that choice.

My Dad was a man driven by the search for love. I think all human beings need love, but for Dad that need was an obsessive compulsion. It is not that his life was without love. Even after my parents’ divorce he had people in his life who loved him, and I was near the top of this list. But the love that he had never seemed to satisfy his need. He was desperate for some unattainable romantic ideal that would fulfill the deepest longings of his soul, and ultimately that desperation led to despair.

Suicide is a complicated phenomenon. There were undoubtedly factors of biology, and past trauma, and triggering stress that laid the pathway for his suicide. And I could never claim to be able to enter into his mind and heart on the night he took those pills to explain all of his reasons. Nevertheless, I have always felt certain that his frustration at not finding the love he so deeply desired was a major factor in driving him to seek an end to the pain.

And this is why Valentine’s Day had long been such a difficult day for me. The pain has moderated over the years. I have lived almost half of my life since that watershed loss in my life, and it has been a good life. My wonderful husband has done a lot to add many wonderful associations to the day to try to balance out the bad; and it is impossible not to smile when I remember Princess Imagination’s shy pleasure in making valentines for her classmates (including one special one for a certain sweet little boy), or when the Gigglemonster smears the associated chocolate goodness of the day all over his face. Most importantly, the tears I have cried on this day always led me to the source of Love, and I have felt the love of God in those moments in ways that would have been impossible if I had not been so broken. Valentine’s Day still brings thoughts of my Dad, but these thoughts share space with others that are even more powerful.

That is why today I am thankful for the memory of my Dad on Valentine’s Day. Not just because it is important to cherish the memories of the 19 years I did have with him. But because even in death he taught me a really important lesson about love.

The romantic ideal of Valentine’s Day is NOT what makes life worth living. You can drive yourself crazy searching for that ideal… in fact, he did. But when love, especially romantic love, becomes an obsession it destroys life; it doesn’t fulfill it. Love isn’t flowers, or candlelight dinners, or sexy lingerie. Love isn’t even finding your soul mate. Love is finding your soul’s source, and knowing that no matter how many human relationships you have they will never come close to meeting the deepest need that is built into us – to know the love of God.

Tomorrow there will be a lot of grand romantic gestures around the world, and that is not a bad thing. It is good, even important, to make a big deal over our partners on special occasions. Tomorrow there will also be a lot of loneliness and tears, and maybe even some suicides, and that is a bad thing. I’m fairly confident that my day will not be marked by either extreme. [That is not a knock on my husband, just an acknowledgement that we have two young children and the romance gets a bit moderated during these particular years of our partnership.] If I could have one wish for this day, however, it wouldn’t be for my day. It would be for the lesson I learned from one, special, Valentine baby to reach others who need that perspective as much as I do.

So, if this story touched you, please send it on. You never know what romantic ideal could be breaking someone’s heart today.

Dad holding me on my first Christmas

Dad holding me on my first Christmas