I walk around the town where I live wondering if this person knows; if they’ve read my blog and can see through me; if they are looking past my smile into the pain and hate underneath. Do they know I am a fraud? Are they judging me? Do I scare them? That would be the worst of all.
A couple of weeks ago I was able to go and speak to a group in my hometown who invited me to talk to them about my personal experience with suicide. I was very excited to have been invited to go and talk to a parent’s group that I considered my peers; women about my age with children the same age as mine. I imagined this group would be comprised of ladies who were mostly working in the home, although it is not completely inconceivable to assume one or two may have just taken time off of work to make it to the meeting. I know I was never able to, as much as I would have liked to. My lunch breaks were mostly allocated to doctor appointments and networking luncheons such as the Lion’s Club and the Business Women’s groups I now attended. But hopefully, they knew that I, too, was a caring mother and I was interested in my children’s education and well-being.
When all had arrived, I realized none of them looked familiar other than the lady that invited me, but that was fine with me. I may have extreme anxiety issues, among other things, but for some reason speaking in front of people never made me nervous. Especially if it was about something I was passionate about. For some reason words always just came to me naturally. Maybe not always the right words; but God did give me a gift of public speaking. This day, I was given the opportunity to speak about something I have been very interested in over the past year so I was maybe a little vulnerable, but not nervous. I was prepared to open up and spill my guts for these fellow Moms in the hopes that at least one might be changed by what I had to say. I wished my own mother had this chance when I was young…but people didn’t discuss such things then. At least, not without hushed tones and judgmental shakes of their heads. The leader of this group who invited me to come was kind enough to print material I had sent to her about suicide prevention; fliers on identifying risk factors, and ways to find more information about stigma, mental illness and prevention I had access to through the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (www.AFSP.org).
So I began to tell my story. One I have written of here in my blog from many different angles. For them, I wanted to both discuss how I felt as a depressed teen and how I hid it from my parents, even though I was very lucky to have loving and supportive parents; and also I told of more recent days and being an anxious and severely depressed single mother of two precious girls and the intense guilt I felt in not being the mom I knew they deserved. I began to speak of statistics and how common it is to be mentally ill. Suicide is an extreme outcome of mental illness, but an outcome that we all need to work harder to prevent. This was the message I wanted to leave them with, ultimately.
Towards the end of my allotted 30 minute timeframe another mother arrived, apologizing for her tardiness (which was due to business dealings holding her up) and I explained to her I understood, absolutely and was just glad she made it. The more people who heard me, the better I feel. This was another person I didn’t recognize, but when she was seated she put some reading glasses on and pulled out a notebook and I figured she may be taking notes or knew I was coming and had some questions. I always make it known that although I have done much research, and have lived experience and advocate for suicide prevention and have had some training to do so; I am not a professional in the field of psychology. By trade, I am a social catering manager and I have business degrees and can tell you to the last cent what a wedding or gala may cost; I do not have the credentials to speak for the mental health profession.
Talking about my experience leaves me feeling many things. It’s almost like how in a movie I saw once, ‘The Green Mile’, when the main character heals a person who is sick or in great pain and then finds himself drained and exhausted afterwards; although I haven’t healed anyone unfortunately, this is how I feel. I go through some of the same emotions and guilt I did that day I attempted; shame, sadness and heartache but in looking at some of the women’s faces I can see that most of them ‘get it’ and that gives me hope. I wonder how many may have felt the same way to an extent or known someone else who has and that is why I want to keep telling this story. Maybe they are just extremely empathetic and are able to understand how a person can reach such a place. But then I look over at the ‘glasses and notebook Mom’ and see something different in her face. I see a determined look and coldness in her eyes that I have witnessed a few times when discussing such subjects. This is something I am prepared to face in choosing to speak out about my illness and so I take a deep breath and prepare for her questions. She was not there to hear my personal story (as she arrived late due to work), so I have no idea what to expect.
Except; I WAS this Mom two years ago. I, too, had judgment about such people who would take “the easy way out” and felt particular disdain for adults who would do this leaving children and loved ones behind. I had no idea the disdain I felt was for myself and the fact that I managed to swallow my self-hatred and continue to trudge through life unhappy and sick having no clue this was not normal. I assumed everyone felt the way I did and that I was just weak for having these secret and painful urges to disappear from life. I was jealous of the ones who got out. The people who died by any means; cancer, car wrecks, even suicide. But at least I could transfer my anger for myself on to them; those who took their own lives. Yes, ‘glasses and notebook Mom’, I know how you feel. You may have differing motivation for your disdain, you may not be mentally ill, but you cannot feel more disrespect, displeasure, or doubt for me than I once had (and even still do have) for myself. As she actually put it that day, “I am suspicious of your motivation to talk about this now.” I gathered this to mean that she thought I decided to “come out” as a suicide attempt survivor specifically to slander the school district’s reputation. I had been “out” for months prior to the incident that led me to offer my knowledge to the school. But that is a different story… And I had no desire to hurt the school or the district. Or myself for the sake of such a task.
She was the first with questions. Only these questions weren’t at all about my personal story, but instead about a program I had helped my daughter present to the school administration on suicide prevention, mental illness, and self harm a few months prior. I wasn’t prepared to talk about that, as I considered it to have been laid to rest with the administrator’s ultimate decision to not have the program come at that time (leaving my daughter and myself satisfied that we had done all we could, having been heard and getting our answer). This speaking opportunity came from my willingness to share my story via blog and I understood how the two might be connected upon my visit. She asked about the statistics I cited when I brought the program’s offer to the school and wrote a follow up blog about it, also mentioning that she “followed my blog now”. I was a bit surprised that she did, since I don’t believe she had written to me before and if she had followed my blog she would know where I got my statistics from (NAMI, AFSP, along with a database of violent deaths year over year, and some I find through my independent research but I always quote statistics from peer reviewed and proven sources). I have written a dissertation before and I felt like I was again defending something I had independently written. Only I would not get the pleasure of adding more letters after my name in this interrogation.
I began to better understand ‘glasses and notebook Mom’. Unfortunately, in my efforts to be heard on behalf of my daughter I had to work very hard to get the administration’s attention and after dozens of phone calls, even more emails and a blog written about the incident that brought my daughter’s request for the program and my disappointment in the lack of willingness to listen to my daughter’s request; (and this blog being shared thousands of times over social media) it was assumed that I was “out to get the school district” which was not at all the case. I just wanted to have my daughter (or me, if they preferred) be able to have five minutes to talk to someone (by phone OR in person) about the program’s free offer to come to our community to help in what many identified as a crises situation and we got that via a meeting with the high school principal and a counselor. It didn’t result as we wished it would have, but that wasn’t what we were disappointed about. We JUST wanted to be heard. A poster or two posted in the High and Jr. High schools for a crisis hotline for the suicidal and depressed would be wonderful (1-800-273-TALK (8255)) since they are free and available at NAMI and AFSP as well as Houston’s Crisis Center, and has been suggested, but I wasn’t going to push anymore because when one does that, it only puts people on the defensive and will GUARANTEE that anything you ask for will be denied out of sheer show of power, or out of a human response to take things personally. I don’t like politics and will always help those that ask for my help. Once my duty as a concerned parent was fulfilled, I went back to my place in this community and continue to support the school district’s successes in education. Of which there are many. There may be a weakness in an area I happen to be passionate about, but this does not mean it is my responsibility to make school employees despise my name or to connect my children with my misunderstood efforts to help.
So I answered ‘glasses and notebook Mom’s’ questions with kindness as best as I could (since I did not have my statistics and dates and such there with me) and tried to explain to her, and the other Mothers that I only wanted to help dispel stigma. I was there to tell them my story and although I know there is a need for increased efforts in our community, churches, schools and homes to prevent suicide and lessen stigma for the mentally ill; I am working on this cause in the ways I feel most effective. I feel effective in Washington DC (and had the honor of being invited to spend a week there meeting and speaking to our National Legislators), via my blog and social media, in raising funds by running and putting up charitable websites to which people can willingly contribute and most importantly in my own home. My family knows I am not ashamed of my illness and I now understand the illness is not my fault nor does it make me a weak or lesser person any more than having cancer or diabetes would. It just makes me have to be more diligent in my self-care.
After this speaking opportunity I was asked to speak two more times to different groups AND I recorded a podcast that was released nationally about being a teen with depression (Storyheroes.org). I believe wholeheartedly there will be a difference made in how society views mental illness. And I pray it is in my lifetime.
Two writings that I found significant this week:
“But as someone once told me, “Mental illness is not a casserole illness; don’t expect people to be stopping by with food.”” http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/should-you-tell-your-girlfriend-wife-partner-family-and-friends-that-youre-suffering-with-mental-illness/#sthash.qHtfXRhH.dpuf
“I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, there are two possible states of being in the suicidal mind. There’s one, like, where you’re thinking that way and don’t want to think that way and just want some kind of salvation, a person to rely on or something to hold on to. Then the second phase, locking in: “This is what I want.” It sort of becomes essential to the mission that you not imply what’s going on. If people had the idea that anybody was about to kill themselves, they would go to great lengths. I was afraid that if anyone found out they’ll put me in a straitjacket, a padded room, and give me drugs so I’m not me anymore. In a pretty horrible way, that means you’re really careful in that state about not leaving clues.” http://attemptsurvivors.com/2014/03/24/i-survived-and-he-didnt/