World Suicide Prevention Day 2015: Stop Saying, “I Don’t Understand.”

September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day.

Whenever someone commits suicide, whenever the news gets wind of it or it goes viral on Facebook, the first thing people say is,

“I can’t understand why someone would want to do that.”

“I can’t understand why someone would do that to their family.”

“I can’t understand.”

“I don’t understand.”

On behalf of mental illness sufferers everywhere, I’d like to say:

Stop.

Enough.

Don’t.

It doesn’t help.

We get it.  You don’t understand.  It’s unfathomable to you that someone would take their own life.  But when your response to illness is simply “I don’t understand,” you stigmatize us all.

People with mental illness have a condition.  When someone dies of cancer, it’s obvious what killed them.  No one says that they don’t understand why someone would let their cancer cells grow like that.  It would be like saying, “I can’t understand why your blood sugar is so low,” or “I don’t understand why anyone would want to have a ruptured appendix.”

Mental illness is not a choice.

When you say, “He should have fought harder for his family,” you’re showing that you don’t understand the fight against mental illness.  It’s not the final knockout match between Rocky and Apollo Creed, where everyone’s itching for a fight.  It’s not a boss battle, when you’ve practiced and leveled-up until your guns shoot atomic sparkles and you fart fire.  It’s not even the Death Star run, although the odds are definitely not stacked in your favor.

No, mental illness is not a battle we walk into because we want to, sixshooters blazing.  Mental illness isn’t even a battle, per se, because battles have beginnings and endings and monuments in city parks.  It’s a creeping war of attrition against the demon riding shotgun.  You’re not entirely sure when he jumped on, until you look in your rearview mirror and there he is, smiling like rot in your backseat, and before you know it, he’s next to you, messing with the stereo with his cold hand on the nape of your neck.  You don’t ever toss him all the way off – not really.  The most you can do is to keep him – it – at bay, nipping at your heels instead of looped around your throat.

That’s what kind of a fight mental illness is.  

I’ve been fighting to shake that demon off my entire life.  That’s 27 years of war.  That’s basically Vietnam.  You give up some territory because you just can’t keep it, win it back later when you’re feeling stronger and you want to go to that party or get that drivers’ license. Some days you get out of bed, and some days you don’t.  It’s a back-and-forth struggle with no demilitarized zone and no United Nations intervention.  Sometimes you survive that war with your body and soul intact.

And sometimes you don’t. 

I have never felt the need to harm myself.  It’s one of the few blessings of my condition – I’ve always been too terrified of death to even think about it in the abstract, let alone the specific. I turn off documentaries about cancer and avoid clickbaity titles about terminal illness and tragedy because the feeling of my own mortality is just too much most days.  But I have been afraid of wanting to hurt myself.   I have woken up in the middle of the night, terrified that one day I might just step off the curb and wouldn’t that be terrible? 

You might be thinking, “That sounds insane.  How can you be afraid of thinking something?”  

That’s what mental illness is, kids.  That’s what it does.  Diabetes robs your body of the ability to regulate its blood sugar. Cancer robs your body of the ability to regulate cell growth.  Mental illness robs your mind of the ability to regulate its thoughts – to push them aside in order to go about living.  When I first told my therapist that I had thoughts – powerful, frightening and compelling thoughts, thoughts so intense that they made me physically ill – she called them “intrusive thoughts.”  Everyone gets signals from their brain. They tell us not to touch a hot stove or that puppies make us feel happy.  They can keep us safe and healthy…when they’re working right.  When you have mental illness, your brain is wired in a way that it sends you mixed-up signals. Can you imagine trying to fight your perceptions, your emotions, your sensations for years on end?  Decades?

When I don’t take my medication, it takes me all the energy I have to filter through the sensory information coming in to my brain.  Every single touch, taste, smell and sight spikes another anxiety flare.  That’s what mental illness is.  Mental illness is not just “sadness” or “stress,” any more than diabetes is just “indigestion.”  I can eat a cake and feel a little sick in the morning.  My diabetic friends can’t shake that off.

So don’t say, “I don’t understand.”  Suicide happens because of mental illness.  When someone commits suicide, they have died because mental illness took their life.  And if you want to help, if you really want to help, then you need to acknowledge that suicide is not “a coward’s way out.”  You need to acknowledge that mental illness is a disease.  You need to stop saying, “I don’t understand,” and start saying, “What can I do?”  You need to vote for candidates who will expand, not cut, mental health resources in the United States. You need to talk to your kids about mental illness – take the stigma away so that they can talk to you if they feel their mind is out of control.  You need to support teachers and counselors because they are the front line of defense for our kids’ mental health.  You need to support men, and tear down the outdated notion that men who struggle with their emotional health are weak.  You need to support women, whose bodies and minds are under legislation. You need to support your LGBTQA* brothers and sisters, who are at a higher risk for mental illness and who often lack the resources they need.

You need to be aware.

You need to understand.

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Forgiving Ourselves, Snarls and All

I’m backsliding this weekend.

Backstepping, falling off, backsliding, riding the Struggle Bus – however you’d like to put it, I am sitting a few steps back on my journey this weekend.  I can see the footprints in front of me, marking how far I was a few weeks ago, when I decided to pursue my passions and leave a steady job because I could.  Last week, I submitted a piece of fiction to an online publication – my first attempt at publication, I’ll have you know.  That’s probably a few steps ahead of where I’m sitting, plopped down on the road and rocking back and forth.  It’s a comfort thing.  Don’t worry.  I’ve had three panic attacks in two days, and right now there feels like there’s a river of clamor running just under my skin.  Everything feels noisy. I’ve changed my shirt three times today because everything itches.  I’ve been letting the noise leech out of my skin slowly: yoga and classical music helps tremendously.  I’m beginning to feel a little bit more like myself as I write this, exhausted and finally sedate.

My wonderful boyfriend picked up on it before I did, and it took him suggesting a walk for me to realize that I’d been grinding my teeth for the last half-hour while trying to read.  I’ve always found physical activity the most effective treatment for my episodes, and if I’m lucky, they happen on a Sunday, so I can dedicate two hours of yoga to resetting my brain.

I’m not always sure why these episodes happen.  Sometimes, I can pinpoint an obvious trigger – hunger, impending sickness, poor sleep, or stress.  It’s easier to forgive myself when I can detect the cause of the panic.   Isn’t that the case for all of us, though?  Isn’t it easier to forgive behavior when there are mitigating circumstances?

I’m beginning to realize, though, that looking for an excuse – a mitigating circumstance, a trigger – to explain and justify my panic just encourages me to keep blaming myself.  Yes, it’s important to understand our triggers, so that we can understand our reactions to them, but we don’t need to understand our triggers to forgive ourselves. When we make reasonable cause a prerequisite for forgiveness, we punish ourselves more harshly when we feel ways we don’t understand. That way of thinking makes a panic attack more acceptable in certain circumstances than in others. It validates people who ask us, “What have you got to be depressed about?”

The unfair truth is sometimes we don’t have anything to be depressed about, or afraid of, or anxious about.  We just are.

It’s that knowledge – that my brain is often setting off smokebombs and flares in response to no threat – that makes me feel prickly.  It makes me feel tired.  More than anything, though, it makes me feel guilty.  I feel guilty because I worry obsessively about showing that side of me to the outside world – letting the snarls and thorns grow on the outside and prick the people I love.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve apologized to my sweet, understanding boyfriend for the way I am this weekend.  Of course, it was always unnecessary and he always made sure I knew that, but I wasn’t really apologizing for his sake.  I was apologizing for me, to soothe myself, to reassure myself that I was controlling whatever damage my snarls were wreaking on the world around me.  I wasn’t sure what justified my episode this weekend – I’m still not entirely sure – and so it seemed to me that I didn’t deserve to be afraid. I was mad at myself for messing up the progress I thought I’d made. I couldn’t forgive myself for feeling this way and let myself ride it out.

But here’s the thing: it’s never about whether you deserve to feel sad or anxious or mad or terrified.  The feelings exist because they exist.  You didn’t cause them, and it’s not your fault.  

I’m slowly learning to trust the people I love to tell me if I hurt them, instead of assuming that my anxiety will seep out of my skin and infect them.  They are strong, and they are capable of taking care of themselves.  They love me, and they realize that my mind sometimes goes too fast, like a broken carnival ride.  Sometimes I have to write those things down, so that when my mind’s a maelstrom of white noise and I feel like if I open my mouth I’ll just scream, I can look and remember that I’m loved.   People with mental illness aren’t stupid, but sometimes when our minds short-circuit, we need reminding.

I’m also learning that recovery isn’t a road.  I’ve always liked checklists and recipes, because if you follow the directions exactly, nothing bad can happen to you.  People with anxiety try to make their lives into checklists, and in true fashion, I’m guilty of doing that to the recovery process.  I find myself assuming that if I do everything I’m supposed to do (medication, exercise, diet, meditation) that I’ll just keep getting better and better and someday I won’t have any problems anymore.

The truth – as always – is more complicated than that.  Living with anxiety means living with it.  There’s no cure for mental illness, only treatments.  I’m never going to not be prone to anxiety, and some days I’ll have episodes.  Some days, I’ll have episodes for no reason other than the way my brain is wired.  The measure of my recovery won’t be the total absence of symptoms, but the fullness of life I’m able to achieve given the brain I have.  In that respect, I’m doing fabulously.  I’ve done brave things not without fear, but in spite of it. I have built relationships, full knowing that they will cause me emotional stress.  I’m slowly learning to let go.

And I’m slowly – oh so slowly – learning how to forgive myself, regardless of the reason for my fear.  It’s a difficult process, but a necessary one, if I’m ever going to love myself the way I need to – snarls and all.

Snarls and all.