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:
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.