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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Why “24 Steps?”

You may have noticed that my little corner of the internet has gone through a name-change recently.  “A View from the Geek Seats” is no more, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop writing about geek culture.  Of course not – I’ve been steeped in science fiction, fantasy, and comic books too long to give that up entirely.  However, I’ve realized that I want – I need – to tell another story: my story.

I have clinical anxiety.

There’s something vaguely liberating about seeing those words in black and white, a phantom notion given concrete substance as I write.  At the same time, it seems so much smaller than it really is.  A four-word sentence seems hardly adequate to describe an emotion that has been at the core of my being for as long as I can remember.

Some of you may not understand or know what clinical anxiety is or how it works. When I say “I have anxiety,” I don’t mean that I get nervous giving speeches, or panic when the nurse gives me a tetanus booster.  I don’t mean that I get scared watching scary movies or stressed when my workload is high. All of these situations are normal incidences in which human beings may feel anxiety.  I have these reactions, and I bet you have at least some of them.  Who wouldn’t feel nervous when a cop pulls them over for speeding?  Who wouldn’t feel fear waiting for the results of recent medical tests?  Fear and stress are normal human reactions – and they serve a purpose.  Fear keeps us from engaging in risky behavior that might endanger themselves. Stress motivates us to accomplish our goals.

No, friends.  When I say “I have anxiety,” what I mean is that I lived in the house of fear, with few windows into the outside world.  My earliest memories are of waking up and dreading the day ahead because even as a child, I knew – I just knew – that there was some great, unfathomable Bad Thing that could happen to me that day.  Have you ever met a fearful child? They go through life knowing in every fiber of their tiny beings that the world is a terrifying place and that they are very, very small.  When I say “I have anxiety,” what I mean is that there is a demon on my shoulder and that demon is fear. Imagine falling asleep after a long day.  As soon as you begin to drift off, you feel as if you aren’t breathing and you start awake.  That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety. All day, every day.

When I tell people that I struggle with anxiety, it usually surprises them.  I don’t “look like” someone who is mentally ill.  I don’t “talk like” someone who is mentally ill.  I was a straight-A student. I have an advanced degree. I have always been a stellar employee and an academic and social leader. I don’t seem like society’s picture of a “crazy person.”  But I was good at school. I was good at work.  These were controlled environments where if I put in effort, I would receive stability.  I got a remarkable amount of work done because I felt like if I stopped or slowed down, then everything would cave in and that omnipresent Bad Thing, the one I had been holding off since childhood, would happen.  Can you imagine being on guard your whole life? Feeling the fight-or-flight instinct from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep?   It’s exhausting. And about 3/4th of the way through my graduate school career, it became too much.  I had what could only be described as a nervous breakdown.

So what did I do?  I got help.  I got counseling. I got medication.  I went home to stay with my parents and to start over.  This war can be fought, and it must be fought to live a full life – one not shaped by fear. I manage my life now, and I’m in the best mental health I have ever been in.  However, I can’t overstate the struggle it has been – and continues to be. I’m not “cured.”  I never will be.  My anxiety is a part of my life.  But it’s not the only part of my life.

I have not been eager to share this part of my life with the people around me.  I didn’t want to be judged. I didn’t want to be second-guessed in work situations by people who might tag me as “crazy” or “insecure.”  I have labored like Sisyphus to control my reactions to the world around me. My reticence hasn’t helped anyone, least of all me. People – good people, kind people, brave people – lose the battle against their demons every day.

They die, thinking they are alone.

It’s time to open up a conversation about mental health, one that doesn’t go away a few weeks after a publicized suicide fades from the media circus.

Why “24 Steps?” When I was at my worst – jumping at every car horn, compulsively checking the door locks – I would pace in my tiny apartment to calm myself. It took me 24 steps to make the circuit through my kitchen.  I will never forget that circuit, pacing like it was the only thing keeping me alive.  No one needs to feel as small as I did then.

Let’s change the story.