In the wake of the death of Amy Bleuel, founder of the Semicolon Project, many people in the mental health community felt the devastating loss of a figure that gave so many hope and strength. Articles were filled with comments and images of depression sufferers with their own semicolon tattoos. In her short time on earth, her impact feels immense. It may not ever been known how many lives she possibly saved, and that makes losing her to suicide especially devastating.
I’ve heard it said before, and can’t deny I used to believe it, that those who commit suicide are selfish. What are those you leave behind supposed to do? How could you do this to your family, your friends? The irony here being that, in actuality, this thinking is what is actually selfish.
Humans all at once seem to want to understand, to know why, and when they can’t understand something, they label it. They blame it. They draw their our conclusions based on their world view, or they sweep it under the rug.
The problem is when it comes to mental illness, it’s complicated. Often an invisible illness that doesn’t always manifest in physical symptoms, even professionals often misdiagnose. No two people suffering from mental illness, depression or otherwise, are alike, and like many other tough illnesses, it may take some trial and error to find a treatment that works.
And sometimes, they can’t be helped. And that’s a very hard pill to swallow, to know that you can’t save everyone.
I’ve never been suicidal. I’m not a professional. But like so many, mental illness has claimed someone close to me, and while she’s still with us physically, I have had to painstakingly watch her suffer, her condition deteriorate to the point where I no longer recognize her, and unfortunately it appears that she is beyond help. She will never again be the person I knew. So while she’s still living, the person I know her to be has died. And while I want to be mad at her for not being strong enough to fight it, I know it’s not her fault. She doesn’t know what her illness is doing to those around her. How can she when she’s so entrenched in a battle for her life?
Over the past week, I consumed two new media that dealt with suicide. The fictional Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and The American Life’s new podcast and true story, S-Town. 13 Reasons Why is a powerful series about a teen who leaves behind a suicide note in the form of cassette tapes explaining why and who contributed to her demise. Her story reflects so many we have heard before and continue to hear as we lose young people to suicide. S-Town is the story of a brilliant, quirky man whose battle with depression seemingly lasted the majority of his 49 years, and while his suicide note and manifesto included many grievances, it’s unclear what finally triggered his demise, particularly in light of the fact that the very meticulous man did not leave his affairs in order before taking that lethal dose.
What these two series have in common is their main character’s need to have their voice be heard, their story told. It’s only in the fictional version, though, that the why is answered. The true story leaves the answer to the wind.
I find this to be an important point. It’s hard to fight our need to understand, to know why, to wonder what we could have done differently. It’s hard to understand why this person was inflicted with the weight of an illness so heavy, so overlooked, so misunderstood by society to the point where we just brush it under the rug. But maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Maybe we need to listen to more stories. Maybe there’s something we are missing. Maybe there’s something we learn in every loss. Maybe our curiosity is not the enemy. Maybe our fear of what we don’t understand is the real enemy. Maybe we don’t need to answer the why. Maybe we just need to listen closer, pay closer attention to those around us. Be kinder, more observant, more patient, more sympathetic, but also more empathetic. We are, after all, in this together. We may not be able to save all those afflicted, but we can do better, be more humane, and more understanding of what we’ll never understand.