Monday, February 2, 2015

Start Talking About Mental Illness

Suicide has been a part of my life and thoughts since I was 5 years old. That was the year one of my uncles took a bottle of pills. He was found the next day face down in the woods. It wasn’t the first time he had attempted or threatened suicide but I only remember the night he killed himself. His brothers and sisters thought he might have changed his mind at the last minute because of the position his body was in. There were people who felt they could have done more, others who blamed people who didn’t do enough. Nobody talked about his depression.

One of my older brother’s friends tried to kill himself. I had a little crush on him when I was a teenager and Mom warned me he must have mental problems if he did that and I should stay away.

There was a musician who killed herself years ago too. I heard she zipped herself up in a sleeping bag and shot herself in the head. When anyone in my family heard her music someone would inevitably bring up her suicide and finish with “well she was tough anyway.” Tough meant heartless and cold akin to a person who might kill themselves.

There were plenty of other relatives taking pills and slicing open their wrists and trying to drown themselves but at last count only two were successful so far.  I grew up listening to the pain left behind by suicide. The inability to mourn properly, the questions, the anger, the guilt and the intolerance.

Maybe what we should have been talking about was mental illness and how we could have helped.  You can’t prevent someone else’s suicide but maybe if it wasn’t so hard to talk about what we really think about when there’s no one around and no way out. Instead of having to come up with excuses that are palatable, we could be honest and say “Look I can’t get out of bed. I haven’t showered in days. I feel like the world would be better off if I wasn’t in it. And for those reasons, I can’t make your kid’s birthday party.”

I don’t know how many of my friends attempted suicide. I had one who was successful when we were 23. Michael had a nice family, he was smart, always a little anxious but otherwise pretty regular.  I think he may have even like ‘like me’ liked me.  We had plans to go out once.

The Tragically Hip were coming to town and Mike suggested we go get in line for tickets the night before. I knew my parents wouldn’t go for that. I wasn’t allowed to be out overnight or sleep over anywhere cause you know someone might rape me. So I told him the earliest I could go was 6 am before everyone got up.

Six o’clock came and no Mike. He was very meticulous about everything so I figured he wasn’t coming. Then 6:02 came and I thought huh, he can’t like me THAT much, he’s late. Then a little red car screeched across the end of the driveway and came to a stop in the drain by the mailbox. It was Mike in his brother’s brand new manual transmission Toyota.

He was pretty shook up. He wanted me to help push the car out of the ditch. Our landlord at the time had scrimped on fixing the sewage system and instead had it routed down under the driveway into the culverts at both sides where it would eventually seep into Mitchell’s Pond. I wasn’t getting in that ditch. So Mike said fine get in the car and put it in reverse and I’ll push. I said no way, I can’t drive a standard.

He probably saw what life with me would be like at that moment.

Around then my uncle who lived in the apartment attached to ours came down the driveway. He needed pills to sleep back then and they hadn’t worn off. He was walking zig zag trying to light a cigarette and his unbuttoned shirt was flapping in the wind. My uncle wanted to help but he wasn’t getting in the poop water drain either and the car landed in there a lot like a lawn dart might have.

My older brother came out of the house and couldn’t stop laughing so guess who he went in and woke up? My father. Remember he’s nice to everyone else except me. He donned his cape and fired up the pickup, attached a cable to Mike’s car and fixed everything.

My uncle was the only grown up there not smirking at Mike’s accident and told me afterwards that the nice young fella had thanked him over and over again and promised to take him for dinner sometime to repay him.

Then Mike asked if I was ready to go. I did not want to go back in that house to hear what a skank I was to be sneaking out or how awesome dad’s truck was or what idiots my friends were and I was surprised he still wanted me to go.

Enter my mother.

She had not only been awake when I tried to sneak out but was looking out the living room window when Mike skidded across the driveway. She didn’t tell me that until much later.

She got in Mike’s face that morning asking him how much he had to drink, how fast he was going, how he was that stupid to miss the turn. He swore he had been doing the speed limit just before the crash.

She wasn’t buying it. Her face got all clenched up and she told him if I got in that car she was sending the police after him. What he could have been charged with I have no idea but it worked. He wouldn’t let me come with him and he drove away.

Monday morning he was in the usual spot with his friends and when I walked up he passed me a ticket for the Hip concert. He never asked me for the money, he never said a word about my parents or the weird smell in the driveway. We didn’t go to the concert together. We spoke at graduation for a minute and I took a picture of the rented tux shoes. It was an inside joke that I didn’t get because we hadn’t spoken in so long.

We didn’t talk again until I saw him sitting alone in a bar one night listening to Ron Hynes about five years later. He had grown his hair out and had picked up smoking. I felt too weird to go over. I know he saw me. I kept yelling out lyrics to impress Ron but I kept pretending to not see Mike.

The girl I was with told me I was being a jerk. I told her the story about the shit ditch and the family tow truck and the sleepy uncle and the raving lunatic mother and that I hadn’t talked to Mike since. She told me to suck it up. She thought he looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.  She didn’t want to hear down the road that he had horrible depression and had offed himself somewhere and find out he decided to do it that night at the Ship when some old friends had looked through him.

So we went over.

He was just as nice as he had ever been and he was so happy to talk to us. Eventually we talked about that morning from high school. He said you know I only just told my brother about that recently? He had loaned me his brand new car to go get you. I had just gotten my license and I was terrified he was going to kill me. In fact he almost killed me the other day when I told him.

The last memory I have of him was about a week later he was crossing Water Street in downtown St. John’s just in front of my car and I tried to get my window down to yell out and blew the horn to get his attention but he didn’t hear me. I figured I’d see him again soon so I drove off.

The next time I heard his name was to find out they had found Mike’s body floating in the water off Torbay. I heard there was an empty cigarette package and a ton of butts on the ground where they thought he had jumped off the cliff. I can only imagine how he looked in the water with his hair swirling around his face and how cold he must have been in the ocean. I keep picturing him sitting there alone smoking.

At the funeral the minister said in cases of self-death there are so many unanswered questions and so much anger but he encouraged us to remember the good times with Mike and to forgive him.

One of his friends read Dr. Seuss’s My Many Colored Days. It was the most depressing book I had ever heard and it had nothing about ham or hats or cats. It was about all the different feelings people have and how some days are just dark. It asked people to understand that those days are something we can’t help and to just love us until a brighter color arrives.  Apparently it was one of Mike’s favorite books.

My partner bought me a copy as a gift when we first got together. I had told him about Mike and I told him about my own bouts of depression. My oldest nephew read it at our wedding. It sits on my shelf now and I read it to my kids because it teaches them about colors and why Mom cries for no reason sometimes.

I’ve thought about killing myself. I’ve thought about punching people in the face. I’ve thought about what I’d do if I won the lottery.  I’ve thought I might be a terrible mom.  I’ve thought I may have ruined a few men for other women. They’re all just thoughts. JUST THOUGHTS. They don’t define you. You have millions of thoughts in the run of a day. But sometimes they are a sign something else is going on.

Suicidal thoughts are a natural progression for a person going through depression.  It’s one of the signs that you should ask for help immediately. Thinking about your funeral, who would come, who wouldn’t come, who’d find your body – it’s called suicide ideation. If you have a plan to kill yourself – that’s one step closer. Regular people kill themselves every day. Regular people who are severely depressed.

By the way, I changed Mike’s name for this post until I found this on-line memorial.

It’s a link to Michael’s on-line memorial. He had Bipolar Disorder. I had no clue.

From one regular person to another, sometimes your life does actually suck. It’s not a character flaw that you can’t see the positives but it can be a part of depression which is linked to chemicals in your brain that you can’t control. It might even be part of a bigger illness.

Depression makes it feel like nobody cares. It’s like rose-coloured glasses but the opposite – it’s more like shit-covered glasses.  Depression is common and highly treatable. Therapy, medication and maybe some life changes might be in order. It might come back, it might be worse next time around. The good news is that with help it can get so much better.

Talk about mental illness. Even if you haven’t said the right things in the past and you’ve made off-color jokes and use words that aren’t politically correct at first - be a person someone could talk to. Start by telling your own story. I guarantee you there’ll be people who judge you for it but someday someone might thank you.