When tragedy strikes, there seems to be a human impulse to not only measure our proximity, but to claim it. Sometimes perhaps a bit more than is fair or accurate. It’s kind of like the rubber-necking that happens along our highways when someone is pulled over. Or there is a crash with, god forbid, injury or death. We veer towards it because we are drawn to it: drawn to the horror and the visceral reminder of our own vulnerability and mortality.
I am not immune from this tendency, though I do try to guard against it. Not always successfully. For instance, a parishioner told me that she had been worried about me on the day of the marathon bombings. She recently asked whether I had been in Boston on that day, and I answered her truthfully: yes, I had been in the Boston area for class and had seen the first responders rushing from Newton towards Boston. In reality, I was probably less impacted by this particular proximity than gluing myself to my computer screen on Friday, April 19th, as Watertown was locked down and the hunt for the surviving suspect was being acted out.
Yesterday, someone I knew, liked, and respected in high school took his own life. Given the lack of contact between us over the years, I am surprised by how sad I feel, how this act and loss is occupying my mind and heart, how it is rubbing at tender and vulnerable places we human creatures have.
He and I have not spoken since high school, now three decades ago. It’s too much to say we were friends even in high school, though we were friendly and liked each other: we were both math geeks and theater geeks. I remember an enjoyable group night out after some drama success. He was more popular than I and far more plugged in than I – at least that’s how I recall it. Years later, when I heard he had come out, I felt that particular kinship with any fellow queer person who survived adolescence, particularly back then in our high school in rural Oregon.
He and I were Facebook friends, but did not engage each other. Right now, my high school Facebook realm – particularly his profile page – is awash in tributes to him and expressions of grief, as is as it should be.
There are also disclosures of surprise. This is not uncommon, given how much effort people who are depressed work to mask this stigmatized reality. Still, I tend to wonder about such surprise – particularly when folks say of someone who has suicided that they were always so cheerful or joyful.
I do not know what led to David’s suicide; I do not know if depression was a factor, but it is where my mind goes. Any story of suicide leads me to reflection upon depression. There are so many ways to be depressed – one of them is to be isolated and socially withdrawn. I think that’s the one most depicted in popular culture. One way is to be irritable and complaining. One is seeking out and generating agitation and violence. And one is a brittle kind of cheerfulness that, often in hindsight, seems to be one-sided – always giving, rarely or never receiving.
I believe the surprise of these grieving friends – to some degree, I feel it myself. This surprise often leads to, or originates from these questions: What did we miss? What are we missing? What could I be missing now, at this very moment? I write those questions, knowing that most people truly intent on suicide cannot be stopped. Both from personal experience and professional training, I know this to be true. It is utter helplessness. Yet there is much that can be done before someone who is bereft and existentially lonely moves out of consideration of suicide to that phase of being “truly intent.”
This is national mental health awareness month. I am keenly aware of how crucial it is to bring light to the presence of depression among us. I say this as someone who has grown up in a family rife with depression (and trauma) for generations. Undiagnosed, unacknowledged, and unresolved depression. Depression that looked like anger. Depression that looked like addiction. Depression that was self-medicated. Depression that was secret and corrosive. Depression that resulted in intimate violence. Depression that turned to gun violence. Depression that resulted in sexual violence. Depression that resulted in suicide. Depression (and trauma) that has left a legacy of confusion, pain, shame, mistrust, and dysfunction.
My husband has just published a memoir, Diamond Highway: A Tibetan Buddhist Path in America, which talks about, among other topics, his lifelong struggle with major depression. In it, he writes
Finally, as someone who has suffered from major depression all my adult life, I am intimately familiar with the isolation that is one of its peculiar horrors…. In part because of the stigma that attaches to mental illness, most of us endure our depressive episodes in secret. I offer my own experiences as an expression of solidarity with all those whose lives have been touched by this appalling affliction.
I have been attending as many of his book readings as possible. It is amazing how many people approach him afterwards to talk about, or boldly disclose during the public Q & A, their personal experiences with depression, their isolation, their shame. They share their thanks for his speaking his truth, how validated and possibly emboldened they are.
I do not want to over-claim my proximity to the tragedy of David’s death. His loss has direct impact on his family, on the community it seems he took part in so vividly — on those who knew him truly and loved him deeply.
I do want to acknowledge my deep pain – and our collective deep pain – at this scourge called depression, this illness our culture continues to make stigma, and our own helplessness in the face of its pernicious sway in the lives of those affected.
May we look to ways to not only shed light, but brighten the flame of illumination, to be bold in our solidarity, in hopes that all such actions provide salve to those who feel so hopelessly and helplessly alone.